PRIMEAU (Primault, Primo), LOUIS (Lewis) (Nick’a’thu’tin), fur-trader; b. at Quebec; fl. 1749–1800.
Nothing is known of Louis Primeau’s early life, but he was probably the Louis Primot who engaged in May 1749 with Joseph Coulon* de Villiers de Jumonville and Pierre Raimbault to trade in the Nipigon region (Ont.). He was among those Canadian traders who pushed up the Saskatchewan River in the last decade of the old régime. Unlike most, he stayed in the west during the Seven Years’ War. He lived with the Indians, who called him Nick’a’thu’tin, and gained much influence with them; however, the hardships of this life were such that in 1765 he made his way to the Hudson’s Bay Company post of York Factory (Man.). Ferdinand Jacobs, chief at York, doubted Primeau’s trustworthiness, but realizing that his knowledge of Indian languages and experience in wilderness travel would make him a valuable servant for the HBC, engaged him specifically as an inland trader. From 1765 to 1772 Primeau wintered nearly every season among the Indians. There he was supposed to promote the interests of a company whose trade was being increasingly threatened by the activities of Montreal pedlars. In 1768, however, he was forced to remain at York because he was suffering from venereal disease, an ailment common among the traders and Indians because of their promiscuous contact.
As competition with the pedlars increased, Primeau urged upon the HBC officers, Andrew Graham* in particular, the absolute necessity of their building permanent inland posts. But Primeau himself began to show signs of divided loyalty. Matthew Cocking, who travelled inland in 1772 to investigate the deteriorating trade situation, suspected that he “hath a secret kindness for his old Masters” and he did, in fact, defect the following May, going out to Quebec via the pedlars’ rendezvous at Grand Portage (near Grand Portage, Minn.). The HBC formally renounced all obligations to him in 1774. Primeau’s desertion made the company wary of hiring any more Canadians, even though it needed skilled inland servants.
Primeau returned to the west in the employ of “Mr. Frobisher and Partners” as their chief pilot and trader. In 1773–74 he wintered with Joseph Frobisher* on Pine Island Lake (Cumberland Lake, Sask.). In the spring he was sent by Frobisher to intercept the Athapaskan Indians on their way to Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.) to trade. He was so successful in this undertaking at Portage de Traite (Primeau Lake, Man.) that Samuel Hearne reported in August “few of that Valuable Tribe of Indians are gone Down to Churchill this Year.” Primeau built a post at Portage de Traite, in which he wintered in 1775–76, and the next year built another, at Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.). In the autumn of 1777 he went down to Montreal, but the next year he was back at Île-à-la-Crosse.
Primeau appears to have been a significant factor in the early Nor’Westers’ success in cutting off the HBC’s trade at York and Churchill. Although little is known of his subsequent career, he was probably the Primeau who was in charge of the North West Company’s Cumberland House (Cumberland Lake) when David Thompson* visited it in 1798. Primeau was reported to be on the Saskatchewan as late as 1800, and a Joseph Primeau who served as an interpreter in this area in the early 1800s may have been his son.
HBC Arch. B.42/b/11, f.7. [Matthew Cocking], “An adventurer from Hudson Bay: journal of Matthew Cocking, from York Factory to the Blackfeet country, 1772–73,” ed. and intro. L. J. Burpee, RSC Trans., 3rd ser., II (1908), sect.ii, 89–121. Docs. relating to NWC (Wallace). HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson); XV (Rich and Johnson). Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell). Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” ANQ, Rapport, 1931–32. Morton, History of Canadian west. Rich, History of HBC, II.