The Fire Wife
My Métis cousins, or how I am related to the last man in Canada hanged for treason
The War Hero
Clayton McCall (1891-1973) — my mother and grandmother called him Cousin Clayon (he was my grandmother’s first cousin) — was an eccentric, an antiquarian, an amateur historian, and the family know-it-all. He was the kind of person who kept carbon copies of every letter he wrote. One elderly St. Williams Methodist grand dame (the village divided itself along sectarian lines, Methodists and Baptists versus Anglicans) recalled young Clayton in a “Scotch cap” wandering around the Woodard farm with his head down looking for arrowheads. My grandmothersaid he was always serious, that as far as she knew he had only dated "one girl, once." He didn't marry until he was 65, after his mother and father were dead. Fastidious and punctilious, with an air of predestinarian superiority, Clayton spent most of his life in Vancouver labouring obscurely in the Canadian customs office. But briefly he was touched by glory. It would be a shame not to mention it in passing.
In 1916 he enlisted in the Canadian Army joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1st Division, 3rd Brigade, 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), in France in time for the capture of Vimy Ridge on April 6, 1917. During the surprise German offensive of March and April, 1918, when the British 5th Army was obliterated, Clayton’s brigade was thrown into an improvised line in front of Arras where his company manned a sacrifice outpost on Telegraph Hill for two days.
On September 2, 1918, during the Battle of the Drocourt-Queant Line, Clayton (he was a lance corporal by then), along with twenty other men, took a walled chateau and captured the village of Cagnicourt. Then they raided a battery firing point-blank at them and took a wood at the point of the bayonet. In afternoon the brigade got orders to attack over a thousand metres of level ground beyond the wood but being enfiladed by heavy machine gun and field gun fire they fell back. In the evening, they attacked again and this time took their objective. Finally on September 27, at the Battle of the Canal du Nord, two platoons of his company aided by a tank captured the town of Sains-lez-Marquin and ninety-six prisoners.
He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal, at the time the second highest award for gallantry in action after the Victoria Cross. Unfortunately, I don’t know precisely why he received his medal except that it had to do with action during the Battle of Canal du Nord. But Clayton was very proud of it, and forever after included the initials D.C.M. after this name.
Years ago I used to haunt Canadian First World War chat rooms (okay, so sometimes things get a little strange inside my head) where I met a man who owned Clayton’s war letters to his parents. Clayton had collected them after the war and bound them in leather in two volumes (such a Clayton-ish thing to do). It is one of my regrets in life that I didn’t stay connected with this man and perhaps get a look at those letters. One little piece of war-time narrative I do possess is a rather odd little essay Clayton wrote called “Three Christmas Eves,” in which he reminisces about his three Christmases (1916, 1917, 1918) in Europe with the army. Here is a delicious bit of self-revealing irony from Christmas, 1918, when Clayton was recovering from the flu at a military hospital in England.
As the weather was ideal, those of us who had not eaten too heartily went for a stroll. My objective was the old section of Bexhill, hitherto no more than peeped at, which lies to the north of the modern part. As a rule no one would accompany me on rambles owing to my habit of dallying over minor antiquarian details. But today a chap was induced to go with me. After taking a look at the picturesque manor house which stands within the town, we started for St. Peter's Church. On the churchyard path a pause was made to examine a brass sundial.
"What do you think of that?" I said. "This is the work of Dollond, the optician of London, who made a pair of spectacles for my great-great-grandmother." It was too much for my friend. Politely saying that we would meet later at the waterfront, he went on.
Clayton was also a collector. I met him once, at his home in Vancouver, when I was 13. His living room walls were festooned with swords (if I remember correctly, he once owned Sir Isaac Brock’s sword from the War of 1812), flintlock rifles, pewter pots and china plates. But at the time, most of his collections had been sold to finance his then current obsession, Japanese netsuke, miniature carved toggles used to hook little inlaid boxes to cloth belts called obi. Not for the first or last time in my life the cultural significance of things placed before my eyes was lost on me. I wanted to heft the swords and hear about fighting Indians; Cousin Clayton would keep holding up these miniature corded boxes. My eyes glazed over; I mumbled reluctant responses; I recall on this occasion that my mother lost patience with me.
Clayton was his generation’s family historian, the source of many of the stories I heard growing up. On his father’s side, he was Scottish, descended from a soldier named Donald McCall who fought in a Highland regiment under General Wolfe at the pivotal siege of Louisbourg in 1758 and at the capture of Quebec in 1759. He continued to serve through Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, and there is a bit of tale attached to that event. McCall was part of a unit sent up Lake Erie from Niagara to reinforce Detroit. Sailing near the north shore near Long Point, they came under fire from a party of natives. They landed and gave chase, and while he was rambling about, McCall noted the loveliness of the land, the massive forests and the fertile glades. Years later, he remembered the spot.
After Pontiac’s Rebellion, McCall was demobilized in Philadelphia where he met and married his Scottish wife. Then he and some army friends moved to Somerset County, New Jersey (I do like to say now and then that my ancestral home, my roots, lie in New Jersey). The McCalls (the original Donald and several sons) sided with the British in the American Revolution, and afterwards, as refugees (United Empire Loyalists, they were called), they took up land grants in Canada. Donald remembered that scrape on the Erie shore and picked that spot as his final landing place. He set up farming on grants in the Long Point Settlement near what became the village of Vittoria.
Clayton and I share this McCall history; we are both descended from Daniel Abiel McCall, a store keeper who moved to the hamlet of St. Williams on the Erie shore in the 1850s. In the way of these 19th century entrepreneurial types, he founded a little empire based on timber, shipping the ancient pine forests of Norfolk County to Britain for ship masts and across the lake to the United State as lumber. He built a lumber mill in St. Williams, then a flourishing furniture factory called McCall and Company. For a time, the village was full of fine wood workers and carvers.
The Fire Wife*
Clayton was an indefatiguable writer, not just of letters, but of family history and local Norfolk County lore. Most of his output ended up as lengthy newspaper articles, of which I have managed to save a few.Something that Clayton never wrote about was the fact that he was part-Mohawk on his mother’s side. Clayton’s great-great-grandmother Jane French was born in the Kahnawake Mohawk village near Montreal. On her burial certificate, she was listed as a “femme de feu” or fire wife, indicating that she was married in a native ceremony. Her husband was a Sorbonne-trained, Irish surgeon named John Dease, nephew of Sir William Johnson, the great colonial Indian Superintendant headquartered in what is now upstate New York.
Before the Revolution, Dease owned a 2,000-acre estate on South Bay, at the southern tip of Lake Champlain. During and after the Revolution, he was an Indian Department officer working out of Montreal and Niagara. He famously traveled with Joseph Brant on a tour to unite the western tribes against the Americans and negotiated an important treaty at Michillimackinac. He and Jane French had eight children, and they died within a year of each other (1801 and 1802). They are buried together in the Catholic Cimitière, St Antoine, Montréal. In his will, John Dease referred to Jane as his “loving wife.”
The eldest son, Richard William Dease, arrived in Vittoria around 1806, a young man with nothing but the clothes he wore and a facility with languages — besides English, he spoke German, French, and what Clayton referred to as “Indian” (probably Mohawk and Ojibwa). He made his living as a school-master, then as clerk of the district court. This was Clayton’s great-grandfather. There is little doubt that he was trying to pass as white and conceal his native ancestry. According to Clayton, “He invariably had a marked reticence in mentioning his ancestors and relatives left behind.”
So Cousin Clayton, without ever admitting it, was what in Canada we call métis and on the Caribbean islands they call a creole. Like the irrepressible Mrs. Seacole in Jamaica, he reveled in his Scottish ancestry. “I am a Creole,” she wrote, “and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins.” But unlike her, Clayton did not acknowledge his own mixed background.
The Métis Connection
When Clayton’s mother died in 1962, a small obituary notice appeared in the Vancouver newspaper under the sensational headline “Descendant of Indian tamer dies in city.” There is so much wrong with that headline that I could write a book about it, but I trust that my readers can think for themselves on this one. Almost certainly Clayton wrote the text but not the headline. This is how he described his mother’s illustrious forebears, omitting any mention of their mother.
Mrs. McCall was Emily A. Dease. Her lineal great-great-grandfather, Capt. John Dease, served as an Indian agent and deputy superintendent of the Six Nations of the Iroquois from 1775 to 1786. He was later responsible for bringing peace among warring tribes in the west, which gave impetus to exploration.
The famed North West Trading Company took four of Capt. Dease's six sons into its service. One, John Warren Dease, was chief trader of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Colville on the Columbia, and leader of the hazardous Snake River expeditions in the Oregon country. Peter Warren Dease, another son, was chief factor of HBC at Fort St. James on Stuart Lake, B.C., from 1830 to 1834. Dease Lake and River were named after P. W. Dease.
Mrs. McCall was born in St. Williams, Norfolk County, Ontario, near which village her great-grandfather, Richard William Dease (eldest son of Capt. John Dease) was a school master in the first decade of the last century.
All the Dease sons were Métis, the word used in Canada historically to describe people descended from mixed-race parents, usually native women and white fathers, the fathers being French or Scottish mostly, though in this case Dease was Irish. The word “métis” is French, from métissage, which means crossbreeding or miscegenation. Today the word has no negative connotations. There were so many Métis children along the fur trade routes in Canada that they and their descendants began to identify themselves as an ethnicity all their own, neither white nor native. There was a large concentration of Métis in what was called the Red River Settlement where Winnipeg is today. They were fur traders, canoe paddlers, and farmers (like the French in Quebec, they farmed long narrow strips of land, each with a bit river or lake frontage). But like the indigenous people on the Prairies they depended on the annual buffalo hunts, and like the natives, they felt pressured as Canada expanded westwards and the buffalo disappeared. Twice, they rebelled, in 1869 (in Manitoba) and 1885 (in Saskatchewan), under the leadership of a school teacher-prophet named Louis Riel. The Canadian government, to its shame, hung Riel for treason in late 1885.
The Dease sons, except for Richard (Clayton’s great-great-grandfather) who turned his back on it, were part of this vast western world of indigenous tribes, buffalo hunters, fur traders, and progressive modernization. The most famous was Peter Warren Dease, born on Mackinac Island in Lake Michigan in 1788. He signed on with the XY Company to trade in the northwest at the age of 13 in 1801, working over the years around Great Slave Lake and along the Mackenzie River. He became a chief trader for the Hudson Bay Company in 1821. In the 1820s he was asked to join Sir John Franklin’s overland Arctic expeditions (latterly, Franklin was celebrated for dying during his ill-fated attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage). In 1837-39 he led an expedition to fill in gaps in the map of the Arctic coastline left by Franklin and other explorers (along the way he was vaccinating the natives against small pox). He was offered a knighthood, but turned it down in return for a hefty pension. He co-authored three articles published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Soc. of London. In 1841, he retired to Montreal, bringing his Red River family with him, living another 20 years in comfortable retirement. Another HBC factor named James Keith rather colourfully described Dease in his retirement as ruled “by his Old Squaw & Sons. She holding the Purse strings & they spending the Contents par la Porte et par les fenetres.”
There is much more to be said about Peter Dease, but for my purposes the most interesting of the six brothers was John Warren Dease, who also became a chief factor for the Hudson Bay Company. While stationed in Saskatchewan he took a country wife (what they are called in the genealogies and history books) named Genevieve Beignoit, a Métis woman. (This was his second country wife, the first being a young woman named Mary Cadotte.) Dease and Genevieve had five children before he was sent off to manage the HBC trading post in Fort Colville and explore the Snake and Columbia Rivers in modern-day Washington and Oregon. There he found yet another country wife, recorded only as “a Flathead woman,” with whom he had yet another son named Napoleon Dease. He also fell ill in Oregon, dying at The Dalles in 1830 at the age of 46.
Genevieve took her Dease children and retreated to the Red River Settlement, the heartland of the Métis, where it seems that John Dease’s unmarried brother Francis may have taken her in and helped her with the family. Now, dear reader, stay with me here because the genealogical intricacies will make your brain hurt. One of the Dease-Beignoit children, a girl named Nancy Dease, married a Métis named Pierre Gladieux or Gladu. Nancy and Pierre had a son named William Gladieux or Gladu. And this William Gladu married Louis Riel’s sister, Eulalie Riel (1853-1931).
And that is how I am related to Louis Riel. The connection is gossamer thin, but real enough. Riel was the brother-in-law of one of Cousin Clayton’s distant Métis cousins. I have no Métis blood in my veins; that’s the nature of cousinage. And Clayton died without having children, so his particular line stopped in 1973. But there are plenty of Dease descendants in Norfolk County still, offspring of the Mohawk matriarch Jane French.
This is the story Cousin Clayton did not tell. He must have known it. He was a careful and resolute researcher. He simply chose to ignore the mixed-race aspect of his family tree, or, more likely, his fastidious nature prevented him from acknowledging the glorious messiness of human lives, the waywardness of love.
This is Kathleen Ross, maiden name Brock. I have written about her in a little essay on the Spanish flu of 1918.
The little family seems to have fled St. Williams in haste in 1922 over some mysterious incident ill-remembered by my mother. It sounds as if Clayton's father had a mental breakdown of sorts, acting out in a way that made living on in the village impossible. But I have only my mother’s hazy memories to follow and won’t say more. What she told me really did seem quite strange.
Clayton McCall letter in the author’s possession. The September 27 action at Canal du Nord is described in the regimental history:
“Meanwhile, No. 1 Coy. had wheeled to the left to mop up Sains-lez-Marquion. Assembling on the south-western outskirts of the village, the Royal Montrealers awaited the special reverse barrage, which was soon hammering the town severely, but despite which machine guns from the upper storeys of houses fired continuously. Rifle grenades were directed at the windows whence the machine guns were firing, and a number were silenced. Others were eventually put out of action by the barrage. Though wounded and badly bruised by shell fire, Lieut. Tuttle, commanding No. 1 Coy., climbed on a tank when the barrage rolled back and directed mopping up of the village. Opposition during this process was half-hearted. A number of machine gun nests fought to the last, but for the most part the enemy, unprepared to meet this attack from the rear, surrendered as soon as the Canadians reached close quarters. This accounts for the fact that in the village, which was cleared by 8.30 a.m., No. 1 Company captured between 300 and 350 unwounded prisoners.”
This is only a family story, handed down through the generations. I am pretty doubtful of its accuracy.
I once gave a reading at Princeton University. I was teaching at Davidson College in North Carolina, flew to Philadelphia, and was picked up by a posh car driven by a delightful woman, who, learning that my roots were in New Jersey, gave me the grand tour of colonial Trenton before she dropped me off. I have fond memories of that place.
I wrote a little history of Norfolk County, Long Point, Vittoria, etc. in my post on my great-grandfather’s suicide. No need to repeat myself, but you can refer back to it here:
The Woodward-Mutrie side of his family, the Methodists, keep their counsel close. I have tried to reach out to their family historian, only to be met with polite rebuffs. This is what families are like.
Transcript in “The American Revolution On the Niagara Frontier and Post War Development In Upper Canada: Captain Doctor John Dease” by R. Robert Mutrie, The Long Point Settlers. https://sites.google.com/site/longpointsettlers/norfolk-history/john-dease [accessed 1 26 2020]
* This is WRONG. This is mistaken family lore passed down by Cousin Clayton. Dr. Dease did marry a native woman in Montreal, but there was no indigenous fire marriage ceremony. “Femme de feu” on Jane Dease’s death certificate actually means “wife of the deceased [John Dease]. Fire wife is a literal translation, but not the correct translation in the context. I have this on the authority of Christiane Carrier Kennedy, a Metis descendant of the John and Jane Dease, who kindly alerted me to this faux pas. As she said in her email, “The Fire Wife” does make a great opening. I chuckle myself at this error. I have long learned not to trust Cousin Clayton’s vaunted research, but for some reason I gave him a pass on this one. 24 October 2022
Details derived from Mutrie; Clayton W. McCall “Richard William Dease,” Simcoe Reformer, undated, image of clipping in author’s possession, probably from the Eva Brook Donly Museum, Simcoe, Ontario; and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dease_john_5E.html [accessed 1 26 2020]
Sir William Johnson’s common-law wife was Molly (Mary) Brant, a Canajoharie Mohawk. Joseph Brant was her brother or half-brother. Joseph Brant was John Dease’s uncle’s brother-in-law—is that complicated enough for you?
See the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dease_peter_warren_9E.html
There is a great site coming at John Dease and Genevieve from the other side, as it were. It’s called As Canadian as can be, My Hogue and Girardin Ancestors.
John Dease and Genevieve had other children. William Dease was a notable Métis politician in the Red River Settlement and was opposed to Louis Riel. Another son, named after his father, John Warren Dease, Jr., settled in 1862 just south of the Canadian border in what became North Dakota. Here is a picture of him and his home in Walhalla, Pembina County. Note that Louis Riel was among his visitors.