Old homesteads at Historic Hat Creek Ranch

The strong pioneer women of the Cariboo

Nina Robertson, Augusta Evans, Judy Stephenson, Reta Fooks, Helen Kerr, Carolyn Engeman and Susan Peters.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

It seems remarkable that I have met so many pioneer women over the nearly 50 years of my sojourn in the Cariboo county of B.C.

They were old women when I met them. But their minds were sound, and their memories still vivid of “the old days”.

I was fascinated by their accounts of their lives and times in Soda Creek, Williams Lake, Clinton, Ashcroft and Hat Creek. Even before I began to write for our regional newspapers, my interest in their stories left indelible impressions that endure to this day. I spent many hours listening, not taking notes, but coupled with the listening, were graphic and physical images of their areas and villages. Things you never forget. Like the petroglyphs wedged into the embankment above the Fraser River at Soda Creek, and the photos of families in buggies, or posed under the shade of trees on Cornwall Mountain near Ashcroft.

The names of some of the women I met have been written about in regional history books. Others have not. They have lived and died, borne children, and passed into the great beyond, so to speak, and that is that.

I recall Nina Robertson of Hat Creek and Ashcroft, Augusta Evans of Soda Creek, Judy Stephenson of Cache Creek, Reta Fooks of Ashcroft, Helen Kerr of Clinton, Carolyn Engeman of Clinton, Susan Peters of Soda Creek, and others I have long since either committed to the archives, or allowed to fade beyond memory.

Not many years ago, as well, some of the houses on ranches and in the villages which these women had grown up in, raised families in, still stood, maybe a little worse for wear, but their faded weatherworn appearance to me was a form of elegance. The kind of decay of old age that charms and arouses curiosity. At least that is how they seemed to me, and still does to this day. Just as antique jewellery, furniture, charms and sells like hotcakes today.

After hearing the stories of pioneer women, I have often walked the paths they walked, passing the houses they lived in, and, certainly in old-town Ashcroft, filling out with my imagination the lives they must have lived back in the early 20s, 30s and 40s.

We are so fortunate that these homes still stand, looking much the same as they did 70-80 years ago. Thankfully, this area’s residents of these pioneer dwellings haven’t altered them too much. “Modernized” in other words.

I am reminded of Hat Creek House at Historic Hat Creek Ranch, for instance.  There were several owners of the House over the course of a century, counting the year that HBC Trader Donald McLean built the first stopping house on the road that is the Old Cariboo Road. The McLean building was a log structure, but when it was sided and painted by subsequent owners, the new owners did not change the color and the wood of the siding. New owners continued the style of the old as subsequent additions were made. And now, when you look at Hat Creek House, it looks “all of a piece” – as if the building was built the way it look today, from the beginning.

Oldtimers respected “old”. And in this day of obsession about youth and staying young, long after the mission for that has proved, truthfully, hopeless, – looking back on that kind of respect for old and the resulting reflection that there was no need for change, has, after all, proven a lucrative historic tourist attraction. Irony of ironies, some might call it.

I met Augusta Evans of Deep Creek while working as a clerk for the Government Agent’s office in Williams Lake. Augusta would come into the court house from time to time, usually accompanied by one of her sons. Land leases, water rights and so on, were the reasons for her visits. George Brodie, the Government Agent at the time, had enormous respect for Augusta, whose bright mind and solidly reasoned purposes impressed him.

Her appearance attracted me from first glance. Wide cheekbones, wise deep set  grey eyes, her long grey hair held in a dark scarf, pulled over her forhead, Augusta walked with a bit of a stoop, but her head held high above narrow shoulders. I was determined to meet her personally, and did so. Sometimes on the streets of Williams Lake, when she would come into town to shop, and several times in the log cabin she lived in at Deep Creek. Once, I ran into Augusta at Blue Lake, where she was walking through the woods on the arm of her granddaughter. The image of the two of them in that setting seemed a page of history being lived at that moment, and we talked about hunting and fishing at this lake that was so much part of the history of the aboriginal people of the area. We talked about mid-wifery. About the sturgeon her people caught in the Fraser. About the foster children she had raised. Jean E. Speare’s beautiful book about Augusta was printed in the 1970s. The Days of Augusta was considered a masterpiece of brevity that encompassed so much of Augusta’s life. She died in 1978 at the age of 90.

Helen Kerr of Clinton was a marvellous rider, cowgirl. Her stories about herding cattle in Kamloops were filled with humor. Her accounts of chasing wild horses were so descriptive, that when I was able to explore the areas around Clinton and further along toward the Gang Ranch, – those wide empty meadows with their sloughs and fringes of aspen, I could see Helen and her brother Henry in my mind’s eye chasing those long maned wild horses through the trees.

Helen’s origins were at Upper Hat Creek. She was a Schneider – her parents pioneered the remote then wilderness at the foot of the Marble range way back when. Her brother Henry’s portrait hangs in the Ashcroft Museum at the top of the stairs. Henry, whom I interviewed well before his death, was one of the most skillful riders and herders of anyone I had ever met.  He was a joy to watch, making things look effortless. Well, Helen was no less skillful.

Nina Robertson was my neighbor when I lived on 4th Ave., and we became good friends. Nina told me wonderful stories about the stage coach days when travellers stopped at the Robertson Ranch on the road to Pavilion and Lillooet. Meals and a bed for the night were available. And when Nina wasn’t doing domestic duties, she was helping with the haying in the Robertson meadows. Her tall, thin frame, mild face with those gentle blue eyes, her hair tucked neatly in a bun, looked to me like pioneer woman personified. She always wore a bib apron. Hung her wash between two maple trees in the front yard on 4th Avenue. It was a privilege to be at her bedside in her last hours at Ashcroft Hospital.

Carolyn Engeman told me stories about the domestic life of pioneer Clinton women. How the wash was boiled in big kettles, how chickens were plucked, how preserves were bottled. Her memories were vivid reminders of how labour intensive the work was. Carolyn had told me about the Old Clinton Hotel. She worked there as a young girl, describing the travellers, the meals that were served.

Susan Peters also worked in  hotel right at the Fraser River’s edge in Soda Creek. There are wonderful photos of that hotel in local museums and popular history books. Susan lived on the Reserve, a couple of kilometers from  the Village. After we’d become friends, she told me about the fishing and hunting in the area. I sometimes stayed overnight with Susan in her little cabin. We exchanged confidences. Gifts. She gave a coleus plant one visit, and said, “Take it. It will only die here when winter comes.” Another time, it was a moose roast. Her grandson Sonny always hunted and fished. Susan showed me how she dried the racks of salmon in the lean to near the cabin. Sonny worked at the mill at McLeese Lake, and died one winter morning in a vehicle accident. The loss was devastating for Susan. But her long life had been fraught with sorrows, the deaths of loved ones.

She and Augusta were honored in Williams Lake as pioneer elders in a special ceremony before the two women passed on.

All in all, the blessings that I have experienced knowing these strong, resourceful women have been manifold. I hope that in writing about them, a little of their strength, their unselfish loyalty to family, and their commitment to building our Province’s  early history is passed on.

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