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In Their Own Voices

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Family Life on
the Mission

McDougall Mission Fort EdmontonLike other pioneer women, Elizabeth McDougall learned a new way of life-living in tents, cooking over open fires and supporting her family with limited supplies. Her perseverance and piety has led some to refer to her as the "Madonna of the West." Her son, missionary John McDougall, wrote of his family life:

Let us look into the missionary's house; let us visit himself and wife and growing family. We will be very welcome. Few and far between are the visits of those speaking the same tongue, and hailing from the same country as this missionary family. While everything about and in the house is made as neat and clean as possible, rude benches and rough home-made chairs, and very few of these, comprise the furniture. We are invited to take a meal with the family. We see the meat upon the table; grace is said, the meat is served, the tea is poured, but there is no milk or sugar. There is little salt on the table. We look for the coming of the bread, but it comes not; we would enjoy a potato or a turnip even with this meat, but the meal is ended and they are not forthcoming. We are surprised, yet so common is such fare with these our hosts, they do not notice what is a surprise to us.  

Mother was a strong Christian woman-content, patient, plodding, full of quiet, restful assurance, pre-eminently qualified to be the companion and helper of one who had to hew his way in the wildness of his new world.

In many ways she was a dutiful wife to her husband. In other respects, however, her word was singular and took precedent. Interpreter Peter Erasmus describes the role that Elizabeth played in his marriage preparations:

. . .  I had lost all my former reluctance and was now happily anxious to proceed at once to Edmonton to draw on my account with the Hudson's Bay people for all the things I was told were necessary to have for the wedding. The list of articles from Mrs. Steinhauer was long but when I informed Mrs. McDougall of my success and showed her Mrs. Steinhauer's list, she added others of her own and I began to realize that marriage was a costly procedure. Mrs. McDougall expressed disappointment when her husband advised her that half the stuff on her list could not be obtained short of Fort Garry. That was about the only time that I heard her complain in front of her husband about conditions under which we lived in the territories.

. . . Both Mrs. McDougall and Mrs. Flett [who with her husband ran the HBC (Hudson's Bay Company) store at Victoria] had assumed complete charge of my affairs and planned every detail of my trip with the gravest concern which left me helpless to add any suggestions of my own even if I had cared to do so.

. . . When I arrived at Steinhauer's home in the evening, Mrs. Steinhauer immediately took charge of the parcels of finery and other articles which the good mothers at Victoria deemed absolutely necessary before a proper marriage could be performed. From the exclamations of delight by the women, I presumed the selections were quite in order.

. . . I had to be content to assume a very minor part in the arrangements and leave everything to the capable hands of Mrs. Steinhauer and the others.  

Citation Sources
Erasmus, Peter.  As told to Henry Thompson. Buffalo Days and Nights. Calgary: Glenbow Institute, 1999.

Kells, Edna.  Elizabeth McDougall: Pioneer. Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 1930.McDougall, John. Edited by Thomas Bredin Parsons on the Plains. Don Mills: Longman, 1971.

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