McLEOD, SARAH (Ballenden), b. December 1818 in Rupert’s Land, daughter of NWC fur trader Alexander Roderick McLeod* and a mixed-blood woman; m. 10 Dec. 1836 John Ballenden; d. 23 Dec. 1853 in Edinburgh.
Sarah McLeod was one of eight children born to Alexander Roderick McLeod and “an Indian woman of the half breed Caste” whom McLeod considered his legitimate wife since their union had been contracted according to the custom of the country. Alexander McLeod entered the Hudson’s Bay Company as chief trader upon the union of the North West Company and the HBC in 1821. His daughter, raised at posts in the Mackenzie River and Columbia districts, was sent to the Red River settlement (Man.) for her education in the 1830s. Chief Factor John Stuart* acted as her guardian and gave his consent to her marriage, at the age of 18, to the promising HBC clerk John Ballenden. The bride received a dowry of £350 from her father, and the wedding, which was solemnized by the Reverend William Cockran*, was one of the social highlights of 1836 at Red River. It also indicated that, despite the example of Governor George Simpson and other HBC officers who introduced British wives into fur-trade society, attractive and acculturated young mixed-blood women could still aspire to social prominence through marriage to eligible young company officers. Ballenden was complimented on his choice by as severe a critic as Chief Trader James Hargrave*, who declared that Sarah was “a delightful creature” and that her husband had “every reason to consider himself a happy man.”
As the wife of a rising young officer, Sarah Ballenden enjoyed life in Red River. Mixed-blood women were more readily accepted in society than they had been during Simpson’s residence in the colony in the early 1830s. In 1837 this situation was underlined when Sarah named her first daughter Anne Christie, after the mixed-blood wife of Governor Alexander Christie*. The family moved to Sault Ste Marie, Upper Canada, in 1840, when John Ballenden was transferred, and Sarah was quite homesick there. She kept busy, however, entertaining visitors and caring for her growing family. Four children, a daughter who died in infancy and three boys, were born during the Ballendens’ stay at the Sault.
In 1848 Sarah Ballenden’s delight in her husband’s transfer back to Red River as chief factor was dampened when he suffered a stroke on the voyage west. That he made the recovery he did owed much to his wife’s devoted nursing. Once installed as the chatelaine of Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg), Mrs Ballenden began to play an active social role as befitted the wife of a chief factor. The christening in 1849 of a new daughter, Frances Isobel Simpson, named after Governor Simpson’s wife, Frances, and her sister, was described by Letitia Hargrave [Mactavish] as “a splendid entertainment with abundance of champagne.” Such was this vivacious young native woman’s social success that, according to James Bird, her friends predicted she was “destined to raise her whole Cast above european ladies in their influence on society here.”
In 1850, however, Sarah Ballenden found herself at the centre of a scandal which had serious racial and social repercussions. What appears to have been an indiscreet flirtation on the part of Mrs Ballenden with Captain Christopher Vaughan Foss, an officer with the pensioners from the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (London), who frequented the HBC’s mess table at Upper Fort Garry, provided fuel for gossip. By mid 1849 rumours were circulating that the relationship between Sarah and Foss was such that her husband would have grounds for divorce. Resentful newcomers to the colony including Anne Rose Clouston and Margaret Anderson, sister of the Anglican bishop David Anderson*, seized upon these rumours to bring about Sarah’s downfall. Anne Clouston, who came out from Britain in the fall of 1849 to marry HBC clerk Augustus Edward Pelly, was piqued at having to give precedence to a woman who by race and reputation she did not consider her equal. She circulated gossip to discredit Sarah and demanded that the governor of Assiniboia, Major William Bletterman Caldwell*, censure her immoral conduct. When John Ballenden left the settlement briefly in June 1850 to attend the annual meeting of the Council of the Northern Department, Mrs Ballenden was subjected to a concerted effort to exclude her from respectable society, led by Caldwell, the Andersons, the Cockrans, as well as Chief Trader John Black* and his wife. Sarah Ballenden sought the aid of the recorder, Adam Thom*, and, when Pelly and Black persisted in public accusations, Captain Foss appealed to the courts “to clear the reputation of a Lady.” He brought a suit for defamatory conspiracy against the Pellys and HBC mess steward John Davidson and his English wife, who had been at the origin of much of the gossip. The three-day trial, which began on 16 July 1850, brought into the open the racial tensions that had been growing in the colony’s social élite between incoming whites and the acculturated mixed-blood community. In the words of Chief Trader Robert Clouston, Anne’s brother, it seemed “a strife of blood.” Numerous witnesses were called, but no truth could be discovered in the accusations of an adulterous relationship between Mrs Ballenden and Captain Foss. The jury decided in Foss’s favour and the defendants were assessed heavy damages.
The Ballendens retreated to the quiet of Lower Fort Garry where they were sympathetically received by the newly arrived associate governor of Rupert’s Land, Eden Colvile*. In spite of the outcome of the trial Mrs Ballenden’s reputation was considerably tarnished and, according to Colvile, she continued to be shunned by “the ‘nobs’ of the womankind.” Ballenden left his wife and younger children at the fort when he went to Scotland on furlough for medical treatment in the fall of 1850. The whole scandal blew up again when a note, allegedly from Sarah to Captain Foss inviting him to visit her at the lower fort, was intercepted and presented to Colvile. Mrs Ballenden was now cut by the Colviles, and Thom and her former champions turned against her. Although after some doubt her husband ultimately remained loyal to her, writing to Simpson that “there is no proof, notwithstanding Mr. Thom’s opinion to the contrary,” she was now vilified and shunned by Red River society. Her health deteriorated so badly after the birth of her eighth child in 1851 that she was unable to accompany her husband to his new posting at Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.). Alexander Ross, whose friendship for Sarah had not been shaken, noted sadly that, “if there is such a thing as dying of a broken heart, she cannot live long.” After a wretched winter at Red River she sought refuge in 1852 at Norway House (Man.) with the family of Chief Factor George Barnston*. The following summer Ballenden gave instructions to his nephew Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne* to take his family to Edinburgh where he was proceeding from the Columbia on furlough. Their reunion was brief, for Sarah Ballenden died on 23 Dec. 1853.
The personal tragedy of this woman, largely the result of rumour and innuendo, underscores the way in which the double standard punished women for any violation of the straight-laced moral code of the day. The controversy surrounding her fall from grace also reinforced the racial prejudice against native and mixed-blood women. According to Red River historian Joseph James Hargrave*, “probably no case ever brought before the Recorder’s court . . . has given rise to so much bad feeling, and such deplorable sequences, as did this cause célèbre.”
GRO (Edinburgh), South Leith, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 28 Dec. 1853. PABC, Add.