One of the most common tropes of the romance novel is that the heroine be daring, spunky, and unconventional. Milquetoast heroines rarely invoke readers affection and long-term attention. Lottie, in The Man For Her, is just such an unconventional heroine, unwed mother and tough farmer in a man’s land.
Monday was International Women’s Day, so in tribute to daring women everywhere I present to you two real-life women who dared, who defied the conventions of their time, and travelled the untrodden paths.
Martha Louise Black was born in 1866, one of twin girls. When the their father was invited to meet his first children, he commented gravely to their mother that he was sorely disappointed. He had wanted a son. Her twin did not survive, but Martha grew strong and beautiful and intelligent. She received a first class education and was presented to society. She married Will Purdy and for ten years lived the life of a society hostess in Chicago. Then gold was discovered in the Klondyke.
Martha, her brother George and husband Will made plans to travel to the Yukon and cash in on the gold rush. However, at the last minute, Will changed his mind. Martha was incensed and refused to give up her plans. Travelling with her brother and three other men, she set off on the gruelling trip north. The took a steamer from Seattle. The boat was dirty, crowded and overloaded. The captain frequently drunk. There were no luxuries aboard and Martha learned to use her dishpan for breadmaking, bathing and clothes washing.
When they reached Skagway there was no accommodation and they slept in tents or a lean-to on piles of hay. They had money, so instead of carrying their supplies up the 42 miles of the Chilkoot trail, they were able to hire packers. Still the sight of hundreds of dead horses who’d slipped and fallen to their deaths, filled Martha with fear. Her long skirts, corsets and bloomers hampered her as she struggled through sucking mud, clambered over sharp rocks and eventually faced the final 3000 foot climb up a nearly vertical rock face. She was so tired that the men behind helped to push her up the last 100 feet. When she stumbled and cut her foot on a sharp rock, she sat down and wept. Her brother, unmoved by her distress admonished her to “buck up and be a man!” (From her memoir My Ninety Years.)
When they arrived at the top of the trail, she was was cold and miserable and asked for a fire. Wood cost two bits a pound. Her brother relented and order a five dollar fire. It lasted for one hour but long enough for her to warm up and dry her clothes.
As if the climb up the Chilkoot wasn’t hard enough, she then had to get down another steep, rock-strewn trail that left her with bleeding hands and feet. The final leg of the journey was by water through rapids. It was rumoured that any man who took a woman on that dangerous journey would be fined $100.00. Martha went anyway, nearly capsizing in the Miles Canyon. She finally arrived in Dawson City in 1895.
The promise of gold did not materialize as she had hoped, but she fell in love with the North. Although she returned to her home for a few years, she was not content and returned to Dawson City. In her memoirs she writes, “what I wanted was not shelter and safety, but liberty and opportunity.”
Martha went on to sell her gold claims, operate a sawmill and raise two of her sons in Dawson. She married George Black who was eventually appointed to be commissioner of the Yukon. Martha Black moved into Government House as its chatelaine. She made sure the “people’s house” was open to men and women of all standings, not just the wealthy and powerful. George recruited a regiment to serve in WWI and Martha joined him in London. When the war was over they returned to Canada and George continued in politics, eventually becoming the speaker of the House of Commons. Years later, with George in poor health and herself aged 70, Martha ran for the Yukon seat in parliament and won.
Martha died at the age of 91, in her beloved Yukon.
In 1908 Agnes Deans Cameron, having lost her teaching certification, was making a new life for herself as a travel writer. To this end she set out with her niece, Jessie, to travel to the Arctic Ocean. She went to the premier travel company of the time, Thomas Cook, to make the arrangements. Despite their claim to have guides everywhere, the Cook company could not provide a route or transportation to the Western Arctic. They suggested she go to Egypt instead!
While the Thomas Cook Agency could not get Agnes to her destination, The Hudson’s Bay Company could. They also supplied a letter of credit that could be used to buy “bacon and beans and blankets, sturgeon-head boats, guide’s services and succulent sowbelly, at any point between Fort Chimo on Ungava Bay and Hudson’s Hope-on-the -Peace, between Winnipeg-on-the-Red and that point in the Arctic where the seagull whistles over the whaling -ships at Herschel.” (Cameron, The New North.)
To prepare for this journey that require shooting rapids, navigating sandbars, sleeping under the stars, cooking over an open fire and sharing the air with mosquitos and horseflies, Cameron cut her hair, opted for a wide-brimmed campaign hat and sturdy shoes. She kept her thick skirts but added several short jackets. She also had to take her own tent, mattress, blankets, raingear, hatchet and copper kettle.The journey began easily enough with the train from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Then it was on to Athabasca Landing over a treacherous road called the “bugs, mud and moonshine trail.” They were supposed to ride in the mail stage, but the mud was so deep that passengers walked to lighten the load for the horses.
From Athabasca Landing they took to the water, running 90 miles of rapids in open, flat-bottomed scows. By the time they reached the Mackenzie River and the Hudson’s Bay stern-wheeler, the S.S. Grahame she is overjoyed to have a room with a bath!
Most of the rest of their journey was by water, sometimes in canoes or rafts, other times in a stern-wheeler. Along the way they visited Indigenous settlements, missionary outposts and Hudson Bay forts. Agnes made copious notes and took rolls and rolls of pictures for the books and articles she intended to write when the journey was complete.
The return journey was just as rigorous, but this time she knew what to expect. After six months, she returned to Winnipeg, her mind full of the images she’d seen and predictions for the lumber industry, the oil patch, and Arctic sovereignty. The provincial legislature in British Columbia offered to reinstate her teaching certificate, but Agnes was now focussed on the larger world. She became an international traveller, writer and lecturer. She took up bicycle racing and drove in car rallies. She died suddenly of appendicitis in 1912. Her funeral was one of the largest Victoria had ever seen with most of the elite of the city in attendance.
As one who is more settler than seeker, I can’t help but admire the determination and passion these two women showed in seeking their own paths despite the obstacles, not least of which was the fact they were women.
When we read of gritty heroines in our romance novels, let us not forget the real-life women who dared to go their own ways.