MATONABBEE, leading Indian; b. c. 1737 of Chipewyan parents at Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.); d. after the destruction of the fort in August 1782.
Unlike most Chipewyans, who seldom visited Hudson’s Bay Company posts and then only for a few days, Matonabbee was familiar with Europeans and the fur trade from his youth; his mother, formerly the captive of a Cree band, had married one of Churchill’s hunters after company traders bought her freedom. Matonabbee was still a young boy when his father died, and Richard Norton*, chief factor at Churchill, accepted responsibility for him. Some time after 1741 relatives of Matonabbee’s father took him away from the post because the new factor, James Isham*, showed little interest in the boy; but when Ferdinand Jacobs became factor in 1752 Matonabbee was again given special attention. His time at Churchill provided him with an opportunity to learn the Cree language as well as some English, and the years among his own people gave him a knowledge of the land and how to live on it. These skills, combined with his knowledge of the fur trade, made him a valuable asset to the company.
Continuing conflict between the “Athapuscow Indians,” Crees living near Lake Athabasca (Alta), and Chipewyan groups disrupted trade in that area. It was probably in the late 1750s that Matonabbee was chosen by the company to serve as an ambassador living among the Crees in order to mediate between the two groups. The assignment was dangerous, since the Athabascan Crees were still raiding and sometimes killing small parties of Chipewyans near or within Cree territory. Matonabbee’s success in terminating the hostilities was undoubtedly based on his personal qualities and his highly respected association with the HBC.
Matonabbee had made at least one trip to the Coppermine River (N. W. T.) by the late 1760s, and his report, together with the suasion of Moses Norton, chief at Churchill, encouraged the company to order Samuel Hearne to survey the area. Hearne’s first two attempts to reach the Coppermine, in 1769 and 1770, ended abortively, and Matonabbee blamed their failure on the absence of women. He agreed to guide Hearne on his third trip, which was to last from 1770 to 1772, but insisted that women, including his many wives, accompany the travellers. Women were necessary to cook and sew and were, he claimed, “made for labour; one of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do.” Hearne developed a high esteem for him and his capacity to organize the long, arduous journey. Matonabbee’s ability to adapt the expedition to the Indian manner of transportation and to the exigencies of living off the land ensured its success.
In addition to being an ambassador and a guide, Matonabbee was a “leading Indian” of Churchill throughout his adult life. As such, he collected furs from Indians who were reluctant to make the difficult trip down to the distant bay to trade; he organized “gangs” of Indians who, for a share of the proceeds, agreed to carry the furs to the bay and bring back trade goods; and he distributed the trade goods among the inland Indians. He also served as a middleman to the Copper or Yellowknife Indians, the farthest inland Chipewyan group, as well as to some Dogribs. Matonabbee brought more furs to Churchill than any other Indian, but, even when his prestige was highest with the traders, his occupation was not all glory. Except for the brief times at the fort, where he was treated royally and provided with fancy goods, he had to travel extensively, often under great hardships and always under the threat of starvation.
In 1772 he was proclaimed head of the Chipewyan people by the company traders. HBC men had the illusion that “leading Indians” were important at all times, but in fact they often had little influence when away from the post. They did not replace or resemble traditional leaders but were considered by their people a necessary feature of their society’s relationship with the traders. Matonabbee’s occasional bullying behaviour, described by Hearne, was tolerated because of his successful dealings with the company. His role as a leading Indian bound Matonabbee inextricably to the fortunes of the fur trade; Andrew Graham* wrote that he committed suicide, a rare form of death among Indians, “for grief that the French had destroyed Churchill Factory, Anno Domini 1782.”
[Matonabbee is known primarily for his guidance and leadership of Samuel Hearne’s expedition to the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1770–72. Hearne’s account of this expedition, Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort (Glover), includes many references to Matonabbee as well as a biographical sketch (pp.222–28). Brief mention of Matonabbee is made in HBRS, XXVII (Williams), 201–2, and in Letters from Hudson Bay, 1703–40, ed. K. G. Davies and A. M. Johnson, intro. R. [G.] Glover (London, 1965), xxvii-lii. The latter work also contains some discussion of the role of the leading Indian (pp.xxii–xxxvi). b.c.g.]