Welcome back to our ‘Letters from the Past’ series, in which we present a monthly missive from an Edmontonian, snatching it from a moment in time to bring it to you, dear readers.
In January we introduced you to Lovisa McDougall, the young Ontarian woman who travelled west to the tiny settlement of Edmonton in 1879 along with her husband, trader and entrepreneur (and later mayor) John A. McDougall.
Lovisa’s wonderful letters to her mother and brother Charlie open up a fascinating woman’s perspective on the Edmonton of yore. It is an Edmonton with a tiny but diverse population, a new telegraph, new homesteads and growing commerce, but more than a few problems.
Carolyn Knight as Lovisa McDougall
You can visit Johnnie and Lovisa’s general store on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park and explore in person the world Lovisa describes in ink.
March 28, 1880
My Very Dear Mother
It seems a long time since I had a letter from you. I was so pleased to get Charlies [all sic] last night & to hear he is so happy since he had been converted. I never was so pleased to hear any thing as that. I love him more now than I ever did. I wish I was as good as he is.
Well dear Ma, Johnnie got a telegram to-day from Duck Lake telling him to come down at once to see after his outfit of goods that a freighter started with from Winnipeg last fall. He did not come through as it got to late so he wintered at Duck Lake. So Frank Smart, a young fellow that was up here about 6 weeks ago, started back to Winnipeg and he enquired about Johnnies goods, and Shannon the freighter, and was told he was going to skip out of the country with out delivering the goods. So he telegraphed at once to Johnnie about it, so Johnnie has to go down at once. He will start as soon as he can get ready. Perhaps he will sell that stock at Duck Lake or Prince Albert and go to Winnipeg for another stock. If so, he will not be home for 3 months. Just fancy what a bad trip it is for him at this time of the year and how lonely I shall be. Poor dear Johnnie, I shall miss him so and I feel so sorry for him. I will stay at Mr. Whitesides until he comes back. I only wish you was near enough to come and stay with me or I could go home, it will be such a dreary time for me. I feel completely upset ever since I heard it. If you see Mrs. McDougall [John’s mother] you better not tell her because she might be fretting about Johnnie’s business, but everything is all right. I send you a letter I wrote 2 or 3 weeks ago. I am 2 years married. Just fancy, but if you could see me you would not think I had been married at all. Johnnie says I look better now than ever. I must say good by now. I will write again next week.
From your loving
The chickens are in the stable now. The hen layed 3 or 4 and eat them up. I got some lime for her.
With the decline of fur trading fortunes and the ‘Great Transfer’ of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada, Edmonton seemed open to becoming a more diverse community, but even with the new telegraph its remoteness was a problem. Traders like “Johnnie” relied on long-distance freighting for their goods, and could occasionally run into problems with the supply line. The hard work would mean a lonely life for his adoring partner, made worse by her small number of friends.
Lovisa, a somewhat sheltered woman, at first associated only with non-Aboriginal ‘ladies,’ who mainly came from the families of missionaries: Eliza Hardisty and Nellie Wood, married daughters of Rev. George McDougall (no relation) and Clara Whiteside, wife of Reverend Arthur Whiteside. Lovisa remarked in one letter that besides these three, the women of Edmonton were ‘not much.’
In fact, the majority of Edmontonian women at this time were mixed-blood or Cree. Such women were descended from the population of the HBC Trading post and often lived a Métis lifestyle of beading, bannock and black tea: not necessarily what an Ontarian would call a ‘Lady!’ Lovisa was more likely to hire such women for domestic work, such as a Métis laundress known as ‘Old Bobsleigh’ who made her laugh and taught her some Cree. The complex relationship between Edmonton’s minority white population and the Métis and mixed-blooded inhabitants is a wonderful topic for the interested visitor on 1885 Street to explore.
Lovisa’s brother Charlie had recently been converted to an unclear denomination, which may have inspired her. While she was good friends with staunch Methodists, a year after this letter she became involved in the newly established Presbyterian Church of Edmonton, an association she would continue for the rest of her life.
And in case you were wondering, lime (the chemical, not the fruit) helps keep chicken runs parasite-free and neutralizes the acidity of fowl droppings!
Special thanks to J.G. MacGregor, author of Edmonton Trader, and Elizabeth McCrum, editor of the “Letters of Lovisa McDougall, 1878-1887”