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SAYER, PIERRE-GUILLAUME, fur trader; b. c. 1796, son of John Sayer*, fur trader, and his country wife, Obemau-unoqua (Nancy?); d. after May 1849.

The place and date of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer’s birth are uncertain, but, as he was thought to be 53 years old in 1849 and his father traded primarily in the Fond du Lac district south and west of Lake Superior between 1793 and 1805, it may have occurred in that region about 1796. In 1805 the elder Sayer moved to Lower Canada; Pierre-Guillaume, in the way usual for children of country marriages, was left with his mother’s people and was assimilated to the Métis. He learned to speak French and became, in time, a Roman Catholic. In 1824 he settled at Grantown (St François Xavier, Man.) on the Assiniboine River [see Cuthbert Grant*; Joseph-Norbert Provencher*]. There, in 1835, he married Josette, elder daughter of fur trader Alexander Frobisher; they were to have at least one son. Confusion of first names in the Red River censuses makes it difficult to locate precise information on Sayer, but it appears that he farmed in a small way. Presumably he also went on the annual buffalo hunt with the Grantown party.

Sayer’s significance derives from his trial in the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia on 17 May 1849. The free trade in furs, practised in the Red River valley since 1821, had greatly increased with the opportunity from 1843 to sell at Pembina (N.Dak.) to Norman Wolfred Kittson*, who was in direct competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Sayer was arrested for illegally trading in furs, and was brought before the court by Chief Factor John Ballenden* in a case designed to test the legality of the monopoly claimed by the HBC. Sayer’s counsel was James Sinclair*, a representative of the free traders of Red River; the two were backed by Louis Riel* Sr, who, with the Reverend George-Antoine Bellecourt*, had organized the Métis to protest against both the monopoly and the inadequate representation of the Métis on the Council of Assiniboia. Presided over by the judicial recorder, Adam Thom*, the trial was by jury and was conducted fairly. Sayer admitted to trafficking in furs, but claimed that he had been exchanging presents with relatives, an Indian manner of trading.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty but recommended mercy on the ground that Sayer had genuinely believed that the Métis were permitted to trade freely. Ballenden accepted the recommendation and Sayer was freed. Riel promptly asserted that the verdict was tantamount to a surrender of the HBC monopoly. This view was at once taken up by the Métis assembled outside the court-house, who cried “Le commerce est libre!” So it was to be: the HBC abandoned its efforts to maintain a monopoly and began aggressive competition with the free traders. Sayer’s trial was thus a landmark in the history of the Canadian west.

The date and place of his death are unknown.

W. L. Morton

Canadian north-west (Oliver), 1: 352. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, 19 (Rich and Johnson). Alexander Ross, The Red River settlement: its rise, progress and present state; with some account of the native races and its general history, to the present day (London, 1856; repr. Edmonton, 1972), 37179. Morice, Dict. hist. des Canadiens et des Métis. Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: a history (Toronto, 1984). Marcel Giraud, The Métis in the Canadian west, trans. George Woodcock (2v. , Edmonton, 1986). Morton, Hist. of Canadian west (1939). G. F. G. Stanley, Louis Riel (Toronto and Montreal, 1963).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

W. L. Morton, “SAYER, PIERRE-GUILLAUME,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sayer_pierre_guillaume_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sayer_pierre_guillaume_7E.html
Author of Article: W. L. Morton
Title of Article: SAYER, PIERRE-GUILLAUME
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: September 21, 2014