On the homestead

Jul 11 2017

Archive dive uncovers prairie homesteader stories written in their own words


This is part of a series of stories connected to Canada’s 150th Anniversary of Confederation. Watch for pieces connected to the theme “the Canada you didn’t know” throughout the rest of 2017.

For years, Dr. Sandra Rollings-Magnusson has been making an annual summer road trip east to Saskatoon, south to Regina, west into Alberta and back north to Edmonton. The sociology prof isn’t collecting snaps of quirky small-town attractions or searching for the best backroads diners—she’s diving into the archives. 

“Archival research isn’t something most people get excited about, but there really is a treasure trove of information there,” says Sandra. “I’m fascinated by the social side of the lives of homesteaders—their work, food, medical practices, religion, education and leisure activities—and getting to understand what they were thinking.”

Delving into the mindsets of people who saw the turn of the 20th century isn’t easy, so Sandra could hardly believe her luck when she hit the archival jackpot in the Saskatoon branch of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.

Several years ago, while she was at the Saskatoon archives researching the importance of women’s labour on the family homestead, Sandra came across a collection of surveys conducted in the 1950s. Ten different questionnaires asked hundreds of open- and close-ended questions of the people who paid the $10 registration fee to claim 160 acres of land in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“They were just sitting there for 50 years and nobody had ever statistically analyzed the responses,” says Sandra.

So she set out to do just that. With help from student research assistants, she coded and entered the survey data and more than 7,000 homestead land title records into a statistical database.

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The work has already informed six academic journal articles on everything from one-room schoolhouses to medical practices. And now Sandra is bringing the most compelling stories to a wider audience with her book, The Homesteaders: From Confederation to the Great War, scheduled for release in August.

“The stories are fascinating, but the most exciting part is that the information isn’t second- or third-hand,” says Sandra. “Learning about the history of pioneers with stories written in their own words and in their own voices is what makes this book unique.”

Its pages chronicle stories of ingenuity, loneliness, perseverance and survival—all reflected in the 200 photos Sandra collected for the book, only two of which include people sporting even the hint of a smile.

“It was a harsh climate and a difficult life,” says Sandra. “Many people were extremely poor and arrived in Western Canada with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”IMAGE_CDA_150_Homesteader_2

Depending on what time of year they stepped off the train onto prairie soil, things could be particularly grim. “If they came in the fall and weren’t prepared for winter, it was dire. People did starve to death,” explains Sandra. “It was also a lot colder—in the winter of 1906/07, temperatures were recorded at -60 Fahrenheit—and most people were living in ‘soddies,’ houses made from rectangular pieces of sod cut out of the ground.”

A homesteader’s work began at sunrise and didn’t end until sundown, she says, and by the age of 14, boys and girls were doing a full day’s labour. When it came time to seed or harvest, children as young as four were called in to help.

But there were happy moments tucked in among all of the hard work and struggle.

“There are stories of having pets, including the typical cats and dogs, but there are also stories of pet coyotes and even a pet moose,” says Sandra. “People would read and sing, and visit their neighbours once in a while—which was a big event because they lived so far apart.”

The stories in the book, along with others from Sandra’s extensive research, also make their way into her classroom when she teaches sociology of the family. “Most textbooks focus on family history in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes—there might only be a paragraph about prairie history and the families that came here—so it’s nice for me to be able to share some of the history of that time with my students.”

Sandra is continuing her research this summer, and focusing on some new topics: the folklore of the time and what was then called “prairie madness,” the psychological issues that came from living alone during harsh winters on the prairies.

“The first-person responses to those surveys have given me enough material for a lifetime of research,” she says. “It’s work that I adore so much that I know I’ll never be finished.” 

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