The story of Maria Brent

RANCH TALES: Maria Brent was a passionate advocate of the mixed-race children of the early Okanagan ranchers and their native wives

Maria Brent was a passionate advocate of the mixed-race children of the early Okanagan ranchers and their native wives that formed the “first families” of the valley.

She once wrote, “This is an aspect of Canadian history which seems to have been strangely overlooked, viz., the natural aptitude of men of mixed Indian and white blood, for public office and for leadership.”

Her father, Charles Frederick Houghton, was born in Ireland and entered the British Army at the age of 16. After serving eight years, he heard that the colonial government was offering land grants of 1,440 acres to military settlers with the rank of Captain. When he traveled to B.C. he was told that the land grants had been reduced. None-the-less he took up land in the Okanagan Valley along with his friends, the brothers Forbes and Charles Vernon, after whom the City of Vernon is named. He appealed to the government of the Colony of B.C. for a full military grant and received a total of 1450 acres, which he named the Coldstream Ranch.

In 1868 or 1969, Houghton met and married Sophie N’kwala, granddaughter of the great Okanagan Chief N’kwala. It was Chief N’kwala who personally conducted the wedding ceremony, indicating the significance and permanence of the union. The couple had two children, Maria was born in 1870 and baptised at Okanagan Mission (later Kelowna). Her brother Edward was born in 1872. The happy family did not survive for long. In 1877, in the altogether too common practice in the BC Interior, the 39 year-old Charles Houghton married 22 year-old Marion Dunsmuir, daughter of the well-to-do coal magnate, Robert Dunsmuir. His wife Sophie and the children returned to their Okanagan native relatives.

Maria Houghton was a strong, intelligent young woman and this was recognized by her Okanagan native family.

As she later wrote, “In an Indian tribe they pick one sober child with a good memory and train them to remember the story of their family and their ancestors. I was chosen for this. It was my great grandfather’s daughter that taught me (my grand aunt, old N’kwala’s  daughter, young N’kwala’s sister). I now lived with my grandfather’s sister.”

Maria’s great aunt taught her the traditions, which she had learned from her father, the old Chief N’kwala. Maria, who had been well schooled, wrote down these traditions, preserving them for future generations.

When Charles Houghton’s wife Marion died in 1893, he invited Maria to Montreal where he was stationed. She attended the balls and social events of the Montreal upper class and enjoyed a glimpse of how the other half lives. Her father retired to Victoria in 1897 and passed away the following year. Maria returned to her Okanagan family, quite a contrast from the life in Montreal.

She married William Brent, mixed-race son of Okanagan pioneer Frederick Brent and his wife Mary Ann, a daughter of Chief N’kwala. Maria Brent became widely known in the North Okanagan and was the author of a number of historical articles in the Okanagan Historical Society reports.

Ken Mather is a Spallumcheen author. He can be reached through www.kenmather.com.