Looking at this lovely young lady, you wouldn’t picture her living in the wilds of northern Manitoba province, Canada, in a cabin, wearing men’s clothing and carrying a rifle. Kate Rice was a prospector, probably the first woman prospector in Canada. Her life wasn’t easy, but it was the life she wanted.
Kate’s Early Life
Kathleen Creighton Starr Rice was born December 22, 18822 in St. Mary’s, Ontario, Canada. Her father, born in Tipperary, Ireland, was a grain merchant. Her mother Charlotte “Lottie” was a socialite, but Kate was closer to her father. He wanted her to be educated, but he also instilled in her an appreciation for nature. From her father, she learned the lore of the stars, how to canoe and shoot a rifle and make a camp in the wilderness. She read about Daniel Boone and other adventurers (probably none of them women).
Kate graduated from the University of Toronto in 1909 and found a job teaching school, first in Ontario, then in Alberta. There are some stories that around the time of college graduation that she had a boyfriend/maybe fiance who died suddenly. I couldn’t anything about him, so you might want to take this as romanticizing.
Heading to the Wilderness and Prospecting
Restless, she swore she was done with teaching. She went to Yorktown, Saskatchewan. Yorktown was a frontier town, on the edge of civilization. Helen Duncan, in her book Kate Rice, Prospector,* says “the main street ended abruptly, breaking up into branched winding trails that led to a skyline of trees….”
At 6 ft tall and blonde, with bobbed hair and overalls, Kate must have been a striking sight, especially to all the male prospectors, trappers, and hunters. It was about this time that she became “Kate.”
She intended to homestead, but she had been doing a lot of reading about prospecting and decided to try it. In 1912, she went to The Pas in northern Manitoba, at a time where there was a “gold rush” of sorts. She spent several winters alone, aided by Cree Indians and occasional trappers and prospectors. The Cree called her “Mooniasquao” (white woman).
She studied geology and minerals and began staking claims in various mineral rights, in copper, silver, and zinc.
Life in the Manitoba Bush*
Winters in Manitoba are about as bad as you might expect for northern Canada, with heavy snows and temperatures 20 to 30 degrees below zero. The snow might be 20 feet deep, so someone in snowshoes might be walking level with the top branches of trees. It was 100 miles from Yorktown to The Pas, and she would have to make the trip by canoe and sometimes by dogsled.
On one trip, she had a toboggan and a team of dogs. A winter storm was on the way, and there were wolves around. The dogs turned on her and she had to whip them. She created a camp against a boulder using two willow poles and length of canvas for a roof. She could hear the wolves and see them slinking around. Then she heard a bull moose and she ran for a fallen tree to hide, forgetting her rifle.
Finally, the moose wandered off, but all but two of her dogs had gone and her supplies had been raided. She started back and was met by her partner, who had gone after her.
Kate and Her Partner, Dick Woosey
In 1914 she hired a guide and went on her first prospecting trip. The following year, a friend grubstaked her and she found gold and base metals near Beaver Lake in Manitoba. Around this time she met Dick Woosey, a British army veteran of the Boer war who had moved to Canada. He had a wife and son, but they didn’t like the “bush*” life and went back to England.
Kate and Dick decided to become prospecting partners, signing a partnership agreement. They would continue their partnership until his death in 1940. They were very clear that their relationship was only as business partners, although they did share his cabin for a time. Rice never discussed her personal living arrangements with reporters or gossips.
She was asked if she regretted giving up marriage and family, and Kate said she thought about it, but she wanted her life. She loved the Aurora Borealis and wrote articles about it. She liked spending the night on the ground (no tent), seeing the stars on a clear night. She didn’t like the “onrush of civilization” and she only talked to people when necessary. (But she did enjoy the radio.)
The partners staked claims in various places, and in 1920 they settled on Assessment Island (later renamed Rice Island, for Kate). They discovered copper, nickel, and vanadium.
Rice and Woosey were better prospectors than business people, and they tended to be taken advantage of. At one point, they sold claims on the island for only $20,000.
Kate, being a woman, wasn’t considered a “person” in Canada, so someone else had to sign documents for her. Women weren’t didn’t get personhood in Canada until 1929.
After Woosey’s death, Kate settled on her island, gardening, prospecting, and writing articles, some for scientific journals about prospecting and mining.
Kate’s Later Life
About 1962, Kate went to a mental health facility, under confusing circumstances. I found two versions of what happened. In one version, Kate checked herself into the facility because she was worried about being confused, thought she was crazy. In another version, I read that she was “briefly detained” at the facility. When she was evaluated, the psychiatrist said she was just “unconventional,” not crazy.
Women at this time (even in the early 20th century!) were considered insane if they didn’t conform to the standard (male) version of normalness.
She spent her last days in a nursing home, penniless, and she died in 1964 and was buried in an unmarked grave. It was rumored that she had continued to receive checks for her mining rights, and they might have been buried near her house.
In 2009 admirers collected money for a headstone for her grave. The black granite marker proclaims
“Kate Rice: Prospector and Pinoeer of the North, Extraordinary Woman of the Wilds.”
Kate Rice had the life she wanted, even though it was the “last job in the world for an educated woman.” She ventured into the unknown, living a life of independence and unconformity.
Kate was honored by being inducted into the Canada Mining Hall of Fame in 2014. At the induction ceremony, Mary Ann Mihychuk, president of Women in Mining, said:
“Exploration as a venture, then as now, is not for the faint of heart. At a time when mean barely tolerated women in the industry, Kate Rice shattered the preconceptions about what a woman could achieve in the mineral industry. …she accomplished what no woman had done before in Canada.”
(*You may have heard the term “the bush” in relation to Australia. It’s any rural, undeveloped country area.)
*Kate Rice, Prospector, by Helen Duncan. This is a fictionalized version of Kate’s story, so take it with a grain of salt. Did Kate feel lost and scared her first winter alone? Did her father really come to The Pas, sick and wan, to take her home? Who knows? Kate left no memoirs to verify what happened. Duncan does tell an interesting story.
Several online articles tell bits of Kate’s story:
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