Jean-Baptiste Leolo

Jean-Baptiste Leolo (also known as Jean-Baptiste Lolo) was an important man in British Columbia, and more specifically, Kamloops’s history — and he still is, right up to the modern-day. He certainly played a prominent role in my book, The HBC Brigades: Culture, Conflict, and Perilous Journeys of the Fur Trade — which is why I am speaking of him today. 

According to Bruce Watson, Jean-Baptiste Leolo was born in the Thompson River region, and was possibly First Nations. I always heard that he was Iroquois and First Nations (which, when I think about it, makes him First Nations, not Métis.) He may have been employed by the North West Company before 1821. His first recorded employment with the HBC was in 1822, in New Caledonia, where at Fort St. James he became an interpreter in 1824.

In 1825 Jean-Baptiste Leolo was interpreter at Fort Alexandria, and he visited York Factory the same year, likely travelling out and in with the 1825 York Factory Express. By 1827 he was pretty much permanently stationed at the Kamloops post, and remained there until his death.

But that can’t be the entire truth — Apparently, from 1833 to 1841, Jean Baptiste Leolo “became an intinerant priest, before returning to the HBC.” That would probably mean that he studied under one of the priests that were in the district in the 1830’s. But there were none: in 1833, four American Indians travelled out of the Columbia district to ask that a Christian missionary be sent to minister to the Columbia Basin Indians on the west side of the Rockies. Jason Lee and his nephew, Daniel Lee, volunteered to serve as Methodist Episcopal Church missionaries in the Columbia District, and travelled west to Fort Vancouver with the American trader, Nathaniel Wyeth. [I should have known this, as my great-grandfather, A.C. Anderson, was at Fort Vancouver at the time Wyeth arrived, or soon after.] But even though the Lees were supposedly the first Christian missionaries in the Columbia District, they would have only arrived there in 1834, which is some time after Jean-Baptiste Leolo had begun preaching his religion. (And would Leolo have preached the Methodist religion? Probably not!) So, this is not the answer to the puzzle.

But that doesn’t matter: there is still lots to learn about Jean Baptiste Leolo, and some one else can do this research.  So what did I learn about Jean-Baptiste as I wrote The HBC Brigades?

Jean Baptiste Leolo is not mentioned in Lloyd Keith and John C. Jackson’s book, The Fur Trade Gamble: North West Company on the Pacific Slope, 1800-1820, so there is nothing to learn there. A.G. Morice mentions him in his The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia, saying: “Lolo and three men leave this place [Kamloops] today…” The date of Samuel Black’s letter was October 29, 1832, and it tells us that Leolo worked at the Kamloops post at that time, and at the same time when he was supposed to be absent from the fur trade, see above. Leolo is often mentioned in Robert C. Belyk’s book, John Tod: Rebel in the Ranks, and tells how, in 1841, Leolo held the Kamloops fort safe after Samuel Black was murdered. And of course he rode out in the 1826 Brigade under William Connolly and appears in his journal. Also, in 1828, when Governor George Simpson descended the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, through their canyons, Jean-Baptiste Leolo was one of three men paddling the Governor’s bateau as he left Kamloops.  

Jean-Baptiste Leolo was not part of either of Anderson’s two expeditions in 1846 and 1847. I have not found him in the 1848 Brigade journal, either, but he might have been there: Henry Newsham Peers, who kept the journal, had no idea who he was and would not have specifically mentioned him. But in 1849, Donald Manson had arranged with Jean-Baptiste Leolo, at Kamloops, that he and ten First Nations men should come over the “mountain” by Peers’ new route, clearing the road until he reached a point in the mountains called Campement du Chevreuil [Deer Encampment]. There, Manson hoped Leolo would be met by A.C. Anderson and a party of Canadiens sent from Fort Hope to clear the trail to the same place. That plan did not work out, of course, but Leolo did come into Fort Hope with his men, having cleared the trail up to Campement du Chevreuil. And so Leolo would likely ride back to Kamloops with the incoming 1849 Brigades.

I find that in 1850, Jean-Baptiste Leolo is called by his nickname, “St. Paul” for the first time, in my records at least. On October 15, 1850, Paul Fraser recorded that Jean-Baptiste Vautrin arrived at Kamloops from Fort Alexandria, with 30 rested horses “for the purpose of Conveying the property St. Paul & party may bring from Fort Hope.” Then Michel Ogden came into Kamloops from the Tulameen Plateau, carrying the news that “the greatest number of St. Paul’s horses are dead in the Mountains.” Why? Either the horses were sick and weak and Leolo drove them too hard, or there was a severe winter storm that no one mentions. James Douglas complained that Donald Manson “certainly made a fearful blunder in sending Lolo to Fort Hope for the 2nd trip of goods, 29 horses died on the way, all belonging to Indians who are now clamouring for payment.” The HBC would be paying for these lost horses for a long time afterward!

So Jean-Baptiste Leolo had a bad year in 1850. I having nothing for him in 1851; but that is partly because Fort St James and Kamloops records are so skimpy, and I have to depend on correspondence for information. In 1852, at Fort Alexandria, Donald McLean noted that “Leferte, St. Paul, and Toutlaid arrived from Thompson’s River. They have brought the New Caledonia horses, many of which have been stolen by the Indians and some have died.” More horses would die, and in 1852 Donald Manson reported that “throughout the winter of 1851 and spring of /52 great depredations were committed on our horses by the Kamloops Indians.” This will, of course, bring Donald McLean into the story as the “enforcer,” or bully — a position that I think likely that Jean-Baptiste Leolo also held. After all, in 1830, Francis Ermatinger, who was in charge of Kamloops, sent Leolo out to cut off the ears of his wife’s First Nations lover, and Leolo apparently carried out those instructions! [Robert C. Belyk, John Tod: Rebel in the Ranks, page 89.]

There is little about Jean-Baptiste Leolo in 1853, but I do wonder if he is the “Baptiste” who is bending the boards for Michel Fallardeau’s coffin, as A.G. Morice writes in his History of the Northern Interior or British Columbia: “As Baptiste, an Iroquois, was planing and bending the planks intended for the luckless man’s coffin, Fraser happened to pass by.

“What are you doing with those boards?” he asked of the Iroquois. “Rough, unplaned boards are good enough for that rascal.”

The Iroquois, surprised at such a remark under the circumstances, stared a moment at his master; then, with the brutal frankness proper to his race:

“Hehm! when you die you may not have even rough boards to be buried in,” observed the labourer.

In September 1854, Jean-Baptiste Leolo was kept busy castrating some of the young horses that had arrived at Fort Alexandria. Castrating the horses was necessary, as the procedure prevented testosterone-fuelled chaos on the Brigade journey. On this occasion the castrated horses were probably two year old colts fresh from the Kamloops farm. It may have always happened that some horses died, but in 1854, more than a few animals bled to death as a result of Leolo’s operation. 

In 1855, a few more New Caledonia horses died at Kamloops, as a result of their castration. The journal does not say who did the operation, but it might, once again, have been Leolo. After the Brigade’s departure from Kamloops in early summer, there were no more Kamloops journals kept. Paul Fraser is dead on the mountain, and Donald McLean, who took over his post, left no journals that survived his time there. Again, we are entirely depend on letters written by James Douglas or others.

We must also consider that by this time (1856), Jean-Baptiste Leolo is fairly old: if he was born in 1798 he is 58 years old. About this time he was also involved with the Tranquile River gold rush of 1850–60, which took place just north of Kamloops. He made some money as a result of that experience: but it did not last him, and he became indebted to the Company.

At this time he lived at the old Fort Kamloops, in a house that John Tod actually had built for him. He had become an independent trader, trading with the First Nations around him, and probably trading the furs he had traded for to the Kamloops post. English travellers through the area  tell us that Jean-Baptiste Leolo spoke “a curious mixture of French, English & Indian.” The language might have been Michef — but it is far more likely that it was Chinook Wawa [Chinook Jargon], and that he would likely have spoken the Kamloops version of that Wawa. The first person to mention his not-so-unique language was Dr. Walter Butler Cheadle, of Milton and Cheadle fame; a man who passed through Kamloops in 1863. Lieutenant Richard Charles Mayne (an officer in the Royal Navy) admired Leolo’s courage in crossing a turbulent river with a crippled knee (another possible reason that Jean-Baptiste Leolo might not have been so active in the fur trade), all the while “swearing in a French jargon peculiar to himself.”

Jean-Baptiste Leolo died in his own home in 1868. He had at least seven sons and four daughters (including Sophie, John Tod’s wife, who lived in Victoria). I believe his house is now a Museum, part of the Kamloops Museum. 

An interesting man, I find, and one whose life should be, and is, celebrated. If you want to find out more about the event, it is happening June 1, and its Eventbrite site can be reached if you google *Jean Baptiste Lolo Cultural Event & Reunion.*

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2024. All rights reserved. 





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