Author Tags: Forts and Fur, Women
Cecelia Svinth Carpenter has published Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction (1986). It includes some information on her ancestors, Charles George Ross and Isabella Ross, one the pioneers couples at Fort Victoria.
After her husband reputedly became the first white man to die on Vancouver Island, Métis matriarch Isabella Mainville Ross became the first woman to own property in what is now British Columbia.
Born in 1807, Isabella Ross married Charles George Ross in the country fashion at Rainy Lake (Lac la Pluie), in northwest Ontario, in 1822, after he had arrived at York Factory on Hudson Bay in 1818. Her mother was Ojibway and her father was a French Canadian engage in the fur trade. Most of her children were born west of the Rockies after she arrived in New Caledonia with her husband in 1824.
Charles George Ross described his wife in a letter to his sister in Guelph, in Upper Canada, in 1843: “I have as yet said nothing about my wife; whence you will probably infer that I am rather ashamed of her—in this, however, you would be wrong. She is not, indeed, exactly fitted to shine at the head of a nobleman’s table, but she suits the sphere [in which] she has to move….”
The couple lived at Fort George in the 1820s and at Fort McLoughlin in the late 1830s. At the latter, Isabella’s presence was recorded by George Simpson: “the wife of Mr. Ross of this fort lately displayed great courage. Some Indians, while trading, in her husband’s absence, with her son in the shop of the establishment, drew their knives upon the boy. On hearing this, the lady, pike in hand, chased the cowardly rascals from post to pillar till she drove them out of the fort. ‘If such are the white women,’ said the discomfited savages, ‘what must the white men be?’”
Isabella and Charles Ross had a church wedding at Fort Vancouver in 1838. Most of their six sons and four daughters survived to adulthood, but few prospered. By 1843, the Ross family had five sons and four daughters. Charles Ross hoped to send his two eldest sons to Ontario. “… my chief regret,” he told his sister, “is their growing wild around me without proper education or example—so long as we remain in this unchristian wild.” With the closure of Fort McLoughlin in 1843, Charles Ross was sent to take charge at newly-built Fort Victoria on June 7, 1843. There he succumbed to an unknown illness and died at age 50 on June 28, 1844.
On her strip of “10 arable acres” between Foul Bay and Shoal Bay, Isabella Ross grew potatoes for the Fort, some of which were re-sold to the Russians at Sitka. She was able to purchase 145 acres on Ross Bay. Her eldest son John purchased a 200-acre farm called Oaklands but he died prematurely and the property was liquidated. Most of Isabella Ross’ children failed to thrive.
Isabella Ross remarried to young Lucius Simon O’Brien in 1863. Sometimes described as a fortune hunter, he soon found himself violently at odds with some of her sons, particularly Alexander, who he charged with assault. As this second marriage deteriorated, O’Brien placed a vicious attack on her in the Victoria Daily Chronicle in April of 1864.
“Whereas My Wife, Isabella, has left my bed and board because I will not support her drunken sons, nor allow her to keep drunk herself, and have a lot of drunken squaws about her, this is to forbid all persons, harbouring her, or trusting her on my account, as I will pay no debts she may contract.”
Isabella’s youngest son, William, alleged in the same newspaper that O’Brien was a swindler. O’Brien died after he absconded to northern Vancouver Island rather than refute legal proceedings to claim he was a bigamist.
After serving two years of hard labour for robbing a Chinese man, Francis and William Ross were banished from the colony. None of the Ross daughters married white men. Philip Hankin in his Reminiscenses noted that the Ross daughters, although fine-looking, “had a great deal of Indian blood in them and they were supposed to be only on the edge of society.” Only Isabella’s youngest daughter Flora, after a failed marriage, distinguished herself as Matron of the Asylum at New Westminster.
With the support of Flora, the widow Isabella Ross lived on the grounds of the convent of the Sisters of St. Ann until she died on April 23, 1885 at age 77. She was buried in the cemetery that bears her name, on land she donated, overlooking Ross Bay, which was named after husband. The gravesite of her husband is unknown. The Native Sons of British Columbia constructed a commemorative granite and slate seat honouring Charles G. Ross as a Centennial project in 1967. It is located on Dallas Marine Drive East, also overlooking Ross Bay.
Charles Ross Jr. worked in the fur trade at Fort Nisqually in Washington State where he married Catherine Toma, a Nisqually Indian. Cecilia Svinth Carprenter is one of their descendants.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Forts and Fur" "Women"