Memorable Metis: Matilda Davis

Did you know that there is another historic home just South of the St. Andrews Rectory along the River Road? It’s true! Twin Oaks is a privately owned National Historic Site that was once the home of the famous “Miss Davis’s School for Young Ladies”. But who was Matilda Davis? In today’s blog, we discuss the life of this force for youth education in the Red River Settlement.

Matilda Davis’s Youth

Matilda Davis was a Metis woman born in 1820 to Ann (sometimes called Nancy) Hodgson and John Davis. Ann was the daughter of a Cree woman and John Hodgson, the Chief Factor at Fort Albany. John Davis was a Scottish Hudson’s Bay Company employee. Ann and John met in 1803 at Hudson Bay Company’s Kenogomissi Post where John had landed after he became employed with the Company. Ann would have likely been 10 or 11 years old at the time. After their marriage in 1815, Ann and John Davis had five children: four girls and one son. Matilda was the middle child.

The Albany River Hudson’s Bay Company Forts

In 1822, John became the Chief Factor of Escabitchewan and Cat Lake in the Lac Seul District. At this time it was common for high-ranking Company officials to send their children to England or Scotland to receive their education. During 1822 and 23, John sailed back to England with his young children Matilda and Elizabeth aboard the Eddystone and returned to Canada the next year by himself. Soon after his return to Canada in 1824 John drowned in Hannah Bay and the rest of the family moved to St. Andrews, Manitoba, while Matilda and Elizabeth remained in England. Here the girls grew into young women and each worked as governesses for English families.

Matilda Davis’s Return to Red River

Matilda Davis School for Girls c. 1858

Sadly, Elizabeth passed away in England leading Matilda to travel back to Canada some time before 1840. It is likely that Matilda desired to be close to her some of last living relatives (sisters Nancy, Catherine, and her brother George) after the tragic death of her sister, however, perhaps Matilda had additional motivations: Miss Davis was well known for her opinion that young girls of the Red River shouldn’t have to face the dangerous voyage of travelling to another country to become educated like she did. Upon her return to Red River, Matilda lived with her brother, a clerk for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and started Miss Davis’ School for Young Ladies in two log cabins built on her brother’s property. The school received support by local families, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and members of the local clergy, all of whom were looking for alternatives to sending their children overseas and favored Miss Davis’s position as a young, unmarried woman with an English education and family connections to the Company. In the 1850s an additional stone building was added to the property as the students’ residence (“Twin Oaks”/ “Oakfield”, pictured on the left). This stone building is still standing today and is a notable example of Red River style stone architecture.

Miss Davis’ School boarded up to 40 students at a time and had additional “day” students who would travel to and from the school each day. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biographies, the student fees ” for full board and instruction in English, French, and music, was $132 per annum; weekly board and instruction was $105; and day pupils (who received lunch at the school), was $50.” Eventually, the School employed not only Matilda, but also her sister Nancy and another young woman Emma Lane to assist Matilda with the children.

Pictured below are artifacts from Matilda Davis’s school:

China plate shards with the “Blue Willow” designs from Matilda Davis’s School for Girls. Image from
Fragment of a writing slate from Matilda Davis’s School for Girls. Image from

Matilda Davis’s Impact on the People of the Red River Settlement

As the main provider of an English education that might elevate its students’ social standings, Matilda Davis was a powerful force in the social fabric of the Red River Settlement. She was a well-regarded teacher, and many letters from local families speak about her with affection and respect. The letter below is from William Hardisty, written in 1869. Here, Hardisty mentions to Matilda that his trip to Fort Simpson from the Red River was tedious and he wished for more comforts than the Northern fort had to offer. He then writes that he hopes Matilda and his son Richard (the School also took in young male students) were in good health. William also thanks Matilda for her dealing with Richard as he is sure that Richard may have been trouble for her. He continuously apologizes for the trouble that Matilda has had with his children and their education, and makes it clear that he cannot thank nor repay Matilda for her kindness and attention to his daughter even after he had to remove her from Matilda’s school due to her health. Toward the end of the letter, William Hardisty informs Matilda that he will be removing his son Richard from Matilda’s school but would like to send his younger son Frank, whom he was sure would be more troublesome than Richard. William concludes his letter by saying that he wishes the best and kindest regards and he signs off his letter with “I remain Dear Miss Davis Yours Very truly”.

Letter from William Hardisty to Matilda Davis, c. 1869

Matilda taught until her death in 1873, and William Hardisty’s letter is just one of many that show much affection towards the teacher. In the book Women of the Red River, one of Matilda Davis’s former students remembers that Davis was a devoted teacher who held her students in high regard and took care of them well, and that her students stood out among others due to their straight postures and gentle manners. It is clear from this letter and from the remembrances of Miss Davis that she was truly a memorable Metis person in the Red River Settlement and St. Andrews area.