Manitoba History: Behind Every Hero
by Roberta Kempthorne
The double column of tired horsemen rode into the little prairie town greeted by cheering, bell-ringing, whistle blowing and gun-firing. These were the newly-acclaimed heroes of Russell and Birtle, Manitoba, triumphantly returning after capturing Louis Riel at Batoche. The year was 1885. They were led by Major Charles Boulton, whose wife had been selected to pin the medals on the brave men at a banquet held in their honour.
Boulton, a military man from Ontario, had moved his family to the Russell area in 1880 and become the founder of the town. He was dedicated to the progress of his community. He sought for and procured government funds for a bridge over the Assiniboine River. He established the first weekly newspaper for Russell. Politically ambitious, he ran in both federal and provincial elections, though unsuccessfully. For ten years he served as a Senator (1889-1899).
“Boulton was also singularly fortunate in his marriage,” his biographer wrote. “His wife Gussiea sensible, capable and determined womanunderstood him and to a remarkable degree shared his interests.” Gussie was in truth the mainstay of the family. Her dedication allowed Boulton the freedom to pursue his ambitions, however, she rarely got to share the limelight.
Augusta Latter was born in the mid 1800s in India (then a British colony), the illegitimate child of British nobility. She became a ward of the English government, was removed to England and placed in the care of a nanny. In the manner of the aristocracy she was educated by tutors at home. She was given lessons in singing, in violin and in foreign languages. These were quite proper accomplishments for a lady but not very practical ones for someone destined to become a Canadian pioneer.
At age 16, she and her lady’s maid, Mrs. Gilly, who posed as an older sister, were relocated to Ontario, Canada. Here she could pose no threat to the throne and when a suitable husband could be found for hershe would no longer be a burden on the English taxpayers. But Augusta, or Gussie, as she usually called herself, was kept in ignorance of her background for many years.
When Gussie married Charles Boulton in February, 1874, she believed herself quite prepared for marriage. She claimed to have “no false ideas of women’s independence” and acknowledged that it would be her duty to be obedient. But at the time she informed Charles that she reserved the right to disagree if her opinion was different from his.
Less than a month after the wedding she was alone, sorely missing the customary care and companionship of her “sister” Mrs. Gilly. The Major was totally occupied with his business concerns and frequently absent from home. He did not have the time to pay her the “little attentions” she was used to. Little did she know this situation was to represent the future patten of their lives.
After the birth of four children within the space of six years Gussie had little time to fret. In early March, 1880, the Major was off to what was known at that time as the Northwest Territories to explore possibilities for settlement in the Shellmouth area. Boulton was no stranger to Manitoba as he had been present at Red River during the Riel Resistance in 1869.
In September of 1880, Gussie, Mrs. Gilly (whose husband had accompanied Boulton), and the four children set out. They travelled by train from Lakefield, Ontario to Winnipeg, then by boat to Portage la Prairie. Here they were met by the Major and completed their journey in a wagon pulled by oxen.
Though the trip was tedious and tiring, Gussie viewed it in a spirit of adventure, looking forward to the “neatly cornered house” her husband had promised awaited her at the journey’s end. What a shock to discover on arrival that the house had no windows, doors or floorsthese were being transported on the wagon with them. At the same time the Major assured her that the lack of furniture would soon be remedied by converting the poplar trees that grew nearby. So they pitched their tent within the four walls of the cabin and Gussie resolved to be patient.
The next day Gussie was terrifyingly initiated to prairie life. Nature staged a grass fire which had to be beaten out with brooms in order to protect their humble home.
His family scarcely settled, Boulton, in his new position of reeve, was soon looking after the interests of his community. He travelled to Ottawa to lobby for a railroad, leaving Gussie to carry on as best she could at home.
Upon the outbreak of hostilities in the spring of 1885 between the Metis and the NWMP at Prince Albert, Boulton eagerly assembled his Scouts and rode off to war. Gussie was again left to guard the home front. Anxiously she tried to decide if she would trust the local Indians and remain where she was or pack up her family (which included a two month old baby) and flee back to the safety of Ontario. In the end she elected to stay. She believed that being near she would have news of the battle more quickly.
After the excitement and adulation of being a hero of this uprising, Boulton was not content to be just a farmer. He hoped to be suitably rewarded for coming to the aid of the Canadian government with at least a patronage position. He repeatedly presented his schemes for immigration, free trade and railroads to politicians. He suffered bitter disappointment each time his ideas were refused. Finally in 1889 he was rewarded by an appointment to the Senate.
Gussie continually encouraged him in his ambitions, praised his speeches and kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about him. She was proud when Charles wrote his reminiscences of the two Riel uprisings for publication.
Though the new appointment was the climax of her husband’s career, Gussie got to share little of the glory. Eager to be instated, Boulton left immediately for Ottawa leaving his wife to manage the farm which was in a sad state of unpreparedness.
According to Gussie, 1889-90 was a “frightful” winter. Her letters to Charles registered her despair while she attempted to cope with the multiple problems. Hired hands bickered over distribution of tasks. Deep snow prevented them from hauling hay. The livestock were sick and dying. The inadequate firewood supply was soon at an end. Gussie borrowed from the school-house then finally had to resort to cutting down the fences for fuel. The children were encouraged to stay in bed until noon to keep warm.
An inadequate diet of beef or pork and frozen potatoes likely contributed to the flues, colds and sores the family endured that winter. “It’s a dreadful existence fighting for just enough unfrozen food and warmth to keep oneself alive,” Gussie lamented.
Finances were a constant worry. What little money Charles sent Gussie meted out carefully for overdue accounts. She attempted making butter to trade for groceries but there was little market for it. On one occasion she asked Charles for a new dress but promptly withdrew her request believing it to be above their means.
No matter how hard up they were Gussie always retained her pride. Many years later she confided to a friend that they were often down to their last loaf of bread without a penny in the house “but none of the neighbours needed to know it.”
During their many separations Gussie’s spirits were buoyed by regular letters from her “dearest Charles.” She was grateful for any adulation that was paid her husband. On one particular occasion the school children expressed their admiration for Major Boulton in a poem they composed and recited at a school concert. It ended with three resounding cheers for him. Gussie was overwhelmed to the point of tears.
Social position was important to Gussie. How proud she was when Senator Boulton was chosen to represent Manitoba at Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee celebration in 1897. Bravely, she gave no indication of disappointment that she was not allowed to accompany him. The British government would not grant her a passport for a return visit to her beloved England.
Gussie made up for the lack of invitations to social events in the city and created her own “society” where she was. The Manor, their large home in Russell became the social center of the community. She organized annual balls and presided over countless tea parties. Their seven children were encouraged to entertain their friends at home so Gussie could meet them and she was always on hand to applaud their tennis matches.
Gussie’s life centered around her children. She wanted them to be as well educated as the Boultons could possibly afford. The older boys were sent to live with friends or relatives in Ontario or Winnipeg to attend college. Assisted by Mrs. Gilly, proper speech and behaviour for their “station” was insisted upon. They must not disgrace their father’s position.
Though continually beset by financial worries, the Boultons usually had servants to attend to manual chores. Friends in Ontario and England sent out their sons and daughters as farm apprentices, domestic help or governesses. Gussie had only to provide room and board.
In later years, living at “The Manor,” Gussie was able to resume the lifestyle of her youth. She had her breakfast in bed and never appeared downstairs until luncheon was served. Her grandsons, dressed in white sailor suits, attended afternoon tea which was served on the lawn in summer or in the drawing room in winter.
Charles died of pneumonia in 1899. Though Gussie outlived him by 34 years she continued to wear her ruched widow’s cap. At the age of 85 Gussie was invited to address the Historical Society in Winnipeg. She recalled her introduction to the “Wild West;” recounting how her little house turned out to be an uncompleted shack. She told them about attending a dinner party once at Government House in Winnipeg. There she was considered to be the “wild west show” and “everybody who was anybody was introduced to her,” she said.
Gussie Boulton’s pioneer life was an experience for which she was totally untrained and unprepared. Nevertheless, she tackled her tasks with enthusiasm, endured trials with patience, and survived to rise to the position of prominence she craved.
Page revised: 10 October 2020