Wednesday, September 8, 2010

'Mother of the Similkameen' honoured

Susan Allison plays with her pet coyote, Synkelips. The pioneer woman has been designated a personal of national historical significance by the federal government.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 8, 2010


The good folks of Princeton celebrated a 150th birthday on the weekend by panning for gold, listening to cowboy poetry, and admiring the venerable art of blacksmithing.

The sesquicentennial celebrations included a re-enactment at the roundhouse of the driving of the Last Spike.

At Veterans Square downtown, some 300 people gathered at a ceremony to commemorate the designation of Susan Louisa Moir Allison as a person of national historic significance.

The pioneer is among 44 British Columbian to have received the august designation by the federal government.

The town’s birthday and the impending honours has revived interest in the first European woman to settle in the Similkameen. Her friendships with local First Nations women gave her insight into traditional foods and medicines. Her writings and later reminiscences left a valuable record of Victorian-era life in the province’s undeveloped rangeland.

She provided early accounts of the cryptozoological legends we now recognize as Ogopogo and Sasquatch, long before the former became a tourist attraction and the latter a beer pitchman.

Unlike many women of her era, she managed to get her words to the public. Two ethnographic papers on the Similkameen people were printed by respected British academic journals. As well, she published a long narrative poem about a local chief. The poetry was issued in 1900 under the pseudonym Stratton Moir, which was her brother’s name.

“You can’t celebrate her without reading her books and reading her poems,” said Diane Sterne, who edited a compilation of Allison’s work, including some lost writings. The volume was released earlier this year with the title, “In Her Words.”

It was Allison’s great ambition to incorporate in her poems the body language expressed when telling an oral legend.

Ms. Sterne, a hotelier and history buff, found it necessary to include a reference dictionary, as Allison used archaic English and the Chinook trade language in her writings.

“Cattle were kine,” she said. “En-che-chim is wolf, shnee-na is owl, synkelips is coyote, skumahist is black bear and callowna is grizzly bear.”

The bare outline of her life begs for a movie treatment.

Born in 1845, she spent her childhood in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where her father owned a tea plantation. His early death forced her mother to pack up the three children to return to England and a life of genteel impoverishment. Her mother remarried to a Scotsman, who brought the family to Fort Hope on the Fraser River when Susan was 14.

Her stepfather dreamed of life as a country squire amidst the riches of the gold fields. When that failed to happen, he simply vanished, proving himself to be a wastrel. His abandoned stepdaughter depended on the financial support of her married sister in Victoria, where Susan worked as a teacher and governess.

In 1868, Susan married John Fall Allison, a miner and explorer. She settled with him on a massive acreage north of Princeton, a community also known locally as Allison Flats.

She gave birth to 14 children, all of whom survived into adulthood, and she befriended many local aboriginal women, who “told me more than they told most white people,” she wrote.

She was sympathetic to their history and traditions, expressing deep concern about their communities’ decline in the latter years of Queen Victoria’s reign.

After her husband died, in 1897, she turned to writing, including accounts of fires and floods that twice washed away her homestead.

Before she died in Vancouver in 1937, aged 92, she became known as the “Mother of the Similkameen,” her writings a rare woman’s account of pioneer life.

In her old age, she moved to the coast, where the Daily Province published a series of articles comprising her memoir. These were later collected in a volume by the celebrated historian Margaret Ormsby under the title, “A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia.”

Ms. Sterne, the editor of the latest collection, praises Allison for her unerring accuracy.

“She would just tell it the way it was,” she said.

The new volume includes the narrative poems “In-Cow-Mas-Ket” and “Quin-Is-Coe,” as well as richly detailed accounts of Simalkameen beliefs and traditions. It is available online at, as well as at the Princeton Museum, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, and at the Mozey-on-Inn in Coalmont.

Among the attendees at the weekend ceremony were three Allison grandchildren, including namesake Sue MacGregor, daughter of Alice, the pioneer’s 14th and final child.

“She was a woman of great charm, poise, dignity,” Mrs. MacGregor, 84, of Summerland, said of her grandmother. “She didn’t allow any nonsense from us kids. No rudeness, no bad grammar, no slang.”

Though she did not care for slang, perhaps she’ll have forgiven us for thinking her a skookum character.

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