#18 Susan Allison
November 19th, 2015
LOCATION: “Sunnyside,” the original log cabin from Susan Allison’s homestead, restored by the Stewart family of Quails’ Gate Winery, 3303 Boucherie Road, West Kelowna. Built in 1873, Allison House is the oldest home site in the West Kelowna area, located on the Quails’ Gate property.
One of the few pioneering accounts by a woman in British Columbia during the mid-19th century was written by Susan Allison who lived on the west side of Okanagan Lake, 30 miles north of Penticton, at “Sunnyside,” and also at Princeton, B.C. with her rancher husband John Fall Allison, who located Allison Pass, now part of the Hope-Princeton Highway. She gave birth to 14 children, all of whom survived into adulthood, and she befriended many local aboriginal women, who, she wrote, “told me more than they told most white people.”
George Woodcock once favourably described her memoir as the far western equivalent of Roughing It in the Bush, “though Susan Allison had greater qualities of philosophic endurance than Susanna Moodie and also a greater empathy not only with the wild land but also with the strange and sometimes alarming people she encountered.”
John Allison was born in Leeds, England in 1849, the son of a surgeon. He came to the U.S. with his parents in 1837 and he participated in the California gold rush as a boy in 1949. He came to B.C. in 1858 with the gold rush. Governor Douglas urged Allison to prospect for gold in the Similkameen and Tulameen areas in 1860. In September of the same year Allison and others pre-empted land which later became the townsite of Princeton, but they failed to complete their titles. Allison staked gold, copper and coal claims and established the first cattle ranch. His first wife was Nora Yakumtikum, a First Nations woman who bore four children and also ran a pack train for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Allison later accumulated more land for farming and ranching, marrying Susan Louisa Moir in 1868. Their house at Allison Flats, east of Princeton, was the first “white” house in the Similkameen valley.
Susan Allison was born as Susan Louisa Moir in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1845 where her father owned a tea plantation. Upon her father’s premature death, she and two other children accompanied their mother to England where her mother remarried to a Scotsman, who somewhat foolishly brought them to Fort Hope on the Fraser River when Susan was 14.
George Woodcock, in a review for B.C. BookWorld, further described her early days in B.C. “As Susan Moir, Susan Allison arrived at Fort Hope on the Fraser River with her mother and her spendthrift stepfather, Thomas Glennie, who was attracted by the thought of becoming a country squire in the rich land of the goldfields. Fortune did not flow as easily as Glennie had expected, and in 1864 he vanished, leaving his wife and children to make do as best they could with the help of genteel acquaintances in Victoria and the Fraser Valley.”
It’s not known if Susan Moir knew John Allison already had a First Nations wife and three children when she married him; but given her straightened circumstances, perhaps that was less important to her than escaping from poverty. From 1873 to 1881 they lived on the west bank of Okanagan Lake, where she gave birth to the first “white” children born in the area, until their ranch lost 1000 head of cattle in the winter of 1880-81. During this period their settlement was named Sunnyside, a name that disappeared after their departure. It resurfaced in a 1931 newspaper in The Province newspaper about Okanagan pioneers. Gradually the name resurfaced after the publication of Margaret Ormsby’s book about Susan Allison.
The community to which the Allisons went after Sunnyside was originally called Vermilion Forks, named for the red, yellow and orange ochre that Indians used for face painting, but it was also widely known as Allison’s or Allison Flats. The name change to Princeton was made in 1860 in honour Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, but he never visited the town.
When her husband died in 1897, Susan Allison tried running the family ranch, with some success. George Woodcock writes: “She was deeply interested in the Indian peoples of the region, and deeply concerned as she watched their decline during her decades in these valleys whose late nineteenth century remoteness is hard to envisage now that they are traversed by main highways. The fact that she was often involved in life at its most elemental — for fire and flood several times left her homeless in a virtual wilderness — did not diminish Susan Allison’s interest in the artistic accomplishments she had learnt in her girlhood, and after [her husband] Allison died in 1897 she began to turn to writing, publishing a long poem on the Similkameen Indians and also a paper on them which was published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. But most of her work went into the Recollections… They are the only major account by a woman of pioneering life in British Columbia during the mid-nineteenth century.”
Susan Allison moved to the coast in 1928. She died in Vancouver in 1937 at age 92.
Susan Allison’s recollections were published under the title of A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison (UBC Press, 1976), edited by Margaret Ormsby.
Later, Diane Sterne published a collection of selected works by Susan Louisa Allison (née Moir), dubbed Mother of the Similkameen, called In Her Words. Sterne’s book was prepared in celebration of Princeton, B.C.’s 150th birthday. Her poetry and stories (some of which were written under the pen name of Stratton Moir) recount Indian legends told to her in the 1800’s when she ventured into the British Columbia interior with her new husband, John Fall Allison. With the assistance of members of her family and the Princeton Museum, this collection of lost writings has been preserved. Included are: “In-Cow-Mas-Ket” and “Quin-Is-Coe”.
Sixty years after its radio debut, a “true-life Canadian opera’ inspired by Susan Allison’s life, THE LAKE / N-HA-A-ITK, by Barbara Pentland and Dorothy Livesay, was accorded its world premiere on stage in 2014 by Astrolabe Musik Theatre and Turning Point Ensemble in collaboration with Westbank First Nation. Soprano Heather Pawsey sang the role of Susan Allison for three performances on the site of the Allisons’ original 1873 Sunnyside ranch, West Kelowna’s Quails’ Gate Winery.
A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison (UBC Press, 1976).
In Her Words (2010). Available at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, Princeton Museum (Box 281, Princeton, B.C., Canada V0X 1W0. (250) 295-7588. Email inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org), or the Mozey-On-Inn (250-295-4355. Email inquiries to: email@example.com) for $20.00. 978-0-9866769-0-1. Copyright Princeton and District Museum and Archives
[INFORMATION POSTED JANUARY 1, 2016]
I was under the impression that John McDougall built the Allison log home. He has several of his log homes preserved in Kelowna. Can Anyone confirm this? Also, I was told that Clara Bailey was the first white child born in Westbank to the pioneers John And Emma Bailey who eventually settled in Falkland. Anyone else hear of this? Thank you
I have also heard that Susan Allison Dennis (Susan Moir Allison’s granddaughter)’s mother, Rachel Atwell, I think, was from the Island. And, of course, my grandmother did speak fondly of her grandmother. She also compares her to her own daughter, Emily. How she missed them both. Your welcome!-she is much more than just a pioneer woman to her kin, and many others! Susan L. Allison would have known many Similkmeen people in her time, and for the smaller numbers of peoples being nomadic, etc. Perhaps the families can share their survival stories through the weather and terrains with the possibilities of harnessing medicinal specialties some day. I heard that we really need new doctors there, particularly in Keremeos areas.
I am interested in finding all the names of Susan and John F Allison. I think she is my great grandmother but we are Similkameen Indians and there is no mention of Susan Allison Dennis my grandmother.
Did you have any luck finding her childrens names? I am one of her great grand children. My grandmother is Margot Allison, and her mother was Violet Allison.
Thank you for mentioning that John Fall Allison had a First Nations family before Susan showed up, and for not calling Susan Allison a “pioneer.”
In the context of the Allisons, Dr. Duane Thomson’s PhD Dissertation on the First Nations in the Okanagan and Similkameen during the period of early European settlement deserves mention.