HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The tragic story of Jennie Stephenson

The gold rush wasn’t an easy life for women

Life was difficult for women in the gold rush towns, and especially hard for women from urban areas who accompanied their husbands to the frontier.

They often faced a life of toil, loneliness and isolation. Such was the case for Jennie Stephenson, the wife of William Stephenson, the Government Agent in Quesnel Forks from 1877 to 1908.

William, a native of St. John, NB., first came to the Cariboo in 1863. He did quite well as a miner and he stayed on in the Barkerville area even after the main gold rush petered out. In 1870 he returned to St. John to marry Sarah Jane (Jennie) Gillespie.

They spent that winter in the Maritimes, then travelled west across the U.S. by railway, arriving in San Francisco in April, 1871.

From there, they made the long and arduous journey by steamer, riverboat and stagecoach to Barkerville.

One can only imagine the culture shock which faced Jennie, coming from a sheltered life in a century-old seaport community to a rough and demanding life in a wild Interior frontier village. The couple settled down in a small house in town and William continued to work in the mines, however, the following year, he was injured twice in mining accidents, and was unable to continue working at the diggings.

Over the next few years, he took on several administrative postings, including the rather unpopular one as tax collector for the Barkerville area.

Then, in 1877, William applied for, and was appointed, Government Agent for the Cariboo Region, based at Quesnel Forks.

Jennie was pregnant with their first child when they moved there in May of 1877. At that time, Quesnel Forks town had a population of 37 white males, 209 Chinese males, nine Chinese women, four Chinese children and up to 10 itinerant white prostitutes.

Jennie was the only ‘proper’ white woman in the area.

William took his job as Government Agent very seriously. Besides representing the government in Victoria, he continued as tax collector, assisted the region’s gold commissioner, acted as clerk of the court during trials, supervised road building and maintenance, acted as Justice of the Peace and sometimes as police constable, and was a sort of social worker dealing with the sick, the insane and the destitute.

He was often away from home for long periods of time.

In 1880, a major fire broke out in Quesnel Forks.

Virtually the whole town was destroyed. Only the Stephenson house was saved, mainly because of filled water barrels which were kept on the roof.

A Chinese neighbour used them to put out spot fires as they broke out. William was out of town on that day, and Jennie was home alone with her first son, Allen, and a new baby, Gillespie.

This frightening fire really had a major impact on Jennie’s mental health, and she began drinking quite heavily.

Another fire occurred at the end of march in 1883. Once again the Stephenson house was saved, but Jennie insisted on moving.

A new, larger house was built, just next to the bridge into town.

It was completed in 1886, and became known by the locals as “Government House.”

In 1887, yet another fire tore through the town.

Stephenson wrote a letter to his friend, John Bowron, the Gold Commissioner in Barkerville, which reads in part: “The nearest house to Government House was burned. It was only about 25 feet from our woodshed. How we escaped, I don’t yet know. As usual, I was away. Had left about 10 minutes when the fire broke out. Mrs. Stephenson was alone. She says the [Chinese men] helped her first rate. Between her and them, they tore away the fencing and everything they could to keep the fire away from our house. In fact, they gave her such good help that the house was saved, but Mrs. S is now quite ill after all the excitement and work.”

By 1896, Jennie’s mental health had begun to show the effects of prolonged isolation.

Now in her early 50s, she suffered from chronic alcoholism, and she was addicted to chlorodyne, a drug composed of morphine, chloral hydrate and cannabis.

William and his two sons cared for her as much as they could, but Jennie became increasingly violent and suicidal. Her condition continued to worsen, and by 1903 she was in dire straits, suffering delusions of persecution and threatening to kill herself.

She was often violent towards her husband, and after she set their house on fire, he reluctantly applied to have her committed to the provincial insane asylum in New Westminster.

Within a month, Jennie had been weaned off chlorodyne, she was dealing with her alcohol dependency, she was no longer violent and her mental condition had improved considerable.

She began to write long letters to her husband and to her younger son, Gillespie, begging to come home.

In April, 1904, she was released as an outpatient under the supervision of a doctor, and a suitable place was found for her to live close to the hospital.

Jennie was still not happy.

She thought she was cured, and she began writing letters to her husband, the Superintendent of Hospitals, and even to the Attorney General, accusing William of keeping her in care and in New Westminster against her will.

As a result of these letters, an investigation was held into her case.

The Medical Superintendent for B.C. reported: “I might say that Mrs. Stephenson is recorded on the books as a case of alcoholic insanity with considerable evidence of dementia. When first admitted, she had delusions of great persecution, the imaginary source being her husband and her own children. I would advise the cancellation of her probation and her readmission to the asylum unless she becomes more contented in her present quarter.”

That summer, July, 1904, a compromise of sorts was reached: Jennie was formally discharged from care and went to live in Vancouver with friends of the family. Over the next five years, she spent the winters in Vancouver and the warmer months in Quesnel Forks.

Then, in October of 1909, tragedy struck again.

Her youngest son, Gillespie, who had always been her favourite, died in Quesnel Forks of meningitis. Jennie went into a major depression from which she never really recovered.

She continued to go through the motions of normal life, but she never was the same. In March of 1912, another fire burned the Stephenson home in Quesnel Forks to the ground. Only a few pieces of furniture were saved.

When Jennie arrived from the coast, she found that she and William were forced to move into a small, log cabin and to start all over again.

Jennie just lost the will to live, and she died on May 29, 1912. She was 66 years old.

She was buried next to her son, Gillespie, in the family plot in the Quesnel Forks Cemetery.

Her husband, William, lived for another four years. He died at age 83 in January of 1916.

Jennie Stephenson’s troubled life illustrates just how many hardships a wife had to face in the gold rush towns.

Barry Sale is a retired teacher and historian from the Cariboo.

Information from the book Gold and Grand Dreams by Marie Elliott, published in 2000, was used to write this column.


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Quesnel Forks is a must-see historical site in the Likely area. (Angie Mindus photos)

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