Notable Women Ancestors - Theresa Mary Johnson Gowanlock
Theresa Mary Johnson Gowanlock

Theresa Mary Johnson GowanlockTheresa Mary Johnson was born at Tintern, Ont. on July 23, 1863, the daughter of Henry Johnson and Martha Upper. Her husband, John Alexander Gowanlock was born at Stratford, Ont. on April 16, 1861, the youngest son of James Gowanlock and Mary Ann Dart. John and Theresa were married Oct. 1, 1884 at Tintern, Clinton Township, Lincoln County, Ont. After their marriage they left Ontario for western Canada to begin their married life.

John was massacred by Cree Indians at Frog Lake, North West Territories (now Alberta) during the Northwest Rebellion on April 2, 1885. Theresa was taken captive into the camp of Big Bear and held for two months before being rescued by the Northwest Mounted Police.

Their story has been told in many publications and the following is quoted from several of these.

From the History of Lincoln County, The Tragic Story of Theresa Gowanlock:

Tintern was a prosperous small village in 1884 when Theresa M. Johnson, one of 11 children of Henry Johnson and his wife, Martha Upper, became the bride of John Alexander Gowanlock of Parkdale (Toronto).

There were service businesses, the busy Dean mill nearby on the Twenty Creek, daily mail service at the post office on the north east corner of the crossroads. Two Johnson cousins, Henry and Peter, and their families were among the best known of Tintern's citizens. Zion Church, of the Methodist New Connexion branch, was known equally well as the "Old Mud Creek Church" or the "Johnson Church". A decade earlier there had been a healing of the division with the Wesleyans and the two groups had built a new and stronger church body.

Theresa's family traced its ancestry back to a Jeremiah Johnson, Surgeon General on a British warship that had put into the port of New York. Young Johnson was left behind when the ship sailed; he was a victim of the dreaded malaria. Though he partially recovered and left a son, Henry, the seaman died on Staten Island at the age of 29.

When the American Revolution took place Henry Johnson was a Loyalist. With a host of others he made his way northwards to claim land in British North America, intending to settle on what now is the Niagara Parkway, near Chippewa. Because of a mix up in allotments of Crown land, he found what he believed to be his grant already occupied. Henry's search for another location brought him to Clinton Township, and Tintern. Theresa's father, Henry Johnson, was a grandson of Jeremiah Johnson.

The Johnson family grew up in a house by the banks of the Twenty Creek built in 1820. Theresa was born in 1863 and attended local schools. When she was 21 in 1884 there began for her a six-month period that ran the gamut of joy, excitement and terror that affected her all the rest of her life. In that year, John Alexander Gowanlock came into Theresa's life. Born at Stratford in 1861, he was the youngest son of James Gowanlock, of East Otto, Cattaragus County, New York. The family lived for a time in Barrie and later in the Village of Parkdale (Toronto). A bout of sickness during his stay in Parkdale, where a family enterprise operated a modern printing business and published a weekly newspaper, led John's physician (who was also his aunt, Dr. Jenny Kidd Trout) to prescribe a change of climate. Gowanlock heeded the advice and journeyed west at the age of 19 to see the remote prairie region. Some 18 months later he returned home, his health restored and his head filled with enthusiasm for western living and business prospects in what now is Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Three months later he returned to Battleford where he became successively, a farmer, a mill worker, a speculator, a storekeeper and mill owner. A store he opened at Battleford prospered, and his growing reputation for honesty and fair dealing presaged a bright future. There appeared to be good prospects and in 1884, with a partner, he accepted a government grant of $2,800 to build a sawmill on an Indian reservation. Gowanlock made the long trip back to Toronto to purchase mill equipment and while in Ontario was for a short time a member of a government survey party engaged in land surveys in Niagara. While thus occupied he came to Tintern and found a bride. After a whirlwind courtship, he married Theresa Johnson and the happy young couple planned a honeymoon in the form of a journey to the still primitive Canadian west.

"We left my father's house at Tintern on the 7th of October, 1884" begins Theresa Gowanlock's story of the events that changed her life, written less than a year later. She was then a bride of six days. After the wedding the couple stopped at Parkdale for three days and on 10 October they boarded a train for Owen Sound. From there they traveled by lake steamer to Port Arthur and again by train on the Canadian Pacific through Winnipeg to Regina. Theresa, described by a friend as "a kind and gentle wife" was fascinated by the journey west, so completely different from anything she had known in rural and quiet Tintern. After Regina came a five-day journey by buckboard, 195 miles north to Battleford. Theresa reveled in her new experiences and she described with enthusiasm the prairie landscape, the "bluffs" that were scattered with clumps of trees, and the travelers they encountered along the way. There were easterners heading for new homesteads, freighters moving slowly with harnessed oxen, and Indians. Theresa enjoyed the company of all the humans she encountered and they remembered her for her kindly disposition.

At Battleford, John Gowanlock left Theresa to stay with friends while he traveled westward to Frog Creek where he had arranged for a gang of 13 men to build a house and mill. When the living quarters neared completion, he returned for his wife. They made overnight stops at Fort Pitt and Onion Lake before reaching the small settlement that was to become their home. At Frog Lake there was first a visit for Theresa at the home of Theresa Delaney while John completed the furniture for the new log house.

Theresa Delaney, who was destined to share so much grief with the bride from Tintern, was the only other white woman at Frog Lake. She was born at Nepean, on the outskirts of Ottawa, the daughter of H.M. Fulford, a well-known figure in farming and lumbering circles in the Ottawa Valley. Theresa married John Delaney, born in Nepean in 1846 and at the time of his marriage a foreman with a lumbering firm. He had been appointed in 1879, a farming instructor to the Indians for the Northwest. Additionally, he was a surveyor, and John Gowanlock was his assistant. Delaney married Theresa Fulford in Aylmer, P.Q., in 1882. They traveled west via Sarnia, Chicago, St. Paul, Winnipeg and Brandon, thence by construction train 400 miles west from Winnipeg. The young couple then made their way to Fort Pitt and Frog Lake by buckboard. By the time the Gowanlocks arrived, the Delaneys had been the area for some three years, the first whites at Frog Lake.

John Gowanlock was busy throughout the daylight hours with his building crew. After completion of the house and sawmill, timbers were sawn for a store and gristmill, and by 17 March 1885, the heavy work had been completed and the work crew discharged.

Theresa Gowanlock reveled in her new home and enthusiastically accepted a lifestyle far different from what she had known at Tintern. The two families comprised the total white population of Frog Lake, but there were other neighbors. The day following the Gowanlocks' arrival they were visited by Cree Indians. Over the Christmas and New Year's seasons, Theresa made friends with many natives who arrived bearing gifts of whitefish, for which were exchanged sugar, tea and printed cloth. Communications were difficult but Theresa did her best to be friendly and the Indians reciprocated.

On the day John Gowanlock laid off his construction crew, two men arrived from Duck Lake, seeking work. John engaged them, though later there were suspicions that the newcomers may have been involved in creating conditions that led to the terrible events that soon followed.

At the end of March there occurred an uprising at Duck Lake, near Prince Albert, after Louis Riel had written to the Metis instructing them to "rouse up the Indians". The Hudson's Bay Company post was over-run and pillaged, and shots were fired at the whites. News of the violence reached Frog Lake on 30 March that a general rebellion had erupted. The Gowanlocks hurried to the Delaney home and were told that the police had already left for Fort Pitt. Big Bear, chief of the band of Plains Indians at Frog Lake, arrived to assure the white settlers that they were in no danger. What the Gowanlocks and Delaneys did not know was that Big Bear was only nominally in control of his unruly tribesmen; actual power lay in the hands of a vicious follower named Wandering Spirit.

At five o'clock the following morning a rap on the Delaneys' door roused the dwellers with news that Big Bear's Indians were on the rampage. They had stolen the settlement's horses and soon they arrived to attack and over-run the house. The women and other whites set out to seek safety at the church, where Mass was being said. Wandering Spirit and his friends busied themselves looting the settlement, then herded the terrified whites toward the Indian encampment. Along the way, the Frog Lake massacre took place. Theresa Gowanlock, on her husband's arm, was horrified when John Gowanlock fell after being shot from behind by an Indian. He died in her arms before she was dragged away by another Indian and, with Theresa Delaney, was led captive into the camp of Big Bear.

The two Theresas were given shelter by Indian women in their tent; there they cowered with fear as some 30 war-painted Indians danced close by, uttering bloodthirsty cries. All the men of the settlement had been murdered and the two women believed their last hours were at hand. Two half-breed men came to their rescue, however, moving them to the tent of a friend who had been spared because he had an Indian wife. Another half-breed literally bought Mrs. Gowanlock's safety by purchasing her, and Theresa Delaney, for a horse and $30 in cash.

Thus began the captivity that lasted two terrifying months. Big Bear frequently visited the tent where the two women were held, apparently genuinely distressed by the savagery of his unruly followers but powerless to do more than use his nominal authority to intercede on their behalf. Times without number the two Theresas believed the end was near as John Pritchard, their protector, had to use all his wits and influence to ward off attempts by Indians to move them into their tents.

For two terrible days the bodies of the murdered whites lay where they had fallen. After being moved into the bushes by sympathetic half breeds, the bodies were dragged out into the open again by crazed Indians. On the day before Easter the white women induced friendly half breeds to bury their husbands' bodies under the church. The Indians retaliated by burning the church to the ground, the bodies charred beyond recognition.

On 6 April, Big Bear's Indians donned war paint and set out for Fort Pitt. They captured the settlement, taking the whites prisoner but unable to prevent the police, except for one constable who was killed, from escaping down the river. The prisoners were removed to Frog Lake.

Nervous over reports of military and police forces in the area, the Indians moved camp several times, the white women forced to trudge through snow and mud while their captors rode horses and buckboard. Chilled to the bone, almost always wet, the women suffered cruel privations. Added to Theresa Gowanlock's terror was the sight of Indians wearing her husband's clothing and quarrelling over items of garb that would have kept her tolerably warm. Constantly, the dancing and singing of the Indians seemed to signal the imminence of certain doom and on several occasions Theresa Gowanlock prayed for her release by death.

After two months of abject misery, on 31 May came deliverance. The Indians had been particularly restless, apparently aware of the approach by troops under General Strange at Fort Pitt. John Pritchard, who had looked to the welfare of the women as best he could throughout their ordeal, alerted them to be ready while he watched for a chance to escape. The opportunity came on an occasion when the Indians precipitously moved camp, leaving the half breeds to complete the job and follow. Pritchard and five other half breed families seized the chance to get away, fleeing in the opposite direction. After many trials, on the night of 3 June the party encountered army scouts led by two friends of John Gowanlock. The scouting party escorted the captives back to Fort Pitt and the long ordeal had ended.

For Theresa Gowanlock the lone, sad journey home was begun. The first leg was to Battleford which she had first visited with a new husband and exciting expectations for a happy married life. Then came the trip by wagon to Swift Current and eventually the train to Moose Jaw. Everywhere along the route the two Theresas were welcomed almost as persons returning from the grave, for news of their ordeal had traveled across the country. They were received with every kindness as people sought to make their journey as easy as possible. Theresa Gowanlock stepped from the train at Parkdale on 12 July, and soon afterwards was back at her home in Tintern.

With the Gowanlock family's involvement in the printing and publishing business, and with a sense that here was a truly historic story, the firm lost no time in recording the accounts of both Theresas and getting them into print. Within weeks a book made its appearance, Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear, in which each of the women told her story. The book was published by the Times office, Parkdale; copies of the original are still to be found, a century later, in many homes in Lincoln.

For Theresa Gowanlock the return home brought physical comfort and safety but the trauma of her ordeal remained to haunt her the rest of her life. Inescapable memories, dashed hopes for a happy married life, the physical and mental terror of those two awful months, left her broken in spirit. One who remembers stories of her condition by contemporaries says that today she would quickly have come under psychiatric care, but such was not available in those years before the end of the 19th Century.

The government at Ottawa, seeking to make amends for what she had gone through, gave her gifts to make life as easy as possible and awarded her a pension. With an aunt, Theresa spent some time studying art at a school in Rochester, N.Y., for she was talented painter. But no steps taken for physical well-being could remove from her mind the torment of the Frog Lake experience, and Theresa Gowanlock simply withered away while she spent her remaining years at the family home in Tintern.

In the cemetery at St. Ann's (Clinton Township, Lincoln County, Ontario) stands a monument on the Johnson plot with the inscription:

Theresa M. Johnson
Wife of
John A. Gowanlock
Who on April 1, 1885 was taken prisoner by
Big Bear at the Massacre at Frog Lake, N.W.T.
And after two months in captivity was rescued by
Colonel Strange
Died September 12, 1899
Aged 36 years, 1 month, 15 days

Besides the cairn at Frog Lake, markers stand over the graves of John Gowanlock and John Delaney.

Taken from The Roman Catholic Mission and Cemeteries at the 1880's Frog Lake Settlement, researched and written by Robert W. Hendriks - Historian, Heinsburg, Alberta - January 1998:

Establishing a common cemetery for the victims was prompted by a grieving father. In 1908, J.G. Gilchrist traveled west from Ontario compliments of the Canadian Northern Railroad to visit his son William's grave "somewhere north of the settlement", guided by Reg. No. 692 S. Sgt. W.J. Hall, N.W.M.P., Onion Lake Detachment. Gilchrist Sr. solemnly placed a plaque upon his son's lonely plot. It was his touching letter to Honorable Frank Oliver, M.P., strong Liberal and editor of the Edmonton Bulletin at the time of the uprising, politely suggesting "it would only be fitting that victims remaining out on the prairies should be collected for re-burial alongside the other four that now lay in the cemetery." Hall was assigned this duty, carrying out his orders under a hot July sun, 1909. Completion of his assignment was confirmed in a letter from the Office of the Comptroller, N.W.M.P., September 18, 1909 to the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Ottawa. Photographs of the new cemetery were taken shortly after by Mrs. Hall. Extracts from Hall's exhumation notes - July 20, 1909: Gowanlock - remains removed from cellar (church) by volunteers and buried in graveyard, May, 1885; remains "taken up" by Hall in 1909; no coffin evident; Gowanlock re-buried in coffin "with the other victims."

There were many political and natural causes leading to native unrest and subsequent Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Many publications discuss these causes and the events during and after the Rebellion. Some of these books include:

  • Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear, The Life and Adventures of Theresa Gowanlock and Theresa Delaney, by Theresa Gowanlock and Theresa Delaney, Parkdale Times Office, 24 Queen St., 1885

  • Blood Red the Sun, William Bleasdell Cameron, Kenway Publishing Company, Alberta, 1950 (Reprint, Edmonton, 1977)

  • War in the West, Voices of the 1885 Rebellion, Rudy Wiebe/Bob Beal, McClelland and Stewart, 1985

  • The Temptations of Big Bear, Rudy Wiebe, McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1973 (fictional novel)

  • The Women on the Bridge, Mel Dagg, Thistledown Press, Saskatoon, Sask., 1992 (fictional)

  • Capturing Women, Sarah Carter, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997

  • The Frog Lake "Massacre", Stuart Hughes, ed., Toronto,1976, includes the reprinted text of:

Blood Red the Sun, William Bleasdell Cameron, Kenway Publishing Company, Alberta, 1950 (Reprint, Edmonton, 1977

An Account of the Frog Lake Massacre, George Stanley, reprinted with the permission of the Alberta Legislature Library

Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear, by Theresa Gowanlock and Theresa Delaney

Tragic Events at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt During the Northwest Rebellion, by W.J. McLean, reprinted with permission of the Manitoba Historical Society

The Siege of Fort Pitt, Prisoners of the Indians, Our Captivity Ended by Elizabeth McLean, With Hatton's Scouts in Pursuit of Big Bear by Joseph Hicks

Sixty-five Years Ago, Rev. Edward Ahenakew, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Toronto

John Gowanlock (Theresa's husband) was a second cousin of my grandfather.

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