The First White Woman in Red River

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas

It was 1806 when the first white woman is thought to have come to Red River. Her name was Marie Anne Lagimodiere and she came as the bride of Jean Baptist Lagimodiere. She would be further distinguished in the years to come by being the grandmother of Louis Riel.

Marie-Anne Gaboury was born on Aug 2, 1780 in Maskinonge near Three Rivers. On April 29 1806, she married Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere who had returned to his hometown after 5 years in the Northwest. After a few months they returned to Red River. It took to months to complete the 2000 mile trip from Montreal to Pembina; much of it by canoe.


Upon arrival at Pembina, Lagimodiere's previous Indian wife was very distressed to see Lagimodiere with a new wife. She immediately made plans to eliminate her rival. She prepared a poison and approached Marie Anne disguising her feelings of jealousy and betrayal. Another Indian woman told her white husband who revealed the evil plan. Lagimodiere took notice and moved Marie Anne 25 miles north along the Red. By January 6 she gave birth to first daughter Reine.


The idea of taking an Indian girl as a wife had become customary in the new land. Five thousand men had done so by 1777. With no priests, the marriages were informal yet long lasting. The relationships seemed to benefit everyone by forming valuable alliances. But, in 1806 Marie Anne upset the order of things. Gaboury descendants say that due to his wide ranging trips, Lagimodiere had several Indian wives. Other white women like Mrs George Simpson would face the same problem 24 years later. When George Simpson Gov of the HBC at the time cast off his Indian wife, it made everyone else feel discredited and they ostracised him. They stayed only 3 more years.


Lagimodiere was a hunter and his work would keep them travelling on the plains, wherever the buffalo roamed. Marie-Anne's white complexion and blonde hair were a marvel to the Indians who called her the white goddess. They travelled to Fort Edmonton where Marie learned to prepare pemmican. Their life was constantly full of danger and excitement.

During a buffalo hunt on the prairies she gave birth to her second child a son she called La Prairie. In the Cypress Hill she had a third child she named Cypress. Marie Anne was left alone for a full year while husband Lagimodiere delivered letters from the settlement to Lord Selkirk in Montreal.


There is considerable debate as to whether Marie Anne Gaboury was the first woman in the west. She is the first to permanently settle in the west. But it appears a few months before Marie Anne's arrival another woman disguised as a man had stowed aboard a ship. After giving birth she was discovered and sent back to England.


She lived to be 95 (died Dec 7, 1875 in St Boniface) and barely had a sick day. She had 3 sons and 3 daughters. For decades, because she was the only baptised woman, she became godmother to much of the St Boniface population. Her grandson was Louis Riel but her descendants included several other distinguished Canadians.



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