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Frontier Women

During the 19th century when the West was being explored and settled by Europeans, men were presented with tremendous opportunities-open spaces, ample hunting, and the prosperous fur trade. Conversely, women faced many disadvantages. They lacked the franchise, economic status, and legal rights. They were defined by their role in the domestic sphere, as wives and mothers at the service of their husbands. A labour-intensive lifestyle also contributed to the evolving role of women on the frontier.

Of the many adventurous frontier women in Western Canadian history, there is one name that stands out above the rest: Marie Anne Lagimodière. Most famously known as the grandmother of Louis Riel, she was the first white women to permanently settle in the untamed West and build a life filled with change and adventure. Wanting to accompany her husband wherever he travelled, she joined him and a small group of voyageurs on a canoe headed westward in 1807, five years before the Selkirk Settlement was established. Having grown up in the comforts of Maskinongé, along the Saint Lawrence River, Marie Anne married Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière. Together, they shared a life filled with frontier adventures.

The local Aboriginals called Marie Anne Ningah, meaning "Mother." This was a title she well deserved, for she gave birth to children in what would later become Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. She did this without the support of midwives and only received assistance from her husband and Aboriginals. During the arduous journey, Marie Anne assisted her fellow travelers by organizing food supplies and making menial repairs. The voyageurs accepted her as part of the team; however, no concessions were made in any way because of her gender. Her only regret was the sheer monotony associated with the duration of the trip and the repetitive tasks she was assigned.

On several occasions, Anne Marie's husband cautiously pleaded with her to return home, yet she remained steadfast in her convictions - she wanted to remain with her husband and explore the West. She remained in the West for the rest of her life. She watched the rapidly changing scenes: the first steamboat on the Red River in 1859; the disappearance of the buffalo; the transfer of Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Government of Canada; and the birth of the province of Manitoba in 1870.

Marie Anne Lagimodière's life paralleled the development of Western Canada. She is one of the great figures in early Canadian history and epitomized the frontier spirit through her determination, perseverance, and sheer courage.

Though Marie Anne Lagimodière may have been the first white woman to settle in the Prairie West, a group of dedicated women soon trickled in. Jane Carruthers Trimble is famously remembered by MacEwan as a pioneer who traversed more than 1 000 miles in a covered wagon to settle in the West. With her husband, Jane left Missouri and headed north until they reached Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. The Trimbles were among the first to homestead on the Portage plains. During the arduous journey, Jane washed clothes, baked bread, and prepared meals with regularity. In the evening, she often stayed up through the night guarding the camp while her family slept. Jane's story is one of courage and resilience, exemplifying life on the frontier.

Resources

Francis, R. Douglas, Richard Jones, and Donald B. Smith. Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation. 2nd edition. Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1992.

MacEwan, Grant. Marie Anne: The Frontier Adventures of Marie Anne Lagimodière. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1984.


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