Development of Willow Bunch
Along with Jean-Louis Légaré and the missionaries, three groups of Métis hunters, about 75 families in total played the predominant role in much of our history. They were of French, Scottish and Native North American ancestry. They arrived in the Willow Bunch area of “La Montagne de Bois” in 1869-1970, having come from the Red River settlements of Pembina and St. Joseph ND in the United States and St. François Xavier MB.
It is well to note, that the part of Saskatchewan known as “La Montagne de Bois” comprised of an area which spanned from Willow Bunch to Wood Mountain which were so named before Saskatchewan became a province in 1905. At the time, all of these areas in Manitoba and Saskatchewan were part of the North West Territories; a vast uncharted area in which two fur-trading companies, “The Hudson Bay Company” and the “North West Company” played a part in the opening of the west.
The Métis migrations from the Red River settlements, to wintering locations near the buffalo, took a few to Wood Mountain, Eastend and Cypress Hills, in the 1840s and 1850s. The number of Métis in southwestern Saskatchewan increased slowly during the early 1860s. Records ascertain that between 1861 and 1865 nine were at Wood Mountain and two were at Cypress Hills. In 1868, fifteen families followed the earlier migrants to the Frenchman River; many more followed in 1869 to “La Montagne de Bois”. Fur traders, among them J.P. Dauphinais arrived and settled in the Wood Mountain area, near the Montana border, in order to maintain contact with the Native American hunters of the area. One of these fur traders, a Métis by the name of George Fisher camped in the area in 1869, was asked to survey the area and report if it was suitable for settlement. His report apparently attracted the largest contingent, of somewhere between 35 and 75 families. After wintering near Wood Mountain, George Fisher had returned to Red River and had spoken of a “real hunter’s paradise” with ample buffalo. But, buffalo were not the only attraction. Mule and white tail deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, jack rabbits, badgers, porcupines, snow and Canada geese, prairie chickens, ducks, coyotes, fox, beaver and wolves could also be hunted. The rolling hills, willow and poplar shrubs, wild saskatoons, chokecherries and strawberries and the abundant springs and creeks provided protection and sustenance.
Many Métis abandoned their property in the Red River area to move westward where there was abundant land, deer and buffalo. When first arriving in the area the Métis settled in “Coulée Chapelle” about eight miles west of present day Willow Bunch. The fall of 1870 saw the arrival of Reverend Joseph Jean-Marie Lestanc and of Jean-Louis Légaré employed as a trader and sent by Antoine Ouellette to “La Montagne de Bois”. That fall, Légaré established his camp in the “Little Woody”, about 15 miles southwest of Willow Bunch. The next year saw Jean-Louis Légaré, in the employ of George Fisher, following the Métis to the Wood Mountain area where he established a new trading camp; he was the main trader for nine years. In 1874 Reverend Lestanc was assigned to the mission of St. Albert AB. His successor, who arrived in December of that year, was Reverend Jules Decorby.
During the winter 1875-1876 the camps from both sides of the border, La Montagne de Bois and Milk River, were almost totally abandoned by the Métis who were following the buffalo and had settles in Cypress Hills. They remained there until the fall of 1877. Gaspard Beaupré arrived in the area at about this time and was employed by Jean-Louis Légaré. In November 1876, saw the coming of Sitting Bull and 4,000 famished Sioux to La Montagne de Bois.
The summer of 1878 saw the arrival of other pioneers to the Wood Mountain area; Zotique Desautels, Joseph Lapointe, and the trader Ignace Lamarche with his helper Joseph Klyne. Joseph Lapointe worked for J.L.Légaré and later taught school for many years. Zotique Desautels farmed and sometime acted as a lawyer on behalf of the Métis. The year 1878 is also when Reverence Decorby was replaced by Reverend Joseph Hugonard.
Reverend Hugonard‘s stay in Wood Mountain was short-lived, in the spring of 1879 he replaced Reverend Decorby at Lebret SK. That same year, some 500 Métis families who were living at the brink of starvation in the region, attempted to cross the international border to hunt buffalo. Made prisoners of the U.S. cavalry, they were finally freed due to the intercession of the N.W.M.P. One condition imposed on the Métis was that they had to choose either to live in the U.S. or return to Canada. Most of them decided to stay in the U.S. The others returned only to find that a prairie fire had completely destroyed the grasses and burnt the hay of their grazing land. This was a turning point for the Métis of the area. The buffalo had disappeared from the Canadian plains and they were compelled to look for a new way of living. Many families went to Cypress Hills while others, among them André Gaudry, settled in the Willow Bunch and St. Victor areas.
The fall of 1879 then marks the coming of the Métis to establish a permanent residence in our valley.
(excerpts taken from Poplar Poles & and Wagon Trails, History of Willow Bunch 1870-1970, The History of the Métis of Willow Bunch,
Prairie Perspectives by Beckey Hamilton, and translated from pages 346-350 Lanaudière History >> Brouillette, Lanthier, Morneau)