Competition and Coalition, 1786-1821

Who was Tete Jaune?

I’ve been working with Mike Dillon and the folks in the Jasper Field Unit on some new interpretive panels for the Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site.  An interesting question came up recently regarding the identity and ethnicity of the Tete Jaune (literally “Yellow Head”) after whom the pass was named.  Well, actually the pass was named after Tete Jaune’s Cache, which is first mentioned in surviving HBC documents in 1825:  the name Yellowhead Pass does not appear to have been used before 1859.

Tete Jaune is usually identified as either Pierre Hatsinaton (Hathawiton, Atawita, Thaawita) or Pierre Bostonais, both of Iroquois descent.  Former Parks Canada historian David Smyth studied this question of identity very closely, and concluded in favour of Bostonais:  see “Tete Jaune,” Alberta History 32/1 (Winter 1984), 1-8.  However, it has been suggested that Bostonais was in fact Pierre Bostonais Pangman, son of famous New England-born fur trader Peter Pangman and Marguerite Sauteuse.  This would apparently make him of Saulteaux ancestry rather than Iroquois.  Pierre Bostonais Pangman was active among the Red River Metis in the years leading up to the Battle of Seven Oaks, and was in fact put on trial in 1818 as a result.

There is intriguing circumstantial evidence that Pangman could have been the Bostonais known as Tete Jaune.  Particularly noteworthy is the timing:  Pangman appears to fade from the historical record in Red River after returning from his trial in Canada, which allows him just enough time to re-establish himself in what is now north-central Alberta and get involved with the search for efficient mountain passes in the early 1820s.  Also, both men had a brother named Baptiste — although so did many people in the western fur trade.

At the end of the day, however, I was unable to make a clear connection between the two men.  Given that we cannot assume either nickname — ‘Bostonais’ or ‘Tete Jaune’ — to have been unique, the timing could simply be coincidence.  More importantly, although the Tete Jaune of Tete Jaune’s Cache often appeared in the “Iroquois and freeman” section of HBC accounts, which included many non-Iroquois people, he was consistently referred to as Iroquois in other historic fur trade documents by men who knew enough about First Nations to distinguish Iroquois from Saulteaux.  It is possible that Bostonais and his brother were given the ‘Iroquois’ label because they had been absorbed into one of the Iroquois communities in the foothills, but there is no evidence to suggest this, and it would have been an extremely quick absorption into a new community.

I’m afraid I have to fall back on David Smyth’s work, which appears to me to be fairly comprehensive.  Until we can make some clear link between Bostonais Pangman and Pierre Bostonais dit Tete Jaune, I’m going to have to stick with the original identification of Tete Jaune as Iroquois — not Iroquois-Metis or Metis, regardless of his biological ancestry, because I have seen no evidence that he identified himself as anything other than Iroquois.  However, if we ever can make the link with Pangman, there is strong evidence that he self-identified as Metis.

This question highlights one of the difficulties of tracing individuals in the fur trade.  By its very nature, the western fur trade was a very mobile environment, both physically and culturally.  People moved from place to place with relative ease and freedom, and often could adapt their cultural identities too.  Given the many similarities in names and even nicknames in the fur trade, and the inevitable gaps in the surviving historical documents, figuring out whether or not a fellow from Red River and a chap working in the Rocky Mountains are the same man can be infuriatingly inconclusive.

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