Sir James Douglas has often been called “The Father of British Columbia,” a reference to his role as governor of the separate colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island during their formative periods in the 1850s and early 1860s. Historians have not bestowed the equivalent title of “The Mother of British Columbia” on anyone, so I nominate Amelia, Lady Douglas for that honour. She was James Douglas’s wife for almost fifty years and served as his First Lady for thirteen of them. Yet, in spite of her husband’s prominence, much about her remains a mystery. The most documented aspects of her life do not relate to her role in the public realm, but to her role as a mother and grandmother within her own family.
Amelia was born on New Year’s Day, 1812 in the small community of Rat River Portage north of Lake Winnipeg. Her mother was Miyo Nipiy, a Swampy Cree woman whose name means “beautiful leaf.” Her father was William Connolly, an Irish French Canadian fur trader. Her youth was spent moving from post to post across the Prairies and eventually to Fort St. James where her father was the Chief Factor. That’s where she met and married James Douglas, a young clerk in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the absence of priests and any formal civil authority they were married “in the custom of the country” in 1828.
Life at Fort St. James was harsh. Food was constantly in short supply and winters were bitterly cold. Child mortality was high and Amelia’s first baby, a girl, died within a few months of being born. But by then James had been sent to a new job at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River (now Vancouver, Washington). He learned of his daughter’s death only when Amelia was able to join him in June 1830.
For the next nineteen years Amelia Douglas lived at Fort Vancouver during which time her husband travelled extensively. Most years he was absent from home for months at a time. A pattern developed that she became pregnant when James returned and gave birth when he was away on business. She had ten children at Fort Vancouver, but five of them followed her first-born daughter to an early grave. Only one died at birth; the others succumbed to disease or childhood accidents. Amelia enjoyed the friendship and support of Marguerite McLaughlin, wife of Fort Vancouver’s Chief Factor. In fact the Douglas and McLaughlin families occupied adjoining apartments in the Big House, the fort’s administrative centre.
In 1849 Amelia had to leave the home she had known for more than half her life when her husband was transferred to Fort Victoria. It was not a happy move for either of them, but was particularly difficult for Amelia because her baby daughter, Rebecca, had contracted typhoid. Amelia carried the sick child in her arms throughout the long journey. Five months after their arrival on Vancouver Island, Rebecca died. Four healthy daughters—Cecilia, Jane, Agnes and Alice—provided solace to their grieving mother.
At Fort Victoria Amelia gave birth to a son, James Junior, in 1851. The following year the family moved outside the fort, into their own home (where the Royal BC Museum now stands). It was there that Amelia’s last child, Martha, was born in 1854. She was the only one of the children born outside the walls of a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post.
All of Amelia’s surviving children married and had children of their own, but her role as grandmother was marred by the early deaths of two of her grown children. Of the survivors only Martha remained in Victoria and cared for her mother until Amelia, Lady Douglas died in 1890. Amelia is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery in the family vault.
words by John Adams, founder of Discover the Past, a company that specializes in historical research, lectures and walking tours.
Check the full schedule at www.discoverthepast.com or telephone 250.384.6698.
originally published in analogue magazine’s Jan 2014 issue