Amelia Douglas’ life is a remarkable representation of resilient resistance to the colonial rule of class status.
The lives of the Douglas-Connolly family have been traced and linked together by historians through letters and journals of friends and family, records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, newspapers, and records from British colonies of Demerara and British Columbia.
According to available records, Amelia Connolly was born in 1812 in Fort Churchill or Fort Assiniboia on Cree territory of northwestern Canada. Her father, William Connolly, was a fur trader of Irish and French-Canadian descent and her mother, Miyo Nipay, was a Cree woman. William Connolly and Miyo Nipay lived together for 28 years and raised all six children into adulthood. Born to a fur trader, Amelia lived in trading posts during her childhood and adolescence. 1
In 1828, Amelia married James Douglas, who worked for Amelia’s father in Fort St. James. Amelia and James were married à la façon du pays, a common practice of marriage between European fur traders and Indigenous women. This marriage between Amelia Connolly and James Douglas shifted Douglas’ position within the fur trade from a temporary labourer and clerk to a permanent and long-term member of the fur trade society. The strategic marriages created networks of kinship ties and opportunities for mentorship. In 1837, they were married in Fort Vancouver under Anglican customs. 2
Douglas was born in about 1803 in Demerara, Guyana, to Scottish merchant John Douglas. Historians have also indicated that it is likely that his mother was a Creole woman by the name of Rebecca Ritchie, who was a free woman of colour in the Caribbean. Douglas and his two siblings were raised in the Caribbean for over a decade. A scholarly biographer named Walter Sage came across a report that indicated that Douglas’ mother was “Creole” and dismissed the report as “rot;” other historians also mused that he was born in Scotland. 3
Over their lifetime together, James and Amelia had 13 Creole-Métis children. Of their first seven children born between 1829 and 1839, Jane and Cecelia were the only two that survived; Amelia, Alexander, Ellen and Maria didn’t live past the age of four, along with a son who died before he was given a name. The 1830s were especially difficult for Indigenous peoples, fur traders, and their families as disease ravaged the west coast. After 1839, Amelia gave birth to five more children, Martha, James, Agnes, Alice, and Rebecca, who died around ten months of age. Which may indicate the grief, anxiety, and devastation that she felt when her children left home. 4
Amelia was in Fort St. James during the birth of their first child. Douglas was already working in Fort Vancouver at this point. After the children died, Amelia and her father journeyed in bourgeois Métis fashion to Fort Vancouver by boat and horseback accompanied by “Indian boys” and a cook. It is said that Amelia was “astride a beautiful little horse, whose trappings were bright with coloured quills, beads and fringes and little bells. She wore a skirt of fine broadcloth with embroidered leggings, and moccasins stiff with the most costly beads.” 5
Kinship ties were essential to Amelia and James, and they maintained close relationships with all their surviving children and their grandchildren and James’ family. Kinship ties are important in Métis, Cree and Afro-Caribbean cultural practices. Their daughter Alice recounts, “It is so delightful to find oneself at home again with the dear Parents,” Alice wrote, “they received me so kindly – I found our darling Mother at the door in tears & felt as tho’ I could forever hug & kiss her.” 6
Many of the letters about the Douglas-Conolly family emphasize the importance of family and kinship. In one letter, James Douglas speaks of his wife’s reaction to receiving a photograph of what of their children in the mail, “what a scene ensured on unfolding the precious gem,” he wrote. “Mamma was in exstacies [sic], kissing it . . . as if you had been here yourself to receive her endearments, and after a time went off in a burst of tears.” 7 Amelia was often scrutinized by society for her kinships with people who were of a lower class.
As James Douglas moved up in rank and eventually became the governor of British Columbia, the subject of his racial identity moved from polite conversation to thinly veiled suggestion, he was considered a gentleman with a “dark complexion.” 8 Amelia was viewed as an Indian or Half Breed, but she was often referred to as “a lady” due to her class status, identifying her as an elite Métis woman.
Métis culture was significant for the Douglas-Connolly family. Amelia and James’ daughter Martha wrote a book in 1901, History and Folklore of the Cowichan Indians. In the book, she recounts the stories her mother used to share, “as a little girl I used to listen to these legends with the greatest delight, and in order not to lose them, I have written down what I can remember of them. When written they lose their charm which was in the telling. They need the quaint songs and the sweet voice that told them, the winter gloaming and the bright fire as the only light—then were these legends beautiful.” 9
A family friend, Angus McDonald, would send parcels to the Douglas-Conolly home to help satiate Amelia’s yearning for “Indian Country” and country foods like buffalo tongue, bitter root, and Kamas. In his writings, he shares his thoughts, “roots and buffalo tongues for this lady while she is much bored by the compound dishes which the rank and wealth of civilization offer her table every day.” 10
Due to the diversity within the lineages of the Douglas-Connolly family, they spoke French, English, Cree, Chinook Jargon, and Michif, settler historian Adele Perry suggests that it is likely that they spoke some Dutch. Historian Adele Perry emphasizes the complexities of Douglas-Connolly family, “[t]hey were colonized and colonizing, White, colored, and Black, British, Scottish, and nativeborn, Indigenous and settler, and Roman Catholic and Protestant.” 12
Through the stories shared of the Douglas-Connolly family, we bear witness to the timeless truths of navigating class and racial identity as mixed people within a colonial world. Through storytelling, we witness their hardships and stories, and we recognize them as our own through our ancestral kinship ties.
“It is with gratitude that we witnessed the contributions of historic Métis women and modern Métis women throughout Women’s History Month,” says Minister Elliot, “the telling and sharing of stories is an integral part of Métis culture, it is of great importance that we carry on these traditions of bearing witness throughout our lives.”