Joseph and Josephine Rondeau

The Flintlock gun

The Voyageur and his flintlock gun

I get asked a lot of questions, for the most part because people think I know everything about the Hudson’s Bay Company. I do not, although I have a lot of resources that others may not have, since I’ve been buying books for years. Some of the questions are good ones that, while I don’t know the answer, I do discover what it is and then blog about it. For example, the York Factory Complaint was one of these interesting questions that resulted in me learning something that was important to the book I was then working on. If you feel like being diverted, then this blogpost is found here:

I have had a few questions that I have just had to say “I don’t know.” But this one question, I DO know the answer for, because I followed these people around for some time. However, I did this work so many years ago, that I have forgotten much of the research I did, and so will probably have to be fairly general.

Someone asked me last week for a story about Joseph Rondeau and Josephine Beaulieu — and one of these two people are in my extended family tree.

My great-great-grandmother is Charlot Beaulieu, who met James Birnie in the Snake River district when he and a number of North West Company men, and some free-traders, were trapping out the district under the NWC fur-trader Donald McKenzie. Jaco Finlay was there, and so too must have been my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Beaulieu, who (like Jaco) came across the Rocky Mountains with David Thompson in 1807. If you want to know more about Joseph Beaulieu, almost certainly the father of Josephine Beaulieu Rondeau, then you must read Jack Nisbet’s The Mapmaker’s Eye.

So Charlot’s sister was Josephine, born in “Montana,” about 1808-1810. But the first question you ask should be: How do we Birnie descendants know that Josephine Beaulieu was Charlot Beaulieu’s sister? In Manuscript 1092, in the Oregon History Society Archives, Portland, Oregon, Ben Holladay Dorcy (grandson of James Birnie) records, on page 126 of the transcript that “The only sister of Charlotte Beaulieu married a Rondeau and lived at or near St. Paul., Minn., supposed to be very well to do.” Yes, this is a secondary source and not a primary, but it is the best we can do.

The book edited by Elliott Coues and titled New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest, says in a footnote that: “Beaulieu is a very old name in these annals. A half-breed family of that name was found on Slave R when the N.W. Co. first reached it, in or about 1778, showing prior presence of the French so far as this. Francois Beaulieu, one of that family, born in the region, was one of the six voyageurs who started with (Sir) A. McKenzie [Mackenzie] for the Pacific May 9th, 1793, from the place where the party had wintered on Peace R… The Beaulieu of the text [who happened to be living on the Sale [Lasalle] River [Red River] as Alexander Henry came through] is Joseph, listed as voyageur contre-maitre N.W. Co., Lower Red River, 1804.” According to her gravestone in Cathlamet, WA., Charlot Beaulieu was born in Red River in 1805. Her father was “a Frenchman from Manitoba, trader in Kootenai for many years,” according to notes I made in 1885, and which I have since confirmed. Researchers in Washington State (where James Birnie lived and died) told me that Charlot was descended from the brother of Francois Beaulieu, who went with Alexander Mackenzie to the Pacific Ocean in 1793. My great-grandfather Alexander Caulfield Anderson, who married the eldest of James Birnie’s daughters, wrote that “James Birnie…went to the Kootenai country where he was married to the daughter of a Frenchman (she was half Indian, Mr. Beaulieu having married a full blooded Manitoba Indian), a Mr. Beaulieu, from Manitoba.” We from British Columbia tend to think of the Kootenays as the country around the Columbia River, but the Kootenai Country of the Columbia District of that time included the area where David Thompson’s Kullyspell House was built in Idaho in 1809, and where his second post, Saleesh House, was constructed in 1810 in what is now Montana. By that time, Joseph Beaulieu was a free-trader, and he may well have spent his winters in the region around the future Saleesh House at the same time that Josephine Beaulieu was supposed to have been born. The North West Company Ledgers, 1811-1821, list Joseph Beaulieu as a “Bad or Doubtful Account,” in their books — they don’t know where he is. [Note that in these same records another Joseph Beaulieu is employed a few years later at Fort des Prairies — almost certainly not our Joseph Beaulieu].

So there is Josephine Beaulieu’s childhood story, as far as we know it at this time. What about Joseph Louis Rondeau, who was born in Lanoraie, Berthier, Quebec, in 1797? At the age of 17 or 18 years, he enlisted in the North West Company as a voyageur, and “was sent to the Pacific coast, where he spent several years in the westernmost outposts of the company’s dominions.” Well, its not true that he made it to the west coast, but he did make it to the west side of the Rocky Mountains — according to the HBCA, “Rondeau spent several years on the banks of the Fraser River and was then sent to the Great Slave Lake, Fort Edmonton, and other trading posts.. Around 1827 he took some land in the vicinity of Saint-Boniface, where he married Josephine Boileau, who was said to be of Kootenay and French lineage.” As far as I am aware the only post that was on the banks of the Fraser River at that time was Chal-a-oo-Chick, built by the North West Company [NWC] in 1820 on the north bank of the Nechako River, just west of modern-day Prince George. I don’t know if Rondeau was there, but the dates don’t conflict with the other dates listed in his bio. In the HBC archives he is listed as a middleman in the Athabasca district in 1821-1824. In 1814-1827 he lives in the Swan River district, and in 1833 he is “free at Red River.”

So that is his brief history, as the HBCA knows it. But he joined the North West Company and was on the Peace River first. A descendant of Rondeau’s told me that:

Joseph Rondeau was at a post in the Rocky Mountains in about 1818 to 1819 when an Alexander Roderick McLeod was born in about 1817. Joseph says in an interview for a St. Paul history book that he held this infant Alexander McLeod on his lap as an infant. I did some research and found McLeod to have been born in 1817 so I surmised that Joseph would have held him as an infant around 1817 to 1819 etc. Now as to the name of this post the History Book says that Alexander’s father was a prominent officer of the Hudson’s Bay Co. [North West Company], and there is a Fort McLeod named for him and also the McLeod River near Fort Edmonton…Joseph’s own biography in this book says he worked on the “Frazer River, Great Slave Lake, Fort Edmonton, and other posts on the extreme west and north of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dominions.”

A.R. McLeod’s father was Archibald Norman McLeod. This group of descendants was looking at Fort McLeod in southern Alberta, which was never a fur trade post. I suggested McLeod Lake post in Northern B.C. was a possible, but historians tell us that Archibald Norman McLeod was never in what is now British Columbia. It was not until I read Eric Ross’s book, Beyond the River and the Bay [U of Toronto Press, 1973], that I realized that the fort that was named for Archibald Norman McLeod was McLeod’s Fort, on the Peace River, and that Archibald Norman McLeod would actually have been at that post as it was just downriver from Dunvegan! So, almost certainly Joseph Rondeau was at McLeod post, or at Dunvegan, or somewhere else on the Peace River.

So we have him on the Peace River about 1818; it is possible he was at Chil-a-oo-Chick on the Fraser River in 1820-1821, working for the North West Company. He may even have gone downriver to help George McDougall build Fort Alexandria in 1821 — it would not be until many months later that these NWC men would know that the North West Company had been taken over by the HBC and that they were now employees of that latter company. Clearly Rondeau was sent back to the Athabasca River district, which also included the Peace River and Great Slave Lake.

So, as you can see, Joseph Rondeau never worked in the same region that his father-in-law, Joseph Beaulieu, was employed as a free-trapper. That tells me that Joseph Beaulieu returned to the Athabasca District where his daughter met and married Joseph Rondeau. We know that Jaco Finlay was at Fort Edmonton in the years after David Thompson returned home — he was reported to be very fond of his drink. Finlay’s children lived in the Jasper Valley for years, and some of them never left. That may have been where Jaco Finlay spent a few years before he returned to Spokane House, where he died. I wonder if Beaulieu, and his daughter Josephine, were among his party, or did they travel north on their own? I strongly suspect that Joseph Beaulieu returned to the Slave River near Great Slave Lake, where he would expect to find the rest of his extended family.

Why would Joseph Beaulieu return to the Athabasca District rather than head out to Montreal, as many retiring Canadien voyageurs might have done. I searched for many years through the various databases [PRDH and Drouin records] trying to locate the three Beaulieu brothers: Joseph, Francois, and Jacques (Zachary). If Joseph was a member of the Athabasca Beaulieus, those are the names we have to consider. For years I thought his brother was “Old Man” [Francois] Beaulieu, but it is likely that the Francois who paddled to the Pacific with Alexander Mackenzie was Old Man Beaulieu’s father, also Francois. In fact, an article on Old Man Beaulieu [Francois Beaulieu II] says this:

The European origins of the earliest Metis families at Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories, appear to be in the fur trade prior to the defeat of New France in 1763. The coureurs de bois who found their way to Great Slave Lake ahead of the Northwest Company in the late 18th century, had ties to the mixed-heritage population of the Great Lakes and Quebec.

Francois Beaulieu II told Father Emile Petitot in 1863, that his father, also named Francois Beaulieu, had come to the northwest with the Company of the Sioux. In another account he mentions his father was descended from the marriage of a coureurs de bois and a Cree woman. Whether he spoke of his father or grandfather, the connection remains valid. Petitot’s account, based on information provided by Francois Beaulieu II, strongly suggests that a Beaulieu and other homme libre (free man) such as La Camarade de Mandeville, had made their way to Great Slave Lake before 1760. [Francois Beaulieu II: The Origins of the Metis in the Far Northwest, by Chris Hanks].

So these three brothers are already Metis: I am not going to find them in any Quebec records. But I remember how shocked everyone in the family was when I sent them a copy of Charlotte Beaulieu’s picture [a copy of which is in my book, The Pathfinder]. They were not prepared for how “Indian” she looked: however, both Charlot and Josephine had much more Indigenous blood than Canadien. [Interestingly enough, when the French-speaking European missionaries arrived at Charlot’s home at the mouth of the Columbia River in about 1847, they were amazed by her perfectly spoken French — Indigenous she might have been, but she was also Canadien].

So the rest of Joseph and Josephine Rondeau’s story is pretty well known. He left the HBC’s employ and he and Josephine are picked up in the 1835 census at the Red River Colony (Fort Garry). However, it seems they had been at Red River since 1827, when their marriage was blessed at the church in St. Boniface. They had a farm, and endured the hardships of living at Red River for eight years, before abandoning the colony with a group of 60 or so refugees. If I remember correctly they left after a plague of grasshoppers ruined their crops, in 1836 or 1837. The group settled near Fort Snelling, St. Paul, MN, and they purchased a house that was later burned down by the military when the settlers were forced out in May 1840. At that point, the Rondeaus moved to St. Paul, where they purchased the property and unfinished house of Edward Phelan, who was serving a prison sentence for the murder of John Hays. They didn’t remain there, but built a better house. Joseph attended the Stillwater Convention in 1848: this was a territorial convention held in Stillwater, that began the process of establishing Minnesota as a state. As a result of this convention, Minnesota became a territory in 1849 (it would become a state in 1858). In 1850 Rondeau’s real estate holdings were valued at $500.00. Today a street in Minnesota is named for Joseph Rondeau [Rondo], and many St. Paul history books mention Joseph and Josephine as being early settlers.

Josephine died in Crookston, MN, in 1890, and the large gravestone says that she was 88 years old when she died. Her husband had died five years earlier, on May 8, 1885. There are, however, few clues as to where Josephine came from. Her son’s death certificate mentions her as being born in Montana about 1810 — of course it was not Montana then, but it was by the time her son died and she clearly knew where she was born!

Keep in mind, please, that all of these claims are unsupported by primary sources, and that this story is only told because a batch of Rondeau descendants shared their story with me. I am the person who knew about the connection between Charlot and Josephine, and so that added to our shared history. But any part of this story might be incorrect, and so if you have any information that might change the story, or might support it, we would love to have the join the conversation. This is what happens when you dig up North West Company history where there are very few records — the search can be very frustrating!

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2018. All rights reserved.