Who were the pioneer women of British North America? “In general, they were the women of native and European origins who inhabited the British portions of North America that later became Canada. However, the approach of this essay is to focus on the female “half” of the United Kingdom migration of the early nineteenth century.”[i] These pioeer

women were Protestant, Roman Catholic or one of several other Christian denominations such as Presbyterian. They were considered the first European settlers on the land. The woman’s role in her village not considered as important as the man’s role, but they filled the vital operation of maintaining the first households of British North America. Each village had its own distinct cultural or religious differences. Some of the primary duties that were entrusted to women included milking cows, picking fruits, school teaching, working in factories and knitting. The children in these villages played and attended church together, and went to the same school. As they grew older, they would become engaged to or married to someone from within their community.

There are thousands of letters, poetry and newspaper articles documenting this time period in history. These documents tell a story of courtship, community bonding and sometimes family tragedy. The primary documents I have chosen to analyze are the personal letters in 1873, between, Margaret Thompson and William Donnelly. It is not difficult to realize why I have chosen these letters. “The woman    Margaret had chosen as her husband a member of the ‘Black Donnelly’s’, a family deeply embroiled in feuds so virulent that they had persisted through emigration from Ireland to tear apart the New World community of Biddulph with murder and arson.” [ii] In researching these letters and analyzing other secondary sources, I realized that pioneer women did not necessarily marry for love. They were important factors that ensured a marriage and courtship such as: the consent of the parents, the economical level of the young couple and the acceptance of church and community. This essay will explain courtship, marriage and the key factors contributed to securing a healthy relationship between two a man and woman in nineteenth century Canada.pioneer women

The determination and tribal quarrels of the Irish have been documented in historical readings that go back to the time of the Romans. The family of James and Johanna Donnelly emigrated from Tipperary, Ireland, to Canada, and settled on land sold by the Canada Company. The Donnelly’s were squatters; they had built their home on land already acquired by homesteaders as the following quotation shows. “In 1855 John Grace, sold the southern lot 50 acres of Lot 18, Concession 6 to Michael Maher for £200. However, the Donnelly family is still living on the land.” [iii]  That same year he is charged with shooting at Patrick Farrell, likely for some sort of squabble with the land. “In 1856 John Grace applies to eject Donnelly from the northern half of Lot 18, Concession 6. Michael Maher does the same for the southern half of the property. In the end, however, Grace sells Donnelly the southern half of the property for £50 –far less than the £200 paid by Maher due to Donnelly’s improvements on the land.” [iv]  The dispute was settled in court and the Donnelly’s were able to keep the southern portion of the land. “During a logging bee (rising of a barn) at a neighbor’s farm James Donnelly Sr. kills Patrick Farrell with a handspike. James Donnelly goes into hiding and a $400 reward is offered for his capture.” [v]  James was sentenced to be hanged but a petition for clemency orchestrated by his wife saw his sentence reduced to seven years in the penitentiary.

In 1873, the sons of James Donnelly started a stagecoach line. The stagecoach business was very successful for the Donnelly’s. In the spring of 1873, Margaret Thompson agrees to marry William Donnelly. Her father sends her away because he does not want the marriage to happen. In researching the letters of Margaret Thompson and William Donnelly, I have found that courtship in the 19th century was subject to various ethnic qualities and similarities. If the couple had too many differences they would mostly likely not be considered a good match. For example, the Donnelly’s were Roman Catholic and the Thompsons were Protestant. The principal objection to William Donnelly was his Roman Catholicism. The Thompsons were Presbyterians’ and Margaret’s father did not want her to have to renounce her beliefs. “The Thompson family also could trace clan members such as Edward Thompson on the Mayflower in 1620”. [vi]  The Thompson’s were a prominent clan in Upper Canada and in regions of the United States. This family had established pioneer villages in the areas of Scarborough and Biddulph Township. In comparison, the Donnelly’s were a Roman Catholic Clan who came from humble beginnings in Ireland.

Exchanging letters meant a “special friendship” that radiated love and romance, which led to marriage. The pioneer people believed that marriage was the alliance of family. Marriage could not be possible unless the heads of the respective families agreed that both households had the same economic, social and spiritual expectations. In the case of Margaret and William Donnelly, her father was more worried about the social acceptance of the proposal. William Donnelly was handsome, ambitious and somewhat wealthy. However, he came from the Roman Catholic part of the town of Biddulph.

Even as love became the basis for marriage, the role of parents in the mate selection of their children declined, but they still continued to maintain some control over the process.[vii] Courtship meant acceptance into a higher or equal social scale or plummeting to the bottom of the social line. In the 19th century, families of high social status were always aware of the situation of the future son-in-law or daughter in-law. It was always the father’s job to decide inclusion or exclusion.

In a 19th century letter from James Caldwell, father of Mary Caldwell, to the man she hoped to marry, William Lindsay, illustrates the previous point. In the letter he explains that he was not made aware that his daughter was courting a young man. “He states that he knew nothing of the matter beforehand (although his wife did, and he was bothered that this had been concealed from him).” [viii] James then states that a match with the Lindsay family was not the problem, but that the young Lindsay’s age and economic situation would entail poverty and misery upon his daughter and their son. Young people in this period understood who their parents would consider a respectable partner. The economic situation of the couple was very important.  Women in this period were economically poor: they depended on their father and when they got married, if they were working, they most likely relinquished that work to become housewives. Consequently, their future husband’s salary had to be enough to support the lifestyle they had been raised in.

Money was not the one and only issue in deciding if a couple would marry. In the case of William Donnelly he was wealthy, but was still not good enough for Margaret Thompson. In the Victorian era, working as a maid, barkeeper, waitress, or even owning a successful stage coach business excluded you from mixing with certain social groups. The economic factor also looked at the skill level of the individual and the characterization of the village. They could be farming villages, or villages associated with forestry and hunting. Moreover, pioneer communities could be found closer to the upcoming cities or in very isolated areas. In choosing a partner, the person usually mated with someone who was accustomed to their village’s lifestyle and livelihood. For example lawyers would most likely be found living in cities or villages close to the large capital. A farmer would most likely want a wife who would do work around the house but when needed to help in the fields. Women who met men who were not very well known to them would investigate the man’s character and economical situation before allowing that person to court them. Couples coming from similar economical backgrounds played a vital role in a successful courtship and marriage. However, as important as the family was in marriage choices, the church and community also played a significant role in courtship. 

Canada in the 19th century was mainly a place of small villages. These villages and towns differed by ethnicity, economy and religion. Communities were just as judgmental and nurturing when it came to couples marrying. The Charivari was another social ritual through which the community oversaw marriage. “The Charivari is a popular tradition in pre-modern Britain, France and Germany; it took root in North America during the early years of colonial settlement and persisted well into the twentieth century.” [ix]  The Charivari was a form of popular protest and a social ritual. Pioneer communities in the Victorian period could oversee a marriage by implementing Charivari. The Charivari was used when an old man married a younger woman or when an old woman married a younger man. For example the young man, by marrying an old woman, cannot have children with her; a strong working body is therefore not produced for the next generation.

There were other instances of Charivari as edited in the following note. “I am no friend to the blacks; but really Tom Smith was a quiet good natured fellow, and so civil and obliging he soon got a good business. He soon persuaded a white girl to marry him.” [x]  The marriage created a great feeling of negative emotions in the town. The young men of the town were determined to give them a charivari and punish them for the insult they had inflicted on the town. It was winter and the young men dragged him out of bed and mistreated him so badly he died from the wounds. The affair was silenced; and life went back to normal.  Charivari spoke for the community. Charivaris were also endorsed by the local ecclesiastical houses of each township. The custom of Charivari had dated back to medieval Europe. Charivari is an unwritten law and practice, this practice was entwined in British North American culture. All of the villagers believed in the Charivari law. It was allowed to develop untouched by the government for 4 centuries of European rule within British North America.

In Lower Canada, the Roman Catholic Church projected itself as the protector of the French culture. Archbishops and priests were very prominent at all government levels. In villages and small towns the influence of the priest was often equal or superior to that of the town’s mayor and police officer. The archdioceses were instrumental in maintaining political and social structures that “hold on” to French Canadian qualities. Because of the church, all French Canadian villages and towns kept their social identity. This identity was kept intact by French people marrying their own inhabitants.

In summary, the history of courtship and marriage holds broad implications for three further issues in the social history of the nineteenth-century. These implications are the rise of the working class, the women’s movement and the movement of new immigrants to the big cities. By the 20th century, the women of Canada had achieved much economical, social and political freedom. Women had a choice of whom they wanted to marry. They did not have to depend on a husband’s wage to survive. A hundred and fifty years later, the old factors still linger when couples take the path to marriage. However, the ethnic barrier has been crossed and society today can witness a modern day Heath cliff (Wuthering Heights) or Florentino Ariza (Love in the Time of Cholera) court a woman of a higher social caste.


Courtney Duncan




[i] Beth Light and Alison Prentice, Pioneer and Gentlewomen of British North America 1713-1867 (Toronto, Ontario:  New  Hogtown Press, 1980), p1

[ii] Beth Light and Joy Parr, Canadian Women On The Move 1867-1920 (Toronto, Ontario: New Hogtown Press, 1980), p115

[iii]  http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/donnellys/prelude/timeline/indexen.html (accessed May 11th 2009)

[iv]  http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/donnellys/prelude/timeline/indexen.html (accessed May 11th 2009)

[v]  http://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/donnellys/prelude/timeline/indexen.html (accessed May 11th 2009)

[vi] http://www.houseofnames.com/xq/asp.fc/qx/thompson-family-crest.htm (accessed May 11th 2009)

[vii] Francois Noel, Family life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870  (National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication, 2003), p20

[viii] Ibid….p20

[ix] Peter Ward, Courtship, Love and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada (Quebec City, Quebec: Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, 1990), p112

[x] Beth Light and Alison Prentice, Pioneer and Gentlewomen of British North America 1713-1867 (Toronto, Ontario:  New  Hogtown Press, 1980), p113