Excerpt from In Her Own Footsteps
Victoria, the British Colony of Vancouver Island, December 31, 1858:
Flora barely noticed the strong odor of whiskey on the breath of Capt. Jemmy Jones. Though only sixteen, Flora Amelia Ross had learned that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary if a man’s breath was laced with the scent of whiskey. A sip or two could keep the wintry chill at bay whenever cold winds swept in off the Pacific. And as it was mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve, 1858, and a winter storm was soaking the coastal region in a heavy, icy rain, there was little reason to question the foul scent on Jones’ breath as he helped Flora, her sister, and her mother, aboard the small schooner, the Wild Pigeon.
Flora descended into the narrow passenger compartment and settled on a hard bench at the back, certain that the schooner’s simple furnishings would soon become uncomfortable during their long journey, especially in such foul weather. A small, cast-iron stove against the starboard side appeared more useful at filling the boat with smoke rather than warmth, while a rusty lantern cast a pale light across the compartment. But it was the inch of seawater sloshing across the floor that she found especially troublesome. She would spend most of the journey watching the level of the water, though she had no idea how many inches would indicate that it was time to express her concerns. And even if the water wasn’t the result of a leak in the hull, it was at the very least an annoyance, as she’d have to keep her heavy skirt and petticoats off the floor throughout the voyage.
The journey between Victoria and Nisqually, at the southern end of Puget Sound in Washington Territory, was a journey that Flora had traveled countless times, whether by schooner, steamer or canoe. But it had never been a journey undertaken under such anxious circumstances. Only a few hours earlier, the family had received word that eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who lived with her husband a few miles from the Company trading post at Nisqually, was gravely ill. Jones had delivered the letter in person to Flora’s mother, Isabella Mainville Ross, after carrying it from Nisqually on one of his regular passenger and freight runs along the sound. Flora, her mother, and Mary, Flora’s elder sister by two years, had frantically packed their belongings, abandoned the family farm in the care of the three youngest Ross brothers, and rushed to Victoria harbor.
Mary and Isabella settled in beside Flora. Neither of them spoke. Flora assumed it was because anything they might say other than concern for Elizabeth’s health would seem trite. She glanced at the two men who were the only other occupants of the compartment, careful not to stare. They appeared to be in their late twenties and seemed well lubricated with whiskey. One was tall and blond, while the other was short and dark, reminding Flora of a pair of mismatched salt and peppershakers that sat on the family table. She surveyed their clothing and concluded that the men were most likely gold miners who had come to the colonies earlier that year to make their fortunes along the gravel banks of the Fraser River on the mainland. And, even more likely, they were now disappointed gold miners returning to the United States for the winter, as were nearly all of the thousands of men passing through Victoria in the winter of 1858. Flora wanted to tell the shorter miner that the legs of his canvas pants were resting in the water, soaking toward his knees. But it wasn’t her place to offer such a comment. She knew it wouldn’t be received as helpful advice.
“We be off now. All’a’ya comfy?” Jemmy Jones didn’t bother to wait for a response before turning away. Flora presumed it was because he’d never been pleased with the answers of prior passengers. Jones was the owner of the Wild Pigeon, and an experienced sea captain who had plied the waters off the colony of Vancouver Island and the adjacent Washington Territory since the start of the gold rush. He was the kind of man who caused just enough trouble to be a regular topic of whimsical conversation about town, while somehow avoiding any major crisis that might turn the whimsy into reprobation; though Flora had long ago concluded that the growing town of Victoria had far more entertaining characters of his type than it needed.
“You never said we’d be sharin’ the cabin with a bunch of squaws,” the shorter miner blurted at Jones. “Ain’t there some boat haulin’ cattle that can take ‘em?”
Flora barely flinched. She had almost expected such an outburst. At least it had been delivered to Jones rather than at her mother, though the refusal to speak to the women directly was as much an intended insult as the words had been. Flora’s mother was three-quarters Ojibway and one-quarter French-Canadian, while Flora’s father had been Scottish. She could truthfully have insisted to the miners that most of the blood running through her veins was European in origin, if she thought the distinction mattered. But such a comment would have been pointless. For in the eyes of most white men in the small British colony, all three women were “Indians” or “squaws.”
Jones paused by the cabin entrance.
“Mrs. Ross is one’a the matriarchs o’ this colony. If you wanna git to Nisqually, you’ll treat her and the young ladies like me own,” Jones replied sternly in a thick Welsh accent before exiting the cabin.
The two miners tossed unpleasant looks in the direction of the Ross women. The taller miner’s look was brief and determined, but the eyes of the shorter miner lingered, first on Flora, and then for a much longer time on Mary. When he had first cast his eyes on the women, his mouth had expressed disdain. But the longer he gazed on the two girls, the more his mouth slightly curled upward at the sides. It was almost a smile by the time he looked away, but there was nothing pleasant about it. She decided that she most definitely wouldn’t mention the seawater that continued up the man’s pant leg.
Flora had been told many times in recent years that she’d grown into an attractive young woman, and there were occasions when she’d been able to convince herself that it might be true. Her body had filled out in all the proper places, and her hourglass figure could compete with any girl’s in town. But she also knew that the more eligible bachelors instantly dismissed her as a potential bride because of her features. Her Ojibway background was most prominent in her looks, or at least, apparent enough for many Englishmen or Americans to declare it her most prominent trait. Her thick dark hair, high cheekbones and dark eyes were far more like the features of her Ojibway ancestors than those of her Scottish ancestors. No man ever yelled “Scot” or “Sawney” in her direction. And if any man were to do so, it wouldn’t have been delivered with the same derisive tone that accompanied “Indian” or “squaw.”
A strong jolt shook the hull as the storm threw the boat against the dock without warning, instantly changing the topic in each passenger’s mind. To escape the harbor and reach the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the schooner would need to sail west, into the strong winds, tacking from northwest to southwest, and back again across the small harbor. Flora pressed her face against one of the tiny, smoke-stained windows along the top of the passenger compartment and caught a glimpse of the dock slowly fading from view. The schooner leaned to the port side as it slowly advanced into the harbor, angled against the wind as if hoping to slip past the storm unnoticed.
Isabella reached out to take her daughters’ hands and recited a short Catholic prayer in French, a language that had been commonly used in the small community of Fort Victoria before the deluge of American gold miners had transformed the colony’s culture. French and Ojibway had been the primary languages of her youth, while Chinook was her third, learned during her years at trading posts along the coast. She spoke only the basics of English, burdened by both a heavy accent and a measure of uncertainty. The prayer she recited was from her youth in the Great Lakes region far to the east. It sought safety for travelers, and Flora had heard it many times before. The young miners, however, had not. They exchanged a grimace that told Flora they couldn’t differentiate between a Catholic prayer in French and whatever Indian ceremony the men assumed they were witnessing. But it appeared to provide the two miners with a temporary distraction from the fear that was still visible in their eyes; a fear that deepened as the schooner pitched to the starboard side, sending seawater spilling across the passenger compartment.
Flora grabbed a rail along the wall for support, letting go of her skirt and petticoats. A coldness quickly moved up her legs as the material absorbed the seawater. They were only minutes into their journey, yet traveling in the schooner’s small passenger compartment was already proving to be a miserable experience. She told herself that at least the experience below deck was far better than that of Jones and his crewman, battling the winds above deck.
The hull of the Wild Pigeon slowly righted itself and then veered to the port side once again, as they returned to a southwesterly direction in search of an angle that would drive the vessel into the wind by using the brute force of the storm against itself. But it took only an instant for Flora, and each passenger in the compartment, to realize that something was wrong. The angle of the pitch quickly became far steeper than each prior tack, as the hull continued to lean farther to the port side, sending the sloshing seawater and passengers’ belongings across the compartment. Flora held her breath and waited for the crew to adjust the sails so that the hull would ease its steep angle, but instead the hull careened to horizontal as the Wild Pigeon capsized.
Passengers. Belongings. Everything and everyone flew across the cabin, falling against the portside as it became the floor of the capsized cabin. The rusty lantern shattered one of the small windows as it fell. Its flame was instantly doused by seawater that bubbled up through the broken window, and by the deluge of water that poured in through the doorway that now lay horizontal to the surface of the bay. The wood stove creaked ominously as it hung above the passengers, and then broke free from its base, falling into the rising waters and striking Isabella on her right leg. She screamed in pain as the hot iron seared her skin through the material of her dress.
It was the only word anyone spoke.
Seawater sputtered against the blistering iron of the hot stove, quickly smothering the last vestige of light from inside the stove and leaving the watery compartment in darkness. Flora and Mary pulled Isabella free from the hot iron of the stove, burning their hands, while the miners scrambled through the water to escape through the doorway.
Flora and Mary lifted Isabella toward the entryway, only to have their mother pull free from their grasp and push them ahead of her. Flora grasped the edges of the doorway and struggled to pull herself through the stream of water that continued to pour inside. A push from Mary propelled her into the open ocean where she found herself momentarily disoriented. There was no deck beneath her feet. Instead, the portion of the deck that wasn’t submerged rose vertically beside her. Rigging swirled around her in the waves, while heavy rain pelted from above and the wind howled from the west.
A shout caught her attention. Jemmy Jones and his crewman reached down from their perch on the starboard side of the hull, above the waves, and hauled Flora out of the water. She grabbed the gunwale for support and crawled behind the two miners to leave room for Mary and her mother to follow.
Flora searched through the dim light and driving rain in an attempt to understand their circumstances. The Wild Pigeon was resting on its side just beyond the middle of the small harbor. The dim outline of Victoria was visible to the east, while the Songhees reserve was a few hundred feet to the west. No other vessels were in sight.
Isabella winced as she crawled along the hull and reached Flora, followed by Mary.
“Mama, let me see your leg,” Flora insisted.
“Ça va.” Isabella waved her hand, dismissing her pain.
Flora ignored her mother’s response and pulled Isabella’s skirt high enough to reveal a large cut on her calf. The skin was red and burned by the stove, and blood poured steadily from the gash.
“You are not fine.”
Flora reached down under her own skirt, grabbed the edges of her petticoats, and ripped off two strips of material. She folded one into a small bundle, squeezed out as much water as she could, and then placed it against her mother’s cut. Mary placed her hand on the bandage to hold it in place as Flora used the second strip of her petticoats to tightly secure the bandage.
“Are we sinking? I think we’re sinking.”
It was one of the miners. Flora had forgotten about them.
“She winna g’down,” Jones shouted over the wind, with less reassurance in his voice than Flora would have liked. “But someone needs to swim ashore. We canna sit here. Not in this storm.”
Flora understood his meaning. They were all soaking wet, shivering, clinging to the exposed hull of the schooner in the middle of a winter storm. The boat might not sink, at least not immediately, but they would all perish if help didn’t arrive soon. The shivering would escalate until the body could fight no more, and then, one by one, each of them would slide from the hull to be swallowed by the dark waters.
She glanced from the miners to Jones and his crewman, waiting for one of the men to rise to the challenge, but there was only silence.
“Surely you know how to swim?” she asked Jones.
He shook his head and grimaced, acknowledging the embarrassment of having spent his entire adult life piloting boats, yet never having learned how to swim. Flora turned to the miners. They lacked the energy to even shake their heads, and responded with only meek expressions of apology, either for being unable to swim, or for being too terrified to attempt to swim across the frigid harbor.
Flora glanced at Mary. They had grown up next to the ocean and were both accomplished swimmers, at least in warmer summer temperatures. But it was the middle of winter and they were already shivering. The likelihood that a cramp would set in before either of them could reach the shore was high, if not a certainty. Others had drowned in local waters in far warmer weather in recent years. No one would dare attempt a swim across the harbor in the middle of winter. Not if they had a choice. But the only choice she and Mary faced was which of them would go.
She avoided any discussion by opening the buttons of her dress. The heavy wool would provide no warmth in the water, but would only weigh her down and diminish the power of her legs.
“Are you sure?” Mary asked, with fear in her voice, clearly anxious about either answer.
“Yes,” Flora insisted, revealing as much anxiousness in her own voice.
“Flora, non, je te l’interdis,” Isabella pleaded, reaching up to grab Flora’s hand.
“I have to, mama. We can’t sit here. You know we can’t.”
Flora squeezed her mother’s hand, then pulled away and struggled to pull off her dress, a task made far more difficult by the wetness of the material and the shivering of her muscles. Mary reached forward and helped until Flora was wearing only her petticoats, exposed to the bitter winds, and to unwelcome stares from the four men. They were incapable of swimming to shore, or at least unwilling, yet were eminently capable of displaying urges that appeared to be more powerful than their urge to survive.
Flora draped her wet dress over Isabella, hoping it might provide additional warmth. Isabella pulled her close and kissed her on the cheek.
“Va avec Dieu,” Isabella whispered.
Flora smiled nervously, then turned to Mary.
“Watch the bleeding on her leg.”
She turned and faced the harbor to the east. The distance wasn’t impossible, but circumstances made it far too improbable.
“Go ‘round the sails. Dinna get caught up in the riggin’,” Jones advised her.
She nodded, then crawled along the side of the hull to the bow and searched for her target. Kaindler’s Wharf. It was the largest wharf in the harbor and was sure to be a place where she could find help, even on New Year’s Eve. She looked back at her mother one last time, and then dove into the dark water.
The shock of the cold was as emotional as it was physical. Already shivering, she had expected the water to be comparable to the frigid air. Instead, the iciness of the water penetrated her muscles and chilled her body to the bone.
Instinct drove her arms to strike against the waves and push her aching leg muscles to kick, while the struggle to keep her head above the churning whitecaps took as much energy as each stroke. A frantic fight against the waves would ensure a deadly cramp, and so she focused on slow, steady strokes. The choppiness of the surface left her unable to sense if she was making any progress, or merely waving her limbs in the same location. But she resisted the urge to look behind her, knowing it would be a wasted use of limited energy, and fearful that she might see the Wild Pigeon just yards away.
A distant shout caught her attention. She struggled to peer across the whitecaps and managed to glimpse three men on shore, one of them pointing in her direction, though she couldn’t tell if the men had spotted her or the capsized schooner behind her. They weren’t far from Kaindler’s Wharf, by the boathouse of the Whitehall Boatmen’s Society. Flora shouted back at the men, pleading for help in the loudest voice she could manage, then shifted course and aimed for the men rather than the wharf. She considered for a moment that she might be able to tread water until they could reach her in a boat. But she dismissed the thought just as quickly, realizing that the men from the Whitehall Boatmen’s Society might have already started celebrating the coming New Year, just as Jemmy Jones had done before he’d left the safety of shore. Flora reached out and pulled herself through the waves with another stroke, certain that it was better to rely on her own strength than anyone else’s.
* * *
Flora watched as Dr. John S. Helmcken carefully stitched the wound in her mother’s leg under the flickering light of both a lantern and the fire that crackled in the stone fireplace of the physician’s cabin. She desperately wanted to move closer to the flames to warm her chilled body, but knew better than to block the doctor’s light. ...
This opening scene in the book is based on fact, as is the entire book. Three separate newspapers wrote articles about the capsizing of the Wild Pigeon, with varying levels of detail. The Victoria Gazette provides the most details, including the presence of the three Ross women, the presence of a couple of other passengers, the stove falling on Isabella’s leg, the bold swim for shore, and the rescue by the Whitehall Boatmen’s Society. Other details, such as details about Jemmy Jones, the declining health of Elizabeth Wren/Ross, and the effect of winter on the gold rush, are drawn from multiple sources. This scene reflects the way in which the entire book is constructed from as many sources of information as could be found, building a jigsaw puzzle of evidence for the stories in the book that have yet to be told.