The Victorian Family in Canada

Monday, January 14, 2013

A very interesting paper.
The records of both these families are an excellent look into the world of Victorian Canada.
Keep your sightglass full, your firebox trimmed and your water iced.
The Victorian Family in Canada in Historical Perspective: The Ross Family of Red River and the Jarvis Family of Prince Edward Island

by J. M. Bumsted and Wendy Owen
University of Manitoba
Manitoba History, Number 13, Spring 1987


While a good deal has been written in recent years about the family in nineteenth-century Britain and the United States, the study of the family as an institution is in its infancy in Canada. How were families organized, what were their preoccupations and ambitions, how did their households function? Unlike Britain and the United States, Canada had precious few self-conscious literary families in the Victorian era, and so one of the most common sources for study of the individual family—private papers assiduously collected by literary scholars—simply has not existed. At the same time, substantial bodies of personal and intimate papers of articulate Canadian families, carrying sufficient detail to enable some sort of reconstruction, do survive. Two such sets of family papers are those of the Jarvis Family of Prince Edward Island and the Ross family of Red River. The Jarvis Papers are in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, N.B., and the Ross Papers are in the Public Archives of Manitoba. A careful reading of these geographically widely-scattered documents suggests the danger of approaching them as merely local records.

Some extraordinary parallels exist between the two sets of papers and the two families, although they were separated by nearly 3,500 kilometers in two relatively isolated colonies in British North America. In terms of the study of the nineteenth-century family, what is most striking about the parallels is how well they fit into the larger patterns of recent secondary literature on the Victorian family. The Jarvises and the Rosses were not simply unique colonial families, but very much part of a transatlantic culture. Given the facts that mama Ross was an Indian and the children “half-breeds,” the similarities between the Ross and the Jarvis families suggest that we must be careful not to make too much either of colonial location or of racial and cultural differences.

There was a middle-class culture in the nineteenth century which transcended many theoretically exceptionalist factors. One hesitates to limit the culture to the label “Victorian,” since it was equally powerful in the United States and much of Europe. Those researching the family in nineteenth-century Canada ought not, we would suggest, assume that their Canadian subjects existed in splendid isolation from general cultural developments in the western world and thus produced localized and unique patterns of behaviour. Colonial societies less often initiated than imitated, and while identifying deviations from larger patterns is crucial, one must begin with the larger patterns.

Before turning to our analysis, it might be well to introduce the two families briefly. Edward Jarvis was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1789, the son of Munson Jarvis, a leading Connecticut Loyalist. Educated at King’s College, Windsor, he was admitted to the New Brunswick bar in 1812 and subsequently to the bar at Inner Temple, London. He served in Malta before his appointment as Chief Justice of Prince Edward Island in 1828. In 1817 Edward married Anna Maria Boyd, the daughter of another influential Saint John family active in mercantile affairs; the Jarvis and Boyd families would intermarry frequently over the succeeding years. The couple had eight children, three of whom died in infancy and one in childhood. Those surviving to adulthood were Mary, Munson, Henry, and Amelia. Their mother—Maria, as she was known—died in 1841, and Jarvis remarried in 1843 to Elizabeth Gray of Charlottetown. This union produced three children, one of whom died in infancy. Elizabeth herself died in childbirth in 1847, and Edward a few years later in 1852. The correspondence to be discussed, mainly between members of a close-knit family writing between the Island and mainland New Brunswick, covers the period from 1828 to 1852.

Alexander Ross was born in Nairnshire, Scotland, in 1783. He emigrated to Canada as a schoolmaster, but became involved in the fur trade, joining John Jacob Astor’s Astoria expedition in 1811. Ross subsequently served in the Pacific coast fur trade until his retirement to Red River in 1825. While in Oregon he had married Sarah, the daughter of an Indian chief (an Indian princess, went the family tradition) according to the “custom of the country,” and formally remarried her in Red River in 1828. The couple had at least thirteen children, of whom the important ones for our purposes are William, Henrietta, James, and Jemima. In Red River Ross became a prominent government official—sheriff, magistrate and member of the council of Assiniboia—as well as titular head of the Scots Presbyterian community. In his later years he authored three books describing his experiences in the fur trade and chronicling the development of Red River, a trio of works woefully neglected by Canadian literary scholars and students of Canadian historiography. The Ross family correspondence upon which we will concentrate in this study covers a shorter period of time than the Jarvis set, since only during the years 1852-1856, when young Jemmy Ross was studying at Knox College in Toronto, did the family correspond intimately and regularly.

Edward Jarvis and Alexander Ross were contemporaries, and both were important political and social figures in their respective communities. Their residential accommodation reflected their positions. Edward began planning his house in 1833, when he bought a farm on the outskirts of Charlottetown for 500 pounds. As he intended the house to be a family seat for “generations yet to come,” his plans called for the use of brick, an uncommon Island building material. Most of the material was imported from England, and the construction was not completed until 1835 at enormous expense—more than “one hundred per cent upon the original estimates and contracts.” Furnishing of “Mount Edward” was finished in 1836, and early in 1836 the Jarvises held a housewarming ball for 81 persons. We know considerably less about “Colony Gardens,” the Ross residence in the Point Douglas area of what is now Winnipeg, but it was a large and substantial frame house, a landmark in its day. On the other hand, the later (1854) construction efforts of William Ross are discussed in the correspondence. William himself enthuses, “without boasting it is the best, the handsomest and most comfortable house on the banks of the Riviere Rouge,” befitting, added his father, a “son who had stepped into the shoes of his father.” The William Ross house still survives in Winnipeg, a museum open to the public as the oldest house yet in the city.

End Excerpt


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