Susan Allison: "Mother of the Similkameen"
by Janet MacArthur, Ph.D.
Susan Moir Allison's portrait still
graces a wall mural in downtown Princeton, B.C., 140 years after she
first arrived in the Southern Interior as a young bride. Still known in
that area as the "Mother of the Similkameen," she lived in both
Princeton and the Okanagan with her husband, John Fall Allison, long
before there was much Euro-Canadian settlement. This provided her with
a unique transformational experience which she recounted frequently in
written form until her death in 1937.
Susan was born in Ceylon in 1845 to
Louisa and Stratton Moir, an employee of the British colonial service.
After her husband's death in 1849, Louisa and her three children –
Stratton, Jane and Susan – left Ceylon to live with relatives in England
where Louisa later remarried in 1860. Soon after, mother, daughters,
and new stepfather Thomas Glennie travelled via the Panama Canal to Fort
Hope in the new colony of British Columbia where Glennie hoped to live
well as a landowner.
Young and single white women were few,
so most married soon after their arrival in the sparsely settled area of
the Lower Mainland. Jane Moir married Edgar Dewdney of the Royal
Engineers in March 1864 and moved from Fort Hope to New Westminster, the
colony's capital. Dewdney was eventually appointed
lieutenant-governor of what was then known as the Northwest Territories
and later of the province of British Columbia.
A few months after Jane's wedding,
Thomas Glennie, who had revealed himself to be a wastrel, deserted his
wife and remaining step-daughter. Nearly destitute, Louisa and Susan
left Fort Hope to stay with Jane in the capital city. To supplement
their income, Susan worked as a governess and teacher first in Victoria
and then in New Westminster. During this time, she met John Fall
Allison (1825-1897), originally from Leeds, England.
Allison's family had immigrated to New
York State when he was a child. When Allison came of age, he set out
for a prospecting career in California. He arrived in British Columbia
during the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858. Allison received many
government contracts to open and improve trails and roads into the
Southern Interior, and in 1861 he pre-empted land in the Princeton area
where he farmed and raised cattle.
Allison Cabin in Westbank, ca.
- courtesy of Kelowna Museum
John and Susan married in 1868, moving
to Princeton where she spent much of her life until her retirement to
Vancouver in the 1920s. The Allisons also lived on the west side of
Okanagan Lake in present-day Westbank from 1873-1880.
While in the Southern Interior, Susan
gave birth to and raised fourteen children with the help of indigenous
mid-wives and servants. For a white woman of the time, she led an
Living in close proximity to the
Similkameen and Okanagan people, she learned much about their lifeways
and befriended many. In fact, she notes in her recollections that "they
told me more than they told most white people" (Ormsby 41). Her
interest in indigenous people of the Interior is reflected in a large
body of writing, some of which was published during her lifetime and
some of which is available in archives and among descendants.
Rather than the typical settler
recollections of homesickness, radical displacement, and a sense of
exile, her memoirs for the decades of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s in the
Southern Interior celebrate what Susan called "my camping days and the
wild, free life I ever loved till age and infirmity put an end to it" (Ormsby
21). These memoirs or "recollections" appeared in installments in the Vancouver Sunday Province newspaper in the late 1920s and early
1930s, and appeared in 1976 as a book edited by the well-known B.C.
historian, Margaret Ormsby.
Ormsby's book, still in print, was
published as A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The
Recollections of Susan Allison. It remains an important
contribution to B.C. settlement history.
Ormsby's title captures the romance
often associated with the genteel pioneer woman from the British middle
class in B.C. history – riding side-saddle over precarious mountain
passes into isolated ranch country or coping with gentility and grace in
crude coastal outposts. Recent interrogations of the binary oppositions
(noble/base, civil/savage) underwriting the European class system and
imposed upon indigenous and non-British ethnic groups in colonial
British Columbia, however, call attention to ethnic and racial
privileging that has left a darker legacy.
But Susan Allison's writing does not
endorse this kind of romanticized image; it is a departure from the
conventional ethnocentrism among B.C. settlers and provides further
evidence of her transformational and transculturational experience in
the Southern Interior.
In addition to her recollections,
Susan's writing includes a long narrative poem entitled In-Cow-Mas-Ket (published under the pseudonym Stratton Moir in 1900), scholarly articles on the Similkameen people published in British
journals, a collection of ten stories based on aboriginal myth and other
pieces published by the Okanagan Historical Society, numerous
letters, and a number of private papers with accounts of people and
This writing is an invaluable resource
not only for understanding life during the settlement era of the
Southern Interior of British Columbia, but also for the ways in which it
challenges some mainstream assumptions about the role and attitudes of
European women settlers.
Ormsby, Margaret A., A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British
Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison. Vancouver, BC: UBC