Moreau on Grant, 'A Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant'

John Francis Grant
Bill Moreau

John Francis Grant. A Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant. Edited by Gerhard J. Ens. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008. Illustrations. liv + 405 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-88864-491-6.

Reviewed by Bill Moreau (University of Toronto) Published on H-Canada (September, 2014) Commissioned by Stephanie Bangarth

A Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant, reviewed by Bill Moreau

Johnny Grant (1833-1907) lived a prodigious life. Although he died within sight of his Fort Edmonton birthplace, the intervening seventy-four years saw him range across the West, living a number of almost discrete lives, successively an independent trapper and trader in the Snake River Country, a Montana cattle rancher, a land speculator in the new province of Manitoba, and an Alberta homesteader. Along the way he fathered twenty-four children by eight women. During the final two years of his life, Grant confided his experiences to his last wife, Clotilde Bruneau. It appears to have been her idea—in her preface, she tells the reader frankly, "I said to him look here Johnny, what do you say of me writing your life" (p. xlix)—and the resulting manuscript, now just over a century old, has at last been presented to the public as A Son of the Fur Trade, edited by University of Alberta history professor Gerhard J. Ens.

The text provides rich source material relating to diverse facets of nineteenth-century western history. Not the least of these is the fluidity of cultural allegiances and the permeability of ethnic boundaries in the pre-settler era. Grant's heritage includes Highland Scottish, French Canadian, and Native strands; he aligned himself by turns with Aboriginal, canadien, and Métis polities; and his primary language of communication shifted between Cree, French, and English. In his relationships and activities, Grant embodied, though later and farther west, the dynamic of intercultural exchange and accommodation identified by Richard White in The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991), and he fulfilled the powerful intermediary role of mixed-background people described by Theodore Binnema in Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (2001).

Grant witnessed a broad swath of western history, observing the influx of immigrants along the Oregon Trail during the late 1840s, conversing with Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, and meeting the renowned HBC (Hudson's Bay Company) trader James Douglas at Fort Vancouver. But for a Canadian reader, the most compelling part of his narrative deals with the events of 1870-71 in Manitoba. Here Grant's in-between position is evident. Grant expressed his recognition of the justice of the Métis cause, and in February 1870 he tried in vain to dissuade the English party (including Thomas Scott) from attacking Upper Fort Garry. At the same time, Grant harshly indicted Louis Riel, accusing him of attempting to keep the Métis of Red River in ignorance. For example, Grant related that Riel forcibly prevented the reading of the papers that authorized commissioner Donald Smith to represent the Canadian government, then selectively translated the English for his French-speaking audience (for his part, Riel had Grant imprisoned and very nearly killed). And while Grant acted as a guide for the soldiers of the Wolseley Expedition, his memoir evinces for them nothing but disdain.

As a result, Grant has ended up on the wrong side of revisionist history. The old master narrative that demonized Riel—represented by the attitude of the Canadian militia volunteer who complained to Grant that he did not get "even one shot at the half-breeds” (p. 229)—has been replaced by one valorizing him as the founder of Manitoba. Grant thus provides us with a third, medial and more nuanced, narrative, which reminds us that the Métis did not think or act as a monolithic group, and that people related by blood and marriage often found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.

A Son of the Fur Trade is also valuable for the glimpses it provides into quotidian life in the many places that Grant made home, from Fort Hall to Trois-Rivières to Montana. For example, a historian of fashion will relish Grant's description of his attendance at a Red River ball in the early 1870s: "I nearly made a blunder when I first came in the Ballroom ... the first lady I saw, had her dress so far below her neck and such a long trail behind, I was going to pick up the trail and tell her she was coming out of her dress. Just then I noticed nearly all the ladies [were] dressed that way" (p. 234).

Early on in his tale, Grant warned "I do not intend to reveal all of my private life here" (p. 4), but one of the most attractive features of his story is a high degree of frankness and introspection, particularly surrounding the tortured relationship with his demanding father, HBC trader Richard Grant. The narrative is punctuated throughout by tender, homey details—one of Grant's earliest memories is of crying at the age of three because his pet kitten had fallen into a bucket of tar (p. 3)—and a rich sense of humor. "I was well acquainted with many Mormons," recalled Grant. "They invited me to join their Church; I did not object to having the wives but I objected to giving the tenth of my horses to the Church. So I did not join" (p. 20).

Such moments remind the reader of the text's origin in oral discourse, and this feature cuts two ways. On the one hand, the reader often feels in the hands of a great storyteller, and many parts remain fresh and vivid—the story of Grant cutting off his big toe with an axe still elicits a cringe. On the other hand, at times, one feels one's ear is bent to breaking. Financial dealings, byzantine in their complexity, make for particularly dull reading.

Grant's narrative is ably served by Ens's editorial work. The introduction provides historical context for Grant's life, especially detailed for the crucial Manitoba years, and notes consist mainly of brief biographies of named persons and indications of manuscript emendations. Two genealogical appendices compiled by Anita Steele are works of heroic archival research, and are complemented by an evocative collection of family photographs. The patient reader will glean much from this narrative.

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Citation: Bill Moreau. Review of Grant, John Francis, A Son of the Fur Trade: The Memoirs of Johnny Grant. H-Canada, H-Net Reviews. September, 2014. URL:

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