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With Face to the West

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Marie Anne Lagimodière's life paralleled the early development of western Canada. From her first years in teh Northwest, beginning in 1806, she lived to see the creation of the first western province, the coming of the North West Mounted Police, the beginning of homesteading and mass immigration, and the growth of agriculture: all expressions of ideas for which she had once stood practically alone. Marie Anne
The Frontier Spirit of Marie Anne Lagimodière
Copyright 1984 Western Producer Book Service
246 pages,
ISBN 0-88833-138-X.

When it became apparent that the new house being made from pine logs would not be ready for the newlyweds on their wedding day, April 21, 1806, Jean Baptiste arranged for the use of a cabin on an adjoining farm. The rented structure was not handsome, but it would break the wind and turn most of the rain for a few weeks. The setting was lovely - hills with the hue of a bluebird's feathers to the north, heavy maple trees to the east, and the Maskinonge River within a stone's throw to the west. Marie Anne's cup of happiness was running over and Jean Baptiste should have been busy enough with tasks on the new farm to ensure contentment. In addition to the completion of the house, there were logs to cut and split for rail fences, stumps to be demolished, plowing with a pair of black Normandy oxen borrowed from the seignior, and the preparation of a garden plot shaped to fit Marie Anne's precise specifications.

Jean Baptiste could be a good worker as long as he was interested, but he had a record of restlessness, and whether his wife recognized it or not, his love of adventure was quite capable of overruling his dedication to menial tasks. That characteristic could, and did, spell trouble for a new wife.

For anyone with wanderlust in their bones, the spring season presented the biggest temptations. Before the new house was completed, Marie Anne detected a change in her husband's manner, almost as clear as a rabbit's changing coat at the same season. He was talking more about the Northwest where he had lived for four years. He was thinking with visible nostalgia about buffalo hunts, gay times at Pembina, and friends among prairie Indians. Marie Anne liked to hear him relate his adventures in the fur country, but why this sudden preoccupation?

She didn't allow herself to think it was serious, but one evening after a heavy day with logs, her husband unburdened himself in his own blunt way. Blaming the spring months, he admitted he had been caught up by the unyielding spell of the Northwest. "You won't like this," he warned his worried wife, "but try to understand. My feeling for you, it's the same as ever, but I can't do anything to kill that urge to go back with the canoes. I've decided I can't live here - not for now anyway. I've got to go, but it means leaving you for awhile, maybe a year. Then I'll come back and we'll live on our farm and have a family, a big family. You'll be all right, I promise. You'll always be my wife. You can live with your mother or stay with my family on my father's farm."

It was the longest speech Jean Baptiste had ever made and almost as exhausting as lifting pine logs. And it was enough to strike the bride of a few short weeks with shock and pain. She buried her face in his buckskin jacket, still pungent with smoke from the tanning, and said nothing. But if he interpreted her silence as submission, he was totally wrong. Unwilling, yet, to trust herself with a reply to this cruel proposal, she kept her silence and went to bed, not to sleep but to weep and think.

By the time he retired to bed, her eyes were dry and she was ready to make her speech, a brief one, but carefully rehearsed. "Ba'tiste," she said with iron in her voice, "I didn't marry you to live alone. I married you to be with you. Now, you won't like this any better than I liked what you said to me, but I have to say it. If you go west, I go too."

Had he heard her correctly? The words stunned him as he hadn't been stunned since a drunken hunter held a knife over him at Pembina. Angry as much as shocked, the words came more easily now. "What damn nonsense, girl! Don't you know that no white woman has ever gone beyond Grand Portage or Fort William? You don't know what you'd be getting yourself into if you went out there. No girl raised here could stand the life there." With mounting impatience he repeated, "You don't know what you're talking about. Would you be able to live without a house, without a priest, and without friends?"

She nodded in the affirmative and smiled faintly to indicate that she was listening. And Jean Baptiste talked on. "You think you'd be ready to sleep on spruce branches beside the river and travel all day in wet clothes? And live on pemmican? Damn it, woman, you'd have to be crazy to think about it."

He stopped talking long enough for her to start again. She had no intention of inviting a long debate, but felt she should answer him and hope to have the last word.

"If you really believe you must go," she said firmly, "I give you a wife's consent to do so, but in case you didn't hear me correctly before, I repeat: If you go, I go too."

His opinion was unchanged. To take an attractive young wife to that uncivilized country would be sheer madness, but he knew now that his wife was not fooling. His choices were clear and limited; he could decide to settle down at Maskinonge where his life would be dull, or he could stoop to her foolishness and allow her to accompany him to the West. The former he could not do; the latter he did not want to do.

He thought of a way to resolve this problem in his own favor. He would sign on as a North West Company voyageur, then place the request to take Marie Anne along before William McGillivray, the head of the company. He would refuse to accept a woman passenger and Jean Baptiste's wife would be forced to remain behind.

Great idea, he thought. Of course McGillivray would not allow an idle woman to take up valuable space in a freight canoe. Jean Baptiste would go next day to Trois Rivieres and put it to the company men there. Marie Anne prepared a package of food for his trip and Jean Baptiste set out on foot, just as he had embarked upon many long distance journeys before.

He met the North West Company men but was astonished and disappointed when they did not refuse the unusual request. Calmly, they told him: "Your wife can go but you will have to pay for the extra 150 pounds of freight. And you can't expect the voyageurs to change their ways because a woman wants to travel. You know how the canoemen eat and drink and swear. It would be a mistake for you to take her, but if you are that foolish, we'll let her travel."

The decision was made and there was no time to lose. Plans for the brigade were already well advanced and crews were being recruited and signed to contracts. Jean Baptiste signed as an experienced voyageur, and it was understood that the cost of his wife's passage would be charged against his wage account. The news travelled like a grass fire at Maskinonge. "She's going too," people were saying in astonishment. "Even Jean Baptiste admits it's an awful mistake, but you know the will power of that girl."

The days that followed were frantically busy and by the middle of May, the Lagimodieres were ready to leave with the brigade from Lachine. They took Marie Anne's forty pounds of personal luggage and Jean Baptiste's handcarved fiddle that he had carried on the previous trip to Pembina. After tearful farewells and many well-meaning warnings, the newlyweds were starting on what Marie Anne facetiously called their honeymoon. They went first to Montreal and then another nine miles to Lachine where the company canoes were being assembled.

Lachine buzzed with activity. Cargo was piled at the river's edge and voyageurs-each with a newly decorated paddle-were milling about, impatient to be going. And the gossip on every tongue was about the young woman who was going. "Imagine, she's going all the way to Red River-if she lasts that long."

"There she is," a man was saying, pointing his paddle in her direction. "Holy Joseph, she's pretty but she must be insane. What in hell are things coming to?"

"Why would the company allow her to go?" came the response. "It's not safe for her, and it's hardly respectable for a young woman to be travelling in that company. She'll know what I mean before she goes far."

Marie Anne tried to close her ears to the gossip because she knew very well she was going anyway, regardless of what anyone said. She might die en route but nothing would induce her to turn back. Glancing up at her husband, she wondered if he had heard the current whispers, but his whiskered face gave no clue to his thoughts. If he had heard them, he'd have probably said, "Let 'em talk. Nothing short of hellfire would stop her now,"


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