First Leader of the Métis
Not much is recorded about Cuthbert Grant in mainstream Canadian history books, yet he is the man who
must be credited as the founder to the Métis nation in the west.
Like the people he ruled and loved, Cuthbert Grant was a complicated individual. He was a man of nearly
incompatible racial and cultural contradictions. And yet, these same contradictory characteristics created
within him a fierce dynamism and an unconquerable energy. A mixture of Indian hunter and British
aristocrat, Grant was largely responsible for the direction taken during the opening chapter of the story of
Cuthbert Grant, the son of a prominent Nor’Wester by the same name, was born in 1793 at Fort
Tremblante, on the east side of the junction of the Red an Assiniboine Rivers, in what is now Winnipeg,
Manitoba. Little is know of his mother. She was the daughter of a Cree woman and a White trader from
the Qu’Appelle region of Saskatchewan. Cuthbert’s father was a member of the Clan Grant – the Grants
of Strathspey, county Inverness, Scotland. From this region of Scotland came many of the future fur-
trading barons of Canada, among them John Stuart, and Donald A. Smith – known as Lord Strathcona –
the man who was instrumental in the financing and the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
During one of his fur-trading expeditions to the North West, Grant’s father died of an unknown illness and
was buried at Cumberland House in 1799, leaving Cuthbert, his older brother James, and three sisters,
Margaret, Josephte, and Mary. Upon the death of Cuthbert Grant Senior, young Cuthbert and James were
made the protégés of William McGillivray of the North West Company in Montreal. McGillivray was the
most powerful man in the fur trade, and was a family friend of long standing. The children moved to
Montreal in 1801, and Cuthbert and James were placed under the control of another fur magnate, John
Stuart, a cousin of Donald A. Smith. Stuart, carrying out the directions left in the will of the late Cuthbert
Grant, had the boys baptized in the Presbyterian Church. They were then sent back to Scotland to be
educated in the manner of the British Aristocracy. James remained in Scotland but Cuthbert returned to
Montreal when he was sixteen years old.
In 1812, Cuthbert was set up as a clerk of the North West Company, and was appointed to a position in the
Red River district. When he made the long journey back to the Red River of his childhood, he did so in
luxury. Travelling by canoe, as was the custom of the “bourgeois” of the fur trade, Grant was wearing his
frock coat, beaver hat, breeches and polished boots. He took with him all the luxuries that a man of his
station required: robe, tent, travelling desk, preserved foods and good wines.
He was welcomed back by both his mother’s people and the “bourgeois” of the North West Company. His
fist position was that of factor for a small trading operation on the Qu’Appelle River, but he was obviously
destined for much better things; he was seen by the North West Company officials as the man who could
train and develop a Métis military force capable of driving the Hudson Bay Company out of the West.
Grant was given the task of keeping an eye on the Selkirk settlers at the vital forks of the Red River, so he
spent much of his time at the North West Company’s Fort Gibraltar. This fort guarded the gateway to all
the western trading regions from the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
Halfway between his trading station on the Qu’Appelle River and Fort Gibraltar lay a Hudson’s Bay
Company post, Fort Brandon (now Brandon, Manitoba). This post was supervised by young John McKay,
a tall athletic man, similar in stature to Cuthbert Grant, John McKay was accompanied at Fort Brandon by
his sister, Elizabeth. Although McKay was working for the hated Hudson Bay Company, he and Cuthbert
soon became fast friends. Later, when Grant was transferred to a post just within rifle shot of Fort
Brandon, the friendship developed into a lasting companionship. John McKay and Cuthbert spent may
hours engaged in wrestling and swordplay, the martial arts of the Highlands Scots. Cuthbert soon fell in
love with Elizabeth, who returned his love, and a passionate affair-developed, ending in the only kind of
marriage possible in a land without clergy, a marriage du pays.
Grant’s physical prowess and the swiftness of his actions quickly earned him the respect of the Métis in his
command and of the Indians, who named him Wappeston, meaning the white ermine. A renowned hunter,
horseman, and warrior, Grant was recognized as the leader of the Métis buffalo hunters. During the fur
trade war that followed in 1814, Grant was to become infamous as the man responsible for the deaths of
the settlers at Seven Oaks. Throughout his brief but rancorous fur trade war, Cuthbert Grant and John
McKay remained staunch friends. Elizabeth McKay had Cuthbert’s child, but they eventually separated as
a result of the war and the animosity it created.
Cuthbert Grant went on to fame as the founder of Grantown (now Saint Francois-Xavier), a small village a
few miles west of Winnipeg. He went on to become the Hudson’s Bay Company’s warden of the Plains
after the merger of 1821, and, later, was appointed to the Council of Assiniboia, the Hudson’s Bay
Company’s governing body in Rupert’s Land. In the late 1860’s, Grant lost his position of power and
prestige among the Métis to a radical Métis politician, Jean Louis Riel, father of the famous Louis Riel.
Grant’s loyalty to the Hudson’s Bay Company during the free trade struggles of the 1840s made him
unpopular with the Métis, and he drifted into political obscurity. A wealthy but lonely man, Grant died in
1854 at the age of 61 (pp. 11-14).
Excerpt taken from: metisstudies.dev.kcdc.ca/leaders/readings/reading1.html