Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tale of trail tied to city's history

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The genesis of our city owes much to a trail.

For about 50 years in the 19th century, the Red River Trail connected what became Winnipeg with St. Paul, Minn.

It was a route of commerce that was integral to the development of the Red River Settlement that was the embryo of Winnipeg.

Manitoba writer Ted Stone recounts the story of the Red River Trail in this estimable work of popular narrative history published by a small Edmonton-based press specializing in aboriginal titles.

Stone lives on a ranch in southeastern Manitoba and has written more than a dozen books.

In his research, Stone says in his foreword, he kept encountering the name Pierre Bottineau, a M©tis guide and scout whose life was intertwined with the history of the trail. Thus Bottineau is a central figure in Stone's account, but this is not a biography of Bottineau, contrary to what the title might suggest; it is the trail itself that is Stone's focus.

Bottineau was American. He was born in 1817 in what is today North Dakota and died in 1895 at Red Lake Falls in northwestern Minnesota. Americans, Stone notes, call him "the Kit Carson of the Northwest."

The Red River Trail, Stone says, was "one of the most significant, if least celebrated, frontier trade routes in the North American west."

Indeed, the Red River colony, Stone suggests, would have remained an isolated fur-trade outpost, if it had not been for the commerce brought by the Red River Trail, which connected the colony to the outside world.

It was primarily the M©tis who created and pursued economic activity along the trail.

The M©tis were free traders. They wanted to sell their furs and buffalo hides where they could get the best price, which was usually in American territory, at the southern end of the Red River Trail.

This devotion to free trade, however, brought them into conflict with the Hudson's Bay Company, which was the sovereign authority at the Red River Colony.

The HBC charter granted it a monopoly on the fur trade in its territory. It expected the M©tis at Red River to trade exclusively with its factors.

It viewed the M©tis practice of trading outside the jurisdiction of the HBC as illegal. The M©tis chafed against these restrictions on trade, which they saw as artificial.

Tension between M©tis and the HBC culminated in the "free-trade trial" of 1849, the upshot of which was that the HBC bowed to public opinion and ceded its monopoly.

The Red River Trail continued to flourish for several decades, until it was supplanted by the railroads in the late 1870s.

By this time, the way of life of the M©tis at Red River was vanishing. With the arrival of railroads came homesteaders. The buffalo, which had sustained the M©tis, were gone.

Ironically, Bottineau had done much to promote the disappearance of the very frontier in which he had thrived throughout the 19th century.

As Stone observes, Bottineau "led immigrants across the plains, helped open vast areas in the middle of the continent to traders, lumber companies and railroads, assisted the government in gaining title of native lands."

Stone poignantly depicts the paradoxical legacy of Bottineau, a frontiersman whose life's work expedited the demise of the frontier.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A1

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