Were There One or Two Espagnols in Northern Ontario?


Indigenous people were usually given a single name soon after birth to reflect a quality about him or her that was perceived by a respected elder. The child was given only one name and rarely a family name. So, what are the chances of two Indigenous leaders, both living in the first half of the 19th century in Northern Ontario, although living 700 kilometres apart, having an identical name? Not very likely I thought. But I was wrong. Even more puzzling is that the names of these two individuals were not traditional Native names; they were both known as Espagnol.

I had dealt with the existence of a prominent Espagnol while writing my history of Pogamasing. According to his great-granddaughter, Jane Espaniel (the English version) McKee, this Espagnol was the son of a Spanish trader whom she called Emmanuel. He came to the North Shore area of Georgian Bay from the American West in the late 1700s and married an Ojibwa woman. Their son became chief and fought for the British in the War of 1812 and earned a “sword, two medals and a flag” an honour that indicated the appreciation of the British for Indigenous support in the war.

His Ojibway name is unknown to me, but his name as Espagnol or the Spaniard was confirmed by several government and HBC documents. His involvement in the war was confirmed further by Captain T. G. Anderson of the Indian Department in Manitowaning, who requested a replacement for his worn-out British flag. In 1837, Anderson wrote: “The bearer (the Spaniard) … lives in the vicinity of La Cloche,” the site of the Lake Huron District HBC HQ. In addition, John McBean, the HBC chief factor at La Cloche, referred to him as the Spaniard in his memos. As well, his name on the Manitoulin Treaty of 1836 was listed as “Espaniole.”

The river nearby where the Espagnols camped became known as the Spanish River although it had its own Indigenous name, Minitegozibe. From the HBC archives, I noticed that the youngest Espagnol son changed his name from Louis Sakquakegick to Louis Espagnol, thus carrying on his father’s name and the adoption of the western tradition of a family name.

Needless to say, there was no question that an Espagnol existed in the Lake Huron vicinity.

Like most amateur researchers, when I first began my investigation on the Espagnols in the early 2000s, I googled his name. To my surprise, I found that he was the subject of a paper presented at the Rupert’s Land Symposium in Oxford. But I may have been mistaken as to which Espagnol this was, as I had no awareness that there may have been another one from the North Shore of Lake Superior. Further research in Pierre Berton’s books on the War of 1812, turned up the name Espagnol that I assumed was Louis’ father. Then I came across an article by Victor Lytwyn in Jean Morrison’s book on the fur trade on Lake Superior, in which he discussed an Espagnol who was “the principal Indian leader” in the area, but it never registered with me that this was something I needed to pay attention to.

Then two weeks ago my self-assurance was called into question. I received a letter from John Ramioski from Spanish, a town near the Spanish River. He had read my book on Pogamasing but suggested I might be interested in a book published in 2018 by Timothy Cochrane entitled “Gichi Bitobig, Grand Marais” about the fur trade along the North Shore of Lake Superior. John thought I might be interested as it contained a chapter on Espagnol who lived on the North Shore of Lake Superior. After obtaining the book from our local library I read the pages pertaining to the Lake Superior Espagnol, I became convinced that there had been two Espagnols.

The Espagnol from the North Shore of Lake Superior was also the son of European origin and an Anishinabe woman. Both Espagnols were important leaders of their communities and supporters of the British in the war against the Americans. They were mirror images of each other but lived 700 km apart.

However, there is more known about the Lake Superior Espagnol thanks to Cochrane’s thorough research. Espagnol was born in 1783 and was first named Aysh-pay-ahng (it is high/heaven). He was later baptized as Francois Espagnol by a Roman Catholic priest and married an older woman who had two sons, and they had two daughters.

At this time the North-West Company was the principal trading post for the Anishinabe located at Grand Portage. After the Americans and the British signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the border between the two was re-drawn and the North-West post needed to be re-located north of the new border. In 1803, it was relocated to the Kaministiquia River where the North West Company built Fort William. When the two main Canadian fur trade rivals amalgamated in 1821, they kept Fort William as their trading post and the HBC as their brand. However, the American Fur Trade Company moved into the Grand Portage area in 1823 and presented a dilemma for the HBC; Who would their Anishinabe trade with? This was particularly true for Espagnol since he had fought for the British and the birthplace around Grand Portage was his hunting ground, now in American territory.

In 1830, HBC Governor George Simpson brought his wife Francis to Fort William partly to check on the post, and more importantly, to encourage the local Indigenous people to trade with them over their American rivals. The Simpsons were impressed by the old Chief Espagnol. Francis wrote: “He was the most lively, good-tempered looking Indian I had met with.” On another visit in 1841, the governor recorded that Espagnol was a fine man and was well dressed in a scarlet cloth coat with a large silver medal hanging around his neck, recognition for his participation for the British in the War of 1812. At an assembly of local Anishinabe, Espagnol assured the governor in his eloquent way that “they would settle by the Fort (William), and the smoke of their wigwams should thenceforth rise only among the forest of the British.” However, Espagnol often returned to his birthplace to hunt, fish and tap for maple syrup. He was also wily enough to use the two competitors to the Natives advantage. He would trade at the HBC, but send his stepsons to the AFC to compare prices.

Both Espagnols had children who carried on their leadership roles, albeit in different ways. One of the Lake Superior Espagnol’s stepsons (the second one predeceased him) did take a leadership role while one of his daughters married the son of a well-known leader Peau du Chat. Cochrane’s portrayal of Espagnol included a search for a truer religion so he travelled to Sault Ste Marie to find out if the Methodist religion was any more beneficial to his people than the Catholic faith. However, after converting to the Methodist faith, he re-converted back to the Catholic faith when he returned home.

Two of the Lake Huron Espagnol’s sons were signatories of the Robinson-Huron Treaty indicating that they were now chiefs. His youngest son, Louis, managed a successful trading post on Lake Pogamasing for twenty years. However, once the CP rail came through the Pog area in 1884, the white trappers destroyed their livelihood. Consequently, Louis Espagnol changed his principal role from post manager to chief and he took a more active role to advocate for his people. As well, in 1905, Louis advised the Treaty Nine Chiefs in their treaty negotiations with the government. The iconic photo of Louis in front of the HBC post in Bisco shows his father’s two George III medals pinned to his chest.

I have resolved my issue. There were two individuals both admirable leaders of their Indigenous communities and coincidently, just happened to take on a name that reflected their fathers’ Spanish heritage. And we should not forget that without their participation on the British side, we might be living in a different country.

And to top it off, Victor Lytwyn confirmed my conclusion.