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Manitoba History: “The Reputation of a Lady”: Sarah Ballenden and the Foss-Pelly Scandal

by Sylvia Van Kirk
University of Toronto

Manitoba History, Number 11, Spring 1986

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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The Big House, Lower Fort Garry, restored by Parks Canada to 1850s appearance
Source: Parks Canada

A visitor to the Big House and Lower Fort Garry today is quickly transported back to the year 1850, when the fort was in its heyday as the administrative headquarters of the Governor of Assiniboia. The life and times of Red River are brought alive not only by guides impersonating the occupants of the fort, but by the re-enactment of the trial of Foss versus Pelly et. al. which took place in July 1850. This sensational trial, which had serious repercussions for the elite of Red River, also significantly illuminates the position of women in the fur trade society of mid-nineteenth century Manitoba.

The trial focused on the character of one of the most socially-prominent women in the community, Sarah Ballenden, the native wife of the chief factor in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Red River district. Her fate provides insight into the operation of the sexual double standard of Victorian society—to retain social standing a woman had to be free of any hint of impropriety. That Mrs. Ballendon was guilty of adultery as her slanderers charged was never actually proved; yet her reputation, indeed, her life was ruined. Her supposed lover, Captain Foss, in attempting to clear her reputation by suing her accusers for defamatory conspiracy, may unwittingly have sealed her demise, for such “a stain” once publicly attached to a woman’s character “could not easily be washed off” [1] and the community was henceforth primed to believe the worst.

Other important themes for women’s history also emerge. In examining the circumstances surrounding the trial, it is apparent that certain other women were among Sarah Ballenden’s chief accusers. Paradoxically, although patriarchal mores have often victimized women, women themselves can often be seen to have staunchly upheld these norms and to have been most anxious to see any violation punished. The reasons for such “unsisterly” action should be confronted squarely by feminist historians; cases such as the Foss-Pelly scandal reveal that such behaviour was rooted in women’s social and economic entrapment in marriage. The rivalry among women in nineteenth century Red River, however, was compounded by the issue of race.

Fur trade society in Rupert’s Land had resulted from decades of inter-marriage among incoming white fur traders with Indian and later mixed-blood women. [2] It is significant that for decades in Western Canada both white women and Christian missionaries had been conspicuously absent. The founding of the Red River settlement in 1811 provided a base from which these two “civilizing” elements could intrude into fur trade society. In a broader context, the Foss-Pelly scandal reflected the racial and social tensions which had been developing in Red River in the early nineteenth century. Racist attitudes, particularly with regard to women, can be seen in the attempts of the missionaries to enforce their concepts of morality upon a society that had developed its own indigenous customs. But the scandal also threatened the position of Anglicized mixed-bloods in the social elite of Red River. Sarah Ballenden, as the wife of the HBC’s chief officer in the colony, had symbolized the success of this group. Indeed, it was even predicted that this vivacious young mixed-blood woman was “destined to raise her whole caste above European ladies in their influence on society here.” [3]

In 1848, when John Ballenden was appointed Chief Factor in charge of the Red River district, he and his wife returned to a society where acculturated mixed-blood women were allowed to feature more prominently than they had a decade or so earlier. In 1830 Governor George Simpson had sent shock waves through fur trade society by abandoning his “country wife”, Margaret Taylor, and returning to Rupert’s Land with his young cousin Frances as his bride. He had apparently hoped to create an all-white elite in Red River for his wife’s society was restricted to those few other white wives whose husbands had respectable positions in the colony—Mrs. Donald McKenzie, the Swiss-born wife of the Governor of Assiniboia, and Mrs. David Jones and Mrs. William Cockran, the wives of the Anglican clergymen. [4] Prominent settlers and officers who had native wives appear to have left them behind when being entertained by the Simpsons; as one mixed-blood officer in the Company’s service resentfully observed, “things are not on the same footing as formerly.” [5]

Within a few years, however, Simpson’s intentions had been undermined, not only because of the inability of white ladies such as his own wife to adjust to the rigours of life in Rupert’s Land, but because of the loyalty which other HBC officers evinced for their native mates. In 1833, with the appointment of Chief Factor Alexander Christie as Governor of Assiniboia, his mixed-blood wife was given the opportunity to occupy a most prominent position in Red River society. Although Simpson agreed that Christie was the best man for the job, he had initially discounted him because he had a native family a la facon du pays. [6] When a clerk at Moose Factory, Christie had taken as his wife, Ann, a daughter of HBC officer John Thomas and his wife Margaret. [67] Ann Christie’s acceptability in Red River society was, no doubt, much increased when she was formally married to her husband by the Reverend David Jones on 10 February 1835. [7] Although many couples such as the Christies had lived faithfully for years as husband and wife, their unions, because they were without benefit of clergy, had been denounced as “living in sin” by the missionaries, who were particularly prone to hypocritically chastising the native women for this shameful state. [8]

Certainly in Red River, the centre of “civilization” in Rupert’s Land, church marriage had replaced the fur trade custom of marriage a la facon du pays by the early 1830s. By this time too, the missionaries’ establishment of schools in the colony increasingly reflected the fur traders’ concern to have their children acculturated to the norms of British society. Company officers emphasized that when they sent their daughters to boarding school in Red River, they wanted them to acquire the accomplishments of ladies, such as music, drawing and dancing, and their virtue was to be closely safeguarded. [9] Such a genteel upbringing it was hoped would enable these young women to overcome the taint of their mixed-blood and enhance their marriageability in the eyes of young officers coming into the Company’s service. Both Ann Cockran, and later Mary Jones, whose husband established the Red River Academy in 1832, supervised the education of fur traders’ daughters, some of whom were sent from the far corners of Rupert’s Land.

One of these was Sarah McLeod, a daughter of Chief Trader Alexander Roderick McLeod and his native wife. Born in 1818, Sarah had spent her early years at posts in the Mackenzie and Columbia districts before being sent to Mrs. Cockran at Red River, probably around 1830. [10] By the time she was eighteen, this young woman’s beauty and accomplishments had turned the promising young HBC clerk John Ballenden into an ardent suitor; the couple’s marriage, which was celebrated 10 December 1836 by the Reverend William Cockran, was one of the highlights of the Red River season. [11] Even James Hargrave, whose opposition to mixed marriages was well known, enthusiastically congratulated Ballenden on his choice. Sarah, he declared, was “a delightful creature,” and his friend had “every reason to consider himself a happy man.” When going on furlough, Hargrave further promised Ballenden that should he visit his family in Orkney, he would assure them of the merits of Mrs. Ballenden: “Should I find any old country prejudices remaining depend on it I shall pass a sponge over them.” [12] As the wife of a rising young officer, Mrs. Ballenden enjoyed life in Red River and she was quite disappointed to have to leave the settlement when her husband was posted to Sault Ste. Marie in 1840. [13] That native wives had regained esteem in the colonial elite was symbolized in the Ballendens choosing to name their first child “Anne Christie” in honour of the wife of the Governor of Assiniboia. [14]

Ironically, the decline in racial exclusiveness that characterized Red River in the late 1830s and 1840s helped to set the stage for a fierce social rivalry between white and acculturated mixed-blood women which was to reach its climax in the Foss-Pelly scandal. During this time a small group of British women, who had arrived in Red River initially as schoolmistresses, experienced a considerable increase in status by marrying retired Company officers who formed part of the colony’s elite. After the death of their native wives, such notables as James Bird, Robert Logan, J. P. Pruden and John Charles all married former schoolmistresses. Their new wives, although they had to accommodate themselves to being step-mothers to large mixed-blood families, now possessed the wherewithal to become leaders in Red River society. According to one observer, the not-so-gentle art of social climbing had come to Red River:

We have now some rich old fellows that have acquired large fortunes in the service, have got married to European females and cut a dash, have introduced a system of extravagance into the place that is followed by all that can afford it. [16]

Evidently quite a pecking order developed with people becoming so sensitive about their social position that when Duncan Finlayson assumed the governorship of Assiniboia in 1839, he complained that it would have required “Beau Nash” to regulate the movements of fashionable Red River couples. Finlayson’s genteel wife, a sister of Frances Simpson, was apparently appalled by the social pretensions of the colony; she retreated behind a veil of ill health which contributed to her husband’s desire to give up his post as soon as possible. [17]

Mrs. Christie, on the other hand, was delighted to resume her position as Governor’s lady when her husband was reappointed in 1844. [18] Anxious that native women not be out-done, she was instrumental in promoting a match between her daughter Margaret, who had been educated in England, and Company officer John Black the following year. While some of Black’s contemporaries expressed surprise that he should have been “caught in that quarter,” his wife considered that her marriage had sealed her position within the elite and was inclined to think herself “far above the rest of the native Ladies.” [19] A woman’s social standing was, however, determined not on her own account but by her husband’s position. Thus in 1848, when the Ballendens took up residence at Upper Fort Garry, it was Sarah Ballenden, not Margaret Black, who was the highest ranking native woman in the fort.

Mrs. Ballenden’s delight in returning to Red River had been dampened by her husband suffering a stroke on the canoe voyage inland; that he made the recovery he did owned much to his wife’s devoted nursing. [20] In spite of her domestic cares, Sarah Ballenden was both eager and able to play an active role in the social life of the colony as befitted the wife of the HBC’s chief officer. She organized dinner parties and balls, and the christening of her new daughter in the fall of 1849 was reported to be a “splendid entertainment with abundance of champagne.” [21] The baby was named “Frances Isobel Simpson” after Governor Simpson’s genteel British wife and her sister. As part of her social duties, Mrs. Ballenden also presided, with her husband, over the officers’ mess at Upper Fort Garry, where she attracted the admiration of several of the other officers. In the light of subsequent events, it is significant that Sarah spurned the advances of one of these, the fort’s accountant A. E. Pelly, [22] but was herself much more susceptible to the charms of a gallant Irishman, Captain Christopher Vaughan Foss. A career soldier, Foss had come out to Red River in 1848 as second in command of the Chelsea Pensioners under Major William Caldwell, who now succeeded Christie as Governor of Assiniboia. Having been stationed at the Upper Fort, Captain Foss was allowed to occupy a seat at the mess table at the Company’s expense and he quickly ingratiated himself with the Ballendens. Ballenden himself declared that Foss was “an agreeable fellow and will, I daresay, become very popular.” [23]

It appears that Sarah Ballenden’s beauty and her prominent social position made her an object of envious gossip, particularly among certain white women in Red River. As one observer assessed the situation, “the poor woman seems to have had a watch set on her from the moment of her arrival, every act word or deed was marked and commented upon by certain parties.” [24] Her popularity with men excited much speculation. Hadn’t her virtue, like many native girls, been suspect during her early days in Red River? Could Captain Foss be simply her platonic friend? Mrs. Robert Logan, one of the lesser ex-schoolmistresses, was heard to remark that Ballenden’s wife was a woman who “must always have a sweetheart as well as a husband.” [25] Indeed, suggestive hints which originated with Mrs. Ballenden’s German servant girl, Catherine Winegart, about the relationship between her mistress and the Captain were seized upon and magnified until, by the summer of 1849, it was widely rumoured that Foss’s attentions to Ballenden’s wife were “of such a character as to entitle Mr. B. to a divorce.” [26]

This gossip was to fall on the receptive ears of two new white women who arrived in Red River in the fall of 1849. The first was Anne Clouston, the daughter of the Company’s agent at Stromness, who came out to Rupert’s Land to be married to the aforementioned A. E. Pelly, a relative of the London Governor of the Company, Sir John H. Pelly. [27] The couple were married at York Factory by The Rt. Revd. David Anderson, the first Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land, who had come by the same ship as Miss Clouston. The Bishop, a widower with three children, was accompanied by his sister Margaret who was to look after his household and help with the running of the academy. Miss Anderson appears to have been the epitome of the strait-laced, sharp-tongued spinster. [28]

Upon her arrival at the Upper Fort, Mrs. Pelly was much disconcerted to find that in spite of her connections, she was obliged to give precedence to Mrs. Ballenden, a woman whom, due to race and reputation, she did not consider her social equal. The Orkney woman evidently intended to play the great lady, for even Letitia Hargrave, who had come out to York Factory from Scotland in 1840, had been aghast at the extravagance of her trousseau:

Anne brought an immense quantity of finery 5 perfectly new bonnets besides that she wore on board, & scarves, handkerchiefs & shawls as if she had been going to Calcutta. [29]

Instead of the deference she expected, Anne Pelly found that her fastidious and fainting ways were the object of ridicule at the mess table, especially by Captain Foss who was evidently in the habit of making telling remarks to Mrs. Ballenden. Pelly’s wife was so incensed by the insulting manner in which she considered she was treated that she actually made herself ill; her husband withdrew from the mess in a huff and shunned the Ballendens. [30]

In Mrs. Pelly’s view the behaviour of Captain Foss and Mrs. Ballenden at the mess table, coupled with what she had heard from Catherine Winegart, was enough for her to importune Major Caldwell that such immorality could not be condoned. [31] Ballenden’s popularity made Caldwell hesitate to take any open action, but after the chief factor left in June to meet Governor Simpson at Fort Alexander, a concerted effort was made to exclude his wife from respectable company. The Major forbade his family to associate with Mrs. Ballenden, Miss Anderson and the Bishop refused to countenance her, and the Cockrans advised some of Sarah’s closed friends that she was no longer fit company. Most humiliating of all, Mrs. Black, who had shown a preference for the society of Mrs. Pelly, now openly cut her fellow country-woman. [32]

Upon hearing the rumours circulating about them, Mrs. Ballenden and Captain Foss were determined to fight back to prove their innocence. Sarah took refuge with Recorder Adam Thom and his wife, who had acted as godmother to her last child. With Thom’s aid, a sworn statement was obtained from Catherine Winegart denying any knowledge of an illicit relationship between her mistress and Captain Foss. [33] The Captain, meanwhile, posted a notice on the shop door at the Upper Fort, denouncing Pelly for circulating “false and calumnious” reports and announcing his intention to seek legal redress. When John Black, who had been given temporary charge of the post, insisted that the notice be removed, Foss began to suspect that Black was in league with Pelly to disgrace their superior. [34] Upon his return with the Governor at the end of June, Ballenden was much relieved to be assured by Thom that his investigations had convinced him that there was no truth to the reports about Mrs. Ballenden. Ballenden, however, decided that he should postpone his furlough and resume charge of the Upper Fort, but, almost immediately, he was forced to resign because of the actions of Black and Pelly. Mr. Black confronted him with a sworn deposition by the mess cook John Davidson and his English wife implicating Sarah with Captain Foss; it had been sworn in front of Governor Simpson as was a similar statement by Mr. Pelly. [35]

The upshot of these charges was that Captain Foss brought a suit of defamatory conspiracy against Pelly, Davidson and their wives for having accused him of “criminal intercourse with a married woman”; his sole purpose, he claimed, was “to clear the reputation of a Lady”. [36] The three-day trial which began on July 16 threw Red River into a turmoil; such was the excitement occasioned by the case, lamented Simpson, that “all the inhabitants thought it proper to espouse one side or the other and to regard the verdict as a personal triumph or a personal injury.” [37] From a judicial point of view, the trial was highly irregular, notably because the judge Adam Thom had previously acted for the prosecution. Furthermore, the question as to whether the defendants had really been the instigators of a defamatory conspiracy was lost sight of as the trial concentrated on proving Mrs. Ballenden’s guilt or innocence. Numerous witnesses were called, but their evidence proved extremely vague and circumstantial; most of them had to admit they had just heard and repeated rumours concerning Foss and Mrs. Ballenden. The testimony of some of the women, especially Mrs. Cockran and Miss Anderson, was full of innuendo and undisguised hostility. [38] Finally, after several hours of deliberation, the jury declared that Captain Foss and Mrs. Ballenden had been unjustly slandered, and the defendants were required to pay heavy damages—Pelly, £300; Davidson, £100. [39]

That nearly all of the jurors were Anglophone mixed-bloods may have influenced the stiff fines, for much racial animosity was engendered by the case. Chief among Sarah Ballenden’s accusers were those who championed the supremacy of white women: the Protestant clergy, particularly Bishop Anderson and Reverend Cockran; Governor Caldwell; and some of the lesser Company officers. On the other hand, most of her supporters were either Anglophone mixed-bloods or married to native women. Two of her most ardent defenders were Dr. John Bunn, a prominent mixed-blood, and the colony’s sheriff Alexander Ross who was married to an Indian woman and had numerous daughters. The Anglophone mixed-bloods who desired to be assimilated into white society viewed the attack on Mrs. Ballenden as an attempt to discredit mixed-blood women which would threaten their position in Red River society. In the words of one cogent observer, the affair seemed to be “a strife of Blood.” [40] Adam Thom, whose part in the proceedings had temporarily lessened his unpopularity among the mixed-blood community, denounced the intended racial slur. “Altho Mrs. B. might not have so much starch in her face” he declared, “she had as much virtue in her heart as any exotic.” [41] There can be no doubt that Anne Pelly’s air of superiority occasioned much resentment and was a root cause of trouble. Her brother, Chief Trader Robert Clouston, wrote acidly to his father-in-law Donald Ross:

... my sister is not a native—therefore must have the ill-will of that class. She has self respect and acts in a manner entitling her to the respect of others therefore she must have the enmity of those who have lost the sense of shame. [42]

Thus the colonial elite was seriously split along predominantly racial lines when the new Associate Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Eden Colvile, arrived in the fall of 1850 with his English wife Anne. Despite her declared innocence, Mrs. Ballenden had continued to be shunned by “the nobs of woman-kind,” particularly Mrs. Caldwell, Miss Anderson and Mrs. Cockran. The bad feelings resulting from the scandal created an impossible social situation. Colvile wrote in exasperation to Simpson:

Altogether the state of things is most unpleasant though somewhat ludicrous, withal. For instance, today, the Bishop & his sister were calling on us, & in the middle of the visit I heard a knock at the door & suspecting who it was rushed out & found Mrs. & Mrs. Ballenden. I had to cram them into another room till the Bishop’s visit was over, but as he was then going to see the Pelly’s he had to pass through this room, so that I had to bolt out & put them into a third room. It was altogether like a scene in a farce. [43]

Colvile, who took over the governorship of the colony from the unpopular Caldwell, would have re-instated Ballenden at Upper Fort Garry, but Black insisted upon retaining the charge for the coming year. The Ballendens removed to Lower Fort Garry where they took up quarters in the Big House, and the Governor delighted Ballenden by admitting Sarah to the company of his wife. Since Ballenden himself believed in his wife’s innocence, Colvile, who was anxious to restore harmony, deemed it only fair that she should be allowed back into society. As the summer wore on, Colvile found Mrs. Ballenden’s behaviour so discreet and proper that he began to think that the “poor woman had been more sinned against than sinning.” The parsons and their women were “very strait-laced,” he declared, and the colony “a dreadful place for scandal.” [44]

Lizzie Ballenden

Lizzie Ballenden
Source: Archives of Manitoba

For his part, Captain Foss, who had been divested of his Company privileges, had been away at York Factory most of the late summer, supervising the arrival of another contingent of pensioners. It was expected that he would soon leave the settlement permanently, but Foss changed his mind and decided to winter in Red River, likely because of a disagreement with the Company over some property. [45] He took up residence at the home of Donald McKenzie, a retired Company officer, [46] and remained popular with the Anglophone mixed-blood community. By the fall, however, Chief Factor Ballenden had made up his mind that he should go to Britain for medical treatment. He felt confident in leaving his wife and family under the protection of Governor Colvile; there was no lively mess table at the Lower Fort, but Mrs. Ballenden was to take her meals with the clerk W. D. Lane. [47]

Annie Ballenden

Annie Ballenden. It was said she looked much like her mother, Sarah.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

These winter arrangements began auspiciously enough, but by early December Sarah Ballenden was again hopelessly entangled in scandal’s web. An incriminating note, allegedly from Sarah to Captain Foss, was delivered into the hands of Adam Thom, who, forthwith, presented Governor Colvile with a copy. In the note, Mrs. Ballenden, proposing to take advantage of Colvile’s absence at the Upper Fort, invited her “darling Christopher” to pay her a visit. The original having been delivered, although it was never revealed by whom, Foss apparently effected the rendezvous, although no one actually reported having seen him at the Lower Fort. [48] When Colvile returned home on 5 December, he did not confront Mrs. Ballenden as to her conduct; now convinced of her deceit, he abruptly ceased all association between her and his family. A few days later, Sarah further incriminated herself, in his eyes, by driving from the fort alone and paying an afternoon visit to the McKenzie home where Foss was living. [49]

This turn of events, the news of which spread rapidly through the community, confirmed Mrs. Ballenden’s accusers in the belief that she had been guilty of immoral conduct all along. Several of her supporters now also felt obliged to desert her cause: both Dr. Bunn and Adam Thom changed sides. [50] But while Thom deemed it necessary to write to Ballenden, now in Scotland, of his wife’s falseness, others, notably Alexander Ross, remained unconvinced of her guilt. An intriguing, if frustratingly cryptic, series of notes also reveals that Mrs. Ballenden received sympathetic support from her nephew, A. G. B. Bannatyne, a clerk at the Upper Fort, and her messmate, W. D. Lane. Realizing that she was now persona non grata at the fort, Sarah, accompanied by her nephew, left on 11 January to live at “Green’s old place” with members of the Ross family. Bannatyne enlisted Lane’s aid to provide his aunt with a stove and other articles for her comfort and expressed the hope that she might now “pass the remainder of the winter more pleasantly than the commencement.” [51]

It is a popular misconception, current both then and today, that Mrs. Ballenden left the fort to live with Captain Foss. This is incorrect and, in spite of an undoubtedly close surveillance, no one could report any further evidence of an affair between her and the Captain. [52] By this time Sarah, who already had several young children in her care, was well along in her eighth pregnancy, and she gave birth to a son on 15 June. [53] Shortly after this, the baby’s father returned from furlough and Captain Foss left the settlement for good. [54] No record remains of Ballenden’s reunion with his wife after his long absence. When far away in Scotland, grief-stricken and angry, he had contemplated divorce but now refused to pursue this course even though pressured by “respectable” society to do so. [55] It was reported, by Thom and Colvile, that during the summer the unhappy Sarah had “confessed” and thrown herself upon her husband’s mercy. But Ballenden himself casts doubt on such an occurrence in a private letter to Simpson in which he asks the Governor to cease in his condemnation of his wife:

“No further proceedings, on my part, against her, will ever take place, indeed, did no other reason exist, they would be worse than useless, as there is no proof, notwithstanding Mr. Thorns opinion to the contrary ... I entreat of you, for my sake, if not for hers, to cease, and let her rest in peace — if that is now possible. [56]

In the fall of 1851, Ballenden was posted to Fort Vancouver, and it appears that he would have taken his wife with him had her health been up to the long journey across the Rockies. Instead, he endeavoured to settle Sarah comfortably in a rented house near The Rapids in the settlement. But Sarah Ballenden, now vilified as a “fallen woman,” was to pass a wretched and lonely winter. Her health seriously deteriorated; according to one of her few friends, “if there is such a thing as dying of a broken heart, she cannot live long.” [57] In the summer of 1852, finding the situation in Red River unbearable and hoping to travel with the annual brigade to join her husband, Mrs. Ballenden and her children moved to Norway House where she was generously received by Chief Factor George Barnston and his mixed-blood wife Ellen. Barnston, who had been a friend of Sarah’s father and known her since childhood, declared that she might “always find an asylum where I live. Surely utter helplessness merits aid.” [58]

The only letters written by Sarah Ballenden known to have survived date from this period. Charming notes written to thank W. D. Lane for his help in forwarding her belongings and in securing a servant for her, they also indicate that she was far from well. “I feel stronger,” she wrote in July, “but cough very much still.” [59] In 1853, Ballenden’s own poor health forced him to retire from the Columbia and he arranged for his nephew to take his wife and family to Scotland where he planned to retire. There is evidence that a poignant reunion between husband and wife took place in Edinburgh before Sarah died of consumption in December of that year. When writing a short time later to his daughter Eliza, Ballenden referred movingly to the concern which “your own dear mother” had expressed about the welfare of her children as she lay on her deathbed. [60]

The fate of Sarah Ballenden, who was only 35 years old when she died, was a tragic one. In terms of assessing her guilt, it is worth considering Alexander Ross’s belief that she had been a victim of jealousy and revenge. “After what I had seen at the trial,” declared Ross, “and the unfounded malice got up in certain circles, no earthly power will convince me that she is guilty, till that guilt be proved.” [61] Indeed, if Captain Foss and Mrs Ballenden had been guilty of an adulterous affair, it seems highly unlikely that they would have actively invited the risk of exposure brought by the trial. Certainly those accused of the conspiracy had motives for wishing to discredit one or both parties. Mrs. Pelly’s envy of Sarah Ballenden’s social position complemented her husband’s desire for revenge: he had not only been spurned by Sarah himself but had lost a large sum through gambling to Captain Foss. [62] The Davidson, recently arrived from England, appear to have resented their inferior position at the fort; Mrs. Davidson was particularly piqued at being required to perform household duties which she considered beneath her dignity especially for a mixed-blood mistress. [63] John Black’s motivation for making the Davidsons’ accusations public were seen as highly suspect. One observer declared that the chief trader hoped to disgrace Ballenden so his superior would be forced to resign and Black would regain charge of the fort as he was to have done during Ballenden’s absence on furlough. [64]

It seems significant that when the scandal blew up the second time, none of the defendants sued for redress of damages. Thus it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Sarah Ballenden was framed; the incriminating note was not signed and found its way most conveniently into the hands of Adam Thom. On the other hand, although there was little opportunity for them to meet after the trial, it is possible that the friendship which existed between Sarah Ballenden and Captain Foss was developing into something deeper. If indeed, Mrs. Ballenden had attempted a surreptitious meeting with the Captain, she was certainly betrayed, although it was never revealed by whom or for what reason. In sum, the historical evidence does not justify supporting Reverend Cockran’s observation that “whenever a rumour of this kind is in circulation, I have always found them [sic] to turn out correct.” [65]

Whatever the case, Sarah Ballenden paid a heavy price. She became a social outcast, her reputation ruined. According to the double standard of British morality, it was women who must uphold the sexual purity of society and any deviation must be punished. Ironically, the mixed-blood woman’s strongest condemnation came not from men but from other women. In this situation the women behaved in a petty and vindictive manner; yet ultimately they were more deserving of pity than censure. Their actions stemmed in large measure from their being reduced to a precarious dependency on male protectors and, unlike the men, they were locked into a marital system which gave them no autonomous way of establishing their status or worth. The racism evinced by white women in Red River, while as inexcusable as that of their male counterparts, was aggravated by what, in their view, was a concrete threat to their own welfare in the competition for eligible husbands.

The fall of Sarah Ballenden had the effect of intensifying racial prejudice in nineteenth-century fur trade society. Implicit in some of the attitudes expressed during the trial was the belief that a certain moral weakness was inherent in women of even part-Indian extraction. In the opinion of Chief Trader Robert Campbell, for example, the Foss-Pelly scandal served as a striking lesson of the folly of marrying a native woman:

It is too well known that few indeed of those joined to the ebony and half ebony damsels of the north are happy or anything like it; ... few or none of them have pleasure, comfort or satisfaction of their Families. [66]

While not all incoming Company officers in the 1850s followed Campbell’s example of marrying a British woman, those who continued to marry “daughters of the country” restricted their choice to highly-acculturated daughters of wealthy Hudson’s Bay families who studiously endeavoured to disassociate themselves from their native heritage. Certainly by the post-1870 period, the mixed marriage which had been a central part of the fabric of Red River society had become an increasingly peripheral phenomenon.


1. Public Archives of Canada (PAC), James Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 7, p. 1716, Duncan Finlayson to Hargrave, 12 August 1839.

2. For a detailed discussion of the role played by native women in the development of fur trade society, see Sylvia Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980), chs. 1-6.

3. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), D.5131, f. 247, James Bird to Gov. Simpson, 8 August 1851.

4. HBCA, B.1351c/2. f. 64d, G. Simpson to J. G. McTavish, 10 April 1831.

5. HBCA, Ermatinger Correspondence, Copy 23, f. 271, W. Sinclair to E. Ermatinger, 18 August 1831.

6. HBCA, B.1351c12. f. 106, Simpson to McTavish, 29 June 1833.

7. HBCA, E.4116, f. 243, Register of Marriages; Copy of Will of John Thomas, Sr. (1822). In several sources, Anne Christie has been incorrectly identified as the daughter of HBC Governor Thomas Thomas.

8. See Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”, pp. 153-158, 165.

9. Ibid., pp. 147-149.

10. The identity of Alexander Roderick McLeod’s wife has not been discovered. In the papers relating to his estate she is described as “an Indian Woman of the half breed Caste”, see HBCA, A.36110, f. 18; Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Records of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia, “Foss vs. Pelly et. al., 16-18 July 1850,” p. 203.

11. G. P. de T. Glazebrook, ed., The Hargrave Correspondence, 1821-1843 (Toronto: Champlain Society, vol. 24, 1938), pp. 249-50; H.B.C.A., E.411b, f. 248d, Register of Marriages; Chief Factor John Stuart who acted as Sarah’s guardian gave his consent to the marriage (HBCA, D.5114, f.275) and the bride received a dowry of £350 from her father (H.B.C.A., D.5112, fos. 243-244).

12. PAC, Hargrave Correspondence. vol. 23, letterbook 14, Hargrave to Mrs. T. Isbister, 28 May 1839 and letterbook 15, Hargrave to J. Ballenden, 7 September 1839.

13. Ibid., vol. 8, p. 1891, Ballenden to Hargrave, 30 January 1841.

14. Public Record Office, England, Prob. 11, 2257, f. 667, Will of John Ballenden (1854).

15. See Van Kirk, “Many Tender Ties”, pp. 189-90.

16. Glenbow Foundation Archives, Calgary, James Sutherland Papers, Jas. Sutherland to John Sutherland, 7 August 1838.

17. PAC, Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 8, p. 2193, Finlayson to Hargrave, 18 December 1841.

18. HBCA, D.519, f.373d. D. Finlayson to Simpson, 18 December 1843.

19. Ibid., D.5113, fos. 395d-96, Finlayson to Simpson, 8 April 1845; Provincial Archives of British Columbia (PABC), Donald Ross Papers, John McBeath to Donald Ross, 6 August 1850.

20. HBCA, D.5129, f. 422, Ballenden to Simpson, 30 December 1850; Public Archives of Manitoba (PAM), “Foss vs. Pelly”, p. 218.

21. PAC, Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 27, Letitia Hargrave to Flora Mactavish, 1 June 1850.

22. PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, pp. 202-203.

23. HBCA, D.5123, f. 383, Ballenden to Simpson, 29 November 1848. For further information on Captain Foss and his relations with the Hudson’s Bay Company, see E. E. Rich, ed., Eden Colvile’s Letters, 1849-52 (London: H.B.R.S., vol. 19, 1956).

24. PABC, D. Ross Papers, Wm. Todd to Donald Ross, 20 July 1850.

25. PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, pp. 185-86, 203.

26. Margaret A. MacLeod, ed., The Letters of Letitia Hargrave (Toronto: Champlain Society, vol. 28, 1947), p. 247.

27. PABC, D. Ross Papers, Robert Clouston to Donald Ross, 29 June 1849.

28. HBCA, D.5130, f. 206, Adam Thom to Simpson, 5 February 1851.

29. MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 247; see also P.A.C., Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 27, Letitia to her mother, 14 December 1851.

30. PABC, D. Ross Papers, A. E. Pelly to D. Ross, 1 August 1850; P.A.M., “Foss vs. Pelly”, pp. 185, 196.

31. Ibid., pp. 183, 193, 213-14.

32. PAC, Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 15, p. 4533, Wm. Todd to Hargrave, 13 July 1850 and p. 4581, John Black to Hargrave, 6 August 1850; PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, p. 187; MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 255.

33. PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, p. 207.

34. HBCA, A.1215, fos. 178-179, Memo for Gov. Simpson.

35. PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, pp. 199-202.

36. Charges were also to have been laid against the Blacks but these were dropped (MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 255); PAM, “Foss vs. Telly”, p. 181.

37. HBCA, D.4171, fos. 265-266d, Simpson to J. Black, 18 December 1850.

38. PABC, D. Ross Papers, J. Ballenden to Ross, 1 August 1850; HBCA, D.5128, f. 437d, Adam Thom to Simpson, 15 August 1850.

39. Foss never actually collected the £100 from Davidson, maintaining that it was the principle not the money he was really interested in (“Foss vs. Pelly”, p. 181).

40. PABC, D. Ross Papers, R. Clouston to Ross, 17 December 1850.

41. MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 256.

42. PABC, D. Ross Papers, R. Clouston to Ross, 28 September 1850.

43. Rich, Colvile’s Letters, p. 193.

44. Ibid., 195.

45. Ibid., 47-65

46. This Donald McKenzie had been a lesser officer in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company; he was married to a half-breed woman, Matilda Bruce.

47. Rich, Colvile’s Letters, 195, 197. The published version mistakenly reads Jane instead of Lane.

48. Ibid., p. 201.

49. Ibid.

50. HBCA, D.5130, fos. 47-53, John Black to Simpson, 8 January 1851 and f. 203, Adam Thom to Simpson, 5 February 1851.

51. University of British Columbia Archives (UBCA), W. D. Lane Papers, Folder 1, letter 12, A. G. B. Bannatyne to Lane, 9 January 1851. Colvile (p. 204) states that Mrs. Ballenden went to live at one Cunninghame’s; this was likely the home of one of the married daughters of Alexander Ross by that name.

52. Rich, Colvile’s Letters, pp. 204, 210.

53. Will of John Ballenden; UBCA, Lane Papers, Bannatyne to Lane, Monday evening, “Poor Aunt has got a son yesterday morning about 7 o’clock”. Like many of the notes between Bannatyne and Lane, this one is not dated, but from other evidence it can be established that it was written on 16 June 1851.

54. Rich, Colvile’s Letters, p. 65.

55. HBCA, D.5131, f. 143d, Black to Simpson, 26 July 1851.

56. Ibid., D.5132, f. 323, Ballenden to Simpson, 5 December 1851.

57. Ibid., D.5131, f. 206, A. Ross to Simpson, 1 August 1851.

58. PABC, D. Ross Papers, G. Barnston to Ross, 22 July 1852.

59. UBCA, Lane Papers, Folder 1, letter 15, Sarah Ballenden to W. D. Lane, 20 July 1852.

60. HBCA, D.4174, f. 212, Simpson to A. McDermot, Feb. 6, 1854; W. J. Healy, Women of Red River (Winnipeg, 1923), p. 195.

61. HBCA, D.5131, f. 206, A. Ross to Simpson, 1 August 1851.

62. MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 247.

63. PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, p. 207.

64. PABC, Ross Papers, Wm. Todd to Ross, 20 July 1850.

65. PAM, “Foss vs. Pelly”, p. p. 187.

66. HBCA, D.5137, fos. 458-59, Robert Campbell to Simpson, 31 August 1853.

67. Note added 19 October 2009: The original version of this paper, following the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, reported Ann Christie as the daughter of John Thomas Sr. and his Cree wife Meenish. According to biographical information contained in HBCA, his wife was Margaret (?-1813). See HBC Biographical Sheets,

Page revised: 17 August 2013

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