Welcome to the final letter in our 2012 ‘Letters from the Past’ series. Throughout the past year, we’ve posted the correspondence of Chief Factor John Rowand of the fur trade period, homesteader Lovisa McDougall, and Cree policeman and First World War heroAlex Decoteau.
This series will continue in 2013, but we are pleased to celebrate Christmas with Lovisa’s misdelivered missive of yesteryule. In it, we find that some traditions of the season – such as visits, feasting and family – are as familiar in this century as they were in Edmonton’s earlier days.
Dec. 27th 1879
My Dear Brother
Johnnie & me are all alone tonight. Johnnie is laying on the bed asleep & I am seated in one of the cosiest rooms imagineable writing on the table beside him. Since writing last we have made a change in our house. The sitting room we have taken for a kitchen, & the kitchen for a sitting room, so we could have the fire place in it, & we moved our bed in this room. We have the cheerfulest room now I ever was in, carpeted curtined & C.
The weather continues so cold they cannot get our house shingled by they are doing all the inside work in their carpender shop. The thermometer was down to 56 this week but is getting milder. People say it is the coldes weather they ever experienced in the country. John Crokrite told us his potato peeling froze beside his plate as soon as he peeled his potato. “How is that for high?” But it is pretty to see the dog trains & the carryalls. The dogs all have little beaded saddles & bells, 4 in a train. The driver snaps his whip & says “Marsh”, then away they go faster than any horse can travel. I never saw any in Manitoba as nice as they are here.
Xmas was a quiet day with us, the usual rouetine, only an extra dinner. No fowl of course, only roast beef. Xmas Eve Mr. McGilvery came in from Victoria, he is our visiter until after New Years. Xmas night I had Mr. Sinclair, our Land lord, for tea. He came up with Mr. Mc. After tea Mr. Littleberry came to spend the evening. Mr. Sinclair & Mr. McGilvery went down to t[he] Fort to spend the evening with Colonel Stuart.
Our first door neighbour, Colin Fraisher, had a dance, so George Gouler our Man went. We had great fun getting him ready to go. Johnnie lent him a white collar & George his neckties & I put some scent on his hankerchief, & I tell you he though he was rigged out. Johnnie went over about 10 o’clock to see what was going on & they was hoeing the red river gig & clog dancesright down. The girls had on red and plain dresses & lots of red ribbons. He said the babies was rolling around in every direction. The bed was piled up full near to the ceiling & some mischievus person changed the shawls on them so the wemon did not know their own young one. He said they had a big brass kettle setting on the coals full of beef, & the tea in a dirty old boiler. They had potatoes & plum pudding, cakes, & I tell you it takes the half breeds to enjoy them selves, and the white people goes to. [all sic]
Despite her ardent attachment to her husband, life for Lovisa in the tiny hamlet of Edmonton in 1879 was often lonely. Compared to the few buildings, mission, and aging fur trade fort that Lovisa knew in ’79, the Edmonton we represent on 1885 Street had grown by leaps and bounds.
Visits on Christmas were a welcome and much anticipated time of fun and conversation, of amusing stories of the cold, gossip, and song, not unlike those of our own time, although there was little chance of gathering around a television for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’
It should be noted that until Lovisa helped organize the Presbyterian Church in Edmonton a few years later, the McDougalls appear to have not engaged in a great deal of religious worship during this time. However, many of their visitors and friends were engaged in Mission Work, including those from the Victoria Settlement – the surviving historic site which celebrated its 150th anniversary this year!
The couple were still living above the store owned by John Sinclair (though not the one recreated on 1885 Street), and work on their own home was delayed by the cold. The store was located on east Jasper, at 97th street, near where the Hardware Grill and Canada Place are located today. Hopefully Lovisa had a good view of the breathtaking river valley in winter for solace.
She certainly had many visitors. John Conkwright and Colin Fraser were local homesteaders, and Mr. Littlebury was the engineer aboard the HBC Steamer, Grahame. Edward McGillivray was a sometime HBC trader who, at the time of this visit, was acting as Indian Agent in Victoria. Coincidentally, McGillivray was related to Colin Fraser by marriage.
Edmontonians were celebrating Christmas in grand style, with a feast and dance at the home of Métis Edmontonian Colin Fraser – likely one of many parties going on at the time. The presence of the red river jig and Colin Fraser’s ancestry gives us a possible clue as to why Lovisa wasn’t next door enjoying herself. We have seen previously that our good-natured homesteader was nonetheless a Victorian woman, and she possessed naà¯ve and antiquated views as to what was appropriate, and how a well-bred Ontarian should behave. Over the years Lovisa came to know and befriend many of the Métis women of Edmonton – many of whom likely found her conservatism amusing – but we cannot expect people of the past to hold the same views on multiculturalism and propriety that we do today! Government policy towards Cree and Métis Canadians was particularly harsh at this time and would lead to armed resistance in only six years.
Nonetheless, Lovisa’s Christmas was modestly filled with food, love, friendship, and admiration for the revelry of the largely Métis community she had come to make her home.
If you want to experience Edmonton’s wintry history and you missed our magical Christmas Reflections, we hope you’ll join us for abirthday, rental, or event instead of waiting until spring to see Fort Edmonton Park once more!
Special thanks to the Provincial Archives and Elizabeth McCrumm – the former for preserving Lovisa’s letters and the latter for editing and publishing them, as well as Ross Stromberg of Victoria Settlement Historic Site.