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In January 1865, Mary Sinclair Christie wrote from her home at Fort Edmonton to the schoolmistress in charge of her daughters’ education at the Red River Settlement. Mary’s older daughters, Annie and Lydia, were students at the Oakfield Establishment for Young Ladies, a boarding school run by headmistress Matilda Davis.[1] In her letter, Mrs. Christie informed Miss Davis that she had made arrangements for her sister-in-law in Edinburgh to ship supplies for Annie and Lydia directly to Red River.[2] She also noted that it was time for her youngest daughter, Mary Ann, to join her older sisters and her cousin Ann Mary Christie at the Miss Davis School.[3] Mrs. Christie advised Miss Davis that “we intend sending Mary to your Academy next summer,” and closed the letter by remarking on a scarlet fever epidemic in the area.[4] Sadly, six-year-old Mary Ann succumbed to the scarlet fever epidemic less than two weeks later, and never joined her sisters at the Miss Davis school at Red River, nor on their journeys to colonial Québec, Ontario, or to Britain.[5] The other Christie children, however, are examples of Métis students whose life histories and educational travels spanned the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) territories, the Canadian colonies, and Britain.[6] These Métis students’ mobility within the British Empire challenged imperial understandings of the place and role of Indigenous peoples in the Empire, and both drew on and replicated the extensive trans-Atlantic kin ties that connected white and Métis families on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Parents sent their children to school to learn reading, writing, Christianity, and the social norms of British middle-class respectability that they were expected to enact in their roles as colonial elite. Children were taught in their homes, in parish schools, and sent away to boarding schools in Oregon, Red River, the Canadian colonies, and Britain.

I explore these students’ education within an analytical framework that incorporates British-Métis histories on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to explore the transnational movements, kin ties, and multicultural identities common to these childhoods.[7] This approach highlights the social class, kinship, and hybrid cultural identities that tied these families together as a mid-nineteenth-century fur-trade elite. Moreover, putting British-Métis children at the centre of the study challenges a historical literature that has tended to focus on Indigenous mothers and European fur-trade fathers, and expands our understanding of pre-residential-school era education.

In this paper I consider the challenges of locating these students’ histories in textual archival sources. I also demonstrate how photographs, burial sites, and gravestones can illuminate aspects of these fur-trade children’s and youths’ transnational and educational histories that are often obscured in the fur trade records, correspondence, and genealogical sources that are generally the core sources for Métis historiography.[8]

British-Métis Families, Education, and Privilege

Families like the Christies generally self-identified as “natives of the country,” “HBC people,” or “English halfbreeds.”[9] These were local terms that acknowledged hybrid European and Indigenous cultural heritages. I tenuously use the term British-Métis in this study to describe a specific group of mid-nineteenth century Métis families, but I do so with the understanding that naming and identity are complex.[10] There is no one, agreed-upon term to describe this group of elite Indigenous fur-trade families, either then or now.[11] The British-Métis families considered in the paper, like the Christies, included Cree and Anishinabeg grandmothers and great-grandmothers as well as Scottish, English, and Orcadian fathers and grandfathers. They had close ties to the Hudson’s Bay Company, were nominally and often devoutly Anglican or Presbyterian, and enjoyed elite socio-economic status conferred by their fathers’ and grandfathers’ positions as HBC officers. These fur-trade families were connected by social status and kin ties that stretched from Victoria to the British Isles, they sometimes travelled to Britain, and often identified as British subjects. Their multicultural identities informed how they understood their place in the colonial HBC territories and in Britain. Most importantly, perhaps, they understood themselves simultaneously as “natives of the country” and as British subjects.

The “British” in “British-Métis” recognizes these families’ British roots, socio-economic privilege, Protestant religions, and their claims as British subjects. “Métis” acknowledges their First Nations and Métis ancestries and their connection to the Métis Nation.[12] British-Métis families claimed their elite status through both their Indigenous and British ancestries.[13] British-Métis men, women, and children had specific understandings of their identities and roles in the British Empire that did not align with those of their French-Métis cousins.[14] These understandings and their histories have been marginalized in recent scholarship on mid-nineteenth-century Métis history that tends to centre buffalo hunting brigades, cross-border Métis communities, Catholicism, labourers, and Métis nationalism.[15] These families’ integration into the colonial elite as British-Métis people reflects a specific moment in the histories of the Métis, the fur trade, colonial Canada, and the British Empire. This historical moment began with the HBC monopoly in 1821, initiating a period during which British-Métis families leveraged their numbers, socio-economic privilege, fur-trade kin networks, and British heritage to establish themselves as members of the colonial elite. This moment ended with the dispossession of the Métis in Manitoba from the 1870s and the influx of settlers to western Canada beginning in the 1890s.[16]

These British-Métis families interwove their multicultural identities into daily lives where Indigenous languages, skills, and traditional knowledge existed alongside British-style schooling, societal norms, and Christianity. Matilda Davis was a sought-after educator in part because her own transnational life history as a British-Métis fur-trade student and her governess training in London made her a uniquely-qualified girls’ teacher in the HBC territories.[17] Her school was also popular because, in acknowledgment of her and her students’ Indigenous heritage and the realities of childhoods often spent at remote fur-trade posts, Davis taught a standard British-style curriculum alongside Métis and First Nations beadwork and sewing. Students in the dormitories spoke multiple languages, and the girls both sewed and wore moccasins and hide mitts. The multicultural and elite education offered at the Miss Davis school incorporated British norms and values while adapting a British curriculum to meet the practical needs of life in the HBC territories.[18] Although the Davis school was somewhat unusual in offering such an overtly blended education, her approach to educating primarily British-Métis students illustrates the ways that her British-Métis children and youth students integrated their Métis, First Nations, and British heritages into their daily lives.

British-style education, however, was central to the cohesiveness and success of British-Métis fur-trade families, and the privilege afforded to these families allowed them to invest significantly in education for their children. In particular, they had the means to pay to send their children away from their remote homes at fur trade posts to access a better-quality British-style education at schools in larger centres. The decisions that parents made about education were influenced by gender, with sons’ educations often being prioritized over daughters’; by children’s personality or perceived intelligence; or by birth order in relation to a father’s advancement in his career. By and large, however, families like the Christies prioritized educating their children and made significant financial investments in their studies. A good education would, in theory, result in good jobs for their sons and good marriages for their daughters.[19]

Although Mary Ann Christie died before she left for boarding school, all her siblings and her Christie cousins were sent away from their homes at HBC fur trade posts to attend school. Christie sons attended The Nest Academy in Scotland, a boarding school for boys, and then sometimes went on to college.[20] Christie daughters attended the Miss Davis School. Annie and Lydia Christie left the Miss Davis school to attend finishing school in Québec, and Lydia and her cousin, Emma, both travelled to Britain as young women.[21]

The Christie family’s focus on education and on transnational travels to access quality education was common amongst upper- and middle-class families in colonies throughout the British Empire; parents of white and mixed-ancestry children sent their offspring away from home to access the best education possible.[22] Imperial children were taught similar lessons about British class, gender, and religious norms in British-style schools in both the colonies and in Britain itself. Across the British Empire, education was used to transmit British social norms and standards of behaviour to boys and girls.[23] These lessons in both academics and middle-class respectability were meant to equip colonial children like the Christie cousins for success in colonial and metropolitan settings. [24] These educations, however, also allowed British-Métis families to reproduce and reify their class privilege in the HBC territories through their children’s subsequent employment in and marriage to the colonial elite.

Accessing evidence of these students’ educational histories in North American and British archives is a challenge. British-Métis students’ histories are disadvantaged in the colonial archive by both their Indigenous heritage and their age.[25] Their elite social status, however, allowed their parents to fund their educations which, in turn, produced family correspondence to and from students who were away at school, report cards, bills, records of travel, photographs, and other documents. Still, the archival record of the students’ life histories is at best fragmentary. Exploring visual records and objects as historical sources provides, as Kristine Alexander notes of photos of Girl Guides, “compelling evidence of the limits of language” in the study of children and colonialism.[26] Here, I explore studio portraits, burial sites, and gravestones as sources for British-Métis students’ life histories, and interweave these sources with archival family correspondence and census records to better understand British-Métis students’ transnational educational travels to Britain, their experiences in the metropole, and the trans-Atlantic kin networks that were integral to their education.

Studio portraits, gravestones, and burial sites represent both the best and the worst outcomes of elite education for these children and youths. The studio portraits depict the norms of British middle-class respectability that elite British-Métis students were expected to learn at colonial and metropolitan schools as part of the imperial project.[27] They are also visual representations of the ways that elite British-Métis families engaged their class privilege to reproduce and reify their power in fur-trade country and beyond. Gravestones and burial sites, on the other hand, point to the death and trauma often intertwined with fur-trade children’s boarding school education. These sources expand our understanding of British-Métis students’ transnational lives and the extensive trans-Atlantic kin networks that they accessed for support and care.[28] The two case studies presented here feature a studio portrait of Lydia Christie taken in Portobello, Scotland, and the gravestone and burial site of Roderick McKenzie Jr. in Ullapool, Scotland. Interweaving visual and object sources with textual records drawn from archives in North America and Britain illustrates the inter-relatedness of transnationalism, education, privilege, and kin networks in Lydia’s and Roderick’s experiences as Métis and colonial youth in the metropole.

Transnationalism, Indigenity, and the British Empire

Historians have long recognized the centrality of mobility to Métis histories and identity. Most often, mobility has been a theoretical framework deployed by scholars to explore issues of Métis lands, social structure, borderlands communities, and nationhood in western North America.[29] British-Métis children and youth experienced mobility differently. For most, their fathers’ careers and therefore their home lives were marked by impermanence. HBC officers moved from post to post during their careers, and their families generally followed. Year-long furloughs from their jobs also meant that fathers travelled abroad, either with or without their families. Children’s travels as students, then, were only one part of the mobility that characterized the careers and life paths of British-Métis families, but they were also part of a tradition of Métis mobility in a larger sense. Moreover, this mobility enfolded them into the imperial project in ways that were specific to children of the Empire.

The Christie cousins are only some of the British-Métis students who were incorporated into an empire-wide project of education aimed at “civilizing” mixed-ancestry children. British-Métis children and youth lived their lives at the intersections of colonial specificities of the fur trade, an emerging settler colonial society in the Hudson’s Bay Company territories after 1821, and larger British imperial anxieties about race, gender, power, and “mixedness.” These anxieties often found expression in optimism for and concerns about children of the British Empire. Simon Slight and Shirleene Robinson argue that both white and Indigenous children were “central to the imperial project, burdened with its hopes and anxieties.”[30] Mixed-descent imperial children in particular were the embodiment of the “dual interests” of colonial and imperial race politics as they aligned in “governing native races and improving the white race.”[31] Imperial children’s bodies and minds were places to exercise imperial anxieties about gender, race, class, and sexuality.[32] Parents, administrators, educators, missionaries, and entrepreneurs all had their own visions for the roles that children should occupy in the Empire, leaving imperial children with limited agency over how their lives, bodies, and minds were intertwined with the imperial project. As mixed-ancestry children of the British Empire, British-Métis students were part of this interplay of colonialism and resistance that shaped colonial and metropolitan understandings of race, place, gender, and class.

They were also entwined in the interchange of people and ideas between Britain and its colonies. The mobility of people between Britain and the colonies was central to the “mutually constitutive Empire”; these movements and knowledge circuits transcended national boundaries and national histories.[33] People, ideas, and material culture circulated through the Empire (and beyond), and in doing so reformed imperial and colonial knowledges. Explorations of the points at which intimacy and mobility intersected, however, have reinforced the assumption that “in the context of empire, the local is that which does not move and the native is the stationary object on whom intimacy is bestowed, visited and forced.”[34] Both nineteenth-century contemporaries and later historians assumed that separation between the metropole and colonies, and between Indigenous peoples and Britons, was inherent to the British Empire.[35]

British-Métis students, however, were not static, stationary, or separate from the history of the British metropole. Their educational histories demonstrate that Indigenous people were not solely local or stationary in the nineteenth-century British Empire. Jane Lydon and Jane Carey argue that Indigenous mobility and transnational networks were “shaped [and] constituted through engagement with Indigenous peoples’ actions, ambitions and orientations.” Considering British-Métis children and youth as transnational actors shows that Indigenous people could be “part of, or exploit, transnational or imperial networks.” [36]

These Indigenous metropolitan histories have been written out of the historical record and the collective memory of the British Empire. In his study of Indigenous presence in London, Coll Thrush argues that “Indigenous people who remain in or move to urban places are all too often portrayed, if at all, as somehow out of place, and that out-of-place-ness is all too easily trans-formed into absence. The result is a blindness read back onto the past from the present, an inherited silence where history should be.”[37] Thrush demonstrates that Indigenous peoples have a long and sustained history in London, where both their physical presence and their daily interactions with Londoners challenged the supposed separation between colony and metropole.

The British-Métis students named here are only a handful of the British-Métis children who, for more than a century, migrated from fur-trade country to metropolitan areas in the Canadian colonies and Britain to go to school. Their histories have been marginalized from both British and Canadian histories because they do not conform either to the narratives of the nation state or to understandings of Indigenous peoples as fixed and stationary in the British Empire.[38] A transnational approach to these children’s histories transcends the exclusionary focus on the nation-state and highlights the interconnectedness of the children’s kin ties to both the HBC territories and Britain. Karen Dubinsky, Adele Perry, and Henry Wu characterize transnational approaches to Canadian history as those that centre “the connectiveness of sites and how people imagined their ties to multiple locations.” Elite British-Métis students’ multi-sited life histories, trans-Atlantic travels, and kin ties exemplify such “forms of belonging beyond a simple inclusion or exclusion within a single national imaginary.” [39]

Like the men and women in Thrush’s study, British-Métis students were enmeshed in British society through their physical presence in England, mainland Scotland, and the Orkneys where they lived with and attended school alongside metropolitan Britons. Their physical presence directly challenged imperial notions of separation between metropole and colony. Some children returned to the HBC territories, but others relocated permanently and lived out their adult lives in Britain as teachers, governesses, industrialists, wives, and daughters. Studio portraits, gravestones, and burial sites provide insight into these students’ transnational travels, the gender and social norms that they learned as part of their British-style education, and the trans-Atlantic kin networks that undergirded the students’ education and facilitated their claims to space and place in Britain.


Historians use historical photographs in our work regularly, but most often these images are used uncritically to provide visual aids in the classroom, in publications, or in slide presentations. Photographs, however, can and should be read critically as historical sources. As both objects and historical texts, they provide perspectives that are often inaccessible in the written record. In the context of colonial North America, they also tend to privilege white artists and their perspectives over Indigenous-produced visual records. The images of mid-nineteenth-century Indigenous peoples that Canadians are most familiar with, for example, are paintings and photographs that were created by white male artists who visited the HBC territories in the 1820s through the 1850s.[40] According to artist and historian Sherry Farrell Racette, the Indigenous peoples in these images were “often coerced and uncomfortable subjects.”[41] The artists’ paintings and photographs share common themes about the wildness of the West and of its Indigenous inhabitants. Depictions of the Métis favour the buffalo hunt, Red River carts and freighting, and family groups (Figure 1). These images often reproduce stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and celebrate narratives of progress and nation-building.

Figure 1

Half-Breed Traders on the Plains, 1872-73

Source: Library and Archives Canada, C-081787

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Archival photographs, however, are increasingly coming under scrutiny as representations of Indigenous histories, as expressions of the settler-colonial project, and as sources that interrogate older narratives of Indigenous pasts and unsettle histories told from a Western perspective.[42] Reading photos as objects and exploring the materiality represented in the images can yield insightful results.[43] Thus far, analyses of photographs of Indigenous children in Canada by scholars like Farrell Racette and Carol Anderson have focused on residential school photography or on the photographers behind the camera.[44]

The images of mid-nineteenth century Métis peoples that are most prevalent in the archive and in family collections are posed family photos and formal studio portraits. Studio portrait photographs of British-Métis children and youth provide a different perspective on Métis history than those featuring hunting brigades on the Plains. Formal portraits of British-Métis children and youth are both objects that speak to British-Métis students’ transnational travels, and visual representations of British-Métis families’ understandings of the intersections of class, race, and gender that informed their place in colonial Canada and the British Empire.

Working with these photos is complicated. Individuals in the photos are often unnamed or not identified as Métis. Photos of women who are named only by their husbands’ names (e.g., Mrs. John Smith) pose an even greater challenge to analysis. Extensive knowledge of fur-trade and Métis genealogies and family histories is necessary to sort out the names, family and social connections, and provenance of the photos. However, unlike the Métis generally depicted in images created by visitors to the region, the Métis men, women, and children who had their “likenesses” taken were active collaborators in the images’ production. Photography scholars have explored the evolution of photographic conventions like poses, backgrounds, and props as well as the purpose and popularity of photography in the nineteenth century.[45] Commercial photographers, who catered to the general public and whose resources for elaborate studios were limited, composed studio portraits within a set of commonly-employed guidelines for portrait composition. Within these parameters, however, the subjects had considerable latitude in choosing how to represent themselves.[46]

The British-Métis children in studio portraits, or at least the adults who accompanied them to the photo studio, made choices about representation within these standard guidelines. Students or their caregivers chose their clothing and hairstyles in line with contemporary norms of class and gender, and worked with the photographer in selecting poses, groupings, and props. British-Métis students or their caretakers were thereby active participants in crafting the image they presented in the portraits. The extent to which the portraits reflected the will of students themselves likely depended on their age, their personality, and their escort. Without corresponding personal writings that describe the photo sessions, it is not possible to know the extent to which the students themselves influenced how they are represented in the photos. Therefore, the studio portraits cannot be reliably understood to reflect the students’ own perspectives. Given that parents and caretakers arranged for and paid for the students’ studio portraits, however, the photos can be analysed as reflections of British-Métis understandings of race, class, and gender in the British Empire.

Overall, British-Métis families chose to represent themselves in the portraits in line with British norms of middle-class respectability. Their dress, poses, props, and hairstyles are all standardly Victorian. Matt Dyce and James Opp argue that viewers of nineteenth-century photographs brought their “so-called social and cultural codes of the nineteenth century to bear on and explain” what they saw in photographic images.[47] In the case of photos of British-Métis students, studio portraits were primarily circulated to friends and family in Britain, the Canadian colonies, the HBC territories, and farther abroad.

The studio portraits of British-Métis children and youth demonstrate that the conventions that Dyce and Opp refer to were enacted in how people chose to compose their own images as well.[48] None of the British-Métis children in the dozens of studio portraits I have consulted thus far, for example, wear moccasins. Moccasins were the most common footwear for all residents in the HBC territories and were likely part of the students’ everyday wardrobe at home and at colonial schools. They also do not wear Métis sashes, or hide vests or coats. Their clothes are not decorated with the beadwork and embroidery that decorated many of the items sewn by British-Métis women, despite the expertise and artistry that are evident in sewing produced by Métis women like Mary Sinclair Christie and her daughters.[49]

By contrast, and as a way to demonstrate how different Métis people made other choices, in an 1871 studio portrait of Joseph and Charles Riel, Louis Riel’s younger brothers, the boys wear moccasins and sport Métis sashes around their waists (Figure 2). The Riel family were leaders among the Red River Métis, were well-educated, and economically secure. However, unlike British-Métis families who eschewed visual representations of indigeneity in their studio portraits, the Riel family chose to put their Métis heritage on display in the brothers’ portrait. It is unclear what the moccasins and sashes in the photo are meant to represent. Their inclusion could speak to their Métis heritage, or to a moment of resistance and assertion of identity in the wake of the 1869−1870 Red River Resistance.

Figure 2

Joseph and Charles Riel, Winnipeg, 1871

Source: Library and Archives Canada, Portrait Collection, PA-139075

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British-Métis families’ decisions to exclude moccasins and beadwork from their studio photos should not necessarily be construed as an attempt to hide their Indigenous ancestries. This would, in fact, have been virtually impossible. The family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean who received the photos were already privy to students’ Cree, Anishinabeg, and Métis ancestries. Instead, these studio portraits are visual representations of one of the strategies that British-Métis fur-trade families enacted to access class-based status in colonial Rupert’s Land and in the larger British Empire. They purposefully presented themselves in ways that aligned with Victorian norms of class, gender, and respectability to reify their own power and status in a colonial society and abroad. Moreover, the images that the British-Métis children project in the photos align with the goals that parents had for educating their children in British-style schools. The students in the portraits embody British middle-classness. Circulating the photos through fur-trade country and beyond extended the privilege and contributed to reproducing and reifying these families’ elite status.

As objects, studio photos of British-Métis children and youth document mobility that the written record sometimes obscures.[50] The images in the photos, whether taken at Red River, Montréal, or London, are remarkably similar. In their homogeneity, they depict the permeation of mid-nineteenth century middle-classness throughout these sites of empire; it is difficult to determine where the photos were taken based solely on the imagery. Most of the photos, however, bear a maker’s mark that provides the name and place of the photographer’s studio. These maker’s marks are sometimes the only surviving evidence of a student’s transnational travels.

Figure 3

Emma Christie (Mrs. Scott Simpson)

Source: Archives of Manitoba, Photographs, Personalities

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A photograph of a teenage Emma Christie serves as an example (Figure 3). Emma was a cousin of Mary Ann Christie, younger sister of Ann Mary Christie, and a student at the Miss Davis School. In the photo, Emma is standing with her hands resting on the back of a settee. She is dressed in a dark gown, and her long hair is pulled back from her face with a ribbon. She gazes off into the distance. Her dress, hair style, pose, and facial expression all represent the lady-like demeanor that Matilda Davis was known for inculcating in her students.[51] There is no mention in the family correspondence or in her father’s HBC records that Emma or her parents ever travelled to London. And yet, here is this picture, a formal portrait of Emma, with a maker’s mark that reads “A. Mayman, 170 Fleet Street,” referring to London photographer Alfred Mayman. What the picture reveals, and what is not recorded elsewhere in the family or HBC records, is that sometime between 1876 and 1878 Emma Christie crossed the Atlantic to Britain.[52]

In the context of the Christie family’s transnational life histories, Emma’s presence in London is not remarkable. Emma’s brothers attended The Nest Academy, which was in visiting distance to their Scottish grandfather Alexander Christie Senior’s homes in Edinburgh and then Nairn. Her mother’s brother, British-Métis educator, lawyer, and activist Alexander Kennedy Isbister, her Isbister grandmother, and unmarried aunt all lived in London.[53] Most likely, Emma travelled to London with her father after his retirement from the HBC in 1872 or 1873.[54] During their trip, Emma and her father would have stayed with the Isbisters in London, which is likely when this portrait was taken. This photo re-shapes my understanding of Emma Christie’s life history by revealing that she was part of the circuit of British-Métis youth who moved between Rupert’s Land and Britain.

Studio portraits of British-Métis students also functioned as objects of affect.[55] Tracing their routes as objects of affect further illuminate British-Métis trans-Atlantic kin networks. When students were away at school for sometimes years at a time, portraits reinforced affective ties between students and their families at home. Portraits of British-Métis students were part of the circuit of family news, sentiment, and daily life as it was conducted through fur-trade family correspondence. Matilda Davis arranged to have studio portraits taken of her students at least twice, and then sent the photos to her students’ parents.[56] In 1865, Emma Christie’s mother, Caroline Isbister Christie, thanked Miss Davis for sending along photos of Caroline’s eldest daughter, Ann Mary, and nieces Annie and Lydia. Christie commented of the girls that “they all look quite mature in their likenesses if not much flattered.”[57] Similarly, Albert Hodgson wrote to his uncle George Davis from The Nest Academy in 1867 and told his uncle that he and his cousin, Johnnie, were going to Edinburgh to get new clothes and have their “likenesses” taken.[58] Johnnie’s photo was apparently not to the boys’ satisfaction, as Albert wrote to his Aunt Matilda the next year that “we did not like his photograph ourselves because it was not like him.”[59] Photos of students away at school represented physical evidence of remembering. The act of posing for a photo and sending it via post required time and effort that signalled affective bonds.

Students’ photographs were posted to both immediate and extended family members, thereby creating a circuit of sentiment as photos were mailed sequentially from one family member to another. Ann Mary Christie, after having left the Davis school to reside with her father at Portage La Loche, wrote to her brother Duncan and sister Emma at the Davis school in 1870. In her letter to her siblings, she enclosed a photo of their brother Willie, who was at school at The Nest Academy. The photo had been taken in Edinburgh and sent first to Ann Mary, who then forwarded it on to her siblings at Red River. Of Willie she noted that “he has grown a big boy since you saw him last, and he is getting on so well with his studies.”[60] In these ways, the physical photos were part of transnational circuits of family sentiment that connected British-Métis children to extensive networks of kith and kin at various metropolitan and colonial sites.

Photograph Case Study: Lydia Christie in Scotland

Integrating analyses of studio portraits as both object and image with textual archival records provides more nuanced understandings of British-Métis students’ educational experiences and transnational life histories. In 1873, twenty-year-old Lydia Christie sang in a concert in Scotland. Lydia’s account of the concert and a photo of her that was taken during her trip offer a unique opportunity to contextualize the carefully-composed depictions of genteel middle-classness that characterize portraits of British-Métis children and youth (Figure 4). In both her photos and in her assessment of her time in Scotland as written in a letter to Matilda Davis, Lydia Christie provides insight into how her self-identity as a British middle-class woman was translated in a metropolitan setting. Although Lydia was a young woman by the time her portrait was taken in 1873, the photo and letter speak to the goals that fur-trade parents aimed to achieve by educating their British-Métis sons and daughters in respectability.[61]

Figure 4

Lydia Christie, Portobello, Scotland

Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-1010-38

-> Voir la liste des figures

In the photo, Lydia wears her hair in an intricate updo that signals her transition from girlhood to womanhood. She is dressed in a high-necked Victorian gown. Earrings decorate her ears and she wears a ring on her finger.[62] Her back is straight and her chin level as she gazes out the edge of the frame. Her hands are neatly folded on top of a book in her lap, a common prop in studio photographs meant to signal education and sophistication. Lydia is a vision of a Victorian woman. Her photo reflects the norms of British middle-class respectability that she was taught in school, in her church, and through colonial social norms. These practices of respectability were key to her status as a member of the fur-trade in Rupert’s Land.[63]

The photograph itself is undated, but, like the photo of Emma Christie, it bears a maker’s mark. This one shows the photo was taken in Portobello, Scotland. The letter that Lydia wrote to Matilda Davis on the same trip is also undated, but her references to events taking place in London date the letter as having been written in 1873. The letter provides context for the image of respectability that is represented in the portrait and outlines metropolitan challenges to Lydia’s claim on her status as a lady. In her letter, Lydia detailed her performance in a musical recital in Edinburgh. “I felt very nervous at first,” Lydia confessed, “but it soon passed away. My dress was all white with lavender sash and trimmings and I wore flowers of the same colour in my hair. Papa and Mama where [sic] there in full dress.”[64] In participating in the concert, Lydia Christie was literally performing the British middle-class identity she had learned at the Matilda Davis school.

The care and attention that Lydia Christie devoted to her choice of attire and appearance may reflect insecurity on Lydia’s part about her public performance in general, or as a colonial woman in a metropolitan setting in particular. Or she may have been excited to debut a new dress. In either case, Lydia’s attention to image in her performance and in her letter to Miss Davis align with the depictions of social class and respectability that are central to her studio portrait. The extent to which the Scots accepted Christie’s identification as a middle-class woman, however, is unclear. Lydia wrote to Davis that, “I do not like Scotland as well as I did Canada. In fact perhaps I should not say so as I have been here so short a time but the Canadian people are all much nicer…I think as a rule the Scotch people are very rude they will beat any people in the world for staring.”[65] Lydia’s assessment that the Scottish were “rude” could have been an observation of cultural differences between Canadians and Scots, although Lydia certainly came into contact with enough Scottish HBC employees in fur-trade country to be familiar with Scottish traits. Another possibility is that something about Lydia’s appearance, speech, or demeanor marked her as different and drew unwanted attention from metropolitan Scots. Her upbringing as a trans-imperial British-Métis lady was not enough to allow her to blend seamlessly into Scottish society. Her later marriage to HBC Chief Factor Donald McTavish, however, secured her union with a member of the emerging settler-colonial elite in western Canada and positioned her, like her mother before her, as the “lady” of the Fort.[66]

Taken together, Lydia’s photo and her letter provide a case study of how British-Métis fur-trade students translated the messages about social class, gender norms, and respectability that were part of their schooling experience. Studio portraits like Lydia’s also provide evidence of British-Métis students’ transnational travels and are physical representations of sentiment that helped to maintain affective family relationships. When read as texts, the photos provide insight into how these families chose to represent their identities in British colonial and metropolitan contexts. They also provide a visual depiction of the gender- and class-based British middle-class “respectability” that a British-style education was supposed teach British-Métis children and youth. As objects, the photos speak to both the students’ transnational life histories and the work that families did to maintain affective bonds during long separations.

Gravestones and Burial Sites

Depictions of British-Métis middle-classness as shown in students’ studio portraits reflect parents’ best-case scenario for sending their children away to school. Gravestones and burials in Britain represent another aspect of the educational experience. Like photos, Métis burial sites in Britain demonstrate that mobility and migration were common aspects of British-Métis educational experiences.[67] British-Métis gravestones and burial sites are both objects and physical spaces that represent Indigenous lives in the metropole and highlight the extensive trans-Atlantic kin ties that facilitated British-Métis students’ travels to and education in England, mainland Scotland, and the Orkneys. They signal the persistent and sometimes multi-generational travels of Métis fur-trade students to Britain. Gravestones and burial sites also, however, represent the worst possible outcome of a British-style education for the children and their families: disease and death far away from home.

The Davis family burial site in London provides one such example of place and multi-generational educational mobility. When Matilda Davis’ nephew, Albert Hodgson, visited his London kin during his holidays from his Walthamstow school in 1863, his English cousin Matilda Poole took Albert to visit the grave of Matilda Davis’ sister and Albert’s aunt, Elizabeth Davis.[68] Elizabeth, who had lived most of her childhood and all of her adulthood in England, died of a long-term illness at her English aunt’s London home in 1853.[69] Poole wrote to Matilda Davis of the visit: “I took Abbie through the cimetary [sic] and shewed [sic] him his dear Aunt Elizabeth’s grave & made him read what was engraved on the stone, Aunt Rossers also Miss Banns I shewed him, the latter is situated immediately at the head of our dear Elizabeth’s. It made me very sad to behold the resting place of those whom we once loved so dearly, but our loss is their gain.”[70] Elizabeth’s grave, alongside that of Albert’s great-aunt and cousin and near to his English relatives’ home, was a physical representation of the transnational kin ties that linked the London Davis family to their Métis relatives in England and Rupert’s Land. Moreover, Albert’s presence at the grave marked a second generation of educational travels for British-Métis Davis children to London. Unfortunately, Albert does not address the visit in his surviving letters from England, so we cannot know what it meant for him to stand in a place that so clearly demonstrated his family’s connection to London through the burial of their dead and his dead.

Death also marked British-Métis children’s educational histories in other ways. The prospect of a child falling ill while far from home loomed over fur-trade students’ schooling. For some fur-trade families, the “tragedy of children sent to distant schools, pining away and dying” became their reality when a child died at school.[71] In the absence of parents, however, fur-trade family networks were engaged to support ill and dying students. The Ballenden children provide an example of how kin networks were enacted to care for British-Métis children in Britain. Like many fur-trade families, John Ballenden and his British-Métis wife Sarah McLeod Ballenden turned to their kin in Scotland to care for children who were sent away to school.[72] Daughters Annie and Eliza and sons John Jr., Duncan, and Alexander were put under the guardianship of their widowed aunt, Elizabeth (Eliza) Ballenden Bannatyne, in order to attend school in Scotland.[73] The Ballenden children’s lives were unfortunately marred by death and discord.[74] Their parent’s marriage was rocked by the Foss-Pelly affair at Red River in 1849−1850, in which their mother was accused of adultery. The resulting scandal split Red River along class and racial lines, threatened John Ballenden’s career, and likely contributed to both Sarah’s and John’s subsequent ill health. The family relocated to Scotland in 1853, and Sarah and John died soon thereafter.[75]

In addition to their parents’ personal turmoil and early deaths, three of the Ballenden children also died abroad. In 1850, five-year-old Duncan Ballenden travelled with his father to Scotland to join his brothers and sisters in Edinburgh.[76] Soon after his father’s departure for North America the next year, six-year-old Duncan sickened and died at his aunt’s home. John Jr. died in New Zealand from wounds received in the Maori Wars, and brother Alexander drowned in the Tweed River as a teenager while trying to rescue a friend in distress.[77] Throughout these challenges, the Ballenden siblings’ Aunt Eliza remained a constant. She cared for the children before their parents’ deaths, nursed Duncan in his dying days, and became the legal guardian of the children after John Ballenden’s death in 1856. In 1861, a married Annie Ballenden McMurray, her infant son William McMurray Jr., and siblings Alexander, Frances, and William Ballenden all lived with their aunt.[78]

Figure 5

Ballenden Family Memorial Stone, Edinburgh[79]

Source: Krista Barclay

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The Ballenden family gravestone in New Calton Burial Ground in Edinburgh was erected by John Ballenden in 1853 (Figure 5). The stone’s text bears witness to the family’s trans-Atlantic life histories and the death and trauma that marked their journeys.[80] The gravestone also speaks to silences and erasures in the archival record of these transnational kin networks. The stone memorializes the deaths of John Ballenden’s father, mother, brothers, sister, niece, wife, and children. The stone is silent, however, about his father’s extensive Métis family in Rupert’s Land, where the elder Ballenden’s two children with Jane Favel, William and Harriet Ballenden, both lived to adulthood, married, and had large families of their own. None of the siblings returned to North America permanently despite their extensive kin ties to the fur trade on both their father’s and mother’s sides of the family.[81] Perhaps the inscription on the gravestone recording Ballenden’s own death and noting that he erected the stone “in memory of so many broken ties of kindred and affection” provides insight as to why the surviving siblings chose to stay in Scotland. At the very least, the stone and inscription signal both the complexity and the silences in negotiating transnational fur-trade family relationships.

Gravestone Case Study: Roderick McKenzie in Scotland

The life and death of Roderick McKenzie Jr. offers a second example of how integrating archival documents and objects provides a better understanding of British-Métis students’ life histories. Like the histories of the other British-Métis children and youth examined here, Roderick’s educational history challenges assumptions about Indigenous children’s place in the British Empire and underscores the trans-Atlantic kin ties that bridged the supposed divide between the colonies and the metropole. His gravestone, like that of the Ballendens, demonstrates how indigeneity was written out of the metropolitan historical record while his burial place stands as evidence to the trans-Atlantic kin networks that enfolded him in both life and in death.

In 1865, Roderick McKenzie Jr. and his brother Kenneth left their home at Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River to travel to Scotland. The boys’ father, HBC Chief Trader Roderick McKenzie, their mother Jane, and two younger siblings accompanied Roderick Jr. and Kenneth as far as Sutton in Canada West. The family stayed at Ainslea Hill, the home of retired Chief Factor James Anderson and his wife, Margaret McKenzie Anderson. Roderick and Kenneth’s mother, Jane McKenzie McKenzie, and the two younger children stayed at Ainslea Hill with Jane’s sister, Margaret.[82] The two older boys travelled on to Scotland with their father.[83]

On reaching Scotland, the McKenzies stayed in Ullapool, where Kenneth and Roderick were put in the care of their Scottish aunt, Catherine McKenzie Maclean.[84] Mrs. Maclean escorted the boys to The Nest Academy several weeks later for the beginning of the school year.[85] She wrote regularly to the boys when they were at school, and the brothers went to Ullapool to visit their Scottish relatives during their holidays.[86] Roderick became quite close with his Scottish cousins.[87]As in the Ballenden family, Roderick McKenzie Jr.’s Scottish family was tasked with overseeing the well-being of the two brothers. This responsibility continued when fifteen-year-old Roderick suddenly fell ill while at school and died. A series of letters from his caretakers at the school, and from Roderick himself, document his decline and unexpected death. When Roderick wrote to his mother in February 1870, he reported that he had not been outside for the past three days because he had a cold and the doctor was making him stay inside.[88] Roderick’s “cold” developed into a much more serious illness. One month later, Marion Millar, the woman in charge of domestic affairs at The Nest Academy, informed Roderick’s parents that Roderick’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Millar had already alerted Roderick’s Scottish kin at Ullapool about his condition, and she noted that “all the family there seem much grieved to hear of his illness.”[89]

In her next letter, dated only eleven days later, Millar wrote to the McKenzies that Aunt Catherine had arrived from Ullapool and served as Roderick’s constant nurse. Unfortunately, Roderick was “fast sinking,” coughing blood and growing weaker.[90] It is clear in the letter that Roderick’s caretakers believed that his death was imminent. Just a week later, Roderick McKenzie Jr. passed away. Although Roderick’s death was undoubtedly a terrible blow to his parents, the comfort he received from his aunt and teachers in his dying days may have provided some solace to his family. At home in Rupert’s Land, Roderick Jr’s death was mourned by his parents, siblings, and extended kin. His letters home to his parents were cherished and saved in the family archive, unlike those from his sister who was at school in Montréal or his brother Kenneth at The Nest.

Roderick’s parents requested that his remains be sent to his relatives in Ullapool and buried alongside his kin in the parish cemetery.[91] Roderick Sr. and Jane wrote the text for their son’s gravestone and sent it to Ullapool. A copy that they kept reads:

Here lie

The remains of

Roderick John

The beloved and

Affectionate Son of

Roderick & Jane McKenzie

Who departed this life

On the 21st March


Aged 15 Years

Even so Father for so it

Seemed good in thy


The inscription that Roderick’s parents dictated differs slightly from the text on his gravestone in the Old Mill Cemetery in Ullapool:

Here lies the remains of

Roderick John

The beloved and affectionate son

Of Roderick and Jane McKenzie

Who fell asleep in Jesus

The 20th March 1870

Aged 15 years

“Even so Father it seemed good”[93]

It is unclear why the two inscriptions are different. What is notable, however, is that Roderick’s birthplace and mother’s maiden name are excluded from the gravestone and from the original inscription that was dictated by his parents. Roderick’s time in Scotland is not captured in the Scottish census, and the only surviving records that I have located from The Nest Academy are held by the Archives of Manitoba. Roderick’s headstone, and perhaps a death record, are therefore the only evidence that inscribes his time in Scotland in the metropolitan historical record. Neither of these sources includes his birthplace or acknowledges his Métis heritage, thereby erasing his indigeneity, colonial roots, and transnational life story from Britain’s history.

The deaths of British-Métis students were the realization for some parents of the ultimate cost of seeking a British-style boarding school education for their children. At the same time, however, illness and impending death engaged extended fur-trade family networks in support of dying students. Although the British-Métis headstones examined here obscure the children’s and families’ Indigenous roots, the trans-Atlantic kin networks that united Indigenous and non-Indigenous kin inscribed these students’ histories on Britain in other ways. The location of Roderick’s grave in his Scottish family’s parish cemetery, for example, is evidence of the transnational kin ties that supported him in both life and death even if his birth place is excluded from the text on the stone. Moreover, Roderick’s burial site, like that of Elizabeth Davis and the Ballenden children, is a Métis claim on physical space in Britain. The obliteration of the students’ Indigeneity from metropolitan memory does not erase their travels to and presence in Britain as Métis people. Although evidence of the students’ Indigeneity may be obscured in the written record recorded on the gravestones, the burial sites themselves challenge this erasure and stand as evidence of the transnational travels of elite British-Métis children and youth, their lasting impact on the metropole though the kin ties that they created and reified, and the physical spaces that memorialize the students’ short lives.


British-Métis fur-trade families occupied both a privileged and a tenuous place in the hierarchy of race, gender, and class that shaped metropolitan understandings of Indigenous colonial peoples and colonial societies in places like the HBC territories. The intersection of the students’ Indigenous and British family ancestries, their Protestant religion, the socio-economic privilege afforded to them through their integration into the HBC officer class, and their adoption of British middle-class social and gender norms afforded them positions of power and privilege in the HBC territories. Their elite status represents a specific moment in mid-nineteenth-century colonial Canada whereby the convergence of the HBC monopoly, Métis power in the fur trade, and British imperial perspectives on class and race created space for British-Métis families to hold significant economic and social status in the HBC territories. Through their kin ties to Britain, this elite status was not just specific to colonial Canada but translated to British middle-classness in the metropole as well.

Examining British-Métis students’ educational travels highlights the extent to which these British-Métis children and families were mobile in the British Empire. This mobility and their consistent and sustained presence in Britain through the nineteenth century directly challenged imperial understandings of the place and role of Indigenous peoples in the British Empire. Moreover, in a historiography that has tended to focus on First Nations and Métis mothers and white European fathers, centering British-Métis children lends another perspective to understanding fur-trade, Métis, and Canadian histories. Studio portraits of British-Métis children and youth, their gravestones, and their burial sites provide more nuanced perspectives on these students’ time spent in Britain, their place in extensive trans-Atlantic kin networks, and on the complexities of living their lives as both Métis and elite persons in the British Empire.