‘Call Me Auntie’: Excavating the Histories of Black Women Pioneers in Western Canada

Friday, March 16, 2012

Cheryl Foggo, writer and film-maker
Guest Contributor

This is part of the VP Equity series for Women’s History Month 2012.

The first time I saw a photograph of her I lingered on her face, unable to turn the page. She looked so confident, like a person at peace. The inscription said she was “Auntie”, nanny to the children of North West Mounted Police (NWMP) Colonel James Macleod. “Interesting,” I thought, but reluctantly placed the dusty tome back on its shelf in a neglected corner of the library. I was working on something else at the time.

Years later I had become known as an author specializing in Black western Canadian history, and was asked to write an entry on that subject for “Remembering Chinook Country.” I recalled “Auntie” as it appeared she was one of the first people of African descent to live in pre-Alberta; it made sense to include her in my chapter.

She was hard to find. In addition to the previously encountered notation, she was mentioned in a couple of books in the Local History room at the downtown library in Calgary. I discovered two more photographs, although only with the same footnote – ‘Nanny to the Macleod children.’ Seeing Auntie on the Glenbow Museum website, still nameless except for that anachronistic title, gave me a sense of purpose. That her name had been lost to history troubled me.

Web searches led to dead ends and tantalizing long distance red herrings, but those methods eventually pointed me to University of Alberta history professor Sarah Carter, who had discovered that “Auntie” was Annie Saunders.

My sense of satisfaction with having restored her name to the public record, at least as far as the Glenbow website went, didn’t last long though. The captivating woman in the 120 year old photograph was tired of being hidden and I was drawn into a search that may last the rest of my life. Since then, I have come to liken the task of inquiry and writing about Annie Saunders to penning a serialized detective novel about a mystery that may never be fully solved.

The more I learned, the more I marveled that this extraordinary woman had been so utterly forgotten. How had a Black woman who had probably spent the first thirty years of her life enslaved, found the courage to travel to an unknown frontier? Once there, how had she pulled herself up to become a valued community member and self-sufficient entrepreneur?

The argument that Annie Saunders was an important southern Alberta pioneer can be made on a number of different fronts. The Alberta I live in today prides itself on its entrepreneurial spirit, and Annie must certainly be counted among the vanguard of women in business, indeed one of our earliest entrepreneurs of either gender.

That she accomplished this against long odds is indisputable. Southern Alberta was built upon a hierarchy, with men of British descent at the top and others situated at various points below. She did her part to stake a claim for brown-skinned women and to lay the groundwork in a country that would eventually come to define itself by its quest for justice and harmonious pluralism. The Macleods were paramount players in the European equation of the annals of southern Alberta. If it can be said that the Macleods shaped the attitudes and institutions of the region, it stands to reason that their attitudes and sense of well-being were influenced by Annie.

Annie Saunders may not have been surprised to know her name would be lost. She contributed to that outcome. “Call me Auntie,” is what she said to Mary Macleod when she met her on a steamship traveling up the Missouri River from Fort Benton, Montana. “Call me Auntie,” is what she said to everyone. She must have had her reasons, perhaps not difficult to discern. Black people were often branded with ugly epithets. Annie chose to self-label.

The 1881 Canada census for Bow River lists her occupation as cook. It says she was 45 years old, born in the United States and a widowed Methodist. The clues given in those bare facts are all I know of her American past.

Her life in this country began with her arrival to work for the Macleods in 1877 in the outpost that had been named for the Colonel. Although deeply buried, there are dozens of references to Annie Saunders scattered in letters, old newspapers, memoirs of Pincher Creek visitors and residents, and beneath the mountain of surviving archives concerning the Macleod family. By cross-referencing those sources it is possible to clear away some of the fog that shrouds Annie Saunders’ life from the time she arrived in what was then known as the Northwest Territories and later became Alberta.

The three existing photographs of her provide some superficial information. She was a handsome woman, with a soft lap and a warm face that is easy to picture laughing. And she probably laughed most at her own joke and the look it would bring to the faces of people she met. “Me and Mrs. Macleod,” she was fond of saying, “were the first White women in the region.”

It is likely that she lived in the Macleod household from 1877 to 1880 while they resided in Fort Macleod. When the Macleods moved to a home they named Kyleakin in Pincher Creek in 1880, Annie went with them, but may not have lived with them full time. It was in Pincher Creek that the first records of Annie’s independence and the three businesses she eventually ran began to appear, the laundry coming first, followed by the restaurant and boarding home.

At the same time, however, correspondence between James and Mary and their children during those years indicates that she was still an important part of the family. In a letter to his wife written on July 27th 1882, Macleod reports “Old Annie, in Bray’s house, is having quite a lot of custom[ers] for meals… She is awfully behind with her washing. She still dotes upon the boy and asks continually about Nell’s accident.” This quote provides an example of how dissecting each phrase in the references Colonel Macleod and others made to Annie provide clues to her life.

NWMP records confirm that Sergeant Major John H. G. Bray worked with Colonel Macleod and lived near the creek on the edge of the town with his family. But of course answers often lead to more questions. Was Annie living in the Bray household at the time that Macleod seems to indicate she was operating some form of restaurant there?

“She is awfully behind with her washing” refers to Annie’s laundry business that is frequently mentioned in historical documents. A woman named Inderwick wrote that she sent her laundry to “that dignified coloured,” but had to wait weeks for its return, as Annie made the needs of the Macleods her first priority. The references to Annie “still doting on the boy” and “asking continually about Nell’s accident” were to the oldest Macleod children, Norman and Helen.

The ongoing relationship between Annie and the Macleod family, and Annie and the residents of Pincher Creek, is confirmed through other archives referencing the laundry, the rooming house and her popular restaurant.

On January 13th 1883, the Macleod Gazette stated “The Reverend Mr. Trivett entertained his choir at a supper on the evening of the 28th at Mrs. Saunders.” An advertisement in the Jan. 24th 1883 edition of the Gazette touted the restaurant, with the notation “Mrs. Saunders, Proprietress. Hot Meals at all hours. Good accommodation for ladies.” On March 5th of the same year the Gazette printed an item concerning the Dramatic Club of Pincher Creek’s event that included after dinner entertainment. That item ended with “At the close a vote of thanks was passed to Auntie for the able manner in which she had catered.”

Annie Saunders hosted a number of dignitaries, including the Marquis of Lorne and Alexander Stavely Hill, conservative British MP, later Director of the Oxley Ranching Company and the person for whom the town of Stavely is named.

It is impossible to gauge how Annie Saunders really fit into the social structure of 1800s Pincher Creek. While it is clear she was a valued member of the community, it would be naïve to assume she was universally embraced. The Macleod Gazette reported a physical assault on a Mrs. Saunders by a Mrs. Broullette in its October 17th 1884 issue. Although it is feasible that there was another Mrs. Saunders in town, it is likely that the victim was indeed Annie Saunders.

Colonel Macleod and his family moved back to Ft. Macleod in 1886 and remained there until taking up their final residence in Calgary in 1894. Annie chose to spend the rest of her life in Pincher Creek. However, her friendly affiliation with the Macleods continued into the 1890s. She is mentioned as having unexpectedly arrived to do the wash and bringing a gift of eggs, potatoes and fish in separate 1891 letters.

The present-day Pincher Creek Pioneer Cemetery is a forlorn place on the outskirts of town, bumping up against a sagging chain link fence and a collection of rusting cars and trucks. At one time the grounds had fallen into a state of neglect until an interest in restoration was taken up by a local couple. A plaque bearing the names of pioneers who were buried there greets visitors, but Annie’s name is not among them. Her name may have been recorded in a book that was kept in an old shed that was lost when the shed was torched by some local youth.

Despite the lack of concrete proof, however, I’m sure she’s there. The Lethbridge News carried the following item in its Pincher Creek news section on July, 27th 1898: “The old lady, Mrs. Saunders, generally called “Aunty” around Pincher Creek and Macleod, died here on Tuesday, July 19th. The service was preached by the Methodist preacher on Wednesday at 1 o’clock, and the body was then taken to the cemetery. The funeral was well attended.”

A longer version of this entry appeared in AlbertaViews Magazine in January, 2009.

Cheryl Foggo, author of Pourin’ Down Rain and Dear Baobab, is an award-winning writer of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays. Her new play, “The Devil We Know,” will premier in the fall 2012 at the Blyth Festival in Ontario.


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