Marie-Louise Riel

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About Marie-Louise Riel


Marie-Louise Riel was a native Ojibwe who lived during the nineteenth century. We know little of her life, but family history and genealogy reveal a remarkable life. Although born into a traditional Amerindian community north of the Great Lakes, she went on to live among the voyageurs and later settled among the loggers and farmers of the Outaouais Valley (West Quebec). There are some indications that she may have been the aunt of the famous Louis Riel. We explore here the oral tradition among Marie-Louise’s descendants, as well as a few others leads that we find in Louis Riel’s writings.

The Life of Marie-Louise Riel

Marie-Louise was probably born around Sault Ste. Marie but the date and location of her birth is not certain. She was baptized as an adult in 1826 into the Catholic religion before her marriage to hunter-voyageur Robert McGregor at Oka (Québec) that same year. Marie-Louise spent the latter half of her life in the Lievre River Valley (near Gatineau, Québec), where she raised her ten children. In addition to native languages she spoke French and probably English, but never learned to read or write. It is said that she was a mid-wife and healer and that she may have been more than one hundred years old at her death, in 1898. Her date of birth however remains a mystery: according to her birth record she was born in 1796, but her burial records rather suggests a birth year of 1792. The three federal census that mention her (those of 1861, 1881 and 1891) provide birth years of 1804, 1798 and 1789 respectively.

Children of Marie-Louise Riel and Robert McGregor:

1- Marie-Louise McGregor (1823-1904)

2- Marie-Anne McGregor (1825-1911)

3- Marie-Madeleine McGregor (1826-?)

4- Richard Robert McGregor (1829-?)

5- Elizabeth McGregor (1831-1880)

6- Marguerite McGregor (1832-1880)

7- François McGregor (1838-?)

8- Philomène McGregor (1840-?)

9- Léocadie McGregor (1842-?)

10- Julia McGregor (1844-?)

The many descendants of Marie-Louise Riel have followed paths which were just as diversified as was Marie-Louise’s own. Some became farmers in the Outaouais, some joined Amerindian communities of Western Quebec and Northern Ontario, and others emigrated to the United States, as so many Quebeckers did during the 19th Century. Many have retraced the steps of the voyageurs and can be found today all along the fur trade route, stretching from Montreal to the Ottawa River, the Mattawa River, Nipissing Lake, French River, the Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes. Some may have settled as far west as Manitoba.

A Mysterious Family Name

But why did Marie-Louise, whose native name was Chipakijikowe, adopt the name Riel? Archival records fail to name her father. Of the twenty-two mentions of Marie-Louise in documents found to date, fourteen refer to her as Riel. The earliest of these is the record of baptism of her daughter, Marie-Anne, in 1825. Five others, all dated between 1826 and 1840, cite her Ojibwa moniker. After that period, documents use only the name, Riel. The three censuses in which she is mentioned use her married name, McGregor. Some erroneously list the name, Saulteuse, which, in fact, designates her aboriginal nation.

We know very little about Marie-Louise Riel’s parents; however, according to a deeply rooted oral tradition, they may have been Jean-Baptiste Riel dit l’Irlande (1785-1868), voyageur, and Marguerite Boucher, a franco-Chipewyan Métis. Circa 1809, Jean-Baptiste began spending winters in northern Saskatchewan at one of the Hudson Bay Company’s farthest western outpost, the fort at Ile-a-la-Crosse. Until 1822, he travelled a lot between Montreal and the West. Sometime around 1812, Jean-Baptiste married Marguerite, a local girl, and the couple’s first son, Louis Riel Senior, was born in 1817.

If our Marie-Louise was the daughter of Jean-Baptiste Riel and Marguerite Boucher this would make her the aunt of Louis Riel (1844-1885), the founder of Manitoba.

Deeply Rooted Oral History

Many of Marie-Louise Riel’s descendants, especially from the branch of her grand-son Richard Robert McGregor, claim that Marie-Louise Riel was Louis Riel’s aunt. However, the only substantial testimony comes from Marie-Louise’s great-granddaughter, Violet Lalonde, née McGregor. Violet described her great-grandmother in an unfinished manuscript dating from the 1980s that not only gives a colourful and detailed account of the life of Marie-Louise Riel, but also recounts Louis Riel’s travels to the Outaouais and their various encounters. Quebec historian Pierre-Louis Lapointe kindly provided the manuscript. This document is available at the research centre of the Société de Généalogie de l’Outaouais. A slightly edited version can be found on this web site.

Violet Lalonde draws upon the recollections of her father, who, as a youngster, would have known Marie-Louise. After many years of travelling between Montreal and Western Canada, Marie-Louise settled in the Lievre River Valley, where she shared her vast knowledge of healing with the community, becoming quite well known in the region. In 1874, during Louis Riel’s attempts to evade federal authorities, Marie-Louise appears to have hidden him with her family and friends in various places located between the Lievre and Gatineau rivers. When he left the hospital in 1881, Louis seems to have visited her again before returning to the West for his final struggle against the government in Ottawa.

Looking for Evidence

What Violet Lalonde’s manuscript says about the connections between Marie-Louise and Louis Riel, as well as their adventures together in the Outaouais, is not part of generally accepted history books. However, the facts related to Marie-Louise Riel appear to be verifiable. For example, we do know that a Marie-Louise McGregor (the name of Marie-Louise Riel’s eldest daughter) was a midwife in the Val-des-Bois area toward the end of the 1800s. Violet Lalonde’s references to the members of the McGregor and Latour families and their inter-connections are accurate, as are her references to known members of Louis Riel’s family, such as his aunt, Lucie Lee. The account of Violet Lalonde also reflects a strong oral tradition in the Outaouais according to which the locals would have helped Louis Riel hide in the Gatineau area at the time when he was in the region to register as a new Member of Parliament, in 1874.

We have been unable to find other sources of this type. A 1988 register of baptisms, marriages, and deaths in Val des Bois includes a note that Marie-Louise Riel was “tante de Louis Riel” (Louis Riel’s aunt), but the source of this note is unknown.

Oral history remains the best available evidence of the family connection between Marie-Louise Riel and Louis Riel. Pierre-Louis Lapointe writes that “the oral history purported by (…) Violet McGregor, appears plausible despite the impossibility of documenting the story with any certainty (…) There’s a missing link!” (our translation from French) See LAPOINTE, Pierre-Louis; La vallée assiégée; Gatineau (Québec); Éditions Vent d’Ouest; 2006, Page 235.

There are, however, several other theories circulating among amateur genealogists interested in Marie-Louise Riel. The most interesting of these is found in a poem by Louis Riel.

The Writings of Louis Riel: “Regis and George”

In a lengthy poem penned sometime around 1878, Louis Riel mentions two men who may have been nephews of Marie-Louise Riel:

“Ah! How we laughed on the Keeseville meadow,

While we tilled together - George, Regis and I.” (our translation from French)

The transcription of this poem in The Complete Writings of Louis Riel is followed by a note indicating that “George and Regis were likely men from the village.”

One of Marie-Louise’s two sons, Richard McGregor, and his wife, Célanie Chénier, had numerous children, including two boys, Regis and George, who were respectively ages sixteen and fourteen in 1878. Regis was the grandfather of the afore-mentioned Violet Lalonde, and the 1881 census (although dating 5 years before Violet’s father was born) indicates that Marie-Louise lived with Regis’ family. Interestingly, Violet’s manuscript makes no mention of Louis Riel’s poem. Could Regis and George McGregor have been Louis Riel’s companions on the Keeseville meadow?

Keeseville is a village near Plattsburgh, New York, and Lake Champlain that Riel visited on numerous occasions. We were unable to find any proof that the McGregor-Chénier family ever resided in the region. We do know that the family was in Grattan (near Renfrew, Ontario) in 1871 and in the Lievre River Valley in 1881. However, it appears that Regis and George’s younger brother, Angus McGregor, may have lived near Keeseville in Saint Lawrence, New York, at the time.

Among the massive writings of Louis Riel, this reference to Regis and George appears to be the sole mention of Marie-Louise Riel’s branch of the family. However, more research is needed, since Louis Riel’s work contains frequent references to people, including some he claims as relatives (Aunt Louise, Aunt Julie, Aunt Marie, etc.) but whom researchers have never clearly identified. By way of contrast, historians indicate that Louis Riel might have been quite close to his maternal grand-mother, the famous Marie-Anne Gaboury, but he rarely mentions her in his writings.

A Link Still Missing

The well documented biography of Louis Riel makes no mention of an aunt named Marie-Louise. To date, there is no genealogical evidence that conclusively proves any family connection between the two. Although Jean-Baptiste Riel and Marguerite Boucher lived in the Montreal region between 1822 and 1841, they did not witness either Marie-Louise Riel’s baptism or her marriage in Oka in 1826. We have been unable to find associations between members of the Louis Riel family and Marie-Louise, her children, or her grandchildren in any of the registers found to date (baptismal, marriage, death registries).

It is entirely possible that Marie-Louise was conceived by Jean-Baptiste Riel with Marguerite Boucher, or some other woman, during one of Riel’s trips west before his marriage. It is also possible that Marguerite Boucher gave birth to Marie-Louise before meeting Jean-Baptiste. If Marie-Louise was not their biological child, why the couple would have adopted her later is still unknown. These various scenarios have been proposed by researchers but evidence remains elusive.

Despite the lack of archival evidence, a credible oral tradition connects Marie-Louise Riel to Louis Riel. Her extraordinary life clearly deserves more research.

By Stéphane Jobin

(Descendant of Marie-Louise Riel through her grand-daughter Émérance Latour)

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Marie-Louise Riel's Timeline

Age 84