Emma Crosby Letters

Emma Crosby lived in a time and place where gender attitudes prevented women from being missionaries in their own right. They could assist in some helping capacity, but were not considered capable of preaching the word of God or offering the rites of baptism and marriage that marked stages in the life cycle. Missionary work was men's work and is most often examined from that perspective, hence the value of Emma Crosby's letters.

The closest a woman could become to being a missionary was to marry a male missionary, and that is precisely what Emma did. Her letters home from the British Columbian north coast, 1874-92, provide a unique window into the missionary enterprise. The letters describe how women like Emma both sustained their husbands and were, in all but name, missionaries as well. The two differences were that women had to obscure their activities behind their husband's name and also be exemplary wives and mothers.

Emma was born into the missionary life. Her father John Douse had emigrated from England in the early 1830s to convert the Six Nations, and by Emma's birth in 1849 was a highly respected Methodist minister in Ontario. By impressing upon on his daughter the doctrines that formed his own faith, he lay the foundation of her own. Emma's training at Hamilton's Wesleyan Female College, an institution offering higher learning for women in literature and classics, broadened Emma's social and intellectual horizons. She became a teacher, a craft that would see her through a lifetime.

Emma was in her mid-twenties, a very appropriate age for marriage for women in Ontario, when she took the initiative. In late January 1874, a dynamic missionary, with eyes that seemed to see right through you, came to speak at Wesleyan Female College, where Emma was teaching. For a decade Thomas Crosby had been converting Aboriginal people in British Columbia to Christianity and arrived at the college with a powerful message about "the perils of savagery," as he saw them. It was just three years since the British colonial possession of British Columbia had joined the Canadian Confederation, and the new province was virtually impossible to reach from the rest of the country. No one in "civilized" Ontario knew much about this faraway place, except that it was a frontier, populated by a handful of former fur traders and gold miners and lots and lots of Indians. Emma was entranced.

Very importantly, the missionary who gave the talk needed a wife. From a much more modest Ontarian family than was Emma, Thomas Crosby was converted in his mid-teens and headed west in the hope of saving gold rush souls. Gradually he got the attention of the few Methodist ministers who had made their way to British Columbia and managed to get himself ordained. The next step was to find a wife. The missionary enterprise gave priority to right behaviour, which, combined with fear of unconstrained sexuality, put the onus on missionaries to be wed. Not only did the married state prevent temptation on men's part, it served as a model for the Aboriginal people they sought to convert. The skewed sex ratio among newcomer adults in British Columbia put white women at a premium. The difficulty of finding a suitably Christian wife there was in good part responsible for Crosby's trip back home to Ontario. He lit on Emma, with impeccable Methodist credentials, including a father able to further a son-in-law's career, and did his best to convince her that her future lay at his side.

Short weeks after Crosby spoke at Emma's college about supporting the missionary effort, she wrote home to her mother, in one of the earliest letters that survive: "Would it grieve you very much - would you be willing to let me go to British Columbia, not exactly as a missionary on my own responsibility, but to be a help and a comfort, if possible, to a noble man who has been there working for years by himself." Emma dared to exchange one place for another about which she knew virtually nothing.

Following their marriage in the spring of 1874, Thomas and Emma Crosby headed to Fort Simpson near present day Prince Rupert, where for the next quarter of a century they lived among the Tsimshian people, whose territory stretches between the Nass and Skeena rivers. Intending to preach the Gospel and teach the arts of civilization, they came at the invitation of the Tsimshian. Aboriginal-missionary alliances served a range of purposes for groups in the area. Prominent local families sought missionaries' practical skills and newcomer knowledge as a means to facilitate their peoples to accommodate to the dramatic changes occurring all around them. Missionaries like Thomas Crosby relied on Aboriginal people to ease their transition into the area. This reciprocal relationship was integral to the Crosby mission and, though not always stated explicitly, nuanced Emma's letters.

Emma's letters begin just prior to her meeting the missionary suitor who would become her husband and slow to a trickle following the death of her mother in 1881 and then of her father five years later. Though these letters capture Emma's private thoughts and remain immediate to her experiences, she had at every point to make considered decisions about what was shared with her mother and others. While her letters were intended to assure her parent of her safety in this far off wilderness, they were also her sole means to share with someone else the immediacy of her experiences in this far away land.

The letters bear witness to women's contributions to the missionary enterprise. It was Emma who taught at the mission day school. It was Emma who managed everyday life at the mission while Thomas went on conversion expeditions along the cost. It was Emma who originated a girls' home and then a residential school named in honour of her husband. Emma may have written, she certainly edited, the reports in which her less well educated husband celebrated his accomplishments. The letters point up the great extent to which women bore the everyday burden of missionary life. In Emma's case, she gave birth to eight children, of whom she buried four while at Fort Simpson.

In good part because Emma's letters were private, they also reveal much about the ways of life of the Tsimshian and other peoples she and her husband had come to convert. Her letters make clear that, without the Aboriginal and mixed-race people who sustained them, the Crosbys would not have survived on the north coast.

Emma Crosby's letters help us to understand mission work as something much more complex than simple tales of conversion by men invested in Christianity. Multiple participants shaped the missionary enterprise, each of them acting on their own motivations with consequences that no one would have anticipated. We can share in Emma's life because her granddaughter Helen Hager and great-granddaughter Louise Hager considered them important enough to keep and then to donate to UBC Rare Books and Special Collections. We are in their debt.

-- Jan Hare and Jean Barman


Additional Resources

The Emma Crosby Letters form a part of the Thomas and Emma Crosby fonds held in Rare Books and Special Collections.  A description of the complete collection of letters, photographs, and other materials is available in the online inventory.

Thomas and Emma Crosby fonds at Rare Books and Special Collections


The majority of the documents that comprise the Emma Crosby Letters are illuminated in Good Intentions Gone Awry: Emma Crosby and the Methodist Mission on the Northwest Coast by Jan Hare and Jean Barman (Vancouver : UBC Press, c2006).

Good Intentions Gone Awry, by Jan Hare and Jean Barman

Good Intentions Gone Awry [electronic resource], by Jan Hare and Jean Barman