Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Life of a Customs Official in Old Pembina

Joseph O. Lemay
[Photo courtesy: Manitoba
Historical Society]
Joseph Lemay, Esq. - Judge, postmaster and collector of United States customs at the frontier post of Pembina - filled a tolerably well paid office, but was exposed, in the execution of his duties, to an almost intolerable amount of abuse and obloquy at the hands of a class of men who cared as much about the obligations imposed by civilized laws as they respected Mr. Lemay for his professional knowledge of such. His own countrymen resident at Red River Settlement were supposed to give the collector, on the whole, more trouble than did the British colonists, while he revenged himself as far as possible by strictly adhering to the letter of his instructions as regards releases for loaded goods, and relaxed no charge which it was in his power legally to enforce against the enemy. It will readily be understood that much power which might be perfectly legally used, either to retard or facilitate the transmission of goods, was necessarily vested in the hands of such a person as Mr. Lemay.

So unpopular had that public servant become among a certain class that he stood in well-grounded fear of personal violence at the hands of its members as often as they entered an appearance with a fresh cargo of bonded merchandize at his head-quarters. When at St. Paul he met his persecutors, secure under the wing of an organized police force, he has been known to exhibit somewhat more than his wonted confidence in his communications with them, receiving in reply a plain intimation that he had better take care what he did or he would walk in a skinful of sore bones the first time his interlocutors should encounter him at Pembina. His visits to Red River Settlement occasionally proved disastrous. Those with whom it was his object to do business, treacherously concealing their designs under the cloak of hospitality, pressed on his acceptance the peculiarly stimulating beverages commonly used in the country, and occasionally reduced their visitor to a condition in which he found it prudent to avoid engaging in business. To do Mr. Lemay justice, however, the latter event was one very uncommon in his experience, as he was, I believe, a match, so far as ability lay in the consumption of spirits, more than competent to deal with any adversary he would be likely often to meet. Latterly, moreover, he prudently shielded himself against all such attempts under the plea of total abstinence.

Sometimes the war was carried on more openly. The collector called one day on a man, who he alleged had deceived him, and told him, " Sir, you are a liar!" He was immediately knocked down for his pains by a blow on the eye which rendered him a deplorable spectacle for a long time. He applied to several magistrates for satisfaction on account of the assault he had sustained, and justified the offensive expression he had used on the ground: "I called him a liar because he was a liar, and I could not call him anything else."

On another occasion he was knocked down with an axe handle in the course of a dispute with a settler, rising out of an alleged overcharge of two cents in his Pembina postage accounts.

The special subject of Mr. Lemay's letter to the "Nor'Wester" consisted of the events which had transpired at Pembina subsequent to the withdrawal of Major Hatch's battalion, when he, acting in conformity with the instructions of General Sibley, took charge of the vacant barracks. Scarcely had the steamer carrying off the troops got out of sight, wrote the collector, when a promiscuous crowd of forty or fifty pillagers entered the buildings and occupied themselves during the ensuing three or four days in carrying off every movable article they contained, including doors, locks, mantelpieces and furniture. They paid no attention to the warnings of the legal occupant, as to the consequences of their acts, and left that gentleman to encourage himself in the hope -"that their day of retribution would soon be at hand."

The looting completed, Mr. Lemay's next anxiety rose from a friendly warning, conveyed to him by a friend journeying past the dismantled fortress, that, on the preceding day, a party of Sioux had been seen dancing in a neighbouring village, and that a second party consisting of about twenty-five or thirty of the same tribe, had boasted of being on their way to Pembina in quest of the collector's scalp. To quote the words of Mr. Lemay, "they had received the information from a friend of mine (over the left) residing in the settlement, that I was the only American left in charge of Major Hatch's quarters. They said that the description of my person had been given them by the infernal villain above alluded to, who doubtless would himself take my life, had he no more fears of a gallows or a hemp rope than he has of Divine Justice.''

The clue once obtained to this fresh deed of darkness, corroborating circumstances presented themselves in a formidable number. A Sioux boy, whom Major Hatch had left with the French priest, Pere Andre, suddenly disappeared. The dogs in the neighbourhood barked strangely during the short summer nights, and human footprints were discovered of a morning in the neighbourhood, pointing clearly to the fact of the presence of the enemy round the collector's premises. The Sioux boasted they had been on the watch for a day, but had not seen Mr. Lemay outside of his house, while they were afraid of making a mistake and killing an Englishman instead of him. "But now," continued Mr. Lemay, "that they have Major Hatch's little devil to identify me, they intend coming down again; therefore deeming it prudent for me to get away from my house, I came down to stop with Captain Hackland." Mr. Hackland was the gentleman in charge of the Hudson's Bay trading post on the British side of the line about two miles from the barracks which Mr. Lemay found it prudent he should quit. He derived his title of Captain from the fact of his having commanded the York Factory schooner for a series of years.

Mr. Lemay added that his presence had drawn the Sioux to his new quarters, and the settlers outside the walls were so much alarmed that Hackland was compelled to permit them to take refuge at night within the Fort. Under these circumstances he felt that the interest of his government called him to St. Paul, for which place he would start in a few days, leaving a substitute to act as inspector of customs in his absence. He intended however to return at some future happier time, unless, says he, "my life gets too much exposed; in which case of course I would rather tender my resignation, for the loss of my life would very little benefit the Government, and far less my family."

Fortunately Mr. Lemay escaped from all the dangers which beset him, and having long since retired from the post office business, he remains still (1869) at Pembina as collector of customs, in which capacity he acts as an interested and zealous servant of his department. A better understanding appears to prevail between him and his customers, of whom we now never hear it said they commit any assault or battery against his person.

Red River By Joseph James Hargrave