The Riel mystery

By Kevin Rothbauer

Few figures in Canadian history have captured the attention of historians, politicians and the general public the way Louis Riel has. Despite all the research done about the Metis leader, there is a period in his life that remains a mystery. Between the rebellions of 1869-70 and 1885, Riel disappeared. A diary discovered by a University of Calgary professor may provide clues into Riel’s whereabouts during that time.

Canadian Studies professor Dr. Heather Devine found a transcript of a diary kept by a British man who travelled the Great Plains during the early 1870s. While nothing can be confirmed yet, the man’s guide appears to have been Riel, working under an assumed name.

“It is important to stress from the outset that before this diary can be useful to scholars, I will first have to establish its authenticity,” Devine stated. “It could take some time, or even prove impossible, to establish its provenance, or whether any of the apparent connections to Louis Riel are legitimate.”

The original diary was discovered by one of the founding fathers of Fargo, North Dakota, in 1872 or 1873. Gordon Keeney took shelter in a Metis man’s home during a storm and found the diary hidden in the attic. After failing to find the diary’s author, he held on to it, then had it transcribed in 1909. The original diary went missing, and the transcript ended up in a California garbage can in the early 1980s. A passerby discovered it, and over the next few years it changed hands a few times before landing in the North Dakota State Archives in 1984.

Devine describes the transcript as a “dog’s breakfast,” and she is currently in the process of sifting through its approximate 700 pages, looking for a way to verify its authenticity. Whether the man in the journal is Riel or not, the information contained in the transcript could still prove valuable.

“There are lots of interesting things in it,” Devine insists, noting the Englishman’s documentation of the activities of women and children, which have been sorely missing from the historical record.

While it is possible that Keeney wrote the book himself–his notes suggest that he wanted to publish the journal as a children’s book–Devine is convinced that the diary is genuine. The Metis of the Pembina area, where the Englishman travelled, had started dispersing before 1872. Pembina is nowhere near Keeney’s hometown of Fargo, so it would have been difficult for him to research the Metis extensively. As well, the author’s adventures wouldn’t have held much appeal for children.

“The Englishman isn’t particularly heroic,” Devine laughs. “[Keeney’s] comments indicate to me that this is what it purports to be.”

Devine will be teaching a course about the Metis in the summer of 2003.

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