Tete Jaune was Iroquois Pierre Bostonais

Leonard Lea Frazer

Originally appeared in the Robson Valley Courier in 1984:

Tete Jaune ("Yellow Head") was an Iroquois Indian named Pierre Bostonais. He worked for the fur trading companies in their early days in the west, and was killed by Beaver Indians in 1827.

Tete Jaune was identified by Parks Canada historian David Smythe, who recently completed a study of Hudson's Bay Company archives in Winnipeg. Smythe's findings are reported in the Winter 1984 edition of Alberta History.

In the archives, Smythe discovered three references to Bostonais which identify him with Tete Jaune. In a North West Company account book for 1816, and twice in Hudson's Bay Company books from 1821-23, there are entries of "Pierre Bostonais dit Tete Jaune."

"Tete Jaune must have had at least a tinge of blond hair to have acquired his nickname,” writes Smythe, “and undoubtedly was a mixed-blood, thus accounting for this unusual hair color for a North American Indian.”

Tete Jaune and his brother Baptiste, with whom he travelled, were among the many Iroquois who were brought out west by the fur trading companies. An eastern woodland tribe, the Iroquois were valued as voyageurs, hunters, and trappers. Many Iroquois stayed in the west when their contracts with the fur companies expired, settling east of the Rockies between the Athabasca and Peace Rivers.

The name Bostonais was a nickname applied by Canadian Indians to Americans - “Boston Men”. Pierre Bostonais' family may have acquired their name after moving from American territory to the Montreal area. As early as 1670, a number of Iroquois, converted by French priests, left what is now New York State to live near Montreal.

Tete Jaune was for a time employed by the North West Company, perhaps arriving at Rocky Mountain House on the North Saskatchewan in 1810. By 1816, when he is mentioned in the North West Company ledger, Tete Jaune was a free Iroquois, not engaged to any fur trade company.

In 1819, Tete Jaune was employed by the Hudson's Bay Company as a guide into the territory of New Caledonia. Although the rival North West Company had been in what is now the interior of British Columbia for over a decade, the Hudson's Bay Company was unfamiliar with the area and anxious to extend their influence.

Crossing the Rockies at either Sheep Creek Pass at the headwaters of the MacGregor, or Robson Pass, between the Smoky and Robson Rivers, the party led by Tete Jaune eventually reached the Fraser River. The group returned to Fort St. Mary on the Peace River via the Rocky Mountain Portage. According to the post journal, when "Tete Jaune and Brother arrived, the Iroquois all enjoyed themselves with a booze."

After the North West and Hudson's Bay companies amalgamated in 1821, the bargaining position of Tete Jaune and the other free Iroquois as high-priced guides was gone. In the reorganized company were many North West Company officers and men who had been going to New Caledonia for years.

Tete Jaune and Baptiste, leading a vagabond life as freemen around the Rocky Mountains, faded from view for the next few years. They reappeared in company records in 1825, when once again the Hudson's Bay Company required a guide over a little-known route through the Rockies, the Yellowhead Pass.

Hudson's Bay Company governor George Simpson hoped to supply leather to New Caledonia through the Yellowhead Pass, cutting time and expense from the route through the Athabasca Pass and Okanagan. Chief Trader James McMillan returned to the mountains in the fall of 1825 to explore the Yellowhead Pass as a possible alternate route to New Caledonia.

On October 15, 1825 Chief Trader James McMillan arrived at Jasper House, where he made arrangements with some freemen and engaged Tete Jaune to guide him across the pass. McMillan and party left Jasper House on October 18 and completed the trip across the mountains by October 24.

In McMillan's report on the trip he stated, "If this track is kept up the men you send up ought to bring up the canoe as far as they can, say to Tete Jaune's Cache and to be in time to make the road with care, they would require to have some Iroquois to guide them."

This is the first recorded mention of Tete Jaune Cache, where Tete Jaune must have once had a cache, likely of furs to be taken across the Yellowhead Pass to Jasper House.

Tete Jaune was engaged as a guide for the next summer, and received in payment "eighty Beaver worth of Goods at the Common Standard." He probably spent the winter of 1825-26 at Fort Alexandria.

Scheduled to guide the leather brigade in the fall of 1826, Tete Jaune did not appear at the post until early November 1826. The post journal records, "In the evening that old rogue Tete Jaune, and his brother, arrived from below, dread of the Carriers who threaten vengeance for the death of their relatives, is the cause of their coming this way -- where they must now remain -- it being too late to admit of their recrossing the Mountains this season -- These people brought nearly one Pack of Beaver between them."

Tete Jaune and Baptiste apparently spent the winter of 1826-27 with the Carriers. The brothers returned to Fort St. James in mid-April, when William Connolly, the officer in charge of New Caledonia said he "never saw two more wretched beings in my life - since the Fall they have not killed one Marten between them. They are such notorious rascals that no dependence whatever can be placed in them."

In September, Connolly received word of Tete Jaune and Baptiste from the new post, Bear Lake. "Of the two Iroquois who were equipped to hunt in that direction - all I can learn is that they crossed the Mountains to Finlays Branch and intended to proceed downwards to Peace River - I am glad this district is rid of them - they are brothers who seldom do any good. And very frequently do mischief."

In late March 1828 word reached Connolly from Bear Lake of the rumour that Tete Jaune, Baptiste, and their families "have been cut off by the Beaver Indians, as a punishment for hunting upon their lands." A month later, the officer in charge of the post at McLeod Lake reported that the brothers and their families had been killed in September at "Finlays Branch" by a party of "Indians from the Rocky Mountains."

Connolly stated, "This melancholy occurrence took place last fall at Finlays Branch, but by whom per-petrated could not be ascertained - The natives throughout the District have for a long while past looked upon the Iroquois as robbers and despoilers of their lands, and it is only in consideration for us that they have not long before this taken the only means in their power to rid themselves of their depredators.”

Little else is known of Pierre Bostonais, not even his age or when he came to the West. 

The Yellowhead Highway takes its name from a blond Iroquois.
The Yellowhead Highway takes its name from a blond Iroquois.
Submitted photo
Pierre Bostonais was “Yellowhead.”
Pierre Bostonais was “Yellowhead.”