Harriet Goldsmith Sinclair Cowan

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Harriet Cowan

Harriet Goldsmith Sinclair Cowan, Chief Trader’s wife, domiciled at Upper Fort Garry, 1869 – 1870.

Harriet Goldsmith Sinclair was born 9 July 1832 to James Sinclair and Elizabeth Maria Bird.

In 1852 she married Dr. William Cowan.

She died 7 September 1926.


Harriet’s mother, Elizabeth Maria Bird, was born 1811 [or 1806?] to HBC Chief Factor James Curtis Bird and Oomenahowish/ Elizabeth Montour, a Swampy Cree woman. Oomenahowish was born c. 1777/ 1789 in Rupert’s Land. She married, by ‘the custom of the country’ c. 1806, at Fort des Prairies [Edmonton], then married according to church rite on 30 March 1821 at Red River Settlement. She died in 1845.

james sinclair

James Sinclair, one of twenty settlers who were killed at the Cascades of the Columbia, his death occurred 26 March 1856.

Harriet’s father, James Sinclair, was the son of Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] Chief Factor William Sinclair and Nahoway/ Margaret. James Sinclair was sent overseas as a boy, for schooling in the Orkney Islands. After returning to Rupert’s Land, he worked as an independent trader and merchant with Andrew McDermott. During the ‘Free Trade’ trial of 1849, James Sinclair was counsel for the defense of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer.

James Sinclair and Elizabeth Bird married on 3 December 1829. They had nine children, including Harriet, who was their second born. Harriet’s siblings were: Elizabeth (1830 – 1834), James Curtis (c.1833 – 1834), Alexander Christie (c. 1834 – 1834), Maria (1836 – 1836), Jessie (1837 – 1928), Louisa (1841 – 1843),  Emma (1843 – 1843), and Colin James (1845 – 1910).

Through her father’s second marriage (on 20 April 1848 to Mary Campbell, daughter of Chief Trader Colin Campbell), Harriet had perhaps as many as four half siblings: Mary (1850 – ?), Jane Margaret ‘Jennie’ (1853 – 1926), another girl and a boy.

Harriet’s childhood began at the family home on the east bank in the ‘lower’ parishes of Red River Settlement, then was spent in a new home, closer to Upper Fort Garry, on the west bank. She was interviewed for her recollections when in her early nineties. Harriet’s stories were then edited by W.J. Healy in consultation with Colin Inkster (who was Harriet’s cousin), and published in various sections of Women of Red River (1923). According to Healy’s account, Harriet was raised in:

a world which she remembers as one of comfort and happiness, peopled by many cousins and aunts and uncles and other relatives outside her own home. One of her earliest memories is of being taken to visit her grandfather James Curtis Bird, a retired Chief Factor, who lived farther down the river, where he had three thousand acres extending back to Bird’s Hill. “I remember my mother telling me when I was a schoolgirl,” said Mrs. Cowan a few evenings before her ninety-first birthday, in recollecting her childhood, “that grandfather Bird was Governor at Brandon House when the men in war paint rode past on their way from the plains to Fort Douglas before the Seven Oaks massacre in 1816.” … “The first school to which I was sent as a little child,” Mrs. Cowan said, “was a boarding school in a house at Point Douglas. It was begun by Mrs. [Sarah Anne Smith] Ingham, who had come out from England in 1833 as a companion to Mrs. [Mary] Lowman, who was brought out by Rev. Mr. [David Thomas] Jones for the Red River Academy. As the youngest child in the school Mrs. Ingham used to have me sit by her side in the dining-room, and she used to give me the top of her egg at breakfast as a mark of special favour. Like Mrs. Lowman, Mrs. Ingham married not long after coming out to Red River. Robert Logan, who bought the Fort Douglas property, married her. My grandfather Bird married Mrs. Lowman. She had brought with her from London her piano, which was the first piano brought to Red River. She took it to her new home. When I was old enough to play on it it was given to me, and was moved to our new house, which stood on the west bank of the Red. Sheriff [Alexander] Ross‘s place, Colony Gardens, was north of our place. Ross’s creek ran between the two properties. And next to us on the other side was Andrew McDermot’s place. Mrs. [Sally] Ross, Granny Ross, as she was later called by the whole settlement, was the daughter of an Okanagan chief. … She was a great favorite with us children. The Rosses, McDermots, Logans and ourselves were like one family.”

Mrs Cowan’s father used to have sent out to him the bound annual volumes of the Illustrated London News, and she remembers that he used to explain the pictures. “And so I came to know in imagination, many scenes on the other side of the Atlantic,” she added. “From old [uncle] Mr. [Thomas] Bunn, too, the father of Dr. John Bunn, I learned a good deal about the old country. He was often a visitor at our house, and was always jolly and amusing. I remember I used to think him the oldest person in the world. He took pleasure in telling us children stories about his early life. His last visit to London had been in 1797, and he remembered back to the French Revolution, and told us of the horror in England when the French King [Louis xvi] and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded. Earlier than that, he remembered the fires in London during the Lord George Gordon riots. We used to get him to tell us about them when we were reading a new and famous book, Barnaby Rudge.”

“My father was a busy man,” said the remarkably clear-minded old lady, continuing her recollections, “and was often away on his journeyings, by dog trains in winter, and by Red River cart trains in the summer over the plains. He used to take his furs to St. Peter’s on the Mississippi. He was the first to send furs from Rupert’s Land to England independently of the [Hudson’s Bay] Company. Often he went to St. Louis. … he was in perfect accord with Sir George [Simpson] about Oregon. They both felt strongly the importance of colonizing that territory with British settlers, so as to hold it under the British flag, and in the winter of 1840 they persuaded twenty-three Red River families to move to Oregon, with all their belongings, including their horses and cattle. Starting out in the spring of 1841, my father led them across the plains and through the mountains. I often heard him tell of the happenings on that long journey. None of the writers on the early history of the West have ever done justice to it.”

Among other memories of childhood she told of being allowed to go to see a ‘magician’ perform his wonders. “The McDermots let him use their kitchen for his entertainment,” she said. “I can see yet the kitchen table behind which he stood. It had a cover with red and white checks, and on one corner of it were the buffalo sinews which were the price of admission. Each person who came to the entertainment had to pay one buffalo sinew on coming in. Most of all I remember his dark eyes and short brown beard, and his bold adventurous look. He was a buffalo hunter — [Baptiste?] Desjarlais was his name. I remember how I clung to Mary’s hand, the servant in whose charge I was allowed to be taken to see the magician. The kitchen was full of people. But Desjarlais was the only one I had eyes for. He smiled down at me as Mary laid two buffalo sinews on the table, and I clung all the harder to Mary’s hand. … When the ‘magician’ put a watch under his hat, and then took up the hat and showed that the watch had become a potato,” the old lady continued, “and then pulled an immense quantity of coloured ribbons from the hat, and did other things no less marvellous, I was lost in amazement and delight. It was like a fairy book come true. I am not sure that some of the more simple-minded of the grown-up people weren’t doubtful whether Desjarlais had had dealings with the Evil One.”

From Mrs. Ingham’s school the little Harriet Sinclair at the age of fourteen went to the Red River Academy, when Miss [Jane] MacKenzie was in charge of the girls’ house. “Miss MacKenzie was the second mistress after Mrs. Lowman,” said Mrs. Cowan.

At this time in her life, Harriet told Healy,

The people of Red River were all the best of friends. I remember that when Bishop [George Jehoshaphat] Mountain of Quebec, the first Church of England bishop to set foot in Red River came here in 1844, he and Bishop [Joseph-Norbert] Provencher, the first Roman Catholic bishop in St. Boniface, visited each other. Bishop Mountain confirmed me while he was here.

She added,

I remember, too, Sister Ste. Thérèse [of St. Boniface], who was … gifted and accomplished. … [And] Father [Louis-François] Laflèche, one of the priests at St. Boniface … used to visit us and play on our piano. He was a fine musician, and used to make copies of my music and give me copies of his.

In March of 1848 a military ball was held at Red River, before the departure of a contingent of 347 British regulars of the 6th Royal Regiment of Foot, the Royal Engineers, and the Artillery, who had been sent to the Settlement during the Oregon boundary dispute with the United States. Healy recorded,

Mrs. Cowan remembers that she wore at that ball white kid gloves, which her father had brought from New York. They were the first white kid gloves seen in Red River. A letter dated at Fort Garry, March 12th, 1848, written by Dr. John Bunn … says that “the Misses Caroline Pruden [later married to Thomas Sinclair Sr. and subsequently to Albert Sargent] and Margaret and Harriet Sinclair, were, I believe, considered the belles of the evening.” … Mrs. Cowan when this letter was shown to her [said,] “At that ball in 1848 the polka was new. Somebody had just brought it from New York. There was a great deal of talk about it before the ball, and Mr. [John Peter] Pruden, who was a severe man with his family, had forbidden Caroline to dance it. … As for me, for all that I thought myself a grown-up young lady, I had to go to school two years more after that ball at Fort Garry.” …

“In the spring of 1848 father took my younger sister Maria and me with him on his way to St. Louis, and left us at Knox College at Galesboro [sic: Galesburg], in Illinois. We were three weeks travelling across the plains to St. Paul. We had three Red River carts with horses and a force of six men. The carts were without springs, of course, but with our bedding comfortably arranged in them, they did not jolt us so badly, except where the ground was very rough, and then we would get out and walk. On the way down we were joined by a party from Oregon, with four carts … I remember that we met a man who was starving, a deserter from Fort Ripley, one of the little stockaded places where small forces of United States Cavalry were stationed. … At St. Paul we had to wait three weeks for a boat to take us down the Mississippi to Oquaki [sic: Oquawka Illinois] where my father hired a coach with four horses, which took us to Galesboro over roads that were almost impassible in places. But by that time we were used to rough roads and other discomforts of travel. My sister Maria, who was four years younger than I, thought it all great fun, as I did. We had the high spirits of youth, and my father seemed to us as young in spirit as we were ourselves, so that there was real companionship between the three of us.” …

In that journey of 1848, which took her across the as yet unorganized Territory of Minnesota from north to south, Mrs. Cowan saw the newly-built log cabin of Pierre Bottineau, which was then the only building on the site of Minneapolis. … [Describing her return] in the spring of 1850 … “I remember that on the way from Galesboro,” said Mrs. Cowan, in telling of that journey, “we saw at Galena a railway track which had just been built — the first I ever saw. But there was no railway train there for us to see, as we had been hoping there might be. As we came northward through Minnesota we found a great deal of the country flooded, and we came by a different route from the one we had traveled two years before. At Red Lake river, and again and again in order to cross other rivers and streams, rafts had to be made with branches of trees and the wheels of the Red River carts tied together and covered with oiled sheets of canvas. The wheels were made in dish shape, for that purpose; and the dish shape made them go better along uneven and slippery roads and prevented the carts from toppling over. James McKay, the best plainsman of that time, who was afterwards in the Legislative [Assembly of Assiniboia and the Legislative] Council of Manitoba, was in charge of our party. I remember that when a horse in trying to draw a cart across a swollen stream stuck in the middle helpless, James McKay unhitched the horse and got between the shafts himself and dragged the cart across. We had to keep on the look out for the Indians [concerned about encroachments on their territory, because no treaty had yet been negotiated in the U.S.], not the fierce Sioux of the prairies, but the Chippewas, who lived in the northern part of Minnesota, where there were lakes and forests. They were usually called the Pillagers. For several days we never lit a fire for fear they would see our smoke. At Pembina the water extended out from the hill where Mr. [Norman Wolfred] Kittson had built his house. We stayed there four days, and then Mr. Kittson sent us in boats to Fort Garry. The expanse of water over which we voyaged from Pembina was in places eight miles wide. At night we had to tie up the boats to the trees, as it was not safe to go on in the dark.”

Two years later, the river flooded again. Healy recounted,

During the great flood of 1852 the Sinclairs had to move out to Sturgeon Creek and live in tents for two months. “I remember,” said Mrs. Cowan, “our coming down in boats to visit Dr. Cowan, who had joined the [Hudson’s Bay] Company, and Judge [John] Black. The two of them had lived in the same house in [Upper] Fort Garry and remained there in charge during the whole time of the flood. The other officials had moved down to the Stone Fort [Lower Fort Garry], which stood high above the flood. It was very hot weather. The water was up to the level of the upper floors of their house. Dr. Cowan told me that one morning he waked up to find a large frog sitting on his pillow. I remember we walked along the high gallery that ran inside the wall around Fort Garry, from which you could look over the walls.”

dr. william cowanDr. William Cowan

Harriet married in 1852 to Dr. William Cowan. He had arrived from York Factory at Red River in 1849 as surgeon to the contingent of Chelsea Pensioners sent from England to Upper Fort Garry, for service to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Healy noted that in 1922, “Mrs. Cowan still has a book bound in white silk, with ‘A Wedding Gift” lettered in gold on the cover, which Bishop [David] Anderson gave her when she was married.” He added,

She still has her wedding dress, and a China silk shawl, heavily embroidered, which was one of her father’s gifts at her wedding. Not until 1854 did James Sinclair carry out his plan of taking his family to Oregon — “All except me,” said the old lady, touching softly the seventy-one-years-old wedding dress, which she had laid out on a chair near by her. … “He took out with him his own family and fourteen other families of settlers, and when he arrived in Oregon he took charge of Fort Walla Walla.” After her father left Red River in 1854, Mrs. Cowan never saw him again.

Harriet had four children: John (1853 – 1912), Anna Maria (1855 – 1932), Harriet Mary (1860 – 1944), and Alexander (? – ?).

Healy noted that,

In 1856 Dr. Cowan was appointed to Moose Factory. He and his family made the journey of twelve hundred miles to that post in four weeks. “We took with us our two young children,” said Mrs. Cowan, in telling of that journey. “We went from Fort Garry in a large canoe — a canot du nord, as it was called, about thirty feet long, light, and wonderfully strong. It had a wooden grating on the bottom to protect the birchbark. We had buffalo robes and blankets for our bedding, and tarpaulins to shield us from the rain. In bad weather the tarpaulins were stretched over the tents at our camping places. Our luggage and supplies had to be as light as possible. We had a large kettle, a frying pan and a teakettle, all of iron, for ourselves; and the men had the same. The men had flint and steel and touchwood. My husband had wax vestas, which we used to get from England in tin boxes. One of the men was also the cook; the men cooked for themselves. I remember we took with us a couple of wicker trunks. Our heavy trunks and other heavy things were sent up to York Factory to be taken in the Company’s ship to England, and brought back next year across the Atlantic to us by the ship coming to Moose Factory. Our canoe, which had a crew of eight men, took us down the Red to Lake Winnipeg, across to Fort Alexander at the mouth of the Winnipeg River, and up that river more than two hundred miles, with its many falls and rapids, which meant many portages. We crossed Lac Seul or Lac Sal (it was known by both names), a long lake which is like the Thousand Islands portion of the St. Lawrence, and on to the height of land, and after that travelled by many lakes and streams. We hoisted sail whenever we had a favoring wind. From Martin’s Falls we went three hundred miles down the Albany River in smooth swift water all the way, to its mouth on James Bay, where we came to Fort Albany. Then we left our canoe and went the hundred miles from Fort Albany, the salt water part of our travelling, in an open boat along the coast to Moose Factory, or Moose Fort as it was usually called. James Bay is in that part of it shallow, and when the tide is out, unless there is a wind from the north, the water is so far away from the shore as to be out of sight. On the first evening, when the men were rowing towards a place on the shore where we thought we might camp for the night, the boat grounded and was left high and dry by the tide, which went out rapidly because there was an offshore wind. Some of the men walked the long distance to shore, scrambling over the rocks and through the mud, and brought back firewood, and made a fire on the rocks near our boats to boil our kettle, and after supper we made ourselves as comfortable as we could to await the turning of the tide. Fortunately there was not a wind to bring back the water in a rush. On our way to the mouth of the Moose River we saw several white whales and many seals. And when at last we came to Moose Fort, which like Fort Albany is on an island at the mouth of the river, I thought it a delightful place.” …

The next six years Mrs. Cowan spent at Moose Fort. “I was happy there,” the old lady said.  “My husband and I had everything to make us contented. Our children were young. We were all young. We had health and everything we needed.” When Dr. Cowan was transferred back to [Upper] Fort Garry they had planned to go not by the way they had come, but down to Sault Ste. Marie and through United States territory to St. Paul and back across the plains. But through an error made in the [Hudson’s Bay] Company’s office in Montreal they had to return by the way they went, and so they escaped having to journey through Minnesota in the summer of 1863 when the Sioux were on the warpath and the little settlements were scenes of massacre. “It took us longer to come back over that twelve hundred miles,” said Mrs. Cowan, “chiefly because of the hard, heavy work in tracking up the Albany river, when the men had to haul the canoe against the current, Before we started from Moose Fort we arranged to have our trunks and heavy boxes taken by the Company’s ship to England and brought out the next year to York Factory and from there brought down to Fort Garry. … I remember we left Moose Fort on July 8th, in wet weather. I was wearing long waterproof Eskimo [sic: Inuit] moccasins of sealskin up to my knees. We arrived at Fort Garry on September 8th. The crew of Indians who brought us from Fort Albany to Lac Seul would come no father. They were afraid of the Indians they would meet on this side of the height of land. We had to wait there three days until the Indians who were to bring us on to Fort Garry arrived. There was only one man among them who had ever been to Fort Garry, and that was twenty years before. I remember I was at first a little afraid of those Indians, but we soon found that they were very good-natured. They would travel for miles to find a good place for the camp at night, and would cut brush, and go to great trouble to make everything comfortable for the children and me. Indeed, they were very kind to us. The heat and monotony in such weather were trying for the children. The Indians used to show them how to weave rushes. They did everything they could to please the children and keep them amused.” The old lady smiled over one of her memories of the ending of that journey from Moose Fort. “When we got back to Red River,” she said, “the children and I stayed a while at my uncle Thomas Sinclair’s house at the Rapids [St. Andrew’s Parish]. He had married Caroline Pruden. I remember Caroline insisted that I should have a hoopskirt. ‘My dear Harriet,’ she exclaimed, ‘you cannot possibly go out as you are!’ I was wearing clothes more in the present style than was fashionable then in Red River.”

After the return from Moose Fort, Mrs. Cowan lived within the walls of [Upper] Fort Garry until 1864, when Dr. Cowan and herself, with their three children, went to England in order to leave their children there to be educated. The journey [was] of seven hundred miles to York Factory, on Hudson Bay, by the Red river, Lake Winnipeg, and the Nelson. … They arrived at York Factory on the evening that the Company’s ship Prince of Wales came to anchor, after suffering injury from running on a reef near Mansfield Island. Her sister ship, the Prince Arthur, was lost on the same reef.  … [Mrs. Cowan explained] “A small chartered ship, the Ocean Nymph, which had crossed with the two Company’s ships and had kept clear of the reefs, took the crew of the Prince of Wales and the survivors from the Prince Arthur back to England, and we went on her. … There were sixty people on board, and it was exceedingly uncomfortable.”

Harriet also observed, “The Ocean Nymph, in which I went over from York Factory in 1864 … was a small ship, and rolled dreadfully, and as she was overcrowded with passengers on that voyage we really had a most uncomfortable time of it between the decks in bad weather.” The voyage was further marred by the death of a child:

a little girl, and she was buried at sea. She was the daughter of an officer of the Company who had retired and was going home to the Orkneys with his wife, who was an Indian woman, and their only child. When we were in the Orkneys we heard of several retired Company’s men who had married women of Indian or mixed blood and had taken them home across the Atlantic. I have never forgotten that funeral at sea, and the grief of the mother of the child.

On arrival in England, Harriet socialized with other Red River and Hudson’s Bay Company families. She recounted,

It was when we were in England that we first became acquainted with Donald [Alexander] Smith, who was afterwards Lord Strathcona. An old friend of ours in London was Alexander [Kennedy] Isbister, who had gone across with my father years before, and had remained in England. He was now headmaster of the Stationers’ Company School, and lived in the famous house in Bolt Court which had become Dr. [Samuel] Johnson‘s — a house I became as familiar with as our own house in [Upper] Fort Garry. Mr. Isbister never married. He brought his mother [Mary Kennedy] and his two sisters [Caroline and Eliza] over to London to live with him.

While we were in London I remember being at a dinner given by Donald Smith at which he presented a silver cup to Captain Hurd [sic: David J. Herd], of the Prince Rupert, a new ship of the Company, in which we returned. The silver cup was a gift, in remembrance of a pleasant voyage which Miss [Isabella Sophia] Hardisty [who married and divorced James Grant], who was then Mrs. Smith, had made with Captain Hurd. While we were in England we visited my cousin Margaret [Sinclair], whose husband was now General [Montague William] Darling; she never crossed the Atlantic again.

Harriet described the voyage outward from London to Rupert’s Land aboard the Prince Rupert  as much more comfortable than the crossing in the Ocean Nymph had been:

When my husband and I went on board the Prince Rupert at Stromness in the following June, … we found the ship a delightful contrast to the Ocean Nymph. There was accommodation for cabin passengers and for steerage passengers. each state room had an upper and lower berth. The meals were excellent. There were cows on board to provide milk and there were pigs and sheep and poultry. Really we lived luxuriously. I remember that before we left Stromness great quarters of fine Orkney beef were drawn high up on the masts and fastened there. The surface became hardened by the wind and the sun, and beneath it the meat kept perfectly fresh during the voyage.

Healy indicated that Harriet’s ocean crossing was not without adventure:

“While we were crossing Davis Strait,” Mrs. Cowan went on … “a crow’s nest was hoisted to the top of the main mast. It was a large cask open at the top with a trap door in the bottom, and one of the sailors kept a lookout for the ice, and they rigged up a bridge across the middle of the ship for the officer of the watch to be on while he was giving directions while we were going through the ice. Also, they got out fenders and long poles with spikes, and ice anchors, too, for mooring the ship to the ice when that was necessary.”

She continued,

We were seventeen days fast in the ice of the [Hudson] Strait. Another ship of the Company, the Lady Head, which was with us, was icebound about half a mile from us. I remember the captain of the Lady Head, the ship that went every year to Moose Fort, invited us to dinner one day, and persuaded us to stay for supper, to which we were just sitting down when there came a cry “The ice is moving!” We had to hurry back to our own ship. Before we could get back on board the Prince Rupert they had to put down a ladder so that we could cross the open water in a wide crack in the ice. A few days later, when both ships were icebound again, there was another invitation from the captain of the Lady Head to go to dinner on his ship, but we thought it safer to decline it.

Harriet added,

As for me, I thought the fog worse than either the storms or ice. We had fine weather crossing the [Hudson] Bay. The nights, I remember, were beautiful. When we were about fifty miles off Churchill a couple of cannon were shot off on the chance that the reports might be heard by the Churchill schooner and so let them know that we were passing on our way to York Factory. As we came near the end of our voyage we got a faint smell of spruce from the land, though the low shore line was invisible. When we anchored at last in York Roads, twenty miles from the factory, we were still within [sic: without] sight of land, only the high beacon twelve miles away on the point between the Nelson and Hayes rivers was visible from our ship. During the day a cannon was fired at intervals to let them know on shore that we had come, and at night rockets were sent up from the ship. The next morning about nine the schooner and the boats came in sight. The mail and the official documents were taken to York Factory, and next the gun powder, which was the dangerous part of the cargo — there were many tons of it [about sixty] — was transferred to the schooner and the boats which had crews of rowers. Then the Prince Rupert moved into shallower water and anchored about seven miles from York Factory. When our guns were  fired now we could hear the guns reply at the factory. The next day we sailed to the factory in the schooner.

Healy recorded Harriet as saying,”We … got to York Factory in September.” According to Healy, “When they arrived at York Factory it was too late in the year to start the long journey to Red River. They came as far as Norway House, and wintered there.”

Harriet recalled of her sea voyaging via the Hudson’s Bay route, “Altogether I have been across the Bay and through Hudson Strait three times, and each time we were unfortunate in missing the Eskimos [sic: Inuit].” Healy recorded that she did meet Inuit elsewhere however:

“When I was at Moose Fort I used to see Eskimos quite frequently. The missionaries had a number of them at the Peel river mission on the other side of James Bay, which was regular Eskimo country.” Mrs. Cowan still has an Eskimo necklace made of walrus ivory, and several other things which she obtained from Eskimos at Moose Fort. The necklace is made of chewed beads and has a figure of a duck for the clasp. “The Eskimos we saw at Moose Fort, …  were always chewing pieces of walrus ivory to shape them into beads for necklaces.”

Of her life at Upper Fort Garry, Healy recorded:

Mrs. Cowan’s memories of the 1860’s include the visits of several distinguished travellers to Fort Garry. The [Charles Adolpus Murray, 7th] Earle of Dunmore was one … Another visitor was the present Duke of Richmond and Gordon [Charles Gordon-Lennox, 7th Duke of Richmond] … who as a young man in his twenties came to this country to kill buffaloes and bears. Among the events in the closing years of that decade was the cyclone in July, 1868, which destroyed the half-built Holy Trinity Church in the village of Winnipeg. “Mrs. MacLean, the wife of the Archdeacon [John McLean], set us to work to help in rebuilding the church,” said Mrs. Cown. “I remember she assembled half a dozen of us at a sewing party. There were her cousin, Miss [Jane Elizabeth] Still, who afterwards became Mrs. William Drever [Jr.], Miss [Jean Anne] Drever, who became Mrs. Pinkham, … Mrs. [Margret Sinclair] Clare, who was afterwards Mrs. Jack [John Beresford] Allan, Harriet Inkster, who was afterwards Mrs. [William] McMurray, and myself. When we had sewed until it was time to go home … the Archdeacon came in, and with him Bishop [Robert] Machray … ‘My lord,’ said the Archdeacon, ‘the ladies are building a church with their needles!’ But that was not the first organized women’s work in Red River. In the spring of that same year there was a plague of grasshoppers and relief work had to be carried on, in which the women took an active part. That relief work was the first organized women’s work in Red River.”

Harriet Cowan remained in Upper Fort Garry as wife of Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Trader during the Resistance of 1869 to 1870. Her three oldest children were still in England. Her youngest child perhaps played with the children of Mary Sarah ‘Sally’ McDermott Mactavish, the ‘first lady’ of the fort at the time, who also happened to be the daughter of Harriet Cowan’s father’s former business partner, Andrew McDermott.

Some accounts — particularly those written after the Northwest Resistance of 1885 — describe the Cowans’ experience at Upper Fort Garry during the Resistance in negative terms. One such example is Healy’s text, which had been composed in consultation with Colin Inkster, who was critical of Louis Riel after the creation of Manitoba and especially after the Northwest Resistance of 1885. Healy’s highly mediated account of Harriet’s experience during the Red River Resistance read:

In October 1869, the Red River insurrection began. Dr. Cowan was acting Governor, on account of the illness of Governor [William] McTavish, when Louis Riel, entering with an armed force, took possession of Fort Garry. He made a prisoner of Dr. Cowan. “Riel told me I might go,” said Mrs. Cowan, “but I decided to stay with my husband. There was a back door to our house, which Riel’s men did not know of, and James Anderson the storekeeper at the Fort, used to manage to come to it at night and tell us the news during that terrible winter. I was never afraid of Riel until after he shot [Thomas] Scott, early in March. Donald Smith and I stood at a window of our house and saw poor Scott led out blindfolded, to be shot. Soon after Riel ordered us out of our house, where Donald Smith lived with us, and we had to go to more crowded quarters in another house within the walls of the Fort [The Governor’s house]. McTavish, who was a dying man, was at Fort Garry. He wanted to go to England, and to have my husband go with him. Riel was willing to let the Governor go, but refused to let my husband leave Red River. The Governor and Mrs. [Mary Sarah ‘Sally’ McDermott] McTavish went to England; he died two days after their landing in Liverpool, in July. It was in July that my husband and I, who were then living at the Stone Fort [Lower Fort Garry], made our preparations for escape. Governor McTavish had prevailed on Riel to let us move down there. My husband went up to [Upper] Fort Garry two or three times a week; I never knew whether he would be allowed to come back. Mounted men were stationed near the Stone Fort by Riel. When we had all out preparations made and a York boat landed, we started off for Lake Winnipeg as fast as our crew could row. One of Riel’s mounted men galloped off to Fort Garry to tell him of our escape, but before we could be overtaken we were out on the lake on our way northward to York Factory.”

Some problems with Healy’s account are immediately evident: the Comité National des Métis under John Bruce did not enter Upper Fort Garry until 2 November 1869; Riel did not shoot Scott, rather the latter was executed by firing squad, a sentence determined by a military tribunal, and a sentence that Riel was not in a position to reverse; the Cowan family and Donald A. Smith moved into the Governor’s house on about 14 February, prior to Scott’s execution; the Cowan family left Red River Settlement in May — at about the same time of the departure of the Mactavish family — not in July 1870; Dr. Cowan’s timing and direction of travel was dictated by HBC business, not by Louis Riel; Harriet’s reason for departing Red River for an ocean voyage was to pick up her children in England, who were due to sail home.

New Nation CowanDr. Cowan,” New Nation (2 June 1870), 1.

The date of any arrest of Dr. Cowan (if in fact one occurred) is not clear. Alexander Begg, who could do little more than record rumours in his diary of events, wrote on 23 November that eighteen year old George H. Young Jr. apparently caused a stir among the Canadians at the Town of Winnipeg. A story circulated that Young Jr. had escaped over the walls of the fort and had reported that HBC personnel, including Governor William Mactavish, Chief Trader Dr. William Cowan, and Accountant John Henry Mactavish were being held as prisoners “by order of Riel.” Not everyone thought the story about Young Jr.’s adventure and alarm was credible — Begg, for example, recorded that this “turn in affairs” was “greatly exaggerated.” By 29 November, Begg recorded that he had heard from unnamed persons that Gov. Mactavish, Dr. Cowan and J.H. Mactavish were indeed prisoners.

On 9 February 1870 Begg recorded that “the Nolins” had insisted to Riel that Dr. Cowan must be released and that Riel had agreed to do so “soon.” In the same entry, Begg then reported contradictory stories that Dr. Cowan was confined in a cell with William Hallet and William Drever Jr. and that Cowan was “at liberty inside the fort.” According to the New Nation, at the Convention of Forty on 9 February Riel advised the French representatives that it was time to “release Mr. Bannatyne, Dr. Cowan and Mr. Mactavish from all confinement,” though he did not state what kind of confinement that might be.

On 1 March 1870, Begg recorded a rumour that Cowan was again under arrest, but that “this turned out afterwards to be untrue.” A much later account, written by Ross Mitchell  in 1965, implied that beginning early November, Riel “imprisoned Dr. Cowan for two months.” Historian N. E. Allen Ronaghan, however, has argued that documentary evidence suggests Dr. Cowan was sympathetic to pro-Provisional Government Métis and that “this occupation [of Upper Fort Garry by Métis of Red River] was not unwelcome to Cowan or Mactavish and may, indeed, have been advised by them.” It is also worth noting that Cowan’s wife Harriet Goldsmith Sinclair was a cousin (one generation removed), of Hon. Thomas ‘Young Tom’ Sinclair of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia as well as a cousin of  Hon. Dr. Curtis James Bird, St. Paul’s (Middlechurch). She was also indirectly related (by the marriages of relatives) to many other members of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia. Unfortunately, although Dr. Cowan kept diaries while serving as surgeon and fur trader at Fort Garry, Moose Factory, York Factory and the environs, no entries have survived for the period of the Resistance, 1869 – 1870.

After sailing to England in the late summer of 1870 by way of Hudson Bay, the Cowans apparently picked up their children in England and almost immediately re-crossed  the Atlantic to the eastern seaboard of North America (likely to New York). From there they made their way to “a farm south of St. Paul, Minnesota from 1870 to 1876.” The family then moved to Winnipeg, now the capital city of the new province of Manitoba for a few years, until Dr. Cowan retired from his profession and returned with Harriet and the children still at home (“Miss Anna and Miss Harriet”) to St. Paul MN.

Harriet was widowed in 1902. Healy recounted that “her husband and she were preparing to celebrated their golden wedding, but Dr. Cowan died only a few days before that anniversary.” Harriet “and family” then moved back to Winnipeg.

harriet cowan 1923

Harriet Cowan c.1923. Source: W.J. Healy, Women of Red River (Winnipeg: 1923), 16, who described Harriet as “in her ninety-second year … still so active of mind and body, and has such liveliness of interest in the present that there is little about her to suggest extreme old age except her long memory of persons and events. … Her memory is remarkably strong and vivid; but though she lives much in the past, she maintains interest in the life going on about her. She visits her firends, and is happy in having them visit her.”

Harriet died of complications due to a broken hip on 7 September 1926 at 727 Wardlaw Avenue, the home of son Alexander Cowan. Her burial took place at Saint Johns Cathedral Cemetery on 9 September 1926.


Dr. Cowan,” New Nation (2 June 1870), 1, gives notice of the Cowan family’s departure from Red River Settlement. See also New Nation (20 May 1870), for news of the departure of the Mactavish family on aboard river steamer International on 15 May 1870.

Dr. Cowan,” New Nation (16 June 1870). A biographical note.

Scrip affidavit for Cowan, Henrietta; wife of D.W. Cowan; born: July 9, 1832; father: James Sinclair; mother: Maria Bird claim no.: 2859; scrip no.: 12290; date of issue: September 5, 1878; amount: $160 =

Scrip affidavit for Cowan, John; born: 6 August, 1853; father: William Cowan; mother: Harriet Sinclair = 

 Scrip affidavit for Cowan, Anna Maria; born: 10 September, 1855; father: William Cowan; mother: Harriet Sinclair =

Scrip affidavit for Cowan, Harriet Mary; born: 11 January, 1860; father: William Cowan (White Settler); mother: Harriet Sinclair =

“Family Ties,” James Sinclair, Family Network of Captain Colin Robertson Sinclair, doing canadianhistory n.0, http://hallnjean.wordpress.com/seafarers/captain-colin-robertson-sinclair/family-network-of-captain-colin-robertson-sinclair/james-sinclair/, outlines Harriet Sinclair Cowan’s family ties.

W.J. Healy, Women of Red River (Winnipeg: 1923), 15 – 18, 20 – 23, 25 – 30, 33 – 36,  47 – 48.

Virginia Barter, “Reflections, Riel and Red River Women,” Métis Voyageur (Fall/Winter 2006): 18, continued 29, who supplies a narrative based on a number of stories from Healy, Women of Red River.

N. E. Allen Ronaghan, “Cowan, William,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography online [DCB]

Gordon Goldsborough, “Harriette Goldsmith Sinclair Cowan (1832-1926),” Memorable Manitobans, Manitoba Historical Society: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/cowan_hgs.shtml.

Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, “Bird, James Sr. (ca. 1773–1856) (fl. 1788–1824)” and “Bird James Jr. (ca. 1800–1892) (fl. 1809–1851),” Biographical Sheets.

Ross Mitchell, “Dr. William Cowan,” Manitoba Pageant 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965), http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/pageant/10/cowan_w.shtml.



Published: 1 July 2013



  1. Hello,
    I was just wondering if you have the original source for the Photo of James Sinclair?

  2. I got my copy from an aunt long ago (and unfortunately had not the sense at the time to ask her where it came from). But, if I remember rightly, I later found the same photo either printed in the Beaver magazine, with Irene M. Spry’s review of D. G. Lent, West of the mountains: James Sinclair and the Hudson’s Bay Company (Seattle, Wash., 1963), or printed in Lent’s book. So, my guess is that there might be a photo at the Archives of Manitoba. — I checked, there seems to be a print there under the location code E.97/153-156, http://pam.minisisinc.com/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LISTINGS_IMAGES/LISTINGS_DET_IMAGES/SISN 227986?sessionsearch , with Barbara Johnston’s files (my aunt’s distant ‘cousin’). Hope that helps,

    • Hello,

      Thank you for getting back to me so quickly! I was able to go take out the book at the library and the picture was in it. Thank you for your help!

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