Meet ‘Ma’ Britton

Elsie Violet Britton, better known as 'Ma,' came to the Yukon in the early 1900s, and never left. Over her nearly 60 years in the territory she did not go Outside, even for a visit. Britton was born on July 4, 1879, in Mexico City.

Elsie Violet Britton, better known as ‘Ma,’ came to the Yukon in the early 1900s, and never left.

Over her nearly 60 years in the territory she did not go Outside, even for a visit.

Britton was born on July 4, 1879, in Mexico City.

Her father, Oscar Wellington Archibald, was a prominent surgeon and her mother’s name was Olivia Costello.

Both of her parents were very religious, and so Elsie was taught by French Sisters with whom she learned to speak English, French and Spanish.

During her teens she learned to sew, knit, crochet, lace, needlepoint and how to cook.

In her late teens, Elsie had an ‘adventure’ with a boy and was soon pregnant.

She carried out her term with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and gave birth to a son, who was left in the care of her parents.

The boy left for India and when he did not return, Elsie heard the call of the North.

Elsie worked in a hotel in Ketchikan, Alaska, before moving on to Skagway, and then to Discovery near Atlin, BC.

She pushed her way up to Dawson on the last boat of the season (either in 1900 or 1901, or 1907, depending on the source).

In Dawson, she operated bath houses and a cigar store, which at the time were popular covers for houses of ill repute.

She married Joe Britton in September 1928. At that time Joe was working as a cook for the Mounted Police, but it was a job he soon tired of.

He went to work in the gold mines at Canadian Creek and Kirkman Creek, where he and Elsie spent many years. Elsie worked as a cook and tended to their large flower and vegetable garden.

Over the years Elsie was known for her great love of reading western novels and for her talents at storytelling, often mixing the true tales that had actually happened to her with the fiction she read in books.

Elsie’s favourite expressions were: “God bless his soul,” and “He has a heart as big as a barn door.”

Everyone who dropped by the Britton house was treated like family, earning Elsie the nickname “Ma” Britton.

When Joe’s arthritis made life on the creek too difficult, they sold their share of the mine and moved to Carmacks, where they opened a roadhouse.

They operated it for a few years before opting for a smaller cabin.

The cabin, which is now part of the Carmacks Historical Buildings Walking Tour, was easier to care for than the larger roadhouse.

While in her early 80s, Elsie passed away at the Whitehorse Hospital on May 25, 1960.

Her funeral service was held in Carmacks a few days later.

“The magnificent little St. Jude’s Church was crowded and many waited outside – if ‘Ma’ could have seen it all she would have been pleased – the lovely floral tributes, the Music, the Respect—nobody attended out of morbid curiosity, but from the esteem in which she was held,” according to her obituary in the Whitehorse Star.

“She leaves a beautiful memory and we are much richer for having known her …

and so another chapter has closed with the passing of this grand Oldtimer.”

Her husband, Joe, died 48 days later at age 88.

They were both buried in the Carmacks cemetery near the Nordenskjold Bridge.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.

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