The story of “Auntie” Annie Saunders is one of true grit and independence in the history of southern Alberta.
Saunders’ life prior to moving to Alberta is still largely a mystery, but Belinda Crowson — president of the Lethbridge Historical Society — says it’s the journey she took alone as a Black woman into the Canadian West that indicates her independent spirit and determination to create a better life.
“She called herself ‘Auntie’ and that’s what she always told people is, ‘Call me Auntie,’ so she’s often referred to as ‘Auntie Saunders’ or ‘Annie Saunders,'” Crowson said.
“She was an American, born in the States, and she met Mary Macleod — Colonel Macleod’s wife — on a Missouri riverboat as Mary Macleod was heading west.”
In 1877, Saunders decided to join Mary Macleod and arrived in Fort Macleod to begin work as a nanny or nurse to the Macleod children.
Crowson says this is how she was most often documented, but recent research — through letters and correspondence — suggests that Saunders was a pioneer in her own right, running multiple businesses in Fort Macleod and later in Pincher Creek.
“She’s associated with a boarding house and being a laundress and running a restaurant,” Crowson said.
Crowson says letters from Colonel Macleod show the high regard she was held in with their family and with the community as a result.
With such an essential role in her community, the lack of publicly recorded information about Saunders and her entrepreneurial spirit shows a small snapshot of the pushback she faced as a woman of colour in the late 1800s.
“When you look at a lot of the early records, she is just mentioned as the nurse of the Macleod family. It took a long time and a lot of research for her to get an identity and to get a name attached to her,” Crowson said.
“She certainly reflects an attempt to push aside part of history.”
Saunders died in July 1898 at the age of 62 and was buried in Pincher Creek.
Her buried legacy is finally being uncovered.
“We’re encouraged that her story has been found and that researchers have found hers,” Crowson said. “But who else is still out there to be found?”