Blog #17 Education of Girls in Red River Settlement: Part One

Tags: Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk; Reverend John West; Red River Settlement education; education of girls; George and Elizabeth Harbidge; Hudson’s Bay Company education; Church Missionary Society; The Battle of Seven Oaks and the Violent Birth of the Red River Settlement  by Irene Ternier Gordon; Manitoba education

Today’s Blog is the first of a series  describing the efforts to provide  education for girls in the Red River Settlement between the arrival of the first Selkirk settlers in 1812 and the formation of the province of Manitoba in 1870. Some readers who live outside of Manitoba may not know that the first agricultural settlement in Manitoba was formed in 1812 in what is now the city of Winnipeg. The founder of this settlement was a Scottish Lord named Selkirk.

For more information about the formation of the Red River Settlement, you may want to read my book The Battle of Seven Oaks and the Violent Birth of the Red River Settlement.

Cover Seven Oaks

Although my focus will be on the education of girls, boys and girls were educated together in the earliest schools. I do not intend to discuss the issue of residential schools and the harmful legacy of such schools in any detail; however the first schools also had a mixture of white, Métis and First Nations students. All of the schools were operated by either Catholic or Anglican missionaries and thus were segregated according to language and religion—being either English and Anglican or Catholic and French.

Education pre-1820

The captain of the ship bringing a group of Red River settlers to North America in 1815 reported that the children aboard his ship attended school between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. using English bibles as their only texts. In 1813, Selkirk had appointed an educational supervisor for the Red River Settlement. Selkirk wrote to Miles MacDonnell, whom he had named governor of the settlement, about this appointment and said further,

Get a young man of cool temper to assist him as master. Teach them [students] to read and write in their native tongue. I care not how little they learn of the language of the Yankees. In the girls’ school, needlework and women’s accomplishments should be taught with reading. [Schofield, F. H.,The Story of Manitoba, 1913, p. 433]

 The native tongue Selkirk referred to was Gaelic. Others of Selkirk’s letters indicate that he aimed at forming a Gaelic community because he believed that this would counteract any tendency of the settlers to join the Americans.

3 Selkirk

Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk

In January 1815, Governor MacDonnell appointed “a steady young man” named John Matheson, Jr. as school master for the Red River Settlement, with a yearly salary of ₤25.  MacDonnell soon reported that “people in general sent their children and appeared well satisfied in this respect.”  Six months later, however, the settlement lost their teacher when the North West Company attacked the settlement and Matheson left for Upper Canada. [Lang, S. E. “History of Education in Manitoba”, pp. 422-23].

Governor Semple, who took over control of the Red River Settlement from Governor MacDonnell,   received a letter in 1816 about the role of the Hudson’s Bay Company in education. It said:

As the Company wish to allow about ₤30 per annum for the instruction and amusement of the officers and servants of the Company…We shall be anxious for your report as to the books or tracts you would wish to be sent for the purpose of religious instruction and we are desirous for your opinion as to the prospects of success in civilization and converting to Christianity  the children of native Indians. [Jaenen,  C. J., “Foundations of Dual Education at Red River, 1811-1834”, p.5.]

 Nothing further happened in the way of formal education until Selkirk arrived in 1817. Selkirk then set apart two parcels of land for a school and a church respectively and provided some money to help in paying for a teacher.

Reverend John West

John West was appointed HBC chaplain in 1819. The understanding of the HBC was that West would “establish and superintend schools at the settlement for the education of the youth of both sexes”.  [Jaenen, pp. 15-6]  West and a teacher named George Harbidge arrived at the Red River in the summer of 1820. West immediately set up a school for both Aboriginal and Red River settler children. Girls were to learn domestic skills and boys horticultural skills; both were to receive religious education.


The Rev. John West

West  reported in his journal that there were no facilities when he arrived, but shortly afterwards “I got us a log-house repaired about three miles below the Fort, among the Scotch population, where the school  master took up his abode, and began teaching from twenty to twenty-five of the children.”

By 1822 the house contained an apartment for the teacher, lodging for Aboriginal students and facilities for day students. On Sundays it served as a church. A settler was hired to take care of the milk, provide hay for the cows, and provide fire wood and fish.  At that time, there were six boys and two girls boarding at the school with a woman hired to take care of them. The illustration below was likely made after West left the Red River since it shows the church and school as being in separate buildings.

Church and Mission SchoolChurch and Mission School at the Upper Settlement, built by the Rev. John West

(from The Rainbow of the North by Sarah Tucker, 1851)

West also established a Sunday school to provide religious education and basic English literacy for the older settler children and for illiterate women. By 1823 there were about 50 Sunday school “scholars” receiving instruction from a variety of men and women from the community. It is not clear whether these teachers were volunteers or if they were paid a small amount.

The HBC and West soon came to a parting of the ways, however. West’s goal was to Christianize the Aboriginals of the whole of HBC territory rather than to concentrate on educating the children in the Red River area alone. When the HBC officers asked the very real question about how West would finance a permanent mission in the interior, West believed they were merely being obstructionist. He found “a cold indifference on the part of the chief officers resident in the country…[They] cannot conceal their fears lest the plans which we have in view to civilize and evangelize the  poor Indian will be the means of lessening the quantum for fur and consequently gain.”  [Foster, John E., “Program for the Red River Mission: the Anglican Clergy, 1820-1826″ Thesis, U. of Alberta, 1966”,  p.  71]

The Church Missionary Society had assumed charge of the Anglican mission in 1822. The HBC Council recorded in its minutes that the CMS had “voted large sums for the provision of two clergymen and a schoolmaster and mistress for the instruction of Indian children, and allow other children to be educated in the school on payment of a moderate fee.” [Jaenen, p. 19]

To facilitate the education of girls, the CMS educated a young English woman named Elizabeth Bowden, who was Harbidge’s fiancée, as a teacher.  Soon after she completed her education, she joined Harbidge at the Red River and the couple was married a few months later in October 1822.

HBC Governor Simpson, who frequently made harsh judgments of people and did not hesitate to voice his disapproval, wrote that Harbidge was

ignorant, self-conceited and moreover under the entire control of his wife; and she is above her situation, assuming more of the lady than is necessary, short tempered, paying little or no attention to her charge and treating the children under her care as menial servants without regard to their instruction or comfort.  [Foster, pp.64-5]

In June 1823 West left on a furlough to England; however he did not return to the Red River the following year as planned because the London Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company terminated his employment early in 1824.

I will post Part Two of the history of girls’ education at the Red River on May 17. Then you will learn about the two clergymen who replaced Reverend West and what happened to the newly-wed teachers George and Elizabeth Harbidge.

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