Earlier in the year, we were introduced to James Douglas, the founding father of British Columbia, through Ms. Ferguson. I was impressed by how much one man could affect the development of our large province, but curious about the involvement of the many women who played an equal, if not larger role in the formation of BC.
When it came time to pick an investigation topic, I was leafing through the socials textbook (Horizons: Canada Moves West) when I came upon Danger at the Fort: Amelia Douglas Saves the Day. Cheesy, but intriguing.
Amelia Douglas, as guessed by her name, was James Douglas’s wife. They met when she was 14. James was 23, a young clerk working for her father, a chief factor. Two years later, they were married in the local custom (with clergy). Amelia, the daughter of NWC trader William Connolly and Suzanne Pas-de-Nom, daughter of a Cree chief, and James, a Scot of mixed European and African ancestry. What a couple!
In the early days of the fur trade, marriage between European traders and First Nations women created unions that benefited both parties. The man became related to important trading partners who could be counted on to come to his trading post, as well as protect him in times of trouble. The woman had economic security, and achieved an elevated status among her own people.
As it turned out, Amelia’s pat in BC history was played out a few weeks after their marriage. James was temporarily in charge of Fort James when he received news that a man who committed a murder several years ago was hiding with relatives at the Carrier village. Not the most level-tempered man, he decided to take action without considering the consequences of breaking the local customs.
He took some men, entered the village, and in short order, the murderer was beaten to death with some garden hoes. Not long afterwards, Chief Kwah stormed into the fort in the middle of night with thirty or forty of his people and threatened Douglas’s life. Kwah was furious with Douglas for marching in his village and bludgeoning one of his guests to death, a complete undermining of his authority.
It was Amelia’s quick thinking that saved her husband’s life. Diving in the midst of things with her Carrier dagger, she was disarmed. Fortunately, she understood that if the Carriers were given compensation, their honour would be satisfied and they would release James. She stood between the him and the Chief and offered him trade goods in exchange for James’s life. Kwah hesitated but in time, accepted the goods as payment for the insult to his family. They agreed, and Amelia and another woman ran upstairs to begin throwing down trade goods until the Carriers were satisfied. They released James and returned to their village.
The Rest of It
As was the way, women of traders seldom left their quarters which suited Amelia just fine. Even when he was made governor of Victoria, Sir James never insisted that his wife perform any of the duties often expected of someone in her position. On the rare occasions that she did so, it was remarked that she had “a gentle and kindly manner”. Shy and aloof from the social life of the colony, perhaps because of the stigma surrounding her heritage, she preferred the company of her husband and her children. She was Douglas’s principal advisor in his dealings with aboriginals. She taught her children the stories and legends of their ancestry, their Cree language and customs. Having suffered from giving birth to thirteen children, she sympathetic about the needs of others and offered nursing care to the ill and compassionate midwifery when women had difficulty in childbirth.
Both Amelia Connolly, she passed away quietly in 1890 at the age of 78 as Lady Amelia Douglas, ‘founding mother of British Columbia’.