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Women Witnesses

Eliza Hardisty McDougall The Treaty 6 negotiations and signings saw the gathering of thousands of people. Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux, and Chipewyan chiefs and their bands travelled from near and far to meet with Alexander Morris and the Treaty Commission, who trekked hundreds of kilometres to reach the designated sites. It is these men, men like James McKay and Star Blanket, who have been forever immortalized as the “treaty makers.” However, a closer look at the yellowing, creased parchment reveals, just near the bottom, the signatures of witnesses Eliza Hardisty and Mary McKay – the only two women to have participated in the official signing of Treaty 6.

History has left little trace of Hardisty and McKay’s presence at the treaty signing, aside from the ink scrawl of their signatures. However, their signatures do tell us that the women were regarded with some import, for they were given the honour of serving as official witnesses to this very momentous event.

Eliza McDougall was born in 1849, the fourth child of Methodist missionary George McDougall and his wife, Elizabeth. In 1866, at the age of 17, she married Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trader Richard Hardisty. They left the Victoria Settlement for their honeymoon at Rocky Mountain House and Fort Edmonton. Richard later assumed the important title of Chief Factor at Fort Edmonton and Eliza became the first woman to hold Christmas festivities attended by Aboriginal peoples there. Eliza’s presence at the treaty signing on 9 September 1876, when she was 27 years old, seems natural given the circles within which she traveled. Her father was well-known by the First Nations of the area, and a year prior had been asked on behalf of the government, to spread the news amongst the First Nations that treaty negotiations were imminent. The signature of her older brother, missionary John McDougall, also appears on the treaty as a witness. Peter Erasmus, who had guided Eliza and Richard during their honeymoon trip, provided translation during the treaty negotiations and signings. It is likely that Eliza’s husband Richard was with her at Fort Pitt, although his signature is not present on the treaty document. Given her relationships with a number of influential treaty-makers, along with the likelihood of a relationship with the First Nations, it is no surprise that Eliza’s signature appears on the treaty as an official witness.

Even less is known about Mary McKay; although she too, must have been held in high esteem by the treaty officials. There were others present at the treaty signing with the last name of McKay, including Treaty Commissioner James McKay; his brother the Reverend John McKay, who acted as an interpreter; a Mr. W. McKay; and Thomas McKay, whose name appears closest to Mary’s on the treaty document. It is possible that Mary was the wife, daughter, sibling, or other relative of Thomas, though there is little record of him.

While there were other women present at Forts Carlton and Pitt in 1876, including the hundreds of First Nations women who helped care for their families and communities while the treaty was negotiated, the only two women to have left any tangible trace of their presence at the Treaty 6 proceedings were Eliza McDougall Hardisty and Mary McKay. They are the only known official women witnesses.

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