Fort Desjarlais

An “artist’s impression” of Fort Desjarlais from the pamphlet “Archaeology on the Souris River.” The original pen-and-ink drawings prepared for the newspaper series have been lost.

Fort Desjarlais is the story of an obscure little independent fur fort on the Souris River. The story was published in a Manitoba newspaper called the Souris Valley Echo in 1987.

I was reminded of it when I began searching on-line for stories I might be able to add to the Solid Gold Box. I found that the story had been cited in People who own themselves: aboriginal ethnogenesis in a Canadian family, 1660-1900, by Heather Devine (University of Calgary, 2004). It was cited in From Rupert’s Land to Canada: Essays in Honour of John E. Foster, by Gerhard John Ens, John Elgin Foster, Theodore Binnema, and R. C. Macleod (University of Alberta, 2001). It appears periodically in Google Alerts, particularly when people on genealogy hunts find a copy someplace like the Métis Culture & Heritage Resource Centre in Winnipeg.

I find it surprising that a newspaper story would continue to have life two decades later. But this story has elicited a favourable response from the beginning. In fact, not long after it was published, an early tourism entrepreneur named Hank Desjarlais contacted me for permission to reprint the story as a booklet. When I granted it he sent me gifts of books and packets of wild rice and other wonderful things.

I remember hoping, while trying to sort out the far-reaching Desjarlais family with Alfred Fortier, that somebody would come along and unearth more detail about the post. Indeed, the past 23 years have revealed more of that detail, and it seems clear to me now that it was Antoine Desjarlais who established the post. If my conclusions were wrong I’m not ashamed, because those 23 years have made me even more reluctant to disregard the testimony of oral tradition. Besides, the idea that I may have made some contribution to a search for the truth leaves me well satisfied.

In fact, the importance of the oral record is what drew me to this story. The post was mentioned here and there, but cobbling together those rare mentions would have left one with a brief and sterile understanding. If it could be excavated we may yet learn more about its physical characteristics, but the actual life of the post survives in only a few tantalizing snippets of oral history.

I heard about Fort Desjarlais from a fellow who had been on a high school dig there in the 1970s. Why I decided to pursue it is still beyond me, other than to say that I often become fascinated by some random idea and then wander off to pursue it. It could be the story of my life. I was still quite young when I wrote it, and when I have periodically seen Google Alerts come up mentioning it I have always cringed a little. But revisiting it I see that it’s not so bad. I do cringe, at some of the phrasing, and a few of the conclusions, but it’s not so bad. I guess that goes to show that if you tell every story to the best of your ability, you will never be really ashamed to revisit it.

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  1. Brent Desjarlais
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 11:41 PM | Permalink

    Hi Bruce, just wanted to say thanks for the excellent article on Fort Desjarlais!
    I am a direct descendant of Joseph Desjarlais, born 1791, and mentioned in the article. He was my GGGGGrandfather. From all I’ve read it appears to me that Miche Cote was actually Joseph and not Antoine. Although the men at the post appear to be Antoine’s sons inlaws, it seems likely to me that all of the brothers played a role in it’s construction and operations. Thanks again as this is the most comprehensive info on the fort I have been able to find. Brent Joseph Desjarlais.

  2. Bruce
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 9:04 AM | Permalink

    Brent, you’ve echoed some of my thoughts since revisiting this story and posting it to the site. I do tend to agree with you about the brothers all being involved, with “old Joe Desjarlais” being remembered as the principal. And my first reaction is always to pay careful attention to the oral sources. After being away from the source material for over 20 years, however, I’m not prepared to argue the point too closely! In some of what has since been written about Fort Desjarlais, I’m not convinced that enough consideration was given to the mobility of Métis living in their traditional lifestyle during the years between the establishment of the Red River Colony and the foundation of the province of Manitoba.
    Thanks for your kind comments. I’m really glad that you like the story. – Bruce

  3. steve desjarlais
    Posted April 5, 2011 at 4:51 PM | Permalink

    i am descenant of joesph desjarlais were u related to marcel gwi-wis-ens desjarlais married to brudgettenakweskay dit cardinal born in 1808 my name is steve desjarlais from lac la biche alberta

  4. Brent Desjarlais
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:28 PM | Permalink

    Sorry it took so long to reply Steve. Yes I am related to Marcel Desjarlais. He was a brother to Joseph Dejarlais and so would be a great GGGGGuncle. Marcel later became a native chief and signed a treaty as chief of his band.

  5. Brent Desjarlais
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 9:39 PM | Permalink

    Marcel is believed to be also known as Cowessess, a different spelling of Gwiwisens, who signed treaty and died in 1881. Desjarlais is still a prominent surname on the Cowessus reserve in Sask.

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