Author Tags: Early B.C., Women
Of the hundreds of “country wives” who influenced the development of British Columbia, the most significant was Amelia Connolly, later known in Victoria as Lady Douglas.
Born at Fort Assiniboine in Rupert’s Land in 1812, Amelia Douglas was the daughter of Irish-born William Connolly and his Cree wife Miyo Nipiy, also known as Suzanne Pas de Nom. The family moved to New Caledonia in 1821 with the merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company.
When Amelia was 12, her father was promoted to Chief Factor at Fort St. James. Due to her light skin colour, Amelia was known as "Little Snowbird." On April 27, 1828, at Fort St. James, the Little Snowbird married an ambitious young Hudson Bay Company fur trader named James Douglas, who had first met her in 1825.
After James Douglas ordered the execution of a local Carrier Indian following the murder of two HBC men in New Caledonia, Douglas was captured by Chief Kwah and escaped with the intervention of his wife, who provided various trade articles as ransom. James Douglas was sent to Fort Vancouver in 1830 as an accountant to avoid further conflict.
Ten of the Douglas' 13 children were born during their 18 years at Fort Vancouver. There were only five surviving children by 1849. Kept busy with her children, Amelia Douglas never became comfortable with speaking English in public and although she did evolve a friendship with Mary Yates.
Fearing that their backwoods marriage might not be legally binding, Amelia and James Douglas were remarried "according to the rights of the Church of England" in 1837. Amelia Douglas had cause for concern: her own father had left her mother on the grounds that their wedding hadn't been performed by a Christian priest.
Amelia Douglas formally gained the title Lady Douglas when her husband was knighted but she much preferred the privacy of domestic life to the public spotlight. Managing her household of mostly girls, who were much in demand for Victoria’s dances and society outings, could be a handful. Cecilia, her eldest daughter, married the young HBC doctor John Helmcken, but upon her withdrawal from a convent, Alice Douglas eloped with her father’s part-time secretary. James Douglas quickly arranged a formal ceremony but the marriage failed. Alice separated, became pregnant by her lover, and moved to California to escape scandal.
The Douglas’ 22-year-old granddaughter, Amy Helmcken, gave birth and got married on the same day, when Dr. Helmcken hastily summoned George McTavish, the father, and directed Bishop Cridge to perform the marriage rites.
The Douglas dynasty on Vancouver Island was short-lived. James Douglas Jr., the twelfth of their thirteen children, and their only son, was physically frail and failed to meet his father’s expectations. As Joan Givner has noted, “James Jr.’s performance at the schools he attended in England was lacklustre. And he does seem to have been unusually feckless, at one point enraging his parents by pawning the watch and chain given him as a parting gift.”
James Douglas Jr. was the last of the Douglas offspring to marry. He died at age 33, leaving two sons to carry on the family name. His brother-in-law instigated a lawsuit to prevent the widow of James Jr. from raising her sons in the Catholic faith. She prevailed, and moved with them to England.
Although she herself was mostly illiterate, Lady Douglas did serve as the direct inspiration for the first commercial compilation of Aboriginal stories from and about British Columbia, History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians, written and published by her daughter Martha in 1901. This collection of 14 Cowichan stories and six Cree stories was inspired by the Cree stories she had heard from Amelia Douglas as a child, six of which were repeated in the book.
Amelia Douglas died in Victoria in 1890. Although she didn't write a book, Amelia Douglas deservedly became the subject of one by John Adams, Old Square-Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas.
Old Square-Toes and His Lady: The Life of James and Amelia Douglas, by John Adams (Horsdal & Schubart, 2000) 0-920663-77-X
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Early B.C." "Women"