Class Acts

Influential Women of the South Okanagan



Susan Allison

Jeannette Armstrong

Brenda Baptiste

Helen Church

Virginia Cook

Mourning Dove

Dorothy Fraser

Katie Lacey

Shirley Rowbotham

Ruth Schiller

Marguerite Scott

Alison Smith

Rosemarie Stodola



We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Province of British Columbia through the Ministry of Healthy Living and Sport, and the assistance of the British Columbia Museums Association.


Susan Allison:  "Mother of the Similkameen"

Susan, 1860

by Janet MacArthur, Ph.D.


Susan Moir Allison's portrait still graces a wall mural in downtown Princeton, B.C., 140 years after she first arrived in the Southern Interior as a young bride.  Still known in that area as the "Mother of the Similkameen," she lived in both Princeton and the Okanagan with her husband, John Fall Allison, long before there was much Euro-Canadian settlement.  This provided her with a unique transformational experience which she recounted frequently in written form until her death in 1937.


Susan was born in Ceylon in 1845 to Louisa and Stratton Moir, an employee of the British colonial service.  After her husband's death in 1849, Louisa and her three children – Stratton, Jane and Susan – left Ceylon to live with relatives in England where Louisa later remarried in 1860.  Soon after, mother, daughters, and new stepfather Thomas Glennie travelled via the Panama Canal to Fort Hope in the new colony of British Columbia where Glennie hoped to live well as a landowner. 


Young and single white women were few, so most married soon after their arrival in the sparsely settled area of the Lower Mainland.  Jane Moir married Edgar Dewdney of the Royal Engineers in March 1864 and moved from Fort Hope to New Westminster, the colony's capital.  Dewdney was eventually appointed lieutenant-governor of what was then known as the Northwest Territories and later of the province of British Columbia.


A few months after Jane's wedding, Thomas Glennie, who had revealed himself to be a wastrel, deserted his wife and remaining step-daughter.  Nearly destitute, Louisa and Susan left Fort Hope to stay with Jane in the capital city.  To supplement their income, Susan worked as a governess and teacher first in Victoria and then in New Westminster.  During this time, she met John Fall Allison (1825-1897), originally from Leeds, England.  


Allison's family had immigrated to New York State when he was a child.  When Allison came of age, he set out for a prospecting career in California.  He arrived in British Columbia during the Fraser River Gold Rush in 1858.  Allison received many government contracts to open and improve trails and roads into the Southern Interior, and in 1861 he pre-empted land in the Princeton area where he farmed and raised cattle.


Allison Cabin in Westbank, ca. 1960

- courtesy of Kelowna Museum Archives

John and Susan married in 1868, moving to Princeton where she spent much of her life until her retirement to Vancouver in the 1920s.  The Allisons also lived on the west side of Okanagan Lake in present-day Westbank from 1873-1880. 


While in the Southern Interior, Susan gave birth to and raised fourteen children with the help of indigenous mid-wives and servants.  For a white woman of the time, she led an unusual life. 


Living in close proximity to the Similkameen and Okanagan people, she learned much about their lifeways and befriended many.  In fact, she notes in her recollections that "they told me more than they told most white people" (Ormsby 41).  Her interest in indigenous people of the Interior is reflected in a large body of writing, some of which was published during her lifetime and some of which is available in archives and among descendants. 


Rather than the typical settler recollections of homesickness, radical displacement, and a sense of exile, her memoirs for the decades of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s in the Southern Interior celebrate what Susan called "my camping days and the wild, free life I ever loved till age and infirmity put an end to it" (Ormsby 21).  These memoirs or "recollections" appeared in installments in the Vancouver Sunday Province newspaper in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and appeared in 1976 as a book edited by the well-known B.C. historian, Margaret Ormsby. 


Ormsby's book, still in print, was published as A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia:  The Recollections of Susan Allison.  It remains an important contribution to B.C. settlement history.  


Ormsby's title captures the romance often associated with the genteel pioneer woman from the British middle class in B.C. history – riding side-saddle over precarious mountain passes into isolated ranch country or coping with gentility and grace in crude coastal outposts.  Recent interrogations of the binary oppositions (noble/base, civil/savage) underwriting the European class system and imposed upon indigenous and non-British ethnic groups in colonial British Columbia, however, call attention to ethnic and racial privileging that has left a darker legacy.  


But Susan Allison's writing does not endorse this kind of romanticized image; it is a departure from the conventional ethnocentrism among B.C. settlers and provides further evidence of her transformational and transculturational experience in the Southern Interior.  


In addition to her recollections, Susan's writing includes a long narrative poem entitled In-Cow-Mas-Ket (published under the pseudonym Stratton Moir in 1900), scholarly articles on the Similkameen people published in British journals, a collection of ten stories based on aboriginal myth and other pieces published by the Okanagan Historical Society, numerous letters, and a number of private papers with accounts of people and events. 


This writing is an invaluable resource not only for understanding life during the settlement era of the Southern Interior of British Columbia, but also for the ways in which it challenges some mainstream assumptions about the role and attitudes of European women settlers.   


Ormsby, Margaret A., A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia:  The Recollections of Susan Allison.  Vancouver, BC:  UBC Press, 1976.