BONAMI (Bonamis), dit Lespérance (L’Espérance), ALEXIS, HBC voyageur, guide, and boat brigade leader; b. 27 Nov. 1796 at Saint-Michel d’Yamaska (Yamaska, Que.), son of Pierre Bonami, dit L’Espérance, and Marguerite Gouin; m. in June 1825 his country wife, Marguerite Guernon (Grenon or Gouin), at the Red River Settlement (Man.), and they may have had a total of 18 children; d. 11 Dec. 1890 at St François Xavier, Man.
Alexis Bonami, dit Lespérance, was born into a fur-trade family, several members of which hired out as voyageurs to Montreal entrepreneurs. During the War of 1812 he served in a regiment commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel James Cuthbert. Bonami probably began his career with the Hudson’s Bay Company as a voyageur, paddling and portaging in the transport of bundles of furs and provisions. Although he had planned to return to Lower Canada after his initial contract, he remained in the west to perform a key role as a guide and brigade leader with the HBC for at least half a century. In 1826, at the age of 29, Bonami signed a three-year contract as a guide with the HBC at Norway House (Man.). Two years later he may have been chosen as a guide to accompany George Simpson* on his historic canoe trip to the west coast via the Fraser River.
Simpson had promoted the use of York boats following the union of the North West Company and the HBC in 1821 because of their large capacity relative to crew size, and they were soon used exclusively on the two main trunk routes from York Factory (Man.), to the Red River Settlement and to Fort Edmonton. By the late 1820s Bonami had risen to some prominence, and probably never served in the laborious and menial capacity of oarsman of a York boat.
Alexis Bonami became famous for leading the Portage La Loche brigade. York boats were first used on the route between York Factory and the Mackenzie River in 1823, and after experimenting with different routes to overcome the problems of transporting goods in and out of the Mackenzie River area as quickly as possible, the HBC finally settled on the complicated but efficient Red River route. In 1832 Bonami was brigade leader of the first Red River crew to make this journey, the longest and most difficult of the fur trade. The annual brigades left the Red River Settlement in four to six York boats as soon as the ice cleared from Lake Winnipeg at the end of May. They travelled down the Red River and across Lake Winnipeg to Norway House where they deposited their cargoes of furs and country provisions. Supplies kept in the warehouses at Norway House for the Mackenzie River were then taken along the Saskatchewan River, portaged to English River (now the Churchill River, Sask.), and on to Lac La Loche (Sask.). From there the cargoes were portaged to the middle of the Methy Portage (Sask.) where a crew from the Mackenzie River District exchanged the incoming provisions for outgoing furs. Bonami’s crew then retraced their route to Norway House and went down the Hayes River to York Factory, arriving in mid August, in time to meet the annual supply ship from Britain. After depositing their furs, they carried the new provisions back, leaving some at Norway House and bringing the rest to Red River by the middle or end of October. The Portage La Loche brigade travelled some 4,000 miles on a rigid schedule through dangerous waterways. The route continued in use until late in the century, but by the 1860s Red River carts were transporting cargo over the 12-mile Methy Portage.
Bonami was responsible for keeping the guides and tripmen who served under him to the schedule and for protecting his cargo and passengers. His fine qualities as brigade leader and his mastery of the route brought him considerable honour and respect among his fellows. Tripmen on a voyage worked up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and only bad weather kept them from the oars. An indiscretion or simple mishap could dump both crew and cargo into treacherous water. Disease or injury often impaired their work, and even as late as the 1860s the need to carry adequate provisions could pose a problem. The men for the Portage La Loche brigade were recruited annually at Red River and received somewhat less than the HBC’s usual annual salary for transporters: middlemen earned £12, bowsmen £14, steersmen £16, and the guide £25. During the winter many of the La Loche tripmen lived in the Red River Seidement and they frequently supplemented their meagre incomes by hunting, hiring out as casual labour, and smuggling furs.
In 1835 the HBC granted Bonami 50 acres of land on the Assiniboine River near Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg), across the river from a 70-acre lot which Bonami may have purchased himself. With the help of his family, he was able to work a surprisingly large farm. Within three years he owned livestock and had three acres under cultivation, and by the early 1840s he was cultivating 10 to 15 acres, well above the average for the settlement.
Upon his retirement, at an unknown date, Bonami is reputed to have been rewarded with an annual pension from the HBC. Shortly after his death, in December 1890, Le Manitoba of St Boniface eulogized his long career: “M. Lespérance . . . was an imposing figure among the host of intrepid voyageurs, whose hardships, dangers, and courage can only be appreciated by those who have shared them.”
AP, Saint-Michel (Yamaska), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 28 nov. 1796. PAM, HBCA, B.235/b/3; B.239/k/1: 39, 101; B.239/u/1: no.70; D.4/102:47; D.4/103: 22; E.6/7. R. M. Ballantyne, Hudson’s Bay; or every-day life in the wilds of North America, during six years’ residence in the territories of the Honourable Hudson’s Bay Company (2nd ed., Edinburgh and London, 1848). Le Manitoba (Saint-Boniface), 17 déc. 1890. Carol [Judd] Livermore, Lower Fort Garry, the fur trade, and the Red River Settlement (Ottawa, 1977). R. [G.] Glover, “York boats,” Beaver, outfit 279 (March 1949): 19–23. L.-A. Prud’homme, “Alexis Bonami ditLespérance,” Rev. canadienne, 29 (1893): 207–18.