Alberta Bound: A Métis Saddle Comes Home
By Joanne White
Curator, Musée Héritage Museum, St. Albert
In the spring of 2009 the Edmonton and District Historical Society was contacted by a branch of the L’Hirondelle family now living in the Victoria area. They had kept a pack saddle that once belonged to Joseph (Josie) L’Hirondelle who was born in St. Albert in 1884. We were very pleased to be notified that the family wanted to see the saddle returned to the area and contacted them about donating it to the Musée Héritage Museum.
Next year, the Mission at St. Albert will be celebrating its 150th anniversary. Leading up to this event, I have been researching the earlier history of the area, its close ties to Fort Edmonton, and the many Métis engagés and freemen who worked and lived along the Sturgeon River. The L’Hirondelles are one of these families. The traditional trails through the Sturgeon Valley became a major transportation corridor for those working for the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay Companies. Even before Edmonton House established a permanent “horse guard” along the shores of Big Lake, it had been used as a staging point for brigades and expeditions.
The first L’Hirondelle in the area, Jacques, was said to have been a voyageur in Athabasca for the Northwest Company in 1804. He was on their payroll from 1811-1818 before being listed as “Free”. Three of his son’s, all from Lesser Slave Lake, followed in his footsteps. They worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Edmonton House from the 1830s to the late 1850s.1 During this period, the L’Hirondelles travelled back and forth from Edmonton House to northern Alberta, working first for the Company and later as independent businessmen.
The great grandson of Jacques, Josie, also continued in the family business. In 1913 he and two of his brothers moved to Prairie Lake (now Lubicon Lake). He briefly returned to St. Albert in 1914 to marry Elise Bellerose who worked with Josie to run the Prairie Lake trading post until it burned in 1946. Their importance to the community was acknowledged when, in the late 1950s, the new post office was given the name L’Hirondelle.
The simple wooden pack saddle that was donated to the Musée Héritage Museum probably dates from the 1910s and was used by Josie and Elise throughout their working lives. While it spent most of its life in northern Alberta, the saddle’s connections to the history of the L’Hirondelles in St. Albert make it a fascinating piece to add to our collection. After initially contacting the family, we decided that we should bring it “home” as soon as possible so that we could include it in our research and planning for a new St. Albert History Gallery to open in January 2011.
I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Victoria last December to meet with Josie’s daughter-in-law, granddaughters and great-grandson, and to see the photos and family history that are carefully being compiled. Having purchased a large storage bin from the local box store, I packed this rather awkward artifact for its flight back to Alberta where it remained in polyethylene isolation for several weeks. It is now being catalogued for addition to our collection and we are continuing to research the L’Hirondelle family and other early members of the community. As a representation of the early history of the settlement of the Sturgeon Valley and Big Lake, the saddle will have pride of place in our new gallery.
- Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Biographical Sheets
(accessed May 11, 2010).
This item first appeared in the Alberta Museums Association’s INFOrm in Summer 2010. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2010, Alberta Museums Association. All rights reserved.
Reprinted from The Echoes, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, October, 2010; St. Albert Historical Society