Founding of the SHSB

The Founding of la Société historique de Saint-Boniface (SHSB)

Fondation de la SHSB
There are very close links between Fort St. Charles, one of La Vérendrye’s principal establishments west of Lake Superior in the 18th century, and the founding of the second oldest francophone historical society in 1902.

Built in 1732 on a small bay on the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods, Fort St. Charles was a supply warehouse and trading post for the expeditions of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Vérendrye. The area was great for fishing, hunting, and harvesting wild rice, called “folle avoine” by travellers of that period. The fort, presumably named in honor of Governor Charles de Beauharnois and the Jesuit Charles Mesaiger, who was the first missionary to penetrate west of Lake Superior, played a key role in the La Vérendrye’s expeditions in search of the “Mer de l’Ouest” or Western Sea.

In 1736, Fort St. Charles was marked by a notable event in the history of French Manitoba. At the beginning of June, La Vérendrye sent his eldest son Jean-Baptiste with a convoy of nineteen men to Michilimackinac to look for food and trade goods. They were accompanied by the Jesuit missionary Jean-Pierre Aulneau, who arrived at Fort St. Charles the year before. When they stopped on a small island in Lake of the Woods, the 21 men were surprised by a band of Prairie Sioux (Dakotas), and they were all killed. This attack was provoked by several factors, not least of which was La Vérendrye’s role as a slave trader of Indigenous captives as well as a firearms supplier to the ennemies of the Dakota. The Dakota also suffered heavy losses in combat. This news of June 6, 1736, was reported a few weeks later to La Vérendrye, who described the tragedy in communications to the Governor General of New France that year. In September, the explorer sent his sergeant to search for the remains of his men at the “Île au Massacre” (or “Massacre Island”), and bury them in the chapel of Fort St. Charles. The fort remained the headquarters of La Vérendrye’s activities for a few years, but it was abandoned after his death in 1749.

Fort St. Charles is the only fort built by La Vérendrye whose exact location is recorded, thanks in large part to the efforts of a group of clerics and lay people from Manitoba who became the founders of la Société historique de Saint-Boniface.

In 1890, shortly after the important discovery of Father Aulneau’s letters in Vendée, France, the Jesuits, who were in charge of the Collège de Saint-Boniface in Manitoba, organized a first excursion to visit the island where the attack had occurred in 1736. Relying on the oral tradition of the Indigenous people inhabiting the area, the expedition went to an island in the northwestern part of Lake of the Woods which the original inhabitants called “l’île du Manitou” (Manitou Island). They identified it as the site of the 1736 massacre and raised a cross there. Note that historians later questioned the authenticity of the site, and even today, we cannot say which of two or three islands in this part of Lake of the Woods is the true “Île au Massacre“.

Monsignor Adélard Langevin, Archbishop of Saint-Boniface, was interested, as was his predecessor, Monsignor Alexandre Taché, in the history of expansion into the West. Thus in 1902, wishing to continue the historical research already begun at Lake of the Woods, he organized at his own expense an expedition whose goal was to discover the site of Fort St. Charles, but especially the remains of the Jesuit missionary Jean-Pierre Aulneau, La Vérendrye’s eldest son, Jean-Baptiste, and their nineteen companions killed alongside them.

The seven members of the expedition, including the archbishop, his secretary Father Arthur Béliveau, judge Louis-Arthur Prud’homme, as well as three Oblates (Jean-Baptiste Baudin, Joseph Thibaudeau and Charles-Arthur Cahill) and a Jesuit (Joseph Blain), left Saint-Boniface at the beginning of September 1902. From Portage-du-Rat, (Kenora) they headed aboard the steamboat Catherine S towards “Île au Massacre” as identified during the excursion of 1890. Following the instructions of Powassin, former chief of the Sauteaux (Anishinaabeg), they went to the northwest corner of Lake of the Woods, in American territory. There, on the north shore of a small cove, they unearthed the remains of an old fireplace. Later, the chief of the reserve, Andakamigowini, confirmed Powassin’s statements and reported that there were other chimneys and remains of buildings on the south shore of the same cove.

Convinced that they had discovered the site of Fort St. Charles, members of the expedition erected a cross there that read “Fort St. Charles Fondé 1732 Visité 1902” (Fort St. Charles Founded 1732 Visited 1902).

It was September 4th. That evening, aboard the Catherine S, la Société historique de Saint-Boniface was founded “en souvenir de la découverte du fort St. Charles et afin de poursuivre les recherches historiques commencées” (in memory of the discovery of Fort St. Charles, and to pursue the historical research already started). All members of the excursion became de facto members of the new historical society that would bear the name of the archdiocese, that is, Saint-Boniface. Monsignor Langevin was its first president and Judge Prud’homme its first secretary.

Over the next six years, members of the Société historique organized further excursions in the hopes of locating the remains of Father Aulneau and the younger La Vérendrye. In 1908, excursionists under the direction of Joseph Blain, a Jesuit and professor of natural sciences at the Collège, moved their excavations to the south shore of the northwest corner cove where they made important discoveries. They found the ruins of an old fort and removed from the ground a number of artifacts corresponding to the time period in which Fort St. Charles was frequented. Finally, they laid bare the skulls and skeletons of the 21 men killed on “Île au Massacre“. These remains were transported to St. Boniface, where they were studied and stored at the Collège. Almost all the remains and relics of Fort St. Charles disappeared in the fire of 1922 at the Collège. The few bones recovered from the disaster were finally buried permanently in a sealed box, fixed in the Aulneau-La Vérendrye monument, whose inauguration took place on June 6, 1976, in the cemetery of St. Boniface Cathedral.

Recognizing the importance of the site in the history of expansion to the West, the Archdiocese of St. Boniface began to take steps to become its owner in 1909. According to a formula suggested by Judge Prud’homme, the Archbishop succeeded in acquiring the site of the fort for the société historique in 1914. The title, in the name of the Corporation of the Oblates of Manitoba, was transferred in 1928 to the Corporation of the Oblates of Duluth, Minnesota. Today, the site is owned by the 4th Degree Knights of Columbus of Warroad, Minnesota, who began rebuilding the fort in the 1950s.

La Société historique de Saint-Boniface is the second oldest francophone historical society in Canada. All documents relating to its founding are kept in an archival collection at the Centre du Patrimoine. Historical research notes, excavation diagrams, and photographs of the finds are important testimonies of the scientific spirit of early researchers.

The French version of this text was originally written in the early 2000s by the team responsible for the production of Au pays de Riel.

The translation in English was done in 2020 and a revision done in 2021.


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PRUD’HOMME, L.-A. « Découverte historique. Le fort St-Charles retrouvé. Les restes du Père Aulneau, du fils aîné de Lavérendrye, et les crânes de leurs 19 compagnons exhumés et transportés à St-Boniface. Les efforts de Mgr Langevin, secondé par les RR. PP. Jésuites, couronnés de succès. », Les Cloches de Saint-Boniface, vol. VII, no 18, 15 septembre 1908, 205-234.

PRUD’HOMME, L.-A. « Pierre Gaultier de Varennes Sieur de La Vérendrye, Captain of Marines, Chevalier of the Military Order of St. Louis, Discoverer of the North-West 1685-1749 », Bulletin of the Historical Society of St. Boniface, vol. V, Part 2, 1916.

TEGEDER, Robert. Rediscovery and Restoration of Fort St. Charles to 1995, première impression 1979, révision et mise à jour 1995.

UN MEMBRE DE LA SOCIÉTÉ HISTORIQUE DE SAINT-BONIFACE. « Grand Événement historique. Découverte du fort Saint-Charles. Septembre 1732-1902 », Les Cloches de Saint-Boniface, vol. I, no 12, 313-321.