Assembling Auntie

Illuminating a long-forgotten pioneer.

By Cheryl Foggo

The first time I saw her photograph, I lingered on her face. She looked confident, like a person at peace. The inscription said she was “Auntie,” nanny to the children of Colonel James Macleod. “Interesting,” I thought, and reshelved the book. I was working on something else at the time.

Years later I was asked to write an entry on Black western Canadian history for a Historical Society of Alberta publication called Remembering Chinook Country. I recalled “Auntie.” Since she would have been one of the first people of African descent to live in Alberta, it made sense to include her in my chapter.

I knew her moniker and her occupation. But attempts to find out anything more substantial proved frustrating. In addition to the photo inscription, she was mentioned in a couple of dusty tomes I found in the local-history room at the library. I was happy to discover two more photographs, although they were accompanied only with the same footnote: “Nanny to the Macleod children.” That her name was lost to history troubled me deeply. However, seeing Auntie’s photo on the Glenbow Museum website with the same inscription gave me a sense of purpose. Words in old books are as though etched in stone, but photo captions on websites—these can be changed.

When it comes to historical research, Internet dead ends, tantalizing long-distance red herrings and fruitless hours hunched over folders spread across tables come with the territory. After a healthy investment in these methods, I finally met someone with sharper skills than mine. During the course of her research on another subject, history professor Sarah Carter had encountered Auntie—and she knew her name.

“Auntie” was Annie Saunders. As I strolled back to the parking lot that day, clutching a piece of paper bearing her name, I think I may have actually clicked my heels.

My sense of satisfaction didn’t last long. Although I chastised myself for the hours spent poring over websites and old newspapers in search of more detail, I couldn’t resist and dove into the pursuit of Annie’s story. From a cost/benefit perspective, I averaged one fragment of information per day—all for a brief entry in a chapter that I knew would be read only by the most die-hard Canadian history buffs. Yet the more I learned, the more I marvelled that the record of Annie’s achievements had slipped away. How had a Black woman—who had almost certainly spent the first 30 years of her life enslaved—found the courage to leave her country and travel to an unsettled frontier? Once there, how had she pulled herself up to become a valued community member and self-sufficient businesswoman?  It struck me that Annie Saunders was too extraordinary to have been so utterly forgotten.

In the end, I gave myself permission. The captivating woman in the 118-year-old photograph was tired of being hidden, and I was drawn into a search that may last the rest of my life. I’ve come to liken the task of inquiry and writing about Annie to penning a serialized detective novel about a mystery that may never be fully solved. And yet I’ve uncovered enough of Annie’s story that I can now partially animate the woman whose photograph once provoked only a momentary pause.

There is much that has changed about Pincher Creek in the 130 years since Annie Saunders dragged her laundry sack along its dusty lanes, but surely much that has not. The brilliance of the honeyed trees in harmonious contrast to the horizon would have caused her to catch her breath, just the way it does to me today. Annie probably would have paused on her way to her small log shack on Main Street to look at those snowy peaks imprinted on that river-coloured sky, and she would have wondered at the whims of life that brought her to this strange and beautiful place.

It is unlikely that she considered herself remarkable. Yet the argument that Annie Saunders was an important southern Alberta pioneer can be made on a number of fronts. The Alberta we live in today prides itself on its entrepreneurial spirit, and Annie must certainly be counted among the vanguard of women in business—indeed, one of the earliest Alberta business operators of either gender.

That she accomplished this against long odds makes her all the more compelling. Southern Alberta was hierarchical, with men of British descent at the top and others at various levels below. Annie more than did her part to lay the groundwork in a country that would eventually come to define itself by its quest for justice and harmonious pluralism. If it can be said that the Macleod family shaped the attitudes and institutions of southern Alberta, it should also be added to the record that their attitudes were influenced by Annie and that their sense of well-being often rested in her hands.

Annie may not have been surprised to know that her name would be lost. In a way, she contributed to that fate. “Call me Auntie,” is what she said to Mary Macleod when they met on a steamboat travelling up the Missouri River from Fort Benton, Montana. “Call me Auntie,” is what she said to everyone. She must have had her reasons, and perhaps it is not difficult to discern them. Black people were often branded with uglier titles. Annie chose to self-label.

The 1881 Canada census for Bow River lists her occupation as “cook.” It says she was 45 years old, born in the US and a widowed Methodist. The clues given in those bare facts are all I know—so far—of her American past.

Annie’s life in this country began with her arrival in 1877. Mary Macleod met her while en route to take up residence with her new husband, Colonel James Farquharson Macleod of the North-West Mounted Police, in the outpost that had been named for him. Charmed by the steamboat stewardess, Mary impulsively asked Annie to accompany her to Canada. Annie, just as impulsively it would seem, agreed.

Although deeply buried, there are dozens of references to Annie scattered in old letters, old newspapers, memoirs of Pincher Creek visitors and residents, and beneath the mountain of surviving archives concerning the Macleod family. By cross-referencing those sources it is possible to clear away some of the fog that shrouds Annie Saunders’s life from the time she arrived in what was then part of the North-West Territories and later became Alberta.

The existing photographs of her provide some superficial information. She was a handsome woman, with a soft lap and a warm face that is easy to picture laughing. And she probably laughed most at her own joke and the look it would bring to the faces of people she met. “Me and Mrs. Macleod,” she was fond of saying, “[We] were the first white women in the region.”

It is likely that Annie lived in the Macleod household from 1877 to 1880 in Fort Macleod. James and Mary’s son, Norman, once described how Annie would tie one end of a rope around his ankle once he’d learned to crawl as a baby. Tethering the other end to a table leg, she would scatter sugar on the floor to keep him happy and entertained while she worked.

When the Macleods moved to a home they named Kyleakin in Pincher Creek in 1880, Annie went with them, but may not have lived with them full time. It was in Pincher Creek that the first records of Annie’s growing independence and evidence of the three businesses she eventually ran began to appear.

According to correspondence between James and Mary and their children during those years, it is clear that she was still an important part of the family. In a letter to his wife dated July 27, 1882, Macleod reports “Old Annie, in Bray’s house, is having quite a lot of custom[ers] for meals… She is awfully behind with her washing. She still dotes upon the boy and asks continually about Nell’s accident.”

This quote provides an example of how dissecting each word and phrase in the references made by Colonel Macleod and others provide clues to Annie’s life. My colleague and former Pincher Creek resident Fred Stenson informed me that Bray was of the NWMP and lived near the Macleods. NWMP records and other sources confirm that Sergeant Major John
H. G. Bray worked closely with Colonel Macleod and lived near the creek on the edge of town with his wife, Jemima, and their family. In this case, answers lead to more questions. Did Annie live in the Bray household at the time Macleod seems to indicate she was operating some form of business there? If so, where was Bray? Did she work for him, too?

“She is awfully behind with her washing” refers to Annie’s laundry business, a service she may have provided in Macleod as well as Pincher Creek, and one that is frequently mentioned in historical documents. A woman named Inderwick, describing her arrival in Fort Macleod as a bride, wrote that she sent her laundry to “that dignified coloured,” but had to wait weeks for its return, as Annie made the needs of the Macleods her first priority. Annie “still doting on the boy” and “asking continually about Nell’s accident” are references to the two oldest Macleod children, Norman and Helen. (For the record, Nell’s accident involved inadvertently immersing her bottom in a bucket of very hot water.)

Annie was so entwined in Macleod family life that she even made appearances in the colonel’s dreams. In a letter to Mary in which he relates in charmingly explicit terms his desire to be with her, he sheepishly admits that in a dream where he was about to go looking for her “in a devil of a state,” Annie appeared in the room to do the cleaning, then politely backed out when she saw he wasn’t dressed. Annie also appears to have performed some rather unusual services for the Macleods. In an account of frontier life called “Braehead,” the author reports that Mary Macleod had “lost her teeth to the ravages of frontier living” and that “Auntie” had performed the dentistry.

In another 1882 letter, the Colonel mentions that “Stewart is going to stay with me, and we both take our meals at Auntie’s.” On November 11, 1883, Macleod wrote, “Old Annie and Wilson (another Pincher Creek pioneer and sometime Macleod family handyman) were so glad to see me.” Later in the same letter, he writes “Annie is very anxious to know when I will board here. She bellyaches a good deal about the lot of things that have been broken in the kitchen… It is very nice having her here, both the rooms are kept so clean and comfortable. Our dear old bed looks so nice—clean sheets and pillowcases, etc.”

Annie is mentioned twice in a 1920 document called A History of the Early Days of Pincher Creek (edited by Emma Lynch Staunton, a member of one of Pincher Creek’s first families), both entries referencing where she lived, but each indicating a different location. “Old Auntie, Mrs. Saunderson [sic]” is included in a list of pioneers who had ranches or lived at one time or another in the desirable location along the creek. A later reference in the document states that “Old Auntie… started a laundry in a shack on Main St. and lived there until she died.”

Different sources indicate there was overlap between the laundry and Annie’s other ventures. It also seems likely her quarters at the laundry shack were not her permanent or only residence.

References to a BUSINESS Annie operated in Pincher Creek called “Aunty’s” appeared in the Macleod Gazette in 1883 and 1884. On January 13, 1883, the Gazette stated “The Reverend Mr. Trivett entertained his choir at a supper on the evening of the 28th at Mrs. Saunders.” An ad in the January 24, 1883, edition of the Gazette touted the business thusly: “Mrs. Saunders, Proprietress. Hot Meals at all hours. Good accommodation for ladies.”

On March 5, the Gazette printed an item concerning the Dramatic Club of Pincher Creek’s event that included songs, music and after-dinner entertainment. That item ended with “At the close a vote of thanks was passed to Auntie for the able manner in which she had catered.” On March 14, the Gazette reported “The police boys had a match game of baseball on Saturday afternoon last, the losing side paying for a supper at Auntie’s in the evening.” One month later the paper reported “Quite a brilliant affair took place at Auntie’s last Monday night. The costumes were elegant and dancing was kept up until either the bright streak in the east, or something else scattered the gay party.”

Perhaps because of her connections to the Macleods, Annie hosted a number of dignitaries, including the Marquess of Lorne and Alexander Stavely Hill, Conservative British MP, later director of the Oxley Ranching Company and the person for whom the town of Stavely is named.

Prior to his arrival in Pincher Creek, Hill stopped to eat at an establishment in Fort Macleod, operated by the colourful Harry “Kamoose” Taylor. Hill described Saunders’s establishment as “of a much higher character.” In his book From Home to Home—Autumn Wanderings in the Northwest in the Years 1881–1884 Hill penned his impressions of Annie. “She spoke in the most pleasant voice, and used exceedingly good language, somewhat in the style of a well-educated housekeeper in England.” This description contrasts with some of Hill’s contemporaries, whose transcriptions of Saunders’s speech approach Hollywood caricature. Hill goes on to relate an anecdote about Annie’s preparations to host a breakfast for the Marquess. Her overenthusiastic helper had built such a huge fire in the stove that the property caught fire, scattering breakfast plans with the ashes. To Hill’s amusement, Annie seemed more aggrieved about being unable to offer the Marquess his breakfast than she was about her losses.

As important as Annie was to the Macleods, she seems also to have been valued by many members of the community. In response to an October 3, 1884, ad for her restaurant in the Gazette, the editors placed the following announcement: “Attention, Travellers. We call attention to Mrs. Saunders advertisement this week. ‘Auntie’ is well known in this country and will no doubt be largely patronized by all her old friends, who know what kind of a table she sets. The Gazette sends best wishes for her success, and cheerfully recommends her to those who may be travelling Pincher Creek-wards.”

A September 1884 letter to the editor written by A. Edgar Cox (Pincher Creek’s first teacher) calls attention to yet another of Annie’s enterprises. “Sir—Will you afford me space in the columns of your paper to inform all parents interested in and desirous of sending their children to the Pincher Creek school, that boarding accommodation will be ready for a number of children on the 1st October, Mrs. Saunders, better known perhaps as ‘Auntie’ having moved into her new house for that purpose.” On October 20, 1885, the Gazette reported “Mrs. A. Saunders, who has the care of a number of children attending the Pincher Creek school, deserves great credit for the manner in which she looks after the youngsters. She makes the place as much like home as possible for them, and is giving good satisfaction. She has still accommodation for a few more.”

At least one of Annie’s businesses, almost certainly the laundry, was housed in a small log building next to the Alberta Hotel. She may have had businesses in two buildings. In one account of pioneer life a labelled photograph places “Old Auntie’s shack” between Fred Forester’s blacksmith shop and James Schofield’s store, and in another photograph and a corroborating written account, Auntie’s is positioned between the Union Bank building and the Alberta Hotel.

Colonel Macleod and his family moved back to Fort Macleod in 1886 and remained there until taking up their final residence in Calgary in 1894. Annie did not go with them, choosing instead to remain in Pincher Creek. Her affiliation with the Macleods continued into the 1890s—she is mentioned in a July 1891 letter from the Colonel to his daughter Helen as having unexpectedly arrived to do the wash. In another 1891 letter to Helen, her mother Mary describes a gift of eggs, potatoes and fish from Annie, and younger sister Roma writes to Helen in 1893 that “Auntie sent Mary and myself each a little Bible.”

It would be nice to think that Annie Saunders’s life in Pincher Creek did not revolve solely around the hard work she clearly relished, but so far no records have come to light to illuminate her social life. She was not the only Black person in Pincher Creek. Charlie Dyson, first the town blacksmith and later a rancher near Picture Butte, and his wife, Eliza, resided in the town during Annie’s time, as well as a young cowboy known as Billy (The Kid) Welsh. It would be fairly safe to conclude that the Dysons and Annie knew each other, and perhaps were friends. The census for Pincher Creek in 1891 lists both Charles Dyson and Annie (although her name was mistakenly recorded as “Amy Sanders”) as members of the Methodist Church, so they may have worshipped together
as well.

It is impossible to gauge how Annie Saunders really fit into the social structure of 1800s Pincher Creek. While it is plain that there were those who valued her, it would be naive to assume she was universally embraced. The Gazette reported a physical assault on a Mrs. Saunders by a Mrs. Broullette in its October 17, 1884, issue. Although it is possible there was another Mrs. Saunders in town, it is likely the victim was indeed Annie.

The present-day Pincher Creek pioneer cemetery is a forlorn bit of territory on the outskirts of town, bumping up against a sagging chain-link fence and a collection of rusting cars and trucks. The grounds were in a state of neglect until a restoration was taken up by a local couple. A plaque bearing the names of some of the pioneers who were taken there for their final sleep greets visitors, but Annie’s is not among them. Her name may have been recorded in a book that was once kept in an old shed on the premises, but that record was lost when the shed was torched by some local youths.

Despite the lack of concrete proof, I’m sure she’s there. The Lethbridge News carried the following in its Pincher Creek news section on July 27, 1898: “The old lady, Mrs. Saunders, generally called “Aunty” around Pincher Creek and Macleod, died here on Tuesday, July 19th. The service was preached by the Methodist preacher on Wednesday at 1 o’clock, and the body was then taken to the cemetery. The funeral was well attended.” #

Cheryl Foggo is an award-winning author and lifelong Calgarian.

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