Dr. Sandra Rollings-Magnusson has spent decades digging through prairie province archives, looking for insight into how homesteaders in the late-19th and early-20th centuries felt about what they were experiencing. 

Tucked into the thousands of pages of data she has gathered over the years was a collection of personal narratives that offered a range of perspectives on what life was like during that time. 

“Several of those memoirs expressed this hope that people would read their stories – that they would be remembered and told,” says the associate professor of sociology. “I realized that I could do that.”

The result is Dr. Rollings-Magnusson’s fifth book, Tales from the Homestead: A History of Prairie Pioneers, 1867–1914.

Homestead book coverAmong the compilation of 36 stories chronicling daily life on the prairies is the story of a child lying on his back during a rare break from working in the fields, staring up at the clouds, enjoying the beauty, quietness and stillness. But alongside recollections of the beauty of the land and stories of daily life – taking care of a cow or losing a horse – are memories of intense isolation and extreme hardship.

“This wasn't a romantic period of time,” says Dr. Rollings-Magnusson. “There were many difficulties and challenges.” 

Those challenges began almost immediately after the decision to make the journey overseas. Weeks on a ship, followed by weeks traveling by oxen or cart – and in later years by train – to arrive in a place with no amenities, build a sod home, establish a farm and eke out a living in remote locations.

One story in the book recounts the experience of a father who returned to the homestead early after leaving in search of work.

“He came home to find his family was starving,” says Dr. Rollings-Magnusson. “And recalled how excited everyone was to receive the pig’s head he had brought with him.”

She adds that living in such isolated locations meant that seeing another person approaching was also cause for celebration. 

“Welcoming the person who dropped off the mail was a highlight, and receiving visitors or going elsewhere to visit were among the small joys people took from life. There are many stories of how people who came from different places and spoke different languages relied on each other as they built a new life in Canada.” 

Some have a surprising side to them, says Dr. Rollings-Magnusson – like the story of a woman who journeyed to Canada from England to meet her beau on the prairies. After an uncomfortable week-long journey sitting on a wooden bench dressed in layers of fancy clothing, the train arrived at her destination. 

“There wasn’t even a platform at her stop,” says Dr. Rollings-Magnusson. “After she jumped off the train and into the snow, her beau took her to a little one-room shack she was to call home. I can only imagine the shock she felt.”

While the book includes a wide range of experiences and perspectives, each story shares a common thread – perseverance. “It was such a unique time,” says Dr. Rollings-Magnusson. “It’s wonderful to be able to share the stories of these people in their own words – each one has something different to offer.” 

Tales from the Homestead: A History of Prairie Pioneers, 1867–1914 is available in bookstores and online. For more information, visit sandrarollingsmagnusson.com.

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