I first stumbled across rumours of a woman accompanying Wolseley’s expedition to Red River in an appendix to George Stanley’s 1989, Toil and Trouble. There, Stanley points to Chief engineer Simon Dawson’s observation that was made in his official report on the Expedition: “I may draw attention to the fact that…a gentleman who had his wife with him, passed over all the rapids, portages and whirlpools of the Winnipeg without its occurring to their occupants that they were doing anything extraordinary.”
As Stanley explains, for decades, many assumed the woman was British painter Frances Ann Hopkins. After all, she’d travelled extensively through Rupert’s Land in the 1860s and her depiction of the expedition’s portage around Kakabeka Falls is famous. In 1971, Alice Johnson put the Hopkins rumor to rest. Using personal diary entries, Johnson showed Hopkins was, in fact, in Britain with her family by mid-July 1870. Johnson identified the woman who accompanied Wolseley and his expedition as Kate Ranoe, wife of Globe reporter Molyneux St. John. Johnson said it was Ranoe who “pluckily accompanied her husband throughout the expedition.” Referring to an 1871 article in the Canadian Illustrated News, Johnson also argued Ranoe’s adventure was the inspiration for William Armstrong’s famous painting, Mr. and Mrs. St. John Running the Rapids, Sturgeon River.
It’s fair to say that the idea of a woman accompanying 1,500 soldiers and voyageurs to put down Louis Riel’s Red River Rebellion captivated me as it had others like Stanley and Johnson over the years. To get to the bottom of the story, I read and re-read all the first-hand accounts of the Expedition to Red River, including Wolseley’s Narrative. Nothing. Then I went back and read Molyneux St. John’s and Robert Cunningham’s 89 stories on the expedition and scoured them for clues. And sure enough – there they were, deep in the creases and well below the folds. “My wife” ... “a lady who was accompanying her husband on this journey” ... “the Englishwoman.” She’s alive! The story of Cunningham, St. John, and Ranoe and their journey accompanying Wolseley’s expedition fairly tumbled onto the page after that.
As I worked on the book, what continued to surprise me was the sensitivity Cunningham, St. John, and Ranoe showed when writing about the Indigenous peoples they encountered. And I certainly didn’t expect to learn that these three immigrants – especially Cunningham – would become such strong advocates for conciliation in their post-expedition lives. I hope their stories highlight just how long we’ve been working on conciliation in this country – and just how far we have to go.