Blog # 26 Alexander Ross: Fort Astoria and Fate of the Tonquin

Tags: Pacific Fur Company, Fort Astoria, Tonquin,


Fate of the Tonquin

My last Blog described how Alexander Ross began his work as a fur trader, including his first expedition to the interior of what is now British Columbia and the construction of a simple shack as the first Fort Okanogan.  Today we learn what happened back at Fort Astoria following Ross’ departure in July 1811 and the fate of the Tonquin, the ship on which Ross travelled from New York City to the Pacific coast.  Today’s Blog, like the last one, is based on one of the books Ross wrote about his life —  Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River — and all page numbers are from that book.

The men remaining at Fort Astoria believed that the local people were hostile to them. Ross wrote that “under the impression of danger, all other labour [was] suspended; the hands and minds of all were employed both day and night in the construction and pallisading of a stronghold for self-defense.” By the end of the summer, however, the indigenous people all left peacefully.  [p. 152]

Fort Astoria


Immediately after building Fort Astoria, the men constructed a 25-ton schooner (the frame of which had been shipped on the Tonquin). It was intended for the coastal trade.  They quickly learned that this schooner was both too small for the coastal trade and unsafe for river use, so after making two or three trips up the river, the schooner “was condemned and laid aside altogether as useless.”  [p. 154]


JOHN JACOB ASTOR (portrait by John Wesley Jarvis)

Ross was very critical of the plans made by his employer John Jacob Astor, head of the Pacific Fur Company (PFC). In addition to complaining of the useless schooner, Ross also accused Astor of not shipping saleable goods for the West Coast market.  Ross said that although Astor well knew what goods were suitable for the market they were entering, he did not send such items. For example, instead of guns, he sent old metal pots; and instead of beads and trinkets he sent white cotton.  “In short, all the useless trash and unsaleable trumpery which had been accumulating in his shops and stores for half a century past, were swept together to fill his Columbia Ships.  That these cargoes were insured need not be told; sink or swim, his profits were sure,” Ross charged. [p. 154] Finally, in Ross’  view the agreements the employees entered into with Astor were violated and Astor let the employees shift for themselves during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans.



In early August, rumours of the destruction of Tonquin first arrived at Fort Astoria. They were not confirmed until October, however, when a man named Kasiascall (also known as Jack) arrived with a detailed account of what happened. He stated that he was a member of the Wick-a-nook tribe from near Nootka Sound. He said that he had spent some 18 days on board Tonquin in June. One day large numbers of Indians arrived with plenty of sea otter skins; however they did not trade much that first day because they thought the prices offered were too low and the captain refused to give them any presents. That evening, one of the PFC traders, Alexander McKay, and Jack went ashore and were well-received by the chiefs.  Next day the Indians came to trade. Captain Thorn would not let more than ten men on board at the same time. When one man was detected trying to sneak on board by cutting the netting placed around the deck, he escaped in a canoe.  Captain Thorn ordered the chiefs to call him back, but they “smiled and said nothing”, irritating the captain who seized two of the chiefs and threatened to hang them unless they called the escapee back to be punished. The remainder of the Indians fled from the ship while the two who had been seized were kept prisoner over night.  Next day the escapee was returned to the ship, stripped and tied up briefly before being released.  The chiefs were also released, vowing vengeance for the insult they had received.  [pp. 160-61]

The following day no one came to the ship to trade, but one of the chiefs asked McKay and Jack to visit his lodge. They did so and were kindly received.  After McKay returned to the ship, the Indians told Jack they would come to trade the next day.  When Jack told McKay, the latter was concerned. “I wish they would not come….After the captain’s late conduct to the chiefs, I do not like so sudden, so flattering a change.”  [p. 161]. McKay told Thorn about his fears and warned him that all hands should be on alert when the Indians came aboard again, but Thorn ridiculed both McKay’s fears and  suggestion. Jack admitted that he did not share McKay’s fears, especially since women accompanied the men to trade. On the other hand, he was surprised that Thorn did not put up the netting again to restrict people getting on board when they came to trade next day.   Trading went on briskly with the goods thrown into the canoes looked after by the women. Then Jack and a sailor aloft noticed the Indians were armed with hidden knives. They warned the captain who “treated the suggestion as usual, with a smile of contempt.”

Soon the women paddled away and a short, but bloody, massacre began. Jack and several other Indians jumped over board and were picked up by the women. Less than 10 minutes later, the ship was blown up.  Jack believed that it was blown up by the final survivor of the massacre, the ship’s armourer Stephen Weeks. Jack said about 175 Indians died as a result.  [pp. 162-63]



The Astorians believed Jack’s story initially. Shortly afterwards, however, a number of other Indians arrived. They confirmed Jack’s description of the destruction of Tonquin, but they stated that Jack was not on board at the time and was actually involved in the plot against the ship and responsible for the massacre of six men from the ship whom he had convinced the captain to send ashore. Because Jack had beaten a hasty retreat from Fort Astoria when the other men arrived, the Astorians finally concluded that he had not told the truth about his role in the massacre.

For a modern  account of the Tonquin tragedy, a Vancouver journalist named Claudia Cornwall interviewed the great-great grandson of a man named  Nookmis, who  was one of the key players in the event. While   Ross does not mention either the name of the tribe or the location  where the event occurred, Cornwall reports that the people involved were of the Tls-o-qui-aht or Clayoquot tribe and events occurred in Clayoquot Sound on the south coast of Vancouver Island. Nookmis was a war chief who was in charge of negotiations with Thorn. After a day’s negotiations, Thorn got frustrated and slapped Nookmis across the face with a pelt.  Alexander McKay, likely the most experienced trader at Astoria, begged Thorn to leave at this point; he refused. Next day the Tls-o-qui-aht appeared ready to trade, and Thorn let more and more men board the ship. Then suddenly Nookmis gave the order to attack with knives and clubs they had hidden under their clothing. All but one trader were killed. Next day the Tls-o-qui-aht returned to the ship, thinking that the one seriously wounded man aboard was not a threat. He, however, laid a trail of gunpowder to the ship’s magazine and set fire to it once the men were all on board. A few men, including Nookmis, managed to escape; but about 80 were killed.

The next Blog will describe how the Pacific Fur Company was taken over by the North  West Company and Ross’ first task as a Nor’Wester – that of horse trader.


Cornwall, Claudia, “The Suicide Bomber of Clayoquot Sound, Revived”

Ross, Alexander, Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River,  London: Smith, elder and Co., 1849

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.


Blog # 25 Alexander Ross Begins Fur Trade Career

Tags: Alexander Ross; Pacific Fur Company; Columbia River; Fort Astoria; Duncan McDougall; Chief Comcomly; Fort Okanagan

My last Blog described how Alexander Ross travelled from Montreal to the  Pacific coast via Cape Horn  after joining the Pacific Fur Company as a clerk. After several days exploring the area around the mouth of the Columbia River, the men decided that the best place to build their first  trading post was on the south side  of the  river between Point George  and Tonquin Point, about 12 miles from its mouth.

Mouth of Columbia


On April 12, 1811, the PFC men (including 11 men from the Sandwich Islands) finally were able to leave the Tonquin, the ship on which they had travelled from New York, and set up camp on shore. “However pleasing the change, to be relieved from a long and tedious voyage, and from the tyranny of a sullen despotic captain, the day was not one of pleasure, but of labour,” Ross wrote. The loss of the men in trying to locate the proper channel for entering the river “had cast a melancholy gloom over our most sanguine expectations….Silent and with heavy hearts, we began the toil of the day, in clearing away brush and rotten wood for a spot to encamp on.”  [p. 70 of Ross’ book, Adventures of the First settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River]

Ross found the scenery around the building site “varied and interesting.”  On the other hand, he said that the  building site “might challenge the whole continent to produce  a spot of equal extent presenting  more difficulties  to the settler” due to the gigantic trees up to 50 feet around which grew close together and  were intermingled with huge rocks. The men worked from sunrise to sunset from Monday to Saturday, and had to take turns on watch over night because they were nervous about the intentions  of the local people.  Every man was armed with both an axe for work and a gun for protection, despite the fact that the PFC had received assurances of friendship from Comcomly, the principal chief in the area. The men were all inexperienced – most had never used either axe or gun – but they soon learned. Work progressed slowly. Sometimes it took two days or more to fell one tree.  Then they needed time to remove stump and roots.


COMCOMLY (Wikipedia)

After nearly two months of such labour, they had scarcely cleared an acre of land. During that time, three men were killed by the natives, two were injured by falling trees, and one had his hand blown off by gunpowder. They also suffered from illness due to bad living conditions. The weather was foggy and rainy; they had no shelter; their food was bad and often scarce.  Comcomly told them that the more distant tribes were hostile to the whites; however they concluded that Comcomly had nourished the misunderstanding between the two groups in order to monopolize the trade “by buying up all the furs and selling them again to us at double their first cost” [p. 77]

On May 16, the fur traders finally laid the foundation of their first building which they named Fort Astoria.  The Tonquin left Astoria on June 1. Ross said that the men were aware that the presence of the ship protected the settlement, but no preparations were made to mount guns or raise palisades before the ship left. The first visit of the distant tribes to Fort Astoria following the departure of the ship went well due to the presence of Comcomly.

Fort Astoria


Shortly after this visit, however, a serious event took place. A trader named McDougall  was showing off the properties of a blunderbuss in a tent when it went off unexpectedly, tearing off the corner of Comcomly’s robe and creating a lot of dense smoke. The chief dashed from the tent, calling for help. His people gave a war-whoop and “fiercely menaced the whites with destruction.”  In the mean time, one of the PFC sentries — hearing the gun shot and seeing   Comcomly running from the tent — supposed that he had murdered some one. The sentry then fired after Comcomly, yelling “Treason! Murder!” At that sound, all of the PFC men flew to arms and advanced with fingers on their triggers. Fortunately McDougall and Ross knew what had happened and “hastened to run between the hostile ranks, making signs of peace and after a tumultuous moment, the mysterious affair was explained without bloodshed.”   [p. 84]

On July 22, the PFC sent off its first trading expedition of nine men (Including Ross) in “two clumsy Chinook canoes”, each laden with 15 or 20 bales of goods. Ross said that the “undertaking was extremely imprudent” for a number of reasons, including their lack of skill in managing canoes and their lack of knowledge of conditions on the rivers. For fear that the people they met were unfriendly, the PCF men travelled with a group of North West Company traders who were heading for Canada.  The inexperienced PFC men started the trip in high spirits and oblivious to the many dangers they would face in navigating the rivers.  “After our canoes were laden, we moved down to the water’s edge – one with a cloak on his arm, another with his umbrella, a third with pamphlets and newspapers for amusement, preparing, as we thought, for a trip of pleasure.”   [p. 103]

Although they began their trip in high spirits, they had travelled for less than three miles under sail with fair and strong winds when the wind shifted. Now, their canoes half-filled with water and were dashed unto the shore. They managed to get moving again, but a few miles further along they met worse difficulties.  They were driven onto a sandbar and stuck fast there as the waves dashed over them and the tide ebbed rapidly.

 Ross described what happened thus:

Down came the mast, sail, and  rigging about our ears; and in the hurry  and confusion, the  canoes got almost full of water, and we were well drenched: here we had to carry the goods and drag the canoes till we reached deep water again, which was no easy task. This disaster occupied us about two hours and gave us a foretaste of what we might expect during the remainder of the voyage. Cloaks and umbrellas, so gay in the morning, were now thrown aside for the more necessary paddle and carry strap, and the pamphlets and newspapers went to the bottom.[p. 104]

Ross also admitted that he initially was unable to make portages. He described an early attempt thus. Carrying only a roll of tobacco, he ascended the first bank. By the time he had reached the top he was breathless and could proceed no farther. Ross there met an Indian and offered him all the buttons on his coat to carry the tobacco to the end of the portage.  The man agreed; when he reached the end, however, he threw the tobacco down a steep precipice, leaving Ross “to recover it the best way I could.” As he struggled down the precipice and back up with the tobacco, Ross was even more out of breath, plus he had “the wag that played me the trick” and 50 others indulging in a hearty laugh at his expense. [pp. 110-11]

Oregon Country Map


 At the end of August, Ross’ party met Indians who appeared much friendlier than those they had met to date.  As a result, when they found a level spot near the mouth of the Okanagan River, they  built a small house there. They had travelled 600 miles up the Columbia during their 42-day voyage from Fort Astoria.  Four of the men returned to Astoria and the other four (including David Stuart) set off on a month-long trip to the north. Ross was left alone at the Okanagan post.

Stuart’s   month-long trip stretched over the whole winter, leaving Ross very lonely and worried for  Stuart’s safety.   Crowds of Indians visited Ross, who traded with them and began learning their language, “but the evenings were long and the winter dreary” for Ross. [p. 146]. He was so nervous that every night he primed his gun and barricaded the door of his house. Things were peaceful until one night when his dog began to bark. Fearing that some enemy was lurking in the cellar where he kept his goods hidden, he drew his gun and shot before he realized that there was a skunk sitting on a roll of tobacco in the cellar.  The shot blew the skunk “almost to atoms and so delicately perfumed everything in the house that I was scarcely able to live in it for days afterwards.” That was not the worst effect. Ross had to remove all his goods from the cellar to air them out. As long as the Indians did not see the rolls of tobacco and bales of goods in bulk, things went well, “but after the overwhelming exhibition of so much property there was no satisfying them.” [p. 148]

After a time, things finally returned to normal; but, when several more months passed without Stuart’s return, the Indians became troublesome again. Ross finally called all the leading men together and told them that Stuart had probably been delayed because he went off to get more trade goods for them. They should begin exerting themselves in hunting and procuring furs because he (Ross) would report favourably of them to Stuart if they did. This ploy was successful, even though Ross himself did not believe it. Finally, however, Stuart arrived back safely in late March 1812.  Ross had procured 1550 beaver pelts during that time.

My next Blog will describe events at Fort Astoria and the fate of the ship Tonquin and its men following Ross’ departure to Okanogan country.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.







Blog #24 Alexander Ross: Voyage from New York to the Columbia River aboard the Tonquin

Tags: Alexander Ross, Pacific Fur Company, Columbia River, Captain Jonathan Thorn,  the Tonquin, Falkland Islands, voyaging from New York to the Columbia River via Cape Horn

In my last Blog I introduced you to retired fur trader Alexander Ross and his family. This was the last of a series of six Blogs on the topic of education of girls in the Red River Settlement. The name Alexander Ross is familiar to many Manitobans because he was the author of a well-known history book (The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress and Present State) and because he was active in political and religious affairs at the Red River for nearly 30 years.

Alex Ross.jpeg

Alexander Ross in later life (Provincial Archives of Manitoba)

In the process of writing this education Blog, however, I learned that Ross led an interesting (and sometimes exciting) life as a fur trader in what is now southern British Columbia and the US northwest before retiring to the Red River. He also wrote two books describing his fur trade life.  As a result, I have decided to do a series of Blogs on Ross as a fur trader. With luck, they may form the basis of a book on the life of Ross and his family.

Today’s Blog describes Ross’ trip aboard the sailing ship Tonquin from New York to the Columbia River via Cape Horn in 1810-1811 after he was hired as a clerk for the Pacific Fur Company.   All quotes in this Blog are from his book Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River Being a Narrative of the Expedition Fitted  Out by John Jacob Astor to Establish the “Pacific Fur Company”. This book was published in London in 1849.

The Tonquin set sail from New York on September 6, 1810, with a crew of 22 and 33 passengers. Almost immediately, Ross began to disapprove of the captain, Jonathan Thorn, formerly of the American Navy. A group of mechanics, who had signed contracts with the Pacific Fur Company (PFC) indicating that they were entitled to the same treatment as the clerks, were ordered to accommodations on the Tonquin among the common sailors. When they complained and showed Captain Thorn their contracts, he punished them by ordering them to work as common seamen during the voyage.

Capt. Thorn

The PFC partners on board remonstrated with the captain to no avail, both parties “getting into a violent passion.” Alexander MacKay of the PFC said that his people would defend themselves “rather than suffer such treatment.” The captain responded that “he would blow out the brains of the first man who dared to disobey his orders on board his own ship.”

Another of the PFC men named David Stuart “by his gentle and timely interference put an end to the threatening altercation.”  However, bad feelings continued throughout the entire voyage. The captain restricted the partners to the starboard side of the quarter-deck; the clerks were forbidden to set foot on the quarter-deck altogether; and “as for the poor mechanics and Canadians, they were ruled over with a rod of iron,” according to Ross. [pp. 14-5]

Ross also had a poor opinion of the crew and their management of emergencies. One evening an alarm of fire was given. Ross, gave a farcical description of what happened next.

[Everyone assembled on deck] in a state of   wild confusion, some calling out to broach  the water casks, others running to and fro in search of water, some with mugs,  others with decanters, while the mȃitre de cuisine was robbed of his broth and dishwater – no one, in the hurry and bustle of the moment, ever thought of dipping the  buckets alongside. [p. 17]

On November 10, a violent gale began which lasted for 50 hours “without intermission”. It caused considerable damage.  A second and worse storm also occurred in November. Many sails were blown to rags; six of the ship’s guns were dismounted and rolled like thunder on the deck for some time. On the second day of the storm a huge wave “like a rolling mountain, passes over her deck ten feet high, and broke  with  a tremendous crash about the mainmast.” No lives were lost for everyone clung to the rigging. [p. 20]

On December 5 they were happy to reach the Falkland Islands because they were running short of drinking water. They also made repairs to damage done to the ship in the two storms. The captain originally said that they would set sail from the Falklands on December 11, but then (according to the partners) he changed the date to the 12th. As a result, nine men (including Ross) were ashore when about 2 p.m. on the 11th they saw the ship leave without them. It took them half an hour to reach the shore and the ship was three miles to sea by that time. They squeezed into a small boat which was scarcely large enough for half of their number. In this boat they followed the ship against wind and tide. Then the man who was bailing lost his bailing pail and one of their oars was broken in trying to recover the pail. The wind grew more violent and darkness was coming.  Then, just as “every ray of hope” vanished, the ship turned back toward them. “At length, after many ineffectual attempts and much manœuvring, we succeeded in getting on board,” Ross wrote.

The men then learned that Captain Thorn was only prevented from abandoning them    by a man named Robert Stuart, who seized a brace of pistols and told the captain to order the ship to go about; otherwise, he said, “You are a dead man this instant.” [p. 25]

Cape Horn and Falklands

Cape Horn and the Falkland Islands

On December 19 they saw Cape Horn, but due to adverse winds, they could not round it until Christmas morning.  They spent several weeks on the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) before leaving on the final leg of their journey to the mouth of the Columbia River on March 1, 1811. Ross wrote that the first sight of the Columbia “filled every heart with gladness.” Little did they know how premature such feelings were because the worst was yet to come.   The weather was stormy and Captain Thorn lay-to until he had satisfied himself that they had reached the entrance to the river.  Then, despite First Mate Fox protesting that sea was too rough to go out even with experienced men, Thorn sent Fox out in a small boat with five men — only one of whom was experienced in handling small boats — to locate the proper channel to enter the river. None of the men were ever seen again.  [pp. 54-5]

Ross map 1849

Mouth of Columbia River  –  Map from Ross’ 1849 book

Mouth of Columbia

Mouth of Columbia River  –  Modern map

Several more unsuccessful attempts were made to find the navigable channel. In the last attempt, five men set out and three drowned. Finally, on March 26, they reached shore with a loss of nine lives – which Ross blamed entirely on Thorn.


 Tonquin  at the mouth of the Columbia  (from Wikipedia)

My next Blog will describe the beginning of Ross’ fur trade career.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.

Blog #23 Education of Girls in the Red River Settlement: Part Six (Presbyterians and the Ross Family)


Reverend John Black; Presbyterian education at Red River; Alexander Ross; Sally (Sarah) Ross; Alexander Ross family; Reverend  George Flett

It was not until 1851 that the first Presbyterian minister arrived at the Red River. Despite Selkirk’s promise to the many Presbyterians among the original settlers that he would send them a minister of their faith, only Anglican and Catholic clergy served during the first 40 years of the Red River Settlement. Most Presbyterians attended the Anglican Church as a result, and the Anglican clergy usually made certain accommodations for the Presbyterians in their congregations.

John Black was the first Presbyterian clergyman at the Red River.  He immediately opened a parish school in the Kildonan area. The school was very basic with students sitting on backless benches around the walls, facing the centre of the room. They learned to read from the Bible. Black taught classics and French.

Kildonan School

Kildonan (West) School, built in 1864 [Manitoba Archives]


The Alexander Ross family

Alexander Ross, his Okanogan wife Sally (Sarah) and their five children arrived at the Red River in the mid 1820s from British Columbia (known as Columbia Country at the time).  Ross, who had been a school teacher in Ontario before becoming a fur trader, may have taught for a short time after his arrival at the Red River.  He stated that he had moved to the Red River in order that, “I could have the means of giving my children a Christian education.”

 Ross soon became a community leader. The activity closest to his heart appears to have been his fight to obtain a Presbyterian clergyman so that his children could obtain a Presbyterian education. By the time Reverend Black arrived however, almost all of the Ross children were grown up.

Sally Ross (née Timentwa) ca. 1798-1884 was daughter of an Okanogan chief. Although she lived to be 86 years old, she evidently suffered from ill health for many years before her death; and her daughters Jemima and Henrietta had to take over much of the household management by the time they were adults. Because marriage was the ultimate goal for daughters, learning household management was an important part of their education.

Alexander Ross (1783-1856)       Sally  Ross (ca. 1798-1884)

[Manitoba Archives]

Alexander Ross described the long battle to obtain a Presbyterian minister for the Red River in his book The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress and Present State. As a Presbyterian and father-in-law of Reverend Black, however, he may not be considered completely unbiased in his account.  Ross says that a stone church was completed in 1853, and “although small, it is considered the neatest and most complete church in the colony.”  His charge that the Anglican Bishop Anderson prohibited Presbyterian students from attending his schools seems questionable considering how long Presbyterian families had been attending the Anglican Church. [Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement, p. 360]

Undoubtedly Alexander Ross believed that girls should learn household management even if the family were wealthy enough to have servants; however he does not mention household management specifically in the following description of the daughters of a neighbouring family named Ballenden.  He said that so far as he could judge, the Ballenden girls were “perfectly accomplished ladies.” He went on to list their accomplishments:

They can play elegantly on the harp, guitar and piano, they sing melodiously and methodically. They can dance and waltz like true English dames, and I guess they can play the coquette too if that be any part of ornamental education. To tell the truth they are very nice girls. [quote from Bumstead article, p. 10]

Alexander Ross was very aware of the disabilities mixed-blood children faced at the Red River. He loved his children and had high expectations for them. He believed that they had to work very hard and get a good education to preserve their station in life. However, he wrote to Governor Coldwell in 1849 that many educated young men of mixed race were troublesome because they were not permitted positions in the upper class. As a result they led the lower classes.

At the time of Alexander Ross’ death, his son James wrote to his siblings:

Owing to Papa and William [an elder brother] and to our connection with our worthy minister Mr. Black…we have a certain standing and respectability, and we must keep it…We must show ourselves worthy of that esteem by our doings. [The Ross Family Papers Archives Manitoba]

Many of the 12 or 13 Ross children certainly fulfilled their father’s ambition for them. For example, daughters Henrietta and Mary both married Presbyterian ministers and Jemima married William Coldwell, clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. Jemima was sent to the home of her sister Henrietta and brother-in-law John Black after their marriage in 1853. There, Reverend Black tutored her in geography, grammar, French and ciphering; however she was soon recalled home because of her mother’s ill  health.  Henrietta also studied with her husband following their marriage.

Henrietta was described as “tall, attractive, [and] accomplished”. She had the advantage of education at the Red River Academy and was distinguished for her Christian character and worth.  The Blacks remained at the Red River for the rest of their lives.


John Black and Henrietta Ross [Manitoba Archives]

Mary, who married Reverend George Flett, apparently played an active role in his ministry as well. They lived in various places throughout the Northwest.


George Flett and Mary Ross [Manitoba Archives]


 Bumstead, J.M. and Wendy Owen, “The Victorian Family in Historical Perspective:, Manitoba History, No. 13, Spring 1987

Ross, Alexander, The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State, London: Smith, Elder, 1856

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.







Blog #22 Saskatchewan Museums and Bear Encounters

Tags: Saskatchewan travel; Saskatchewan museums;  Batoche; Duck Lake; 1885 Northwest Resistance;  1885 Riel Rebellion; Fort Battleford National Historic Site;  Frenchman Butte; Maple Creek; Val Marie; Willow Bunch;  black bears 

As mentioned at the end of Blog #21, I still have one more Blog left to complete my series on the education of girls during the Red River Settlement era (ca 1812-1870).  This week, however, I want to talk about some of the interesting places and museums my husband and I visited during our recent trip to Saskatchewan. If you live in Saskatchewan or plan to visit there this summer, you   might like to check some of them out.

The Saskatchewan trip was a multipurpose one.  We went to visit family and friends and at the same time we made a circuit to visit a dozen museums and gift shops across the province. I have found that museum gift shops are one of the best sources to sell the kind of history books that I write. Thus, the purpose of the circuit, in addition to seeing the country and visiting the museums, was   a mini book tour. We visited Rosthern, Batoche, Duck Lake, the Battlefords, Frenchman Butte, Maple Creek, Val Marie, Willow Bunch, Regina and Fort Qu’Appelle before returning home to Manitoba.  If you are not a resident of Saskatchewan, you may not be familiar with some of these places because they are very small or off the beaten track.  Although I will only discuss half of the places listed, that does not mean the remainder aren’t worth visiting. Actually I recommend all of them.

I had not realized until I started writing this Blog that four of the museums I visited mark the sites of events connected with the 1885 Northwest Resistance — otherwise known as the Riel Rebellion. You may know about the Batoche National Historic Site. It marks the location of the major battle between the Métis and the Canadian Government forces that took place between May 9 and 12, 1885, in which the Métis were soundly defeated. Batoche is certainly off the beaten path. There is no longer even a village there. It is located about half way between Saskatoon and Prince Albert, and few would be able to find it without a good map or GPS since it is not on a major highway.  The scenery is beautiful. The original church, rectory and cemetery are still there to visit. The rectory served as a combination residence for the priest, chapel, school and local post office. Now there is also a large new museum and interpretive centre on the site.

Batoche Cemetery

Batoche Cemetery overlooking the South Saskatchewan River

(Taken by Irene Ternier Gordon in 1996)

The nearby community of Duck Lake is also worth visiting for its museum and to view the murals painted on many of the buildings along the main street. The North-West Mounted Police were defeated there in a skirmish with the Métis led by Gabriel Dumont on March 26, 1885.


 “ A Métis family”, one of the many murals on the main street of Duck Lake.

(Taken by Irene Ternier Gordon in 1996)

The Battlefords — the city of North Battleford and its smaller neighbour Battleford – have several museums worth a visit, including Fort Battleford National Historic Site.   Women and children took refuge in the fort on March 30, 1885, when several First Nation bands arrived and looted the town.  Three weeks later Lieutenant-colonel William Otter arrived to relieve the siege with no fighting taking place.


Fort Battleford National Historic Site (Wikipedia)

Another interesting museum (and tea house) connected with the Northwest Resistance is at Frenchman Butte off Highway #3, northeast of Lloydminster and about 40 km from the Saskatchewan-Alberta border.  We had an excellent tour there, guided by a university student whose family has lived in the area for three generations. In addition to the museum, you can tour the rifle pits overlooking the scenic valley of the North Saskatchewan River where a clash took place between the military and a First Nations band led by Mistahimaskwa  on May 28, 1885.   Also worth a visit is the nearby site of the Fort Pitt fur trade post that was captured by Mistahimaskwa on April 17. He finally surrendered to the North-West Mounted Police on July 2.

Leaving central Saskatchewan, we next headed to Maple Creek in the southwest corner of the province just south of the Trans-Canada Highway. It is an attractive small town that is advertised as being in “Genuine Cowboy Country” where the “spirit of the Old West is alive and well.” Here are located two museums – the S.W. Saskatchewan Oldtimers’ Museum and the Jasper Cultural and Historical Centre. The Jasper is well worth visiting; however the Oldtimers is undergoing renovations this summer so we did not see it.  Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the nearby Fort Walsh National Historic Site commemorating the North-West Mounted Police; however we had visited it on a previous trip and highly recommend it.


An pronghorn antelope near Maple Creek (Taken by Irene Ternier Gordon)

Next stop on our trip was the little town of Val Marie at the junction of Highways #4 and #18.  It is home of Prairie Wind and Silver Sage, which is an excellent combined eco-museum,   book store and gift shop with a coffee bar. The town is also a gateway to the Grasslands National Park, which is well worth visiting.


A view of Grasslands National Park (Taken by Irene Ternier Gordon)

The last of the museums I want to mention is in the town of Willow Bunch.  The museum is located in a former convent built in 1914. The chief claim to fame for Willow Bunch is the giant Edouard Beaupré who was born there in 1881.  He grew to be 8 ft. 3 in. tall and weighed 374 pounds before he died of tuberculosis in 1904.

Edouard Beaupre

Edouard Beaupré and his father (Wikipedia)

I don’t plan to talk about the personal part of my trip except for one event. In recent years, it seems that we are hearing of more and more encounters with bears, further and further south in both Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I grew up in the Battlefords area, and you very rarely would hear of a local bear sighting when I was a child.  If you did, it was not likely to be legitimate.  Now bears seem to be a regular occurrence. While visiting my sisters, we saw two bears in a single afternoon. First, a small bear walked in front of my sister Betty’s house, stopping long enough to attempt to knock down a bird feeder. Shortly afterwards,  at my sister Judy’s house nearby, we saw a larger bear running across her front yard on its hind legs, waving its front legs in the air like a monster in a horror movie.  My nephew Johnny raises bees, so he  rushed out of the front door with his rifle hoping to protect his hives by shooting into the air and scaring away the bear. That plan did not work because he realized that he had grabbed the wrong clip of bullets. Johnny was followed by his parents, who stood on the step yelling at the bear.   Johnny rushed back into the house for the right bullets. In his hurry, however, he slammed the door so hard that the window glass smashed all over the step. The yelling, the sound of breaking glass, or a combination thereof scared the bear away.

While that bear encounter ended OK and was even rather humorous, some neighbours had a sad experience when a bear attacked and killed a miniature horse belonging to their eight-year-old daughter. One shudders to think that the bear could have attacked the girl had she been present at the time.

Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website at


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.



Blog #21 Education of Girls in Red River Settlement: Part Five (Later English Education)

Tags: Red River Settlement education of girls; Bishop David Anderson; Mrs. Mills and daughters Harriet and Mary Louisa; Red River Flood of 1852; St. Cross Ladies’ School; Matilda Davis Ladies’ School;

Bishop Anderson

Reverend John MacCallum, head of the Red River Academy, died in 1849 just before the arrival of Reverend David Anderson, who had been named the first Anglican Bishop of Rupert’s Land – the name given to the Anglican diocese in the area which included the Red River. Bishop Anderson had been offered the Red River Academy in MacCallum’s will under certain terms. Anderson agreed, paying ₤430 for school buildings, livestock, books and furnishings.  He spent another ₤700 to improve the school building and enlarge the library to 800 books.  He initially renamed the school St. John’s Collegiate School and in 1855 changed its name St. John’s College. Anderson’s ambitious new plans proved too ambitious and the college closed in 1859. It was reopened in 1866 by Anderson’s successor Bishop Robert Machray.

In 1850, Recorder Adam Thom attributed the problems which would ultimately close the school to Bishop Anderson and his sister. Thom wrote to Governor Simpson as follows:

 Through the uncongenial combination of his disinterestedness, which amounts to apathy, and her parsimony, which amounts to cruelty, their whole establishment has fallen into a sad condition. Palpable dirt in every apartment…itch uncared for among two-thirds of the school boys—lice…want of water unless in the river…insufficiency of food, both as to quantity and quality…fuel to be found…only by chopping it…and lastly their two girls, both of whom had long been with Mr. MacCallum, in the family-way before the end of six months.

[Note: The two girls referred to likely were working as servants at the school. Neither of the   Andersons had daughters so the girls could not have literally been “their” girls.]  [Bredin, pp. 15-6]

Anderson described the flood of 1852 in his book. At the time of the flood, there was the need to support 60 households –including his own home, the St. John’s Collegiate School and St. Cross Ladies’ School. The only part of Andersons’ house that was habitable was a large store-loft over the kitchen.  On May 6, Anderson wrote that a boat had come to evacuate Mrs. Mills, teacher in charge at St. Cross, and   her students, plus a few boys from his school.

In late May, Anderson and Mrs. Mills met with Governor Simpson to   discuss the schools. Anderson thought they should reduce the number of students in case of scarcity during the upcoming winter as a result of the flood  The governor “anxious that the female school should continue, as so great a benefit to the country” offered that the HBC would supply provisions for the next winter at the usual price.  [Anderson, pp. 64-5]

The following two paragraphs should ideally have appeared in Blog # 19 about the Red River Academy; however I didn’t have this information to hand when I wrote that Blog.

A former student of the Academy described it in an interview as an elderly woman.  She said that it was in a pretty ravine formed by a creek near the Red River. The building had two wings – one for the boys and another for the girls – joined by a dining room. There were separate gardens surrounded by large trees for boys’ and girls’ recreation.

The promoters of education at the Red River were said to be discouraged at the difficulty in keeping the female teachers which they had gone to the trouble and expense of bringing out from England.  The women seemed to marry retired HBC officers almost as soon as they arrived. One joke making the rounds at the time was that the educational promoters – in desperation – finally decided to offer a position to a woman of 85. However when they asked her for a guarantee that she would not marry, she said that she could not promise. “If a rich Hudson’s Bay magnate” should propose, she admitted that she might accept. Negotiations were broken off.      [Marion Bryce article, pp. 16-8]

St. Cross Ladies’ School

The female half of the Red River Academy finally closed due to lack of a governess. Bishop Anderson then appealed to the Church Missionary Society for help. As a result,  in 1851 Mrs. Ann Mills and her two daughters Mary Louisa and Harriet came from England to take over the girls’ school as a continuation of the Red River Academy. It was established in the Cochrans’ former house [See Blog #18] and became known as St. Cross Ladies’ School.

Mrs. Mills taught French, German, music and drawing and social etiquette. Although she remained at St. Cross until 1857, she had made no secret of her dislike of the Red River and believed it was futile to try to make local girls into proper English ladies.  She returned to England with her daughter Harriet, while Mary Louisa married and remained in Canada. Mrs. Mills took a position at Queen’s College in London and Harriet continued her education there.


Harriet Mills following her marriage to Reverend Michael Boomer in 1878

 Anderson wrote, following Mrs. Mills’ departure, “She expected too much and looked for the refinement and manners and society of London in this very remote corner of the world. In this way she rather disliked the place and did not conceal her dislike, which is always unfortunate for successful labour.” [Bredin, p. 17]

At least some of Mrs. Mills’ former students did not agree with Anderson. An elderly woman named Jane Tait (née Inkster) recalled her student days at St. Cross.  “We used to get up at 7 o’clock winter and summer and all go for a walk in charge of Miss Harriet Mills. Mrs. Mills was clever and kind, and we were all very fond of her.” The students had a very simple diet including bread and butter with meat once a day. There were about 30 students at the school at that time.  [Healy, p. 90]

Matilda Davis’ School

Following the closure of St. Cross and the St. John’s Collegiate School, English secondary education at the Red River was available only at Matilda Davis’ School in St. Andrews Parish and at a school run by Samuel Pritchard in St. Paul’s Parish. Miss Davis was born ca 1820 at St. Andrews Parish.  Her father was an HBC officer. After being educated in England, she set up a school in the family home with an English woman named Emma Lane as assistant. Around 1858 Miss Davis built a large stone residence for both students and staff to live in. The classroom was in a wooden building behind the stone house. The HBC offered Miss Davis a grant of 100 pounds sterling for her school for three years.




Matilda Davis and Miss Davis’ School, ca late 1850s or early 1860s,

Archives of Manitoba

Another teacher at the Davis School was an English woman named Eleanor Cripps (who later became wife of Captain William Kennedy). She was a good singer and taught music at Miss Davis’ School, as well as playing the organ at St. Andrews’ Church and training the choir.

Eleanor Cripps

Eleanor Cripps,

Libraries and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3451275

Matilda’s sister Nancy, assisted by a woman named Sarah Atkinson, was the housekeeper. Their work included rising at 4 a.m. to light the stove, hauling water and milking the cows. Food was scarce. A student named Mary Kennedy said they ate mashed potatoes with milk, bread and butter, and tea with milk for breakfast. At other meals they ate pemmican made into stew or fish if there was no fresh or frozen meat,

Another student, Jane Mary Truthwaite, described attending the Davis School when she was 10. “I remember our early breakfasts and our stately walks, and how Miss Emma Lane assisted Miss Davis in the work of the school,” The school had about 30 students, all boarders, from ages 10 to 18. “Miss Davis was extremely particular about the accuracy of our spelling, and even more particular about the propriety of our behaviour and our manner of walking and sitting.” People said that “you could pick out Miss Davis’ pupils anywhere.”  A girl sat down “as though she had a basket of eggs balanced on her head.”  They also read the scriptures daily and attended St. Andrew’s Church twice on Sundays. [Healy, p. 135]

In addition to the training mentioned above by Miss Truthwaite, students studied geography, music, French, history, drawing and dancing. They also learned needlework, which included making shirts for the boys (presumably students at the nearby boys’ school).

 Janet Muckle (née Gunn), yet another student, began attending Miss Davis’ School when she was 12. She often heard Miss Davis say that her ambition was to help the women of her native country by education. The classroom contained a long table, with one class sitting on each side and Miss Davis at the head. She “was an accomplished woman and an excellent teacher” who spoke fluent French. As a result of her education, Janet Gunn was appointed teacher at the nearby community of Little Britain when she left school.

 Miss Davis’ School closed some time after 1870 and she died in 1875.

St. Andrew's Church

St. Andrew’s Church, 1860,

sketch by Nanton Marble, Archives of Manitoba


Bredin, Thomas F., “The Red River Academy”,  The Beaver, Winter 1974, Outfit 305:3

Anderson, David, Notes of the Flood at the Red River, London: Hatchard, 1852

Bryce, Marion, “Early Red River Culture”, Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 1, No. 57, 1901

Healy, W. J., Women of the Red River, Winnipeg: Women’s Canadian Club, 1923

Upcoming Blogs

In my July 12 Blog I will leave the topic of education and talk about some of the excellent museums which I recently visited in Saskatchewan – including those in Batoche, Duck Lake, Frenchman’s Butte and Willow Bunch.

Then on July 26, I will complete my series of Blogs on education by talking about the education of the Ross family and the arrival of the first Presbyterian clergyman at the Red River in 1851.


Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at


or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.



Bog # 20 Education of Girls in Red River Settlement: Part Four: French Catholic Education

Tags: Bishop Provencher; Lord Selkirk; Angélique and Marguerite Nolin; Grey Nuns; St. Boniface; Rosalie Gauthier; St. Mary’s Academy in Winnipeg; Manitoba French education;

 Lord Selkirk and the HBC Support Education

 The Bishop of Quebec sent the first three Catholic missionaries, led by Joseph Norbert Provencher, to the North West in 1818. In his instructions to them he wrote:

Missionaries will take particular care of Christian education among children, and for this they will establish schools and catechisms in all the localities they may have occasion to visit…The missionaries will establish their home near Fort Douglas on the Red River [and] will build there a church, a house and a school. For their support they will take the most advantageous way to utilize the lands that will be given to them.  [Tache, p. 1]

At this time, Lord Selkirk gave Catholic authorities in Quebec two tracts of land “the whole to help the work of the Catholic missionaries in Red River country”.  The mission was named St. Boniface. Immediately upon their arrival in July 1818, the missionaries constructed a building which became the first Catholic school at the Red River. Beginning in September 1818 the children were taught reading, writing and catechism for a few hours each day.  It is unclear whether both boys and girls were taught because Provencher wrote to the bishop in Quebec six months later, “If we had some nuns for the instruction of the girls, they would already find work to do.”  [Jaenen, pp. 8-10]

At a meeting of Hudson’s Bay Company council in July 1825 it was decided to make an annual grant of ₤50 to support the St. Boniface mission. The HBC also offered free passage to missionaries coming from Quebec as long as they were listed as teachers rather than priests. By 1830, the HBC council voted to increase their annual grant to ₤150. Equal grants were made to support Catholic and Protestant education and both were granted land on which to build schools.

A seminarian named Jean Harper arrived in St. Boniface in 1822 and was put in charge of teaching junior students. In 1827 he was sent to St. François-Xavier where he built a chapel and began instructing some girls and young women who couldn’t travel to St. Boniface. During the winter, the wife of the mission’s farm manager began to teach the girls to work in flax and wool. [Jaenen, pp. 13-4]

 The Nolin Sisters, Angélique and Marguerite

 A prominent family named Nolin arrived at the Red River from Sault Ste. Marie in 1819 on the invitation of Lord Selkirk. Jean-Baptiste Nolin was a French-Canadian and his wife Marie-Angélique Couvret was Métis-Ojibwa.  Their daughters had been well educated in Montreal, so Bishop Provencher asked one of them (Angélique) to teach the girls in St. Boniface. Her father, however, would not let her go.  He was elderly and wanted his daughters to stay home and look after him. In a letter to a Quebec Archbishop Provencher explained that J-B. Nolin “has all sorts of petty excuses, but above all he does not wish that his daughter be a servant. It is certainly not the status that I wish to give her.”   [Boyd thesis, p. 51]

 Following J-B Nolin’s death in 1826, Provencher again approached Angélique about teaching school. Finally in  1829 she and her sister Marguerite opened a school which they operated until 1834. That year, they left for Baie St. Paul near present-day St.  Francois Xavier west of St. Boniface where they continued teaching for the next ten years and also helped a priest named Belcourt in translating an Ojibwa dictionary.

 School for Weaving

 A school to teach girls how to do weaving and other domestic arts was established by Bishop Provencher in 1838. Governor Simpson agreed to pay the salaries of two women instructors for three years if the St. Boniface mission provided them with board and lodging. The school began well, but it burnt down the following year and all of the equipment was destroyed.  It was not rebuilt. One of the instructors was Ursule Grenier, the bishop’s housekeeper, who had come from Lower Canada.

 Bishop Provencher

Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher


Sisters of Charity (Grey Nuns)

 Provencher visited the Grey Nuns in Montreal to request some sisters to come to the St. Boniface Mission at the Red River to provide education for the daughters of the French-speaking people of the area. The first four sisters arrived on June 21, 1844. They were Marie Louise Valade, Marie Marguerite Eulalie Lagrave (trained nurse and musician), Gertrude Coutlée, and Marie Hedwidge La France.  By July 11, they had organized a class for girls, and soon after a class for boys was begun. The nuns continued to teach both boys and girls until the Brothers of the Christian School of Montreal arrived in 1854. After that time the nuns only taught girls. Sister Lagrave soon realized that there was as much or more need for nursing care than for education.  In 1871 the Grey Nuns opened the first hospital in the North West.

Marie Louise Valade was chosen as superior-foundress of the convent at St. Boniface for several reasons. She had vast experience as a treasurer and good leadership skills. Another important qualification was that she was Métis and it was felt that she “would have an instinctive understanding of the young girls and women she could expect to be in charge of.”   [Mitchell, p. 11] At her death at the age of 53 in 1861, Mother Valade left a well-organized convent, three schools, and a staff of 21 nuns.

Sister La France began as the girls’ teacher, with 27 students “whose docility and intelligence were really remarkable” according to her. The parents paid tuition of 20 sols plus one cord of wood per student each year.  [Mitchell, pp.  29, 31] In 1846, Sister Ouimet and Sister Marguerite Connolly (a young Métis woman who entered the Grey Nuns order at the Red River) were also assigned as teachers. Sister Lagrave soon formed an excellent choir.

Sister Ste. Therese, who became known as Soeur le Docteur because of her medical skill, spent most of her time treating the sick; however she was also a teacher and was one of the founders of Ėcole Sainte-Marie which evolved into St. Mary’s Academy to serve the English speaking Catholics across the Red River from St. Boniface. St. Mary’s Academy continues to operate today as an all-girls high school in the city of Winnipeg. Classes began in 1869 with the assistance of Red River Governor William McTavish and his wife. Because the Grey Nuns’ primary mandate was as nurses rather than teachers, they soon requested that the bishop find someone else to take over this new school.  Bishop Taché was successful in recruiting some Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary for this task. They arrived in 1874. Initially both boys and girls attended the school until three Christian Brothers arrived the following year to set up a school for boys.

Sister Laurent (born in Montreal in 1832) was one of the Grey Nuns who arrived at the Red River in 1850. She was interviewed for the book Women of Red River when she was 92. She recounted how she had dreamed of serving in a far-off mission field from her childhood, so she volunteered to   come to the Red River. She was initially asked to teach school; however, because she was a very small woman, she declined when she saw some of the boys she would have as students.  She said, “I do not want to teach school. Those boys are too big, and they will not mind me, I am sure.” Instead, she visited the local people in their homes and spent many years as a housekeeper at the St. Boniface convent. She later helped to establish a convent at the nearby community of St. Norbert.  [Healy, p. 113]

 Grey Nuns

Sister Ste-Therese                                             Sister Margaret Connolly

Archives Grey Nuns of Manitoba

 In 1862, a local priest wrote in praise of the education offered by the Grey Nuns:

As to the pupils of the boarding school, I dare say their examinations results could honour our fine convents in Lower Canada. The program of studies is exactly the same: French, English, history, mathematics, drawing and music…They also teach spinning, weaving and knitting besides sewing. [McGuire, p. 5]

In the early 1860s classes began at St. Charles along the Assiniboine River at the western edge of the modern city of Winnipeg. About 40 children were taught by two former students of the Grey Nuns, Adeline Dauphinas and Marie Riel (sister of Louis).

Rosalie Gauthier (née Germain)

In addition to the Nolin sisters and the Grey Nuns, another French teacher was a married woman at a time when most female teachers would have been either single or widowed.  Rosalie Germain married Jean-Baptiste Gauthier when she was 16 and became mother of 14 children.  She was born and educated in Quebec and came to the Red River in 1853. She and her husband took up a farm at Lorette south of St. Boniface where—despite her rapidly expanding family—she began teaching   children in the daytime and adults at night.  She continued teaching there and later at nearby Ste. Anne when the family moved there. “When my babies came, the women of the settlement used to help me with them, until my older girls grew up, so that I might be able to continue teaching,”  she said. During her first years at Ste. Anne she taught in her own home—she in the afternoon and the priest in the morning.  School did not operate during harvest time because everyone had to help with it.  [Healy, pp. 117-18]

The first cathedral was  destroyed by fire in 1860. Sara Riel wrote a description of the fire to her brother Louis. It is likely that the girls she refers to were students:

The girls were busy melting tallow for candles to beautify the altar for Christmas. The girls had put too much tallow into the vessel when it boiled over and caught fire. They passed water on it but the flames spread more and more and it a second the kitchen floor was ablaze.[McGuire, p. 11]

 St. Boniface Cathedral

St. Boniface Cathedral 1858

Archives of Manitoba


Healy, W.J. Women of the Red River, Winnipeg: Women’s Canadian Club, 1923

Jaenen, C.J. “Foundation of Dual Education at Red River, 1811-34”, MHS (online)

McGuire, Rita SGM, “The Grey Nuns in the Red River settlement, 1844-70” (online)

Mitchell, Estelle, The Grey Nuns of  Montreal and the Red River Settlement 1844-1948


Print copies of all my books and an e-book (e-pub version) of Letitia Hargrave: Mistress of York Factory may be purchased through my website   at http/ or by e-mailing me at

Most of my books are also available as Kindle e-books from Amazon.