Martha Louise Black: First Lady of the Yukon

By Katie Cholette

A signed and matted black-and-white photograph of a woman smiling, dated 1932.

Martha Louise Black, 1932. Photographer: Pierre Brunet (e011154526)

Hidden among the millions of items in the collection of Library and Archives Canada are a set of 10 floral postcards. Unassuming in size, and modest in subject matter, they were produced by an exceptional and adventurous woman named Martha Louise Black. Dubbed “First Lady of the Yukon,” and the second woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, Martha Black was an astute businesswoman, an expert on the wildflowers of the Yukon and British Columbia, an author and lecturer, and the recipient of several honours. February 24, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of her birth.

A colour reproduction of a plant with four purple flowers and one that has turned to seed. Centred at the bottom are the initials MLB and GB, and it is dated 1955.

“Pasque Flower” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical print, 1955. (e011154530)

When Martha was born in Chicago, Illinois, no one could have predicted what an exciting life she would lead. In 1898, at the age of 23, she left behind the comforts of her home in Chicago (and her first husband) to follow the Gold Rush to the Yukon. Financed by family money, Martha and her brother George crossed the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River. They continued to the Klondike where she staked gold mining claims. Her first stay in the Yukon lasted just over a year, but Martha had been bitten by the bug of the North. When she returned in 1901 she staked more claims, opened a successful sawmill and married her second husband, George Black. She would spend a large portion of the rest of her life living in the Yukon.

A colour reproduction of a plant with three yellow flowers with wide leafy bases. It is initialed MB and dated 1930.

“Cyprepedium, Large Yellow Lady Slipper” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction, 1955 (e011154531)

Martha and George built a life for themselves in the Yukon, where she raised three sons from her first marriage. George, a lawyer by profession, became the 7th Commissioner of the Yukon in 1912. Together, the Blacks played a central role in Dawson and later Whitehorse.

A colour reproduction showing a plant with small purple flowers and wide, deeply lobed leaves. It is initialed MB and dated 1930.

“Crane’s Bill – Wild Geranium” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction (e011154532)

Martha’s lifelong interest in botany flourished in the north. In 1909 she began collecting and pressing wildflowers, filling in the backgrounds with watercolour—a practice she called ‘artistic botany.’ Her works garnered praise, and over the next two summers she was commissioned to collect and mount wildflowers from the Rocky Mountains for exhibition at Canadian Pacific Railway stations and hotels. A series of her works were subsequently published as postcards, and she was made a fellow of the Royal
Geographical Society.

A colour reproduction showing a plant with long woody stems, closely clustered tiny pink flowers and small leaves. The print is initialed MB and dated 1920.

“Heather” by Martha Louise Black. Photomechanical reproduction (e011154538)

In 1935, at the age of 69, Martha was elected to the House of Commons. She served as Member of Parliament for the Yukon until 1940. In 1948 she was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to Yukon servicemen. Martha died in Whitehorse on October 31, 1957 at the age of 91.

Learn more about her life and work:

Written by Katie Cholette

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