Settler Women’s Hidden Lives

Charlotte Galley of Victoria & Mary Ann Galley of Harbledown Island

Marriage was a gamble for Victorian women, a decision based upon intuition and promises. And it was for keeps, no matter what a husband’s life choices might bring–including immigration and isolation.  Relatively few women settlers left accounts of their inner lives, but a chronicle of their circumstances speaks volumes.

Charlotte (Gower) Galley & her first child, Alte, at about the time they arrived in Victoria, in 1862. Photo courtesy the late Elaine Langlois, a descendant.

Charlotte Gower was in her late teens when she married William Galley. He was a mason, a solid profession in mid-19th century Britain, but he wanted more from life, so they set off for Canada. The Galleys had a toddler when they left and a second child was born as the deep snows of a long Ontario winter began to melt in 1852. A few years later they moved to New York,[1] where talk of the California Gold Rush beckoned. There were no transcontinental railways, so the Galleys travelled by ship to Panama, where they crossed the continent by mule team through the steamy heat of malarial jungles. By the time they reached California, the gold rush had peaked and the big excitement was the Cariboo Gold Rush, many miles to the north in British Columbia. The Galleys caught a northbound ship in 1862,[2] but after a decade of roaming, Charlotte refused to go any further than Victoria, the colonial capital. William got his family settled and travelled alone up the difficult mountain trail to the Cariboo, returning to his family during winter freeze up, a pattern he was to follow for nearly a decade.[3]

Where so many other gold miners failed, William earned enough to set his family up in a comfortable home on acreage. And when he quit mining in the 1870s, he became one of Victoria’s leading building contractors—giving Charlotte the settled life he must have promised with each or their moves in the years before.

Charlotte (Gower) Galley. Photo courtesy the late Elaine Langlois.

Every new decade brought a major shift in Charlotte’s life. In 1882 William died of a heart attack at the age of sixty, leaving her in a world without social safety nets. But Charlotte was lucky, her eldest daughter had married a successful hardware merchant in Victoria, so she moved in with them.

Charlotte’s eldest son—William Galley Jr—had a touch of his father’s wanderlust, though this may not have been immediately evident to Mary Ann Wharton, when they met in a Vancouver boarding house in the 1880s. Mary Ann, a tall slip of a woman, was the housekeeper and William was a boarder, managing a new branch of his brother-in-law’s hardware store. William was smitten by Mary Ann, but she was just twenty and he was fifteen years her senior, so she refused his marriage proposals a dozen times,[4]until she got fed up with the drudgery of scrubbing floors and cooking for a pittance. Mary Ann hung up her apron and walked to the hardware store to accept William’s hand[5] and they were married on February 24, 1889.

Aboriginal people from all over the coast bought supplies in Vancouver, which inspired William and a partner to become coastal traders. In 1892[6] they loaded a twenty-six-foot skiff with goods to move over four hundred kilometers north to Knight Inlet, where there was a rich fishery. They must have travelled under sail, when winds allowed, and otherwise by oar, with Mary Ann and her infant tucked close against the icy winds and rain of February. This was a wild and unfamiliar landscape, with powerful outflow winds and tide rips churning up the mouth of this one hundred and twenty-five mile long inlet. Waterfalls flow from towering peaks, grizzly bears ramble the beaches, and the Kwakwa’wakw people–who were to become the Galley’s friends–were said to be fearless warriors.

Jeanette Taylor at the long stone wall built by the Galleys on Harbledown Island.

The Galley’s first season as traders was so successful they decided to stay in the region, following the aboriginal people back down the inlet to their summer villages among the Broughton Islands. Mary Ann and the baby travelled ahead with a Kwakwaka’wakw family in their large canoe. At Dead Point, on Harbledown Island—near several large Kwakwaka’waka villages—William registered for a ‘pre-emption,’ (a land grant), where they built a one hundred-foot long log house and trading post.

Were They Engaged Adventurers, or Simply Steadfast Mates?

Steve Schelenburg at the remains of a stone arch gateway on the Galley’s homestead, Harbledown Island.

Mary Ann’s descendants are proud of her hardihood, though no personal records or accounts have survived to tell us how she felt about the toil and isolation she faced. She had not achieved the longed-for escape from drudgery, but she and her husband had independence and a subsistence income. There were just two English-speaking families living nearby (including their former trading partner), and the closest medical care, school and other services were several days travel away. Mary Ann worked in the store, raised and educated her four children until a small school opened on Harbledown Island a few years later, and helped with the farm.

Mary Ann’s life was cut short, when she died of a heart attack in August 1913. William continued on for many years on Harbledown, though only a crumbling stone archway and stone wall fencing remain to mark decades of toil.

Clues and Conjecture

Charlotte and Mary Ann Galley had only momentary flashes of direct agency. Charlotte’s refusal to leave Victoria ended the rigors of rough travel with a young family. And as a widow, luck was on her side, thanks to her daughter’s marriage to a successful merchant.

Her daughter-in-law Mary Ann hung up her apron to marry William, to escape hard work in a low paying job. And while surface details suggest her gamble failed—her descendant, the late Elaine Langlois—felt Mary Ann must have been a brave and equal partner in her husband’s adventures. Whether or not that’s true the continuing strong family bonds among Galley descendants marks the achievement of loving family ties.

Reader Responses:

Hi Jeanette,

I have often noted that in pioneer couples the woman died before the man, which gives a hint of where they stood on the co-adventurer — victim spectrum. The conspicuous exception is Cougar Annie. I would guess that if your abusive husband just accidently happens carelessly to shoot himself, police are unsympathetic if he shoots himself in the head or chest (quite awkward with a long gun). Wilderness smarts suggest a shorter investigation if he shoots himself in the foot or leg so he can’t walk and bleeds a lot. I happened to drop in on her place in 1959 when I was doing research on the west coast of Vancouver Island but she was not there, only a big man with a beard, presumably one of her husbands.

I remember when I was a young teen-ager on Read Island a neighbour’s new wife told me how, the morning after their wedding night, he kicked her (literally) out of bed to light the wood stove. I made sympathetic noises. Now that I am older (and perhaps wiser) I wonder if she was looking for something more substantial in the way of comfort.

Steve Schelenburg at the remains of a stone arch gateway on the Galley’s homestead, Harbledown Island.

My favourite story on the `life was hard but the women were tough` theme comes from the Danish settlement near Cape Scott. The government promised them a road but it never happened, so they had to pack mail and supplies along a rough trail from Sushartie, forty miles away. A guy sent his wife to get flour. She came back carrying a box stove, weighing 105 pounds. He gave her a hard time. “The stove is nice, but where is the flour I told you to get?” “Look in the stove.” Inside was a twenty pound sack of flour.

Getting back to your blog post: I think it is good, and does not go beyond the evidence on speculating about these ladies’ motivation.

Cheers, Tom Widdowson (son of Read Island, BC pioneers and retired U’Vic prof)


Thanks, Jeanette. Too bad these women don`t get more recognition. Their lives couldn`t have been easy. Lorraine K


I can’t imagine living in those times.  It fills me with dread.

You have done an excellent job of recording the life of this poor woman.  Joy Tedford.


[1] According to family story (see, the Galleys went to London, Ontario, but Altie (Galley) Tye’s obituary (Colonist  Sept 3, 1948) says they lived in Hamilton, Ontario for nine years.

[2] Family story has it they arrived in 1862, but according to census records and Altie Galley Tye’s obituary, they arrived in 1863.

[3] In the 1874 Victoria, BC directory listings, William Galley was a miner. In subsequent directories he was a contractor/builder.

[4] Family tree,

[5] BC Archives vital stats. They were married in Vancouver in 1889 and on the registry Mary Ann noted her birthplace as Yorkshire, England.

[6] William managed the Hickman Tye Hardware store in Vancouver, where he likely met aboriginal people, who shopped in large quantities for potlatches. The hardware store continued to be listed in Vancouver until 1894, when it may have closed, though the Victoria store continued to thrive. Perhaps the deep recession of the early 1890s was its downfall. There is debate among descendants about the date  the Galleys moved up coast. Their son Tom said, in a taped interview (Museum at Campbell River archives), they went there in Feb 1892, when his Eileen was six months old, but she was not born until August 1892. Wm. did register for a homestead on Harbledown in 1892 (see Lands Branch records for Lot 27, Range 2, Harbledown Island.) Perhaps William and his partner went up to Knight Inlet/Harbledown in 1892 and took Mary Ann and the baby with them the next spring, in 1893?