Bill Waiser

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The saga of John Rowand’s bones

It was his farewell journey.

In May 1854, Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor John Rowand left Fort Edmonton with the annual spring Saskatchewan brigade. It would be his last trip down the North Saskatchewan.

Rowand planned to attend the annual council meeting at Norway House in June, say his goodbyes to old friends in the trade, and then push on to Montreal and retirement.

But during a stopover at Fort Pitt, Rowand died from an apparent heart attack. So began one of the most bizarre sagas — at least, for his bones — in fur trade history.

John Rowand entered the trade in 1803 as a 16-year-old apprentice clerk for the North West Company and was assigned to Fort Augustus (the rival post to the HBC Fort Edmonton). For the next half century, he would make the northern plains his home.

In 1810, while hunting bison, Rowand fell from his horse and broke his leg badly. A Métis woman, Louise “Lisette” Umfrieville (sometimes spelled Umphreville), the daughter of another trader, came to his rescue. The pair would become partners in a “country marriage” that produced seven children (four girls and three boys). It is said that Rowand never really recovered from Louise’s death in 1849.

By 1820, Rowand’s business acumen earned him a partnership in the North West Company. The following year, when the NWC and HBC merged, he was asked to head the new Saskatchewan district.

Rowand quickly became a legend for his toughness and no-nonsense demeanour. He was literally larger than life. Although short and rotund, he had amazing strength and never backed down from a confrontation. The Indigenous people called him “Iron Shirt” and “Big Mountain.”

Those who worked for him were not so admiring. Rowand could be a tyrant and often resorted to verbal abuse, backed up by the occasional cuff.

By the late 1840s, Rowand was ready to retire. He seemed to sense that the days of the fur trade were coming to an end on the northern plains. But it was not until the spring of 1854 that it became official that the 67-year-old trader would be leaving the interior and returning to Montreal, the place of his birth.

Rowand had made the trip down the North Saskatchewan River with the outgoing brigade dozens of times. He would have known the river and its moods intimately, all the bends and straight stretches, and the familiar landmarks along the way.

He reached Fort Pitt (just east of the present-day Saskatchewan-Alberta interprovincial border) on May 29, 1854. Rowand had selected the site, halfway between forts Edmonton and Carlton, 25 years earlier. His son, John Jr., was now in charge of the post.

That night, the pair likely talked about the senior Rowand’s retirement to Montreal — and how the fur trade had changed and the challenges it faced.

The next morning, the Fort Pitt boats were being readied to join the flotilla that had left Edmonton days earlier. Two men began to fight. Rowand tried to separate them, madly yelling as he stepped forward, only to keel over dead at their feet.

He was buried outside the Fort Pitt palisades. But there was a problem. The night before his death, Rowand had told his son that he wanted to be buried in the same Montreal cemetery as his father.

George Simpson, the overseas governor of the HBC, decided to honour his dead friend’s wish. Sometime over winter of 1855-56, Rowand’s body was disinterred at Pitt, and the remains boiled down in a large kettle. The person who handled the macabre task apparently got drunk first.

The bones were taken to Norway House, where they were picked up by Simpson and transported to Red River. Simpson was worried, though, about sending Rowand’s bones directly on to Montreal. The contents of the package were the subject of whispers and grumbling, and superstitious voyageurs might be driven to throw the bones overboard during the trip east.

The bones were consequently repackaged and secretly sent to York Factory on Hudson Bay for shipment to England by the annual supply ship. Simpson then arranged to have them returned to North America.

Rowand’s journey finally ended on Nov. 10, 1858 — more than four years after his death — when his bones were placed in an imposing, $500 tomb in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

Photo:John Rowand’s memorial in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
Photo Source: Sam Derksen


Email Bill at bill.waiser@usask.ca

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Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.