Emma Shaw Colcleugh was born on September 3, 1846, in Thompson, Connecticut. She was the second child of George W. and Abbey Shaw. Emma started her career as a schoolteacher in country schools in 1862.
In 1881, at 35, Emma acted on her dreams of becoming a traveller, anthropologist, correspondent, and literary scholar. The codes of her time made it hard for women to have careers in anything other than teaching, nursing, or housekeeping.
Emma had a forceful personality, with high spirits, good health, and a sense of humour. These traits helped her to flourish and become well-respected in a male-dominated field. As she ventured into the unknown, Emma wrote about and collected artifacts from the places and communities she visited. She wrote travel articles, which were published in newspapers internationally (despite the obstacles of being a woman in her field).
Eventually, Emma found herself in Manitoba, Canada, where she lectured about her travels. There, she met Frederick William Colcleugh, a former member of the Manitoba Provincial Parliament and Mayor of Selkirk (1886-1888). They married in 1893.
During their marriage, Emma would use her husband’s house — Colcleugh House — as her home base while travelling through the Canadian subarctic.
A Born Nomad
“How many times have I travelled? I wish I knew, but I don’t. I have in the past gone to Hawaii, the Yosemite, to the Yellowstone twice, to Alaska three times, up the Saskatchewan 1000 miles, to the headwaters of the Columbia, down the Mackenzie, and Labrador and Newfoundland. Most of these trips were bristling with what would have been hardships and discomforts to most people, but I am a born nomad.” – Emma Colcleugh
During her travels to the subarctic, Emma met with many Indigenous Peoples. She met the Cree, Slavey, and Chipewyan. Their lives had been made difficult for decades by the acts of foreigners, including fur traders, missionaries, and many others.
Travelling the world wasn’t Emma’s only passion in life.
As her career as a journalist developed, so did her career on the lecture circuit. Some of her most famous lectures included:
Through Hawaii with a Kodak,
Up the Saskatchewan,
Alaska and the North Pacific Islands,
From Ocean to Ocean,
and Inside the Arctic Circle and under the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Flag.
Emma found herself lecturing in the United States, Canada, abroad, at women’s clubs, the YMCA and YWCA, teacher’s meetings, church meetings, and occasionally in academic settings. Emma also became the Club Editor of the Providence Journal and was at the center of the active women’s rights movement in Rhode Island.
Emma considered herself a collector, and the Indigenous-crafted artifacts in her collection were her most prized possessions. Her collection was highly personal and reflected her interests as both a woman and a nomad.
She favoured portable objects over fragile ones, such as:
Beaded material on wood or velvet,
Embroidered materials on hide,
Household equipment (like birchbark containers),
Hunting and fishing equipment (like game bags, snowshoes, and gun cases),
and furniture (like a wooden chair).
Emma sold over 200 of her artifacts to Rudolph F Haffenreffer, and much of her collection is now held by the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology in Rhode Island.
A Journey Comes to an End
Emma and Frederick divorced in 1897 and, although nothing can be proven now, it’s suspected that Frederick had been unfaithful. Emma felt it best to leave Canada and return to New England, USA, where her editors assigned her to cover news around the world.
In 1898, towards the end of the Spanish-American War, Emma was sent to Cuba to investigate poor health and living conditions. A few years later, she ventured to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of a disastrous hurricane. In 1902, she was asked to be a passenger on the first train from the Ugandan Railway from Mombasa, British East Africa to Wyanda, Uganda.
During her three-month African tour, Emma contracted a reoccurring fever that prevented her from going on more rigorous future excursions.
Emma retired from the Providence Journal in 1932. Her last journey was a train ride to Florida for a holiday in 1940. She passed away shortly after.
Life as a ‘born nomad’ (as Emma would often call herself) and a woman in a field dominated by men was certainly a life worth living. And, although her time in Selkirk was fleeting, the life of Emma Shaw Colcleugh will be remembered by Selkirk’s residents for generations to come.
A Note on Emma’s Views
Emma’s writings were a product of the period she lived in. Though she broke boundaries in thought and practice by travelling, lecturing, collecting, and writing, her views as a Caucasian woman from the Victorian era can’t be ignored. Emma was sensitive to the cultures she encountered and made friends wherever she went, but there was always an unspoken assumption of white superiority.