Category: Historical Nuggets (page 1 of 4)

Another Female First

This post was inspired by a blog from Jacqui Nelson on the first woman poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith.  Kudos to Jacqui for discovering this exceptional woman and a tip of the hat to Ina for creating her mark in the world.

A Canadian woman, Agnes Deans Cameron, has a similar story. Born in 1863 in Victoria, B.C. she became a trailblazer for women. At the tender age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate. Because she was so young, her certificate only allowed her to teach in a school where other teachers were employed. Her first posting was at Angela College, a girls school in Victoria. Later, she became the first female to teach at the Boy’s School  and then Victoria High School. It was here she ran into her first conflict with the mores of the age.

A male student, who’d already failed his course four times, refused the assignment she gave him.  The strap was the accepted punishment for such insolence, but this boy left school rather than submit to corporal punishment. He was suspended but his father complained. Eventually, Agnes was fired. The whole affair was written about in the newspapers, talked of on the street, and preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Agnes was a cause celebre.

Later she became the first female principal in British Columbia, with her appointment to that post at South Park School.

Deans Cameron was breaking new ground on other fronts as well. She attended the Chicago Worlds Fair, travelling by herself in an era when respectable women travelled with a companion.

She protested a pay raise for male teachers while female teachers were denied such an increase. As a principal the differing pay scales did not affect her but she felt “as citizens we have a duty to participate, a duty that we cannot relegate to others.” Her outspokenness led her into a conflict with the school trustees and, eventually, the department of education of the province. It was a long and twisting trail, but in the end, Cameron was fired, and her teaching certificate revoked. At the same time, the government was in the process of expropriating her home. As the sole support for her mother and sister, the loss of her living had huge consequences.

on Arctic trek with Jessie Brown

But Deans Cameron was not easily dismissed. She had already been writing columns for various newspapers. Now she embarked on a journey to the Arctic, riding on Hudson’s Bay trading barges and canoes, with her niece, Jessie Brown. As a result of this experience she became a popular speaker and writer. As well as the newspaper columns, she now penned a book, The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 journey through Canada to the Arctic. The book was a huge success and Agnes was much in demand as a speaker, in Canada and the United States.

One would think she’d had adventures enough but Agnes was always curious. She raced bicycles in her youth. Later she joined the Canadian Highway Association for a drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. Sadly, this was her last adventure. A few days after the rally she died of appendicitis.

Ironically, Victoria, which had vilified her during the education debates, now welcomed her home as a favoured daughter. She was buried from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one of the largest funerals the city had seen. The pallbearers, included the superintendent of schools.

If you’d like to read the full account of Agnes Deans Cameron’s life, her biography is called Against the Current and is available here.

 

 

“Princesses”

As a writer of historical fiction, I’m keen on research. Even though my works are fiction, I believe it is important that they be “true” where non-fictional characters or events are concerned. Sometimes my research is a little dry — a task that must be completed, but not my favourite part of writing.

Sometimes the research turns into a page-turning read. Such is the case with Flora Fraser’s Princesses – the Six Daughters of George III.  The book is meticulously researched using letters and diaries written by the princesses and by their governesses and friends. Ms Fraser received permission from Queen Elizabeth II to delve into the royal archives for material. It’s a bit of a tome, 400 pages of close print, plus another 100 of footnotes, but each sentence is packed with detail.

In some ways, this is a sad story. Six lively, intelligent, educated women of the highest rank, whose lives were constrained, cabined and controlled. When they should have been enjoying parties and courtships, they were sitting attendance on their parents. The highlight of their days would be a walk outside. To go riding was considered a high thrill and slightly risque.

The book makes clear that the king’s daughters could have no degree of independence without marriage. Their father promised to find suitable matches,  but rejected every suitor offered, and, in the end, decided he couldn’t bear to part with his daughters so made no move to see them in their own establishments. Don’t forget, this is also the king who went mad.

Perhaps George III could be forgiven for his mistreatment of his daughters because of his mental illness, but Queen Charlotte had no such excuse. With her husband’s illness, she changed from a happy, social woman to a miserable and demanding shrew. She insisted that her daughters dance attendance on her and forbade them having any life that wasn’t under her thumb. Even when Elizabeth, at the ripe age of 46 talked of marriage, her mother spoke against it. A two year engagement was considered “rushed.”

Despite their circumstances, the princesses had distinct personalities–Princess Royal is managing and clever, Elizabeth is plump and pretty, Augusta is artistic and shy.   Sophia is passionate, Mary is good-humoured and Amelia is charming. Ms Fraser has drawn a comprehensive picture of their lives and their times.

For anyone writing of the Georgian or Regency era in Britain, I heartily recommend this book. Research that is fun to read, and one that expounds on the small details of a woman’s life. A common complaint amongst historical writers is that the history books contain world events like war and power struggles and shifting empires, but leave out the domestic details we need to make our female characters come alive in an accurate way. “Princesses” addresses that problem.

Anyone have a great research source for pioneer life in North America? I’d love to hear about it.

Snowbound

I’ve been snowbound for a week — well maybe only two days — actually about four hours — but it seems like weeks. The first day felt like a holiday. After all “snow day” means we can read books all day.  I “had” to skip exercise class because the roads were dangerous. Another reason to like a snow day.

But, now I’m restless.  We haven’t been stuck in the house for days on end, but many of my activities have been cancelled. Saturday, my writers group had to give up its Valentine party because high winds and blowing snow made driving unnecessarily a foolish move. Made it to the pet store today for cat food — what’s my safety compared to the cat’s happiness? — but now we’re in white out conditions again.

I have television, radio, telephone and internet plus neighbours who can walk through the snow to visit. If I get cabin fever after a few days of semi-isolation, what was it like in the 1890’s on the frontier, the era of my Prospect series?

Frontier women in the north tell of parties that went on for days–isolated settlers were so glad of company from outside they would go without sleep just to hear music and see another face.

Some pioneers dealt with the loneliness through hard work — chopping wood, carrying water, feeding livestock– and artistic pursuits. Sailors carved scrimshaw to wile away hours of inactivity.  Some, usually men, took to whittling elaborate figures. Women could never afford to be idle. They turned their creativity to making quilts.

 

Some went mad.

In his short story, “One’s a Heifer,” Sinclair Ross writes

“You don’t know how bad it is sometimes. Weeks on end and no one to talk to. You’re not yourself–you’re not sure what you’re going to say or do.”

I remembered hearing my uncle talk about a man who had gone crazy living alone. And this fellow Vickers had queer eyes all right.

The heroines in my books always turn to hard work as a way to get through tough times. Perhaps that’s a nod to my farming background. There is always work to do — and productive work will keep you sane.

Anyone else with snow day tales to tell? Leave a comment and receive a free copy of my short story “Faith” about a woman whose plans are overset by a snowstorm.

Nineteenth Century Internet?

Driving in the last spike

 

In 1886, the time period for my first book in the Prospect series, there were no railways through the rocky mountains in Canada.

Lottie Graham, the heroine of the first book, The Man for Her, had to travel by stage and boat and horseback to reach her destination in the mountains. The journey took months. By the time her sister, Louisa arrived in the latest book, Her One True Love, the railroad had been pushed through at incredible cost, but what a feat of engineering it was. Tunneling through solid rock, skirting along river banks and crossing fantastic trestles, the Canadian Pacific Railroad helped to bring B.C. into Confederation, brought down the government of Sir John A. MacDonald and made the trip from Toronto to Vancouver in four days.

Banff Springs Hotel

To put it into modern terms, the railroad was like the internet of its day. Newspapers could be delivered in under a week. Where Grey North, the hero of Her One and Only,  read of his father’s death weeks after the event, railroads meant telegraphs and communication across the world in mere hours. Goods could be shipped year round, not just during the summer months when waterways were open. Tourism boomed. The railroad brought thousands of wealthy visitors to the spectacular lodges in Banff and Lake Louise. New industry flourished and railway towns such as Field B.C. sprang into existence.

In my current work-in-progress, Prospect is still on the edge of the wilderness, but it is accessible to anyone with the price of a railroad ticket. Hopeful Adams, and his donkey have come from Louisiana to join the hoards of gold seekers. Scarlett, a saloon girl, comes from the deep south of America. The heroine, Verity Chance, has come from Ireland, and the hero, Dr. Nordale hales from Montreal. All have come together in Prospect to seek their fortunes—some on the creeks, others in the town. It is an exciting time to be in Prospect.

Gord Lightfoot is a well-known Canadian folk singer. One of his iconic songs concerns the building of the railroad. The opening line is”there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” He goes on from there to describe in music and poetry the building of “an iron road running from the sea to the sea” It is one of my favourite history lessons. You can listen to it here.

Some years ago my husband and I took a rail journey from the Pacific Ocean, across the mountains, the prairies, Ontario and Quebec, the Maritimes and arrived on the Atlantic coast. We had to change trains twice. There was no steam engine but the excitement of boarding the train is something I’ll never forget. The tedium of airport security, the cramped, airless conditions on board a jet plane has made air travel lose its appeal for me, but the thundering of steel wheels on a steel track makes my heart beat high.

It saddens me to see tracks abandoned, or even torn up in our modern age. Roads and transport trucks have replaced the freight cars but they are not nearly as efficient or as clean energy as a locomotive. Not to mention that the railroad cemented our disparate colonies into one nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the Arctic.  In later years thousands of immigrants peopled the prairies, arriving by train.  There’s romance  in riding the rails, falling asleep to the clacking of steel wheels and eating breakfast in a luxurious dining car.  If one has time, it’s the best way to travel.

What about you, dear readers? Do any of you have a railway story to share?

Doors to History

A visitor to Victoria today is greeted with all the accoutrements of a building boom.  Cranes dot the skyline. Streets are torn up, traffic diverted and sidewalks are barred with portable fencing. On a recent trip into downtown I discovered that most of the antique stores I intended to visit, had closed up shop.  Welcome to the twenty-first century.

 

I guess today’s Victoria is somewhat reminiscent of the days when gold-seekers swarmed the streets. It all began on Sunday, April 25, 1858 when townsfolk were returning from church.  The “Commodore” – a wooden side-wheel American steamer, entered Victoria harbour and 450 men disembarked – typical gold-seekers, complete with blankets, miner’s pans and spades and firearms. Within a few weeks a town of approximately 230, had been invaded by over 20,000 adventurers and gold prospectors.

While the great majority of these people were transients, the rush of gold-seekers transformed the sleepy village of “Fort Victoria,” into a bustling centre for commerce.  A wild land-boom followed.  Lots that had languished on the market for $25.00 were snapped up a week later for $3,000 each.  For most of the nineteenth century, Victoria remained the largest city in British Columbia and was the foremost in trade and commerce.

I’m sure the original residents felt as bewildered as I do at the sudden and drastic change to their home town. Suddenly there was building everywhere. And what building it was!

The Empress Hotel greeted travellers arriving by water. Rattenbury had designed the elegant legislature building to replace the burned down “bird cages.”

Banks created cathedrals of finance, complete with coats of arms. Church spires dominated the skyline.

Victoria looked the part of a jewel in the British Empire.

Subsequent building booms have seen many historic buildings torn down and others altered dramatically. But there are still hints of Victoria’s Imperial past.  You find it in funky doorways. 

Morris Tobacconist

Many of the original rounded entries, with curved windows on the side have been modernized in the interests of economy and efficiency, but a few remain.  Look for them in “old towne” along Government and Wharf Street.

 

 

These are just a few of the treasures I found.  Do you have a favourite doorway in Victoria?  In your hometown?  Why do you like it?

Mingling Fact and Fiction

While thumbing through the just returned books at the library I stumbled upon The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie, by Cecily Ross. Proof of my theory that the best library books are the ones someone else chose.  I snapped up “The Diaries” and was soon immersed in the world of Britain and Canada of the mid-nineteenth century.

Susanna Moodie is best known to every Canadian school child for her most important work “Roughing it in the Bush,” the biographical tale of a genteel Englishwoman trying to stay alive in the Canadian wilderness. Susanna and her husband, John Moodie, are truly babes in the woods.  Neither has any idea of the physical aspects of clearing land and farming.  John Moodie in particular, a half-pay officer from the British Army, is entirely unsuited to the life they have chosen.  He emigrated with dreams of living on a country estate with others to do the manual, back-breaking work of carving a farm out of the bush.

I remember first reading Roughing it in the Bush, as a child and marvelling at how mis-informed or wilfully ignorant the British upper classes were about homesteading. As a farm-girl, I knew the long hours, hard work, knowledge and skill required to turn forest bottom into fertile hay fields. I knew that livestock had to be tended every day, fed and watered regardless of the weather or the farmer’s personal agenda. John Moodie had none of those attributes. He was a jovial fellow, convinced that wealth in the New World would fall into his hands.  In truth, he and his family would have starved to death in their first winter had not the local First Nations tribe provided them with food.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie is a work of fiction, as the author makes plain, but it is based on real characters. The facts of their lives are well-known from previous research and from Susanna’s letters and literary writings as well as from accounts in the local newspapers and official documents. 

This is one of those instances when fact and fiction mingle to make an entertaining tale while keeping the historical record intact. From reading her own works, I know that Susanna was a pessimist and John and eternal optimist. I know he was a poor business man.  I know that Susanna made enough money from her writing to keep them going – barely.  What the author has done is write of Susanna’s thoughts and emotions — that turns the historical character into a multi-dimensional woman, thus bringing history alive for a modern reader.  It’s a fine line to tread. One I’m cautious of in my own work. Too much fiction, and the author distorts history.  Not enough fiction, and many readers turn away from an instructive discourse rated as too dull. In my view, Cecily Ross has struck the right balance. And I have a new empathy for Susanna Moodie, daughter, sister, mother, wife and writer, who struggled mightily to maintain her “self” in an age that considered her an appendage of her husband.

Gold Fever

Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.

Her One True Love, the third book in my Prospect Series, has encountered many obstacles on the way to publication not the least being the sudden demise of my cover artist. However, the end is in sight, so it’s time to get in the mood.

As the series name says, this is a set of books set in the fictional gold rush town of Prospect, B.C, where fortunes are made and lost and lost and lost.  Many more falling into the latter category than the first.  As an object lesson in gold fever I bring you the real life story of Billy Barker.

 

An Englishman who had already tried his luck in the California gold-fields and on the Fraser River, Billy Barker (1817-1894) staked the most famous claim of the Cariboo near William’s Creek in 1861. Many legends have grown up around the man so it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction, but legends usually have a grain of truth in them.

One such is the story of Billy’s recurring dream that included the number 52. Although he had been partners in a company that eventually struck it rich, Billy had sold his shares in it and gone on to stake a claim in an unlikely spot on Williams Creek. He was convinced that an ancient river had run deep underground at that spot. While others scoffed, he kept drilling. They came up dry at 10 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet and even 50 feet. Any reasonable man, so the theory went, would have abandoned the project, but Barker kept drilling and at 52 feet, just like in his dream, he struck pay dirt, taking out $600,000 in gold dust and nuggets. Calculations of current value vary but in today’s terms that would amount to anywhere from $17 million to $2.5 billion. Whichever figure you use, he had acquired an enormous amount of wealth.

By this time Billy Barker was a widower, his first wife died in the poor house in England. He left the gold fields and came to Victoria where he met and married Elizabeth Collyer, a widow who had recently arrived from England on the Rosedale. The following summer they returned to the gold creeks where a free miner’s licence was issued in her name. Come winter, they again returned to Victoria, ready to spend the winter enjoying their wealth. He enjoyed a party and is reputed to have sung this ditty while dancing a jig whenever he entered a saloon.

“I’m English Bill,

Never worked and never will.

Get away girls,

Or I’ll tousle your curls.”

 

Another legend holds that Elizabeth was extravagant and helped her husband spend or give away his fortune. Whether she did or not, the fact remains that by the time of her death in 1865 Billy Barker was broke, He returned once again to the gold fields to try to recoup his fortune.

This time, luck did not smile.  He embarked on several ventures, but barely eked out a living as a prospector, resorting to working as a cook for other miners. By 1894 he was suffering from cancer and living in The Old Men’s home in Victoria. He died in July of that year and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

Even though he lost his wealth, Billy Barker left a legacy in British Columbia. The town of Barkerville in the Cariboo is named in his honour. Billy Barker Days in nearby Quesnel is a major tourist attraction. And, it seems, Billy was rich in friends. Although he was buried in a pauper’s grave in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay cemetery, his final resting place is marked by a stone erected by his friends to honour his memory and his place in the history of the province.

This monument reads, in part, “”Like many miners, he was soon broke, but Barker continued to mine and prospect throughout the Cariboo for the rest of his life.  The fabulous wealth of the Cariboo mines laid the foundation for British Columbia.  With this monument, Billy Barker is honoured as a builder of the province.  He died poor in wealth, but forever rich in friends.”

 

 

 

Down the Rabbit Hole – Research

What I learned this week while writing my “discovery” draft is that I need to discover some more historical facts. To that end, I’m reading 40 Years in Canada, by Samuel B. Steele. This is a wonderful, first hand account of the formation of the North West Mounted Police and they’re trek west in 1874-75. The impetus for this undertaking was to end the whiskey trade that was devastating the First Nations of the western plains.  In Steele’s day, they used the term Indian or Redman.  He writes “For the credit of the Dominion and humanity, it was absolutely necessary that a stop be put to the disgraceful scenes which were daily enacted on the Bow and Belly rivers and in the Cypress Hills.”

I’m a real fan of Sam Steele, who seemed to meet hardship and trial with good cheer and hard work.  He offers his greatest praise to men who did not grumble and who vied with each other to carry the heaviest load or make the most trips back and forth on the near impossible portages from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg. And he did it all “for humanity.”

As we live in an age marred by corporate greed and a “me first” attitude, it brought joy to my heart to read that when, after a march of 1,959 miles, a new fort was established, the first structures built were stables for the horses, then barracks for the men and lastly, quarters for the officers.

Much as I’m enjoying Sam Steele’s memoirs, they do not provide me with the details of a pioneer woman – what she wore, how she cooked, what she did for a sick child.  I’ve another book, Never Done—Three Centuries of Women’s Work in Canada, written by The Corrective Collective, and published in 1974.  This volume attempts to tell “her-story.”  The title comes from the old saying, “a man works from sun to sun but women’s work is never done.”

The authors have tried to tackle women’s history in Canada from the time of New France and les Filles du Roi through to World War One.  The resource yields many interesting facts such as, in 18th century Halifax the Inspector and Surgeon General was paid a guinea a day to operate a hospital.  The Matron of said hospital, while responsible for changing bandages, cleaning wounds, administering medicines, applying poultices, arranging food preparation, ensuring hospital maintenance and sweeping the floor, received no salary. (Picture me shaking my fists!) However, aside from sending me into a rage, the book is still sketchy on the details of daily life in a gold rush town.

Next stop, B.C. Archives.  They have letters and diaries on file.  Here’s to “discovering.”

Life in a Small Cabin

 

In my part of the world it has been raining for days and days and days. Hard rain, the kind that dances on the pavement, makes big puddles, and turns the ground sodden.  The skies are unrelenting grey, the cloud cover so low I can’t see a 100 yards from my house.  (I normally have a panoramic view.)  We keep the lights on all day to dispel the gloom.  I’m getting cabin fever.

How easily that phrase comes to mind – and how ridiculous! In my “cabin,” I have many rooms.  I have the distraction of radio, television, internet, books and the telephone.  I have electricity, that allows me to keep the lights on.  I have natural gas that keeps the fireplace burning with no effort on my part.  I have running water – no need to visit an outhouse.  And I have a vehicle that allows me to travel in comfort and connect with others. If I think I suffer from “cabin fever,” what did our forebears suffer during long winters when deep snow cut them off from fellow human beings?

From Wikipedia: “Since prairie madness [cabin fever] does not refer to a clinical term, there is no specific set of symptoms of the affliction. However, the descriptions of prairie madness in historical writing, personal accounts, and Western literature elucidate what some of the effects of the disease were.

The symptoms of prairie madness (cabin fever) were similar to those of depression. The women affected by prairie madness were said to show symptoms such as crying, slovenly dress, and withdrawal from social interactions. Men also showed signs of depression, which sometimes manifested in violence. Prairie madness was not unique from other types of depression, but the harsh conditions on the prairie triggered this depression, and it was difficult to overcome without getting off of the prairie.”

The short story, “The Lamp at Noon,” by Sinclair Ross gives an indication of the overwhelming sense of helplessness of a woman on the prairie during the dustbowl. The isolation, fear, and daily life in harsh circumstances overwhelm her.  Would a friend have helped?  Even a casual visitor from the outside world?  Ellen is imprisoned by hardship, dust, poverty and loneliness-a graphic description of cabin fever. “One’s a Heifer,” by the same author follows a similar theme.

The photo at the top of this blog is of a replica log cabin close to my home.  The collage at the left is of the interior. The whole building is roughly 12×24 ft.  It is one room with the bed, the baby crib, the cookstove and the table all squished in together.  Note the “distractions” for the woman of the house–the cookstove, the wash tubs, the sewing machine, the baby crib, the baking cupboard, the hand-braided rug, the handmade quilt, the spinning wheel, the water bucket–“women’s work is never done.”  Imagine a whole family, mother, father, baby and likely other children, living in these tight quarters.

In my stories, my heroines have space to call their own.  My heroes embrace the rugged landscape.  Children run and play, unfettered by fences or timetables.  Note, I write fiction.

 

So, now that I’ve considered the true source of the term “cabin fever” I’ll stop my grousing, turn on my full-spectrum lamp, and enjoy my photo-album of sun-filled days.

What about you? Does the weather get you down?  What are your coping mechanisms?

 

 

An “Other” Vimy Memorial

With Remembrance Day approaching, my thoughts turn to the soldiers of my own country and others who went to war “to end all wars.”  That was the slogan attached to the WWI, or “The Great War” as it was called in the years between 1918 and 1939.

I wrote my fictional story, “When the Boys Came Home,” about a soldier returned from  WWI and the effects war had on him and on those he left behind.

Today, I have a real-life story to share.  The photograph at the top of the page is of one of the four original memorials raised at Vimy Ridge by Canadians.  They were replaced in 1936 by the iconic statuary that stands on the ridge today.

The father of a friend of mine, helped to build and install the cross at the peak of Vimy Ridge, three weeks after the ridge was captured.  Carpenter Andy Wallace of Victoria, along with Sapper McIver, both of the 44th Regiment out of Winnipeg, were ordered to fashion a cross to commemorate the thousands who died there.

Using the rudimentary tools they carried with them, the carpenter and the sapper worked on the eight-by-eight inch oak logs within range of the enemy’s guns. Concrete for the base was mixed and poured by other members of the regiment.

In a letter from A.C. King of Toronto to Andy Wallace after the war, Mr. King wrote:  “Here is a picture of the cross.  It doesn’t look so big but, boy, oh boy, that concrete took some mixing.”

The cross was about 12 to 14 feet high and about six feet wide.  It was held together by wooden dowels and had no inscriptions or carving on the cross itself.  There is a brass plate on the base that dedicates the memorial to “the memory of the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the 44th Canadian Infantry who fell in the attacks on Vimy Ridge, the Triangle, and La Coulotte in April, May and June of 1917.”

The monument was originally erected on Vimy Ridge, France by the 44th Battalion in 1917. In 1924, the monument was moved to its present location in Vimy Ridge Memorial Park on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg by members of the 44th Battalion Association and next of kin. Plaques on the sides of the monument listed those in the 44th Battalion who had lost their lives during the Vimy Ridge battle. Dedicated in June 1926, it was restored by the Department of Veterans Affairs in June 1967 and by the City of Winnipeg in October 1992.

Andy Wallace

Thanks to my friend for sharing her story, and thanks to Andy Wallace for his service to Canada.

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