Louis Riel (1844-1885) a founder of the province of Manitoba in Canada and a political leader of the Métis people (mixed Indigenous and European ancestry) at a time when they actively resisted the Northwest Territories integration into the Dominion of Canada in the late 1860s and 1870s.
Born in 1844 at St. Boniface in the Red River Settlement (in present day Manitoba), both his parents were strongly religious. Louis briefly studied for the priesthood but gave it up after the death of his father in 1864.
Louis led two resistance movements of Metis people in Northwest Canada, which have a had a significant impact on Canadian, and particularly French-Canadian history and First Nations history in Canada.
In 1869, as Canadian expansionists, including nationalist Protestant Thomas Scott, opposed Metis rights in the Red River territory, Riel led a revolt known as the Red River Rebellion and negotiated the terms for the new province of Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian Confederation.
Scott’s execution in 1870 led to Riel being branded a murderer and forced him to flee to the United States. (Among the fears of British Protestant Canadians was the threat of Catholics seizing control of Canada. Indeed, in 1866, and again from 1870 to 1871, Irish Republican Fenians attempted to invade Canada).
Riel traveled to Dakota Territory where he was elected to the House of Commons of Canada. Afraid for his life and expelled after his election however, he never took his seat; he was similarly elected twice more.
He did return briefly however, anticipating a much-discussed amnesty. It failed to develop however, and in September 1873 a warrant was issued for Riel’s arrest and he fled to Northern New York.
Louis Riel Northern New York
According to a 1971 article in the Clinton County Historical Association’s North Country Notes, Riel spent time in Plattsburgh, NY, with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (the order responsible for some 60 “Indian residential schools” in Canada).
During this time, he wrote letters and poems from Keeseville and Glens Falls, many of which have been collected by George F.G. Stanley and others in Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel/Collected Writings of Louis Riel (University of Alberta Press, 1985).
During this time in exile he returned to Keeseville and encouraged by his Catholic brethren, Riel came to believe he was chosen by God as a leader and prophet. It was an indication of his failing mental health.
Riel began a relationship with Father Fabian Barnabe’s sister Evalina who lived with them in Keeseville. He eventually became engaged to her, though this relationship did not last.
In December of 1875 Riel traveled to Washington, DC, to gather support for an invasion of Western Canada. This attempt failed, and his mental health grew worse.
When he was released in January 1878, Riel returned to Keeseville. He also spent several months living with Father Louis N. St. Onge, pastor of St. Alphonsus, a French-Canadian Church in Glens Falls.
Northern New York Letters and Poems
The following is a list of some letters and poems Louis wrote (in French) from Keeseville and Glens Falls, listed in the Collected Writings:
- Poem to Evelina: “En me donnant ce petit livre”, June 18, 1874, Keeseville [By giving me this little book, you give me the interview with which your pious heart is intoxicated…]. Poems written to Evelina and other women are translated with commentary about his romantic interests, at the Manitoba Historical Society website.
- Letter to Julie Riel (his mother) February 1, 1878, Keeseville [I received your letter of 19 November 1877…]
- Letters to Julie Riel, February 26 and April 21, 1878, Keeseville [I haven’t spent an Easter day without coming to talk with you and family…]
- Letter to brother Joseph Riel, June 27, 1878, Keeseville [I believe you haven’t received my letter of last May 13…]
- Letter to John and Lucie (Riel) Lee, August 3, 1878, Keeseville [I received your letter of July 28…]
- Poem to Evelina Barnabe: “Si mon amour vous plait; si mes joies vous conciennent, April 1878, Glens Falls [If you like my love, if my joys suit you I hope that soon I will be able to name you, as I name those whom my heart must love, and you will be among those who belong to me…Good Evelina…]
- Power of Attorney, March 5, 1878, Clinton County, NY: appointing his mother in Manitoba his attorney, to sell & convey his lands in Manitoba except his Metis rights (land claims).
Louis Riel in Montana
In 1879, Louis Riel left New York and headed to Montana, where he married Marguerite Monet in April 1881. They had three children who all died young.
The following are a few lines from his 1878 poem after leaving New York, “Minnesota, Which I Now Entered”:
I have just returned from the Northeast.
While I waited, punished in exile,
Through the machinations of a Beast
Your innocent hearts have been reviled.
I, God willing, with renewed vigor
Will find ways to crush this enemy.
Friends on the banks of the Missouri
Will, with conviction as their armor,
Fight the native people’s righteous fight
And, with me, armed by justice’s might,
Fly swiftly on a northerly breeze
To help our Metis brothers resist
Passions and fierceness I will enlist
And to great injustice match great fury.
In 1883 Riel was granted American citizenship. However, he soon left for Saskatchewan with a group of Metis people and again became involved with the politics of Metis resistance to the Canadian government.
Several battles ensued in 1885 in what is now known as the North-West Rebellion, the North-West Resistance, the 1885 Resistance, the Northwest Uprising, the Saskatchewan Rebellion, or the Second Riel Rebellion. (It, and the 1869-1870 Red River Rebellion are known as the Riel Rebellions.)
At the Battle of Batoche, the Metis were ultimately defeated and Riel captured and brought to trial for treason in Regina, Saskatchewan. Riel gave long speeches during his trial, defending himself and the rights Métis people.
When his lawyers sought to argue a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity, he refused. He was found guilty by the jury, but they also recommended recommended mercy.
Instead, Judge Hugh Richardson sentenced him to death. “We tried Riel for treason,” a juror later said, “And he was hanged for the murder of Scott.” Historian Lewis Thomas said “the government’s conduct of the case was to be a travesty of justice.”
Louis Riel was hanged at the North-West Mounted Police barracks in Regina on November 16, 1885, and buried at St. Boniface, Manitoba.
Riel wrote letters and essays during his imprisonment, the last of which was “Les Metis du Nord-Ouest,” published posthumously in the Montreal Daily Star on November 28, 1885.
In that letter, according to historians, Riel argues that “the Métis homeland is a gift from God; the Métis are a Nation created by God; and God’s plan is to be revealed to the Métis by his prophet Louis ‘David’ Riel.”
Also On November 24, the Albany Argus published a notice that a requiem mass would be sung by Father St. Onge at St. Alphonsus Church, in Glens Falls. Another mass was held for him that December at St. John the Baptist in New York City.
In December, 1885, after Riel’s death, the Glens Falls Post Star published a letter from his wife to the French-Canadian residents of Glens Falls thanking them for protesting his execution and their sympathy.
Illustrations, from above: Louis Riel in 1873 (Provincial Archives of Manitoba); “Interim Government of the Métis Nation,” 1870 with Louis Riel at center (Library and Archives Canada); St. Alphonsus, the French-Canadian Church in Glens Falls; Louis Riel as a prisoner shortly after the Battle of Batoche; and Riel addressing the jury during his trial for treason in 1885.
John Warren contributed to this essay.