For this month’s post in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday this year, I have chosen to write about Sir John A. Macdonald’s second wife, Agnes. Much more is known about Agnes Macdonald than John A.’s first wife so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail about her life here. Check out the links at the bottom of the page to learn more.
Agnes was born in 1836 to a family of plantation owners near Spanish Town, Jamaica. I find this particularly interesting as part of my family tree appears to trace back to Jamaica in the early 1800s. Agnes and John A. met through her brother, who was John A.’s private secretary and they were married in 1867, the year of Confederation. They had one daughter, Margaret Mary Theodora Macdonald, who was born with severe mental and physical handicaps but lead a long life as a loved member of the family and does not appear to have been institutionalised.
On the first transcontinental trip on the new Canadian railroad on a train named the Jamaica, Agnes road on a platform on the cowcatcher of the train through the Rocky Mountains. In her words:
With a firm right hand grasping the iron stanchion, and my feet planted on the buffer beam, there was not a yard of that descent in which I faltered for a moment. If I had, then assuredly in the wild valley of the Kicking Horse River, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, a life had gone out that day! (Agnes Macdonald)
“There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!” (Agnes Macdonald)
Following John A. Macdonald’s death, Agnes was named Baroness Macdonald of Earnscliffe, in the Province of Ontario and Dominion of Canada.
Interestingly, the photograph of Agnes with the painting on an easel was not just a prop, she was an accomplished painter as evidenced by the collection of her paintings that are available online in the Canadian Archives:
Finally, any discussion of Agnes MacDonald needs to include a link to the folk song “Roll on Jamaica/Agnes on the Cowcatcher” by the former Canadian folk group with a focus on Canadian history, Tanglefoot! One verse from the song:
Next day on the cowcatcher I saw Agnes take her seat
Survey the golden prairies and the foothills where they meet
The blue Canadian Rockies and then the western sea