The History of the Gray Family in Celebration of Métis Week 2021
The Pendennis Building is proud to be Métis owned. As Alberta celebrates Métis people, culture, and history during Métis Week, November 14-20, we wanted to share the Métis family history of co-owner, Lorraine Bodnarek.
My family is large and has Métis and First Nations roots dating back into the 1700s. I was lucky to have grown up in the same community as my Grandfather, Robert Bobby Gray, until he died in 1986. The Gray family comes from the Fort Vermillion area and had a freighting business in Little Red River.
My great-grandfather was William (Billy) Gray, a Hudson’s Bay Company man from Stromness, Orkney, Scotland. He married my Métis great-grandmother Hannah Lambert, (below) and together they had a son, my Métis Grandfather, Robert Bobby Gray. My great-grandmother, Hannah, died not long after giving birth to him in 1906.
I do wish I knew more about my grandfather. He attended a residential school in Fort Vermillion until Grade 4. Because he was without his mother and his father worked, he only attended school during the day. His grandmother was fiercely protective of him and she would not let him stay or sleep at school. Because of that – from what I understand, he was not treated poorly at school. However he did grow up with a distaste for the Catholic Church due to his early experiences at the Mission school, but he often carried the nuns and priests from the Mission as passengers when they needed to travel to the communities along the river and welcomed them as guests at the family home in Little Red River.
He stopped going to school in grade 4. He was not able to read or write English. When he left school at that early age, he went to work with his Father freighting on the river for the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company and other independent traders in the region. He learned to speak in Cree, after he started working with his father and was often asked to interpret by the RCMP and courts. It was here while working on the river, where my great-grandfather and grandfather became unsung heroes in Alberta’s history.
That story begins in 1928, when Bert Logan, the Manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was posted at Little Red River. While he was unpacking following a holiday in Quebec, he suddenly became very ill. His wife, who was a nurse, feared he had diphtheria.
Bert’s wife asked William (Billy) Gray (my great-grandfather) and his son Bobby (my grandfather), to travel up the river to Fort Vermillion to get Dr. Harold Hamman. There was no telegraph in the community. The closest was even farther away in Peace River.
The journey was long – 120kms, and meant traveling through the frozen river landscape in December, as there were no roads.
The river had not yet frozen enough for safe travel, so Billy did the journey walking in front of his horses, all the way, testing the ice as he went, to make sure they would not break through. He retrieved Dr. Hamman in Fort Vermillion and made the journey all the way back to Little Red River where Mr. Logan’s case was confirmed to be diphtheria.
At this point Bert Logan had been sick for seven days and the doctor knew little could be done. Instead, he focused on saving the community from a similar fate.
Dr. Hamman told Billy and Bobby Gray to get back to Fort Vermilion and request that Gus Clark take a message to the Peace River telegraph office – 350 kms away. Gus chose Joe Lafleur and William Lambert to make the journey.
The two men left for Peace River by dog sled on December 18th. Joe Lafleur fell through the ice upriver and the two men were forced back to Fort Vermilion. It took another 3 days before they could leave. They travelled through -50 degree Celsius weather, sleeping on the ground wearing duck feather robes and bear hides for warmth. They arrived in Peace River on New Year’s Day and word was sent to Edmonton to send inoculations.
Meanwhile, still in Fort Vermillion, Billy and Bobby rested their horses and then loaded the mail and freight and started their return journey to Little Red River on December 24th – Christmas Eve.
They camped overnight at the Clement Paul’s Sawmill and woke the next morning to realize a chinook had blown in on Christmas Day, melting the snow and turning the Peace River into a giant sheet of ice.
Only one of the teams of horses had shoes. So Billy took that team and returned to Fort Vermillion to get the blacksmithing tools to shoe the other team of horses. They headed off again in the morning back to Clement Paul’s with the tools, only to meet Francis Bourassa, who had Dr. Hamman, Mrs. Logan and her husband’s body – Burt Logan’s – with them.
Burt Logan had succumbed to diphtheria on December 22nd. Bourassa – also lacking horseshoes, had wrapped his horses shoes in gunny sacks but it was a poor replacement, so Billy Gray took the passengers and Logan’s body onto his sleigh and once again he and Bobby were back to Fort Vermillion.
Upon arrival, the police informed them that Burt Logan’s body could not be removed in town so they headed for the Anglican cemetery east of the village where he was buried.
With the message now delivered to Edmonton to send inoculations, Wop May, the legendary First World War flying ace was asked if he could deliver the medicine, which consisted of 200,000 units. May and Vic Horner commenced their harrowing flight of tough weather and extremely risky landings and flew into Fort Vermillion with serum. The people of Fort Vermillion and Little Red River received their inoculations at a community dance – they were injected with serum as they headed in the doors of the community dance hall.
In the end, Bert Logan was the only one to suffer and die of diphtheria in the communities.
Wop May and Horner landed back in Edmonton on January 7th after news of the journey, now called, The Mercy Flight of 1929, had spread across the country. Both men were welcomed as heroes in Edmonton with thousands of Edmonton residents waiting for them at the airport.
Billy and his son Bobby became the lesser-known heroes of the tragedy, and travelled through terrible weather and freezing conditions to save lives.
The Gray family is incredibly proud of our Métis history, and the part our family played in Alberta’s inoculation story. My Grandfather, Bobby Gray died in 1986. To this day the Gray Family still gets together for the Bobby Gray Memorial Crib Tournaments.