Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

“Destined to Raise Her Caste”: Sarah Ballenden and the Foss-Pelly Scandal

by Sylvia Van Kirk
Dalhousie University

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 31, 1974-75 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

The Foss-Pelly scandal of 1850 is an event in Red River history which most historians would like to ignore. [1] For those who would construct a rosy picture of racial harmony in the early days of Red River, it presents an embarrassing obstacle. [2] Certainly a distasteful episode (and one that should not be resurrected simply because of its sensational aspects), the Foss-Pelly scandal is, nevertheless, worthy of serious investigation because of the insights it provides into Red River society in the mid-19th century. The case of Foss v. Pelly created a furor in the settlement; it was particularly serious because it threatened to divide Red River irrevocably along racial lines-mixed-blood versus white. In the words of a contemporary historian, “Probably no case ever brought before the Recorder’s court ... has given rise to so much bad feeling, and such deplorable sequences, as did this cause celebre.” [3] This paper will examine both the causes of the scandal and its social repercussions.

In essence, the Foss-Pelly scandal was an attack on an English mixed-blood woman (Mrs. Sarah Ballenden) for alleged immoral behaviour. It can be seen as the culmination of the social and racial tension that had been building up in Red River for several decades. In attempting to determine why the scandal had such a serious impact, three factors seem to be of prime importance. The first was Red River’s penchant for gossip. In most small, isolated communities, gossip is an important social force. In Red River, which became the focus of fur trade society, gossip flourished because of the widespread social connections resulting from decades of intermarriage. In its formative decades, Red River was also very much a community in flux, particularly with regard to societal values. A second cause of the Foss-Pelly scandal can be traced to the attempts of the Protestant clergy to enforce their strict concepts of morality upon a fur trade society whose values they considered hopelessly lax. Thirdly, and most importantly, the scandal was precipitated by a bitter struggle between mixed-blood and white women for social dominance in the elite of Red River.

The monotonous routine of life not only in Red River but in the fur trade at large, especially during the long winter months, may help to explain why the affairs of one’s contemporaries were of such all-absorbing interest. That there was not much else to talk about can be discerned from the private correspondence of the fur traders-through the medium of the twice-yearly letter packet all the latest gossip concerning one’s acquaintances in Red River and elsewhere was relayed in detail throughout Rupert’s Land.

In a manner reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel, every eligible young clerk who set foot in Red River immediately found himself the object of marital speculation. Most young men coming into the trade were so quickly captivated by the daughters of their predecessors that an abstemious clerk like James Hargrave found that his protests of disinterestedness fell on deaf ears. As he complained to a friend:

Such indeed is the tone of thought throughout the land on this subject that it cannot be believed a single man can resist & where facts are scarce invention largely supplies their place. [4]

While such speculation was often harmless, as social and racial tension increased, gossip became a vicious social weapon. In 1830, the action of Governor George Simpson and Chief Factor John George McTavish in introducing British wives to Rupert’s Land, upset the norm of fur trade society and gave rise to gossip and intrigue of a very destructive nature. [5] Because of the warring factions, Red River became such an uncomfortable abode that one Chief Factor declared he could not wait to leave:

I believe the World Canot produce Such a Set of ungrateful Wretches. Their whole Soul seems bent on Backbiting and Slander. I never heard a good word said of the Absent ... [6]

That the social climate of Red River was such as to allow gossip to be used as an instrument of revenge is illustrated in a minor scandal which in view of the subsequent events of the Foss-Pelly scandal should be kept in mind. In the spring of 1839, Chief Trader James Hargrave was horrified to learn that it was being spread about Red River that he had seduced the serving maid of the Governor’s wife. The young woman steadfastly protested her innocence. The truth of the matter was that the cook at the Lower Fort, having had his own advances spurned, had concocted the story to get his revenge. [7] Hargrave would have sued for slander, but he was cautioned that his desire to uphold a young woman’s honour would probably result in more harm than good. Despite her innocence, the publicity “would attach a stain to her character, let it be ever so spotless, that could not easily be washed off.” [8]

Such a remark in itself indicates the extent to which Victorian concepts with regard to female propriety were taking hold in fur trade society. This changing attitude in a society which had endeavoured to develop its own moral code by blending the very different mores of Indian and white society was to result in the victimization of native women. It was the intention of the recently-arrived missionaries to impress upon native women that they could be guilty of no greater sins than unchastity and adultery. That men, however, should deviate from the Christian moral code was seen at worst as a regrettable inevitability. When it is remembered that European concepts of virginity and marital fidelity were not held as virtues in Indian society, [9] the confusion that this double standard created in the minds of native women is understandable.

At the boarding schools established in Red River by the Anglican missionaries for the daughters of Hudson’s Bay Company officers, great stress was laid on the need to inculcate these young girls with the principles of feminine virtue. Native women having been stigmatized (albeit unfairly) with a reputation for perpetuating immorality, [10] it was deemed necessary that the officers’ daughters be separated from all contact with their native past. When advising Reverend Jones on his plans for setting up the Red River Academy in the early 1830s, Governor Simpson recommended that two respectable English women servants be sent out “as we consider it very desirable that the young ladies should have as little discourse with the native women in this country as possible.” [11] There is evidence, however, that the great emphasis placed on maintaining one’s virtue caused young mixed-blood girls emotional distress for in reality they could so easily be taken advantage of. [12] Young clerks apparently did not consider it inconsistent to indulge in “the fascinations of dark-eyed beauty” while studiously avoiding any marital attachment. Men, after all, were entitled to such pleasures; the secret was to be discreet. [13]

This attitude had been reinforced by the missionaries’ attack on “the custom of the country” which had previously been acknowledged in fur trade society as a valid marriage rite. [14] According to old fur trade custom, if a man formed a liaison with a woman she was considered to be his wife, entitled to the recognition and support that a marital relationship implies. Now, with the insistence of the missionary that only a church marriage had validity, the woman taken a la facon du pans was reduced to the status of a mistress-someone with whom to gratify one’s passions but never actually marry. Fur trade mores were thus in a state of flux in the decades after the coming of the missionaries - a few old traders insisted that their long-standing country marriages did not need the sanction of the Church, but many submitted to the church rite when it was available. A small but prominent group of traders, however, exploited this confused situation for their own selfish purposes. Governor Simpson was, unfortunately, the classic example of a man who took a succession of Indian “mistresses” but reserved the sacred position of wife for a white woman.

Simpson’s attitude was to have serious repercussions on fur trade society. After bringing his young British bride out to Red River in 1830, the Governor made a conscious effort to exclude the English mixed-bloods from the elite of Red River. As one mixed-blood officer in the Company’s service observed resentfully, “... things are not on the same footing as formerly.” [15] Prominent settlers and officers who had native wives appear to have left them behind when being entertained by the Simpsons. [16] The female society of the Governor’s lady was restricted to the few white women who were the wives of the colony’s elite the Swiss-born wife of the Governor of Assiniboia, Donald McKenzie, and the wives of the Anglican clergymen, David Jones and William Cockran. [17] Simpson emphasized to a close friend that only two mixed-blood women had been allowed to come near his wife and these in a purely menial capacity. Ironically, one of these was Nancy McKenzie, the discarded country wife of Chief Factor J. G. McTavish. [18]

Indeed, in the early 1830s, it did appear as though white women might quickly replace mixed-blood women in the upper echelons of Red River society. An indication of the ascendancy of the white woman was the rate at which the British schoolmistresses became the wives of retired Company officers, who formed the colony’s “aristocracy.” After the death of their native wives, such notables as James Bird, Robert Logan, J. P. Pruden and John Charles all married schoolmistresses, thereby giving these women the wealth and status to become leaders in Red River society. [19] One observer was quick to note, however, that if these ladies introduced social refinements into the colony, they also accentuated the growth of class distinctions. 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. [20]

The dominance of white women in the social hierarchy of Red River was not to be complete, however, largely owing to the inability of white women to adapt themselves to life in the colony. The select circle which was forming around Frances Simpson in the early 1830s collapsed when she and several others left Red River within a few years. Those who were left, especially the school teachers, were forced to come to some accommodation with the aspirations of the English mixed-blood women. The first break in the racial barrier which Governor Simpson seems to have hoped to erect came with the appointment of Alexander Christie as Governor of Assiniboia in 1833. This esteemed chief factor was the best man for the job, but he had initially been discounted by Simpson because he had a native family a la facon du pays. [21] Christie’s wife was Anne Thomas, a daughter of the former Company governor Thomas Thomas and his Indian wife Sarah. Although Mrs. Christie does not appear to have assumed the social leadership one might have expected of a “Governor’s lady,” her reluctance to leave the settlement when her husband wanted to retire to Scotland indicates that she must have found it congenial.

Certainly the younger generation of daughters of Company officers were being raised and educated to expect that they would be absorbed into the elite of Red River society by becoming the wives of incoming whites. The Company officers themselves had been particularly concerned that the schools in Red River provide an education comparable to that received by genteel young ladies in Britain at the time. Any schoolmistress, they emphasized, must be “an accomplished well-bred lady,” qualified to teach not only the useful branches of education but the ornamental as well, such as music, drawing and dancing. [22] Given the opportunity, many of the daughters of Company officers proved remarkably adept at acquiring civilized grace and polish. Betsey Charles, for example, a daughter of the wealthy Chief Factor John Charles, was reputedly “a fine clever and accomplished girl ... quite English in her manner.” Indeed, she must have been to have so won the admiration of the fastidious schoolmaster John Macallum that he married her in February 1836. [23]

Later that year, Red River was all agog when the promising young Scottish clerk John Ballenden married Sarah McLeod, a daughter of Chief Trader Alexander Roderick McLeod and his native wife. It appears to have been a real love match; young Ballenden was infatuated with this beautiful eighteen-year-old mixed-blood girl, who had been educated in Red River. [24] Even James Hargrave, whose opposition to mixed marriages was well known, enthusiastically congratulated Ballenden on his choice: Sarah was “a delightful creature,” he declared, 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.” [25] Sarah Ballenden seems to have featured in Red River society after her marriage and was very disappointed to have to leave the colony when her husband was transferred to Sault Ste. Marie in 1840. [26]

If the attempt to create an exclusive white elite in Red River had failed, it also set the stage for the fierce social rivalry between white and acculturated mixed-blood women which was to reach its climax in the Foss-Pelly scandal. Chief Factor Duncan Finlayson who was Governor of Assiniboia in the early 1840s found the social pretensions of the settlement most irksome. There is no evidence that his own wife Isobel, a sister of Frances Simpson, actively exacerbated the social tensions in the colony; indeed she retreated behind a veil of ill health rather than become embroiled in the petty rivalries and jealousies. It would have required “Beau Nash” to regulate their fashionable movements, complained Finlayson. [27]

British women of “genteel breeding” such as Isobel Finlayson and Letitia Hargrave (who married James Hargrave in 1840) knew that their eminence in fur trade society would never be challenged. They were set on a pedestal by the traders themselves, who viewed such women as “exotic creatures,” all the more estimable because they were prepared to make the sacrifice of following their husbands to the wilds of Rupert’s Land. [28] The position of white women of less respectable backgrounds, however, was more insecure. Marriage to a Company officer or a clergyman in Red River would assure them of a status they could never have hoped to attain in Britain, but there was always the danger that they might have to give precedence to some highly - acculturated mixed - blood women. In this respect, some of the wives of the Protestant clergy were the most guilty of aggravating racial tension. While Mrs. Cockran was made aware that her having been a “Dollymop” in England would never quite give her the respectability of the genteel Mrs. Jones, she made it perfectly clear to the native women of her husband’s congregation that she considered them in no way her social equals. [29] Ultimately, Governor Simpson himself became so exasperated by the problems caused by clergymen’s wives that he urged only unmarried missionaries be sent out because “European ladies can seldom accommodate themselves to the want of society in Hudson’s Bay and affect a supercilious air of superiority over the native wives and daughters of the gentlemen in the country.” [30]

On the other hand, however acculturated she might become, the mixed blood woman knew that her position in the Red River hierarchy was threatened by the presence of white women. Some in an effort to effect a complete assimilation into white society caused tension within their own racial group. Such was the behaviour of Margaret Christie, the English educated daughter of Governor Christie. Shortly after her return to Red River in 1845, Miss Christie became the wife of the Scottish clerk John Black. While some of Black’s contemporaries expressed surprise that he should have been “caught in that quarter,” his wife considered that her marriage had put the seal on her superiority and created much ill feeling by indicating that she considered herself “far above the rest of the native Ladies.” [31] One of the women she snubbed was Sarah Ballenden.

The Ballendens had returned to the colony in 1848 upon Ballenden being given charge of the Company’s affairs in Red River. Unfortunately on the return journey, Ballenden had suffered a stroke, and it was only the tender nursing of his wife which saved his life and enabled him to regain some measure of health. [32] In spite of her domestic cares, Sarah Ballenden, delighted to be back in Red River after the monotonous years at the Sault, was both eager and able to play an active role in the social life of the colony as befitted the wife of the Company’s chief officer. She organized dinner parties and balls, and the christening in the summer of 1849 of her infant daughter (whom she chose to name Frances Isobel Simpson) was reputedly a “splendid entertainment with abundance of champagne.” [33] As part of her social duties, Mrs. Ballenden also presided over the mess table at Upper Fort Garry, and it is not surprising that this attractive vivacious young woman attracted the admiration of the young officers. In the light of subsequent events, it is significant that she spurned the advances of the fort’s accountant, the young dandy Augustus Edward Pelly, who was quite enamoured by her beauty. [34] But if Pelly failed to make an impression, Sarah was to be more susceptible to the charms of the gallant Irishman, Captain Christopher Vaughan Foss. Captain Foss had come out to Red River in 1848 as second in command of the Chelsea Pensioners under Major William Caldwell. Although Foss fell out with Caldwell and was suspended from duty later that year, he managed to maintain the seat which he had wangled at the Company’s mess table and was well liked by the Ballendens. Ballenden himself declared that Foss was “an agreeable fellow and will, I daresay, become very popular.” [35]

It appears that Sarah Ballenden’s beauty and her prominent social position made her an object of envy, 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.” [36] Her popularity with men excited much speculation; surely her virtue must be suspect, had it not been rumoured that she had been guilty of indiscretions in her youth? 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”; Mrs. Cockran, who felt herself one of the pillars of virtue in the community, deemed it a duty to look out for any sign of impropriety. [37] Remarks which apparently originated with Mrs. Ballenden’s German servant girl as to the cordiality which existed between her mistress and Captain Foss were seized upon and magnified until by the summer of 1849, it was widely rumoured in the colony that the Captain’s attentions to Sarah were “of such a character as to entitle Mr. B. to a divorce.” [38]

This gossip was to fall on the not unreceptive 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 clerk A. E. Pelly, a relative of the London Governor of the Company, Sir John H. Pelly. [39] The couple were married at York Factory by the Reverend David Anderson, the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, who had come by the same ship as Miss Clouston. A widower with three children, the Bishop was accompanied by his sister, a strait-laced, sharp-tongued spinster, who was to look after his household and help with the running of the Academy. [40]

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 who by both race and reputation she did not consider her social equal. The Scottish woman evidently intended to play the great lady for even Letitia Hargrave had been aghast at the extravagance of her trousseau:

Anne brought an immense quantity of finery five perfectly new bonnets besides that she wore on board, & scarves, handkerchiefs & shawls as if she had been going to Calcutta. [41]

Instead of the deference she had expected, however, Anne Pelly found her fastidious and fainting ways the object of ridicule at the mess table, especially by Captain Foss who was evidently in the habit of casting mocking glances at Mrs. Ballenden. Pelly’s wife was so incensed by the insulting manner in which she considered herself treated that she actually made herself ill over it; her husband withdrew from the mess in a huff and shunned the Ballendens. [42]

In her eagerness to discredit Mrs. Ballenden and as a result of the rumours circulating in the colony, Mrs. Pelly viewed the friendly behaviour of Captain Foss and Mrs. Ballenden at the mess table as proof of their intimate involvement. She took it upon herself to relay all the current gossip to Major Caldwell, now Governor of Assiniboia, with the demand that such immorality could not be condoned. [43] Ballenden’s popularity in the colony made Caldwell hesitate to take any open action, but after Ballenden left in June to meet Governor Simpson and with the further intention of going on furlough, a concerted effort was made to exclude his wife from respectable society. The Major forbade his family to associate with Mrs. Ballenden, Miss Anderson and the Bishop refused to countenance her, as did the Cockrans who now advised some of Sarah’s closest friends that she was no longer fit company. [44] Most humiliating of all, Mrs. Black now openly cut her fellow countrywoman, having always shown a preference for the society of Mrs. Pelly. [45]

Mrs. Ballenden was not without her supporters, however, and she took refuge with the family of her husband’s friend, Recorder Adam Thom, whose legal aid she enlisted to clear her name. She obtained a sworn statement from her servant girl, who was about to leave the colony, denying any knowledge of an illicit relationship between her mistress and Captain Foss. Thom, as a result of his own private investigation, was able to assure the distressed Ballenden when he returned to Red River that the rumours were without foundation. [46] Ballenden, who did not doubt his wife’s innocence, would have been happy to settle the matter privately, but he felt forced to seek public redress when Mr. Black confronted him with a sworn deposition by the mess cook John Davidson and his wife which implicated Sarah with Captain Foss. Mr. Pelly also made similar charges against the pair in front of Governor Simpson. Black’s motives for forcing the case into the open were seen as highly suspect. One observer declared that Black hoped to disgrace Ballenden so that he would be forced to resign and Black would regain charge of the fort as he was to have had in Ballenden’s temporary absence. [47] Mrs. Davidson, a British woman, had been particularly responsible for spreading rumours about her employer’s wife, partly because she was piqued at being required to perform household duties which she considered beneath her dignity. [48] Pelly, on the other hand, had reason to seek revenge against both parties; he had been rebuffed by Mrs. Ballenden, but more importantly, he despised Captain Foss, who had not only ridiculed his wife, but had relieved him of a large sum of money gambling the previous winter. [49]

The upshot was that Captain Foss brought a suit against Pelly, Davidson and their wives for having instigated a defamatory conspiracy against Mrs. Ballenden and himself. [50] The three-day trial which began on July 16 threw Red River into a turmoil. 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 real issue as to whether the defendants had actually instigated a defamatory conspiracy was lost sight of as the trial concentrated on proving Mrs. Ballenden’s guilt or innocence. Numerous witnesses were called, but the evidence proved extremely vague and circumstantial; most had to admit they had just heard and repeated rumours concerning Foss and Mrs. Ballenden. The evidence of some of the women, particularly Mrs. Cockran and Miss Anderson, was full of innuendo and undisguised hostility. [51] Finally, after several hours of deliberation, the jury declared that Mrs. Ballenden had been unjustly slandered, and the defendants were required to pay heavy damages - Pelly, £300; Davidson £100. [52]

The real significance of the trial lies in the racial animosities which it engendered. 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.” [53] Unfortunately, the split was along racial lines. Chief among Mrs. Ballenden’s accusers were those who championed the supremacy of white women, the Protestant clergy, particularly the Bishop and Reverend Cockran, Governor Caldwell and some lesser Company officers. On the other hand, most of Sarah’s supporters and, significantly, all of the jurors were either English mixed-bloods or else married to native women. Two of Mrs. Ballenden’s most ardent defenders were the prominent mixed-blood Dr. John Bunn and the colony’s sheriff Alexander Ross who was married to an Indian woman and had numerous daughters.

Sarah Ballenden represented the social aspirations of the English mixedbloods. Having attained such eminence, some even saw her as “destined to raise her whole caste above European ladies in their influence on society here.” [54] They, therefore, viewed the attack on Mrs. Ballenden as an attempt to discredit mixed-blood women and to secure their exclusion from the elite of Red River. In the words of one cogent observer, the affair really seemed to be “a strife of blood.” [55] Adam Thom, whose part in the proceedings had temporarily lessened his unpopularity among the mixed-bloods, 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.” [56] There can be no doubt that Anne Pelly’s air of superiority occasioned much resentment and was a root cause of the trouble. As her brother, Chief Trader Robert Clouston, wrote acidly to 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. [57]

Thus the colony was seriously split along predominantly racial lines when the new Associate Governor of the Company, Eden Colvile, arrived in the fall of 1850 with his wife Anne. [58] In spite of her declared innocence, Mrs. Ballenden had continued to be shunned by “the nobs of womankind,” especially Mrs. Caldwell, Miss Anderson and Mrs. Cockran. The animosities resulting from the scandal created an impossible social situation. Colvile wrote in exasperation to Simpson:

Although 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 Mr. & 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. [59]

Colvile, who took over the governorship of the colony from the unpopular Caldwell, did attempt to heal the breach, however. Since Ballenden himself was convinced of his wife’s innocence, the Governor deemed it only fair that she should be re-instated into society and delighted Ballenden by admitting Sarah to the company of his wife. The wives of the lesser Anglican clergy also re-established relations with Mrs. Ballenden. [60] Gradually peace seemed to be returned to the settlement, although it rankled with some that Captain Foss, who was very popular with the English mixed-bloods, had not had the good grace to leave Red River.

During the months immediately following the trial, the Ballendens lived quietly at Lower Fort Garry. Governor 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.” When Ballenden, who had resigned his position, decided that he must go to Britain for medical treatment in the fall of 1850, Colvile allowed his wife to remain at the fort. [61] The winter arrangements began auspiciously enough, but during December the whole scandal suddenly blew up again, owing to the interception of an unsigned letter, reputedly from Sarah Ballenden to Captain Foss inviting him to visit her at the fort. Although there was never enough evidence to actually prove it, Foss allegedly pulled off a discreet two-day visit during Colvile’s absence. Informed of this fact by Thom, the chagrined Governor now felt obliged to cease all associations with Mrs. Ballenden. A short time later, the unfortunate woman inextricably incriminated herself by paying a short afternoon visit to the house of retired officer Donald McKenzie, where Foss was living. [62]

This turn of events gave Mrs. Ballenden’s former accusers great satisfaction; in their views there could be no doubt that she had been guilty all along. If such was actually the case, however, it is curious that Pelly never instituted a counter-suit against Foss for redress of damages. After the events of December, Sarah, finding herself again a social outcast, left the fort and took refuge with a mixed-blood family named Cunninghame. After that, in spite of an undoubtedly close surveillance, no one could report any further evidence of an affair between her and Captain Foss. [63] But some of Sarah’s supporters now felt obliged to desert her cause. Both Dr. Bunn and Adam Thom changed sides, and Thom deemed it necessary to write to Ballenden of his wife’s falseness. [64]

Far away in Scotland, a grief-stricken and angry Ballenden contemplated divorce, but upon his return to Red River in mid-June 1851, he could not bring himself to dissolve his marriage even though he was under considerable social pressure to do so. As John Black declared, Ballenden had no choice but to sever all connection with his wife if he wished to remain “respectable.” [65]

Ballenden’s love for Sarah ran deep, however, and the sight of his ailing wife and new-born son must have softened his resolution. [66] He was further counseled by Alexander Ross that while Sarah may have appeared indiscreet on one occasion, there was still no concrete proof of her guilt. Ballenden’s wife, he felt, had been the victim of unrelenting hatred. “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.” [67] It was rumoured that during the summer Sarah actually “confessed” to her husband, but this fact is contradicted by Ballenden himself. In a pathetic letter written to Simpson later that year, he firmly maintained that there was no proof of his wife’s guilt; he begged Simpson to desist from making further uncharitable remarks about Sarah: “I entreat of you, for my sake, if not for hers to cease, and let her rest in peace.” [68]

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 journey. Instead, he endeavoured to settle Sarah comfortably in a rented house near The Rapids, but his wife, 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.” [69] In the summer of 1852 being unable to bear the situation in Red River any longer, Mrs. Ballenden 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.” [70] In 1853, Ballenden’s own poor health forced him to retire from the Columbia, and he apparently gave instructions for his family to proceed to Scotland. There is evidence that a poignant reunion took place between man and wife 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.”

For the Ballenden family, the Foss-Pelly scandal was a deep personal tragedy. In the wider societal context, it had the unfortunate repercussion of intensifying racial prejudice. Implicit in some of the attitudes expressed during the trial was the notion that there was a certain moral weakness inherent in women of part-Indian extraction. Such racial prejudice is evident in the action of the famous Yukon explorer Chief Trader Robert Campbell when in the 1850s, he determined to bring an enforced and lonely bachelorhood to an end. The scandal in his view served as a striking example 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. [72]

In 1853, he became engaged to and later married a Scottish woman.

Those white men who continued to marry mixed-blood girls were to find themselves subject to increasing criticism. Such was the case of the longawaited Presbyterian minister John Black, who shortly after his arrival in 1851, began paying court to Henrietta, one of the half-breed daughters of Alexander Ross. A “regular hue and cry” developed among the Presbyterians, who were largely Selkirk settlers. Although the marriage eventually took place in December 1853, it was prophesied that Black’s unfortunate choice of “a native for a helpmate” would be detrimental to his ministry. [73]

While incoming Company officers and other whites did not cease marrying mixed-blood women, this practice became increasingly selective. Their choice was restricted to highly-acculturated daughters of wealthy Hudson’s Bay families who studiously endeavoured to disassociate themselves from every vestige of their Indian heritage. Even the suggestion of mixed-blood, however, could expose these women to the prejudice of incoming white women. In this context, Charles Mair’s ill-fated remark about the social rivalry he observed at a dinner party in Red River in 1868 takes on new significance:

Many wealthy people here are married to half-breed women, who, having no coat of arms but a “totem” to look back to, make up for the deficiency by biting at the backs of their “white” sisters. The white sisters fall back upon their whiteness, whilst the husbands meet each other with desperate courtesies ... [74]

Certainly in the post-1870 period, the mixed marriage which had been a central part of the fabric of Red River society was to become an increasingly peripheral phenomenon.


1. The only published accounts of the Foss-Pelly scandal are E. E. Rich, ed., Eden Colvile’s Letters, 1849-52 (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, vol. 19, 1956), pp. ci-cvi and Roy St. George Stubbs, Four Recorders of Rupert’s Land (Winnipeg, 1967), pp. 36-39, 138-140. These deal only briefly with the scandal’s political and judicial aspects. The most penetrating analysis of the affair is to be found in Frits Pannekoek, “The Churches and the Social Structure in the Red River Area 1818-1870” (unpublished PhD thesis, Queen’s University, 1973), pp. 154-190. Pannekoek is principally concerned with the role played by the Anglican clergy.

2. Perhaps the most distorted picture of old Red River is to be found in W. J. Healy’s, Women of Red River (Winnipeg, 1923) which is a collection of pioneer reminiscences. Mrs. Harriet Sinclair Cowan, for example, would have known a good deal about the famous Foss-Pelly scandal, but she makes no reference to it. Such sources must be used with extreme caution for, understandably, old timers usually choose to reconstruct their past in its most favourable light.

3. J. J. Hargrave as quoted in Stubbs, Four Recorders, p. 138.

4. Public Archives of Canada (PAC), J. Hargrave to T. Simpson, 15 Feb. 1832, Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 21, Lb. 7.

5. For a detailed discussion of this episode, see Sylvia Van Kirk, “Women and the Fur Trade,” The Beaver, Winter 1972, p. 4.

6. PAC, J. McMillan to J. Hargrave, 10 June 1834, Hargrave Correspondence, vol. 4, p. 801.

7. Ibid., Hargrave to J. Rowand, 2 July 1839, vol. 23, Lb. 14.

8. Ibid., Duncan Finlayson to Hargrave, 12 Aug. 1839, vol. 7, p. 1716.

9. Glyndwr Williams, ed., Andrew Grahams Observations on Hudson’s Bay, 1767-1791 (London: Hudson’s Bay Record Society, vol. 27, 1969), p. 153.

10. Ross Cox, The Columbia River, ed. by Edgar and Jane Stewart, (Norman, Oklahoma, 1957), p. 359.

11. C.M.S.A., Geo. Simpson to Rev. Jones, 14 July 1832, CCI/039.

12. Margaret A. MacLeod, ed., The Letters of Letitia Hargrave (Toronto: Champlain Society, vol. 28, 1947), p. 219.

13. PAC, T. Simpson to Hargrave, 27 Jan. 1839, Hargrave Corres., vol. 7, p. 1574.

14. “Johnstone et al. v. Connolly, Appeal Court, 7 Sept. 1869,” La Revue Legale, vol. 1, pp. 286-7.

15. Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA), W. Sinclair to E. Ermatinger, 15 Aug. 1831, Ermatinger Correspondence, Copy 23, f. 271.

16. PAC, D. Finlayson to Hargrave, 18 Dec. 1830, Hargrave Corres., vol. I, pp. 275-76; P.A.B.C., T. Simpson to D. Ross, 19 Dec. 1831, Donald Ross Papers Si 5.

17. HBCA, G. Simpson to J.G. McTavish, 10 April 1831, B.135/c/2, f.64d.

18. Ibid., f. 74d.

19. See Elaine Mitchell, “A Red River Gossip,” The Beaver, Spring 1961, pp. 4-11.

20. Glenbow Archives, Jas. Sutherland to John Sutherland, 7 Aug. 1838, James Sutherland Papers.

21. HBCA, Simpson to McTavish, 29 June 1833, B.135/c/2, f. 106.

22. C.M.S.A., Simpson to Jones, 14 July 1832.

23. Mitchell, “A Red River Gossip,” p. 9.

24. G. P. de T. Glazebrook, ed., The Hargrave Correspondence, 1821-1843 (Toronto: Champlain Society, vol. 24, 1938), pp. 249-50.

25. PAC, Hargrave to Mrs. T. Isbister, 23 May 1839 and Hargrave to J. Ballenden, 7 Sept. 1839, Hargrave Corres., vol. 23, Lb. 14 and 15.

26. Ibid., Ballenden to Hargrave, 30 Jan. 1841, vol. 8, p. 1891.

27. Ibid., D. Finlayson to Hargrave, 18 Dec. 1841, f. 2193.

28. Glazebrook, Hargrave Corres., p. 310-11.

29. HBCA, Simpson to McTavish, 3 Jan. 1831, B.135/c/2, f. 54;C.M.S.A., Wm. Cockran’s Journal, 13 April 1838 and 17 June 1840, CCI/018.

30. HBCA, Simpson to Rev. Dr. Alder, 4 Dec. 1848, D.4/70, f. 219.

31. Ibid., D. Finlayson to Simpson, 8 April 1845, D.5/13, fos. 395d-96; P.A.B.C., John McBeath to Donald Ross, 6 Aug. 1850, Ross Papers M12.2.

32. HBCA, Ballenden to Simpson, 30 Dec. 1850, D.5/29, f. 422; P.A.M., Records of the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia, “Foss v. Pelly,” 16-18 July 1850, p. 218.

33. PAC, Letitia Hargrave to Flora Mactavish, 1 June 1850, Hargrave Corres., vol. 27.

34. Public Archies of Manitoba (PAM), “Foss v. Pelly,” pp. 202-203.

35. HBCA, Ballenden to Simpson, 29 Nov. 1848, D.5/23, f. 383.

36. P.A.B.C., Wm. Todd to Donald Ross, 20 July 1850, Ross Papers.

37. PAM, “Foss v. Pelly,” pp. 185-86, 203.

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

39. P.A.B.C., Robert Clouston to Donald Ross, 29 June 1849, Ross Papers C62.

40. HBCA, Adam Thom to Simpson, 5 Feb. 1851, D.5/30, f.206.

41. MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 247; see also P.A.C., Letitia to her mother, 14 Dec. 1851, Hargrave Corres., vol. 27.

42. P.A.B.C., A. E. Pelly to D. Ross, I Aug. 1850, Ross Papers P361; P.A.M., “Foss v. Pelly,” pp. 185, 196.

43. PAM, “Foss v. Pelly,” pp. 183, 193, 213-14.

44. PAC, Wm. Todd to Hargrave, 23 July 1850, Hargrave Corres., vol. 15, p. 4533; P.A.M., “Foss v. Pelly,” p. 187; MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 255.

45. PAC, John Black to Hargrave, 6 Aug. 1850, vol. 15, p. 4581.

46. PAM, “Foss v. Pelly,” p. 207.

47. P.A.B.C., Wm. Todd to Donald Ross, 20 July 1850.

48. PAM, “Foss v. Pelly,” p. 199.

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

50. Charges were also to have been laid against the Blacks, but these were dropped (MacLeod, Letitia’s Letters, p. 255).

51. P.A.B.C., J. Ballenden to D. Ross, 1 Aug. 1850, Ross Papers, B21; Adam Thom to Simpson, 15 Aug. 1850, D.5/28, f. 437d.

52. Foss, declaring that his sole motive had been “to clear the reputation of a Lady,” declined to collect the £100 from Davidson (“Foss v. Pelly,” 181).

53. HBCA, Simpson to J. Black, 18 Dec. 1850, D.4/71, fos. 265--266d.

54. Ibid., James Bird to Simpson, 8 Aug. 1851, D.5/31. f. 247.

55. P.A.B.C., R. Clouston to D. Ross, 17 Dec. 1850, Ross Papers C62. For a list of the jurors, see “Foss v. Pelly,” p. 182.

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

57. P.A.B.C., R. Clouston to D. Ross, 23 Sept. 1850, Ross Papers C62.

58. Eden Colvile had married Anne, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel John Maxwell in Montreal in 1845.

59. Rich, Colvile’s Letters, p. 193.

60. Pannekoek, “Churches in Red River,” p. 174.

61. Rich, Colvile’s Letters, pp. 195, 197.

62. Ibid., pp. 201-02. This Donald McKenzie had been a lesser officer in the Company’s service and was married to a half-breed woman, Matilda Bruce.

63. Ibid., pp. 204, 210.

64. HBCA, John Black to Simpson, 8 Jan. 1851 and Adam Thom to Simpson, 5 Feb. 1851, D.5/30, fos. 47-53, 203.

65. Ibid., Black to Simpson, 26 July 1851, D.5/31, f. 143d.

66. The Ballendens had seven children altogether. This youngest child William was born 15 June 1851.

67. HBCA, Alexander Ross to Simpson, 1 Aug. 1851, D.5/31, f. 206.

68. Ibid., Ballenden to Simpson, 5 Dec. 1851, D.5/32, f.323.

69. Ibid., Ross to Simpson, 1 Aug. 1851, D.5/31, f. 206.

70. P.A.B.C., Geo. Barnston to D. Ross, 22 July 1852, Ross Papers B27.

71. HBCA, Simpson to Andrew McDermot, 6 Feb. 1854, D.4/74, f. 212; Healy, Women of Red River, p. 195.

72. HBCA, Robert Campbell to Simpson, 3 Aug. 1853, D.5/37, fos. 458-59.

73. Ibid., Jas. Sinclair to Simpson, I 1 Dec. 1853 and John Bunn to Simpson, 16 Dec. 1853, D.5/38, fos. 342, 372d-373.

74. W. L. Morton, ed., Alexander Begg’s Red River Journal (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1956), p. 396.

Page revised: 15 February 2011

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.