Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A guided tour of Riel's North Dakota hideout

His rich friend's trading post became place of refuge from Wolseley's troops

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WALHALLA, N.D. -- With his provisional government in disarray and Gen. Garnet Wolseley's army in hot pursuit, Louis Riel fled Fort Garry, which became Winnipeg, to a fur-trading post in North Dakota run by his friend, Antoine Blanc Gingras.

Gingras (1821-77) was a dominant figure in the Red River and Pembina valleys. A fat, jovial man -- a Red River missionary remarked that Gingras once drove him crazy on a trail ride singing ad nauseam about the Métis victory in the Battle of Seven Oaks -- Gingras was an astute businessman and the richest man in the area. He owned trading posts in Pembina, N.D., and along the Souris River in North Dakota, as well as in Fort Garry.

Gingras was also a fierce Métis supporter and a supporter of his friend, Riel. His trading post became Riel's hideout. There is even a trap door in the ceiling of Gingras's home where Riel is believed to have hid, accessed by a rope ladder he pulled up after him in case authorities arrived.

Two things to note: One, there is more history we share with North Dakota than many Manitobans realize. After all, North Dakota's first two settlements, Pembina and Walhalla, were essentially first settled by Canadians, mostly French and Métis fur traders.

The second thing to note about the Gingras trading post is it's a tourist site and has tour guides. Yet the Canadian government has cut funding for tour guides, starting next year, for the family home in Winnipeg of the man dubbed the Father of Manitoba. There's no problem providing tour guides for Riel's hideout in the United States. It's like 1870 all over again.

North Dakota provides very able tour guides. They alternate on a rotating basis, but Melanie Thornberg and her granddaughter, Addy, 11, who is staying with her grandma for the summer, are taking the bulk of the shifts this summer.

Addy, smart as a whip, gives tours all by herself when her grandma is occupied.

"Probably a third of our visitors are Canadian -- about half from Winnipeg, and half from southern Manitoba," said the senior Thornberg. She'd like to see more. Some visitors are Riel buffs or scholars wanting to retrace his route and put themselves in Riel's shoes, she said.

The Gingras fort and family home are beautifully located on a rise overlooking a vista that includes the Pembina River Gorge, presumably so no one could launch a sneak attack. The log buildings, established in 1843, are the oldest buildings by Euro-Americans still standing on their original foundations in North or South Dakota. The heritage site is about 30 kilometres south of Winkler.

The Canadian government put a $5,000 bounty on Riel's head after the Red River Rebellion. While in exile, he returned many times to the Gingras home. He also worked at his friend's trading posts in Walhalla (called St. Joseph by the Métis before Norwegian settlers changed it) and Pembina. He later worked for Gingras's son after Gingras died.

"Some of the journal entries indicate Riel's family came here to meet him and visit with him in safety," Thornberg said.

Riel wasn't the only famous resident. Artist Paul Kane was once a guest, as was expedition leader John Palliser.

Gingras's influence was widespread. In 1873, he helped charter the City of Winnipeg and served on the Winnipeg Board of Trade

The original home and trading post at the the Gingras Trading Post State Historic Site were restored in the 1970s by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

There are also two scenic views of the beautiful Pembina Gorge in nearby Walhalla, as well as the interesting St. Boniface Cemetery, and several heritage sites strung along the south side of the international border between Pembina, including the Métis cemetery there, and Walhalla.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2012 A7

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