Lucy Margaret Baker

She stood five foot three inches tall, spoke fluent French with a Parisian accent, and loved silk and lace.
You likely wouldn’t expect an early Prince Albert settler to be described in this manner. And yet we have some of her belongings in the Historical Museum including her Bible, her portable organ, as well as an oil painting of the lady in question. We also have some fine examples of beadwork presented to her by the residents of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation. This beadwork represented the high esteem in which they held her.
Lucy Margaret Baker was born in Osnabruck Township, Stormont County, Upper Canada (now Ontario), in 1835. Her parents were Benjamin Baker and Barbara Ann Warner Baker. Lucy was baptised in Trinity Anglican Church, Cornwall. As happened all too frequently in those days, Lucy’s mother died when Lucy was still very young. Arrangements were made for her to be raised by an aunt (her father’s sister, Lucy Baker Buchanan) in Dundee, Lower Canada (Quebec), a community very near Montreal. It was there she received her initial education, prior to receiving higher education in Fort Covington, New York.
From her early years, Lucy had always shown a desire to learn and to impart knowledge. So it was that she became a teacher, and when she arrived in Prince Albert in late October 1879, she already had considerable experience as an educator. Her career to that point had involved teaching at a school in Dundee, at a school for young ladies in New Jersey, and along with a cousin being co-proprietor of a similar ladies’ school in New Orleans. With the onset of the American Civil War, Lucy determined to return to Canada, experiencing considerable difficulty getting through the blockade established by the warring parties. When she managed to make it back “home”, she found employment at a private school in Lancaster, Glengarry County.
By this time in her life, Lucy Baker was attending the Presbyterian Church, and the minister in Lancaster was the Reverend Donald Ross. When the Foreign Missions Committee appointed Ross to succeed the Reverend Peter Straith at the mission in Prince Albert, aware of Miss Baker’s capabilities and her adventurous spirit, Ross asked the Foreign Missions Committee (with her agreement) to appoint her as the mission’s teacher. Unfortunately, although Ross, his wife, and Miss Baker set out together to travel together to Prince Albert, they got only as far as Winnipeg before the ill health of both Mr. and Mrs. Ross resulted in him having to give up his appointment. Miss Baker, however, was determined to continue on and, after joining a party of people bound for Edmonton via Prince Albert, she proceeded onward, travelling in a Red River cart. Miss Baker wrote of the journey, describing the wooden conveyance as being made “entirely of wood which kept up a continual screeching. But they were good in a way, as they served double purpose. On coming to a stream which could not be forded, they were taken apart and formed into rafts.”
Miss Baker wrote in her letters of the barrenness of the land, largely uninhabited except by the occasional gopher or coyote. The air was cold, so she appreciated the buffalo coat with which she had been provided, as the collar covered her head, and it was sufficiently long to cover her feet when she slept at night. After six weeks of travel, the group arrived in Prince Albert on October 28th, 1879. The temperature which greeted them was minus 28 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 33.3 degrees Celsius).
As there were no available boarding houses in Prince Albert, Lucy Baker ended up living on her own in the mission building until a small house which had been the home of Nisbet’s interpreter could be renovated for her. This took seven weeks, but Miss Baker spent them without complaint, although she was very thankful when she could move into the house and once again enjoy “a warm corner”.
Initially, the student population was comprised of children of mixed parentage who spoke Cree. It was anticipated that these children would eventually become the teachers and workers in the government’s Indian Department. However, the settler community in Prince Albert also chose to send their children to the school, so that the classroom numbers increased. The proportion of Indigenous students was further reduced when the local Cree community withdrew to the land reserved for them 75 miles away (Mistawasis First Nation). Although Lucy Baker’s work at the school was well received, and the Foreign Missions Committee had made her position permanent in 1880, by 1882 there were only fourteen First Nations students on the register of seventy students.
In 1884/85, when the settler community established a high school as part of the mission school, the Foreign Missions Committee extracted a guarantee that Indigenous children would be educated for free. Still, very few attended and, upon her return from furlough in 1887, Lucy Baker became a regular staff member of the Nisbet Academy, the building on the crest of the hill just west of the Territorial Gaol. This school was destroyed by fire on New Year’s Day, 1890, resulting in the end of education in the first high school in the North-West Territories.
Although it is not clearly spelled out, it is a possibility that the furlough which Miss Baker took resulted from the efforts she expended during the Resistance of 1885. At that time, she had turned her house over to the government authorities for use as a hospital, and Lucy herself provided nursing aid and care for the sick and wounded. Although offered compensation by the government, she refused to accept any compensation. Like much else in her life, she saw it as being simply her Christian duty.
It was at about the same time as she assumed teaching duties in the public high school that Miss Baker decided the old mission house was becoming dilapidated, and so determined that she would have a new house built, one which would be her own. Once she had her own home, she began taking in pupils as boarders, adding to her many other duties. In addition to being matron, teacher, and cook, she was a steady influence of a Christian example, displaying patience, sympathy, cheerfulness, and selflessness.
More than anything, Lucy Baker displayed a sense of refinement. Always careful about her dress, she never forgot the niceties that her own tastes and training demanded. With only her young female boarders, untutored as they were in ladylike ways, she was always particular about the setting of the table, the serving of the meal, and the manners of all in the party as though company of the greatest importance were present. It is said that she changed for dinner every night at 8:00 p.m.
Everything which Lucy Baker did and accomplished in the first ten years of her residency in Prince Albert was notable. But her greatest achievement occurred in 1890 and thereafter.
In the 1870s, several groups of Sioux had arrived in the Prince Albert area. Refugees from what was termed at the time as the American-Indian wars, they were not allowed homesteads in Canada because they were Indigenous people. Some of the men had taken heavy labour jobs in the town, on farms, or in the forests, and the women were willing to accept work of the rougher kind in the town’s households. But they were not accepted as other than violent savages.
Lucy Baker took it upon herself to work in their community, located north of the river at a site near where the former sanitorium stood. Initially, she was seen to be unacceptable by the “medicine men and women”, and shunned by the other members of the community. But she persevered, making an effort to cross the river most days to speak to the people, and to earn their trust. Eventually, she was able to have a small school built within their community, and to gather the younger members around her to be educated. Her willingness to teach, to educate, and to nurse the sick and injured resulted in increasing numbers of the community showing acceptance towards her.
Miss Baker taught the band members, made clothes for the children, nursed the people when they were sick, and taught the women and young girls how to knit, sew, make quilts, and so many other home-maker activities.
Baker worked with the band to encourage the federal government to provide them with a reserve, and finally in 1894 gained a place for them about thirteen miles northwest of their camp on the north side of the river. At the time it was called MaKoce Waste, which meant “good land”, and Round Plain Reserve, but we know it today as the Wahpeton Dakota Nation (Wahpeton having a meaning similar to “camping in the leaves”).
Eventually a mission house and log school house were built in the new community, and Miss Baker lived and worked among the people, who would come to her for advice with all sorts of problems at all hours of the day and night. No matter the object of their visit, they never left her home without hearing the Christian gospel. If they were old, she spoke to them in Sioux. The school children would hear advice in English, and the French Metis would receive their advice and guidance in French.
Sadly, in 1905, ill health forced Lucy Baker to retire. She lived in the town of Prince Albert for the next two years, but eventually moved back east to Quebec where she died in the Royal Victoria Hospital on May 30th, 1909. Lucy Margaret Baker was buried in the church yard of Zion Church, Dundee.