CONNOLLY, SUZANNE, a Cree Indian, designated in documents as Suzanne “Pas-de-Nom” or “la Sauvagesse,” wife of William Connolly*, fur-trader; b. c. 1788, probably northwest of Lake Winnipeg; d. 14 Aug. 1862 in the Grey Nuns convent at Saint-Boniface (Man.).
William Connolly, born at Lachine, Province of Quebec, in 1787, entered the service of the North West Company about 1801. Two years later, at Rat River House, a post within a short distance of Nelson House, he took as his wife by “the custom of the country” a 15-year-old Cree girl, Suzanne. This marriage arrangement, usual in the fur trade prior to the arrival of clergy in the west, was by the consent of the two parties, with a gift probably being given to the Indian father. William Connolly and Suzanne lived for 28 years in the various trading posts at which he was stationed, and they were to have six children. In 1831 chief factor Connolly left the fur trade and went to Saint-Eustache, Lower Canada, with his Indian wife and children. Four or five months later Suzanne and her children moved to Montreal where they boarded at one time with a sister of William. On 16 May 1832, William Connolly married in a Catholic church his second cousin, Julia Woolrich, daughter of a well-to-do merchant. He had first obtained a dispensation from the bishop on the grounds that his marriage with the Indian woman had no validity.
A trader returning to civilization had to choose whether to leave his Indian wife in the wilderness, either abandoned or under the protection of another trader, or to take her with him, which was not always the best solution for her. Among fur-traders, Alexander Mackenzie* made the first decision, Daniel Williams Harmon* the second. Testimony that Connolly had intended to be faithful to Suzanne when he first arrived in Lower Canada was given later by the priest who baptized their two younger children. Governor George Simpson* in a letter dated 2 Dec. 1832 wrote: “You would have heard of Connolly’s marriage – he was one of those who considered it a most unnatural proceeding ‘to desert the mother of his children’ and marry another; this is all very fine, very sentimental and very kind hearted 3000 miles from the civilized world but is lost sight of even by Friend Connolly where a proper opportunity offers.”
Connolly’s second marriage may not have been happy. James Keith*, HBC chief factor in charge of the Montreal Department, writing in 1841 to Simpson, his brother-in-law, said of Connolly: “He is completely under petty coat government – & dare invite no one without special permission.” The same year Connolly wrote to Simpson thanking him for providing passage back to Red River that spring for Suzanne and her younger children: “They will be much happier there than here, and their removal has taken a heavy weight off my mind.” In a will made in 1848, Connolly left his considerable property to Julia and her two children. He died the following year.
Suzanne, who had taken up residence in the Grey Nuns convent at Red River in 1841, was supported by Connolly and later by Julia. She died 14 Aug. 1862. Two years later, on 13 May, John Connolly, Suzanne’s eldest son, launched an action in the Superior Court against Julia Woolrich claiming one-sixth of one-half of his father’s estate. At issue was whether Connolly’s marriage to Suzanne “by the custom of the country” was legal, and whether a community of property existed between them. The court heard evidence from the few surviving traders on the marriage practices in the fur country in the early decades of the century, and decided in favour of the plaintiff. Julia, and later her heirs (she died on 27 July 1865), fought the case through the Court of Appeals and the Court of Revision. The last court rendered a decision on 7 Sept. 1869, which supported that of the lower courts, with one of the five judges dissenting. Julia’s heirs appealed to the Privy Council in London, but before this body could deal with the case an out-of-court settlement was reached by the disputants.
The significance of the trials was the judgement that marriage with an Indian woman, entered into only with the consent of the two parties, was valid, at least if followed by long co-habitation, and that the children of such a union were entitled to share in the disposition of the father’s property. The same decision 30 years earlier might have caused consternation among retired fur-traders living in civilization, but by 1869 nearly all were dead. Suzanne Connolly has the distinction of being the only Canadian woman the legality of whose marriage became a case for the Privy Council. Before her death she had the satisfaction of knowing that her daughter Amelia was Lady Douglas, wife of Sir James Douglas*, governor of Vancouver Island and the crown colony of British Columbia.
HBC Arch., B.135/c/2, 2 Dec. 1832; D.5/6, f.131d., 16 April 1841; D.5/7, f.274d., 10 Aug. 1841. “Cour d’appel; présents – Les Hons. Duval, Caron, Badgley, Loranger, MacKay; jugement rendu le 7 septembre 1869; Johnstone et al: – (reprenant l’instance de Julia Woolrich), appelants, et John Connolly, intimé,” La Revue légale (Montréal), I (1869), 253–400. HBRS, II (Rich and Fleming), 209, “Superior Court, 1867: Montreal, 9th July, 1867; Coram Monk, J.; no.902, Connolly vs. Woolrich and Johnson et al., defendants par reprise d’instance; Indian marriage – question as to validity,” The Lower Canada Jurist/Collection de décisions du Bas-Canada (Montreal), XI (1867), 197–265. Sylvia Van Kirk, “The role of women in the fur trade society of the Canadian west, 1700–1850” (unpublished phd thesis, University of London, 1975).