[Originally posted April 11, 2011 – Revised and updated May 11, 2014]
I’m not a pioneer woman. I’m not even really a homesteader. Not in the historical sense of the word, anyway.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the pioneering women in my lineage. It goes without saying that my homesteading journey is different than that of the pioneer women in my ancestral line. As much as I like to think I’m living a ‘homesteading life’, it really doesn’t compare to what these hardy homesteading women experienced – not in the least. I’ve also been pondering how they recorded their experiences in the world long before basic consumer cameras, voice recorders or even fancy journals, let alone Facebook and Instagram – some kept diaries,and many wrote letters home to their parents who often lived thousands of miles away… My great -great- and great-grandmothers did both, and I’m so grateful I have access to those journals and letters. Their stories inspire me, and give me a tiny glimpse into the what life was like in rural areas before the days of highways, telephones and emergency services.
Here’s how our lives compare:
How We Ended Up on a Homestead
Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: Left a comfortable life in New York City to accompany her husband in nearly three weeks of travel via boat and covered wagon to Brookings, South Dakota. The picture is something straight out of “Little House” – a young couple pack up all their wordly belongings and their young child (my great grandmother Mary, born in 1878) into a wagon, tie their only cow to the back, and head out for a new life in a sod house on a ‘barren’ prairie.
Great grandmother Mary Elizabeth: Left what seemed to be an affluent, social and upscale life in Arlington, South Dakota after some sort of ‘scandal’. Whatever happened, it sent her husband Guy packing in March of 1906 to set up a new homestead north of Calgary, Alberta, taking along all of their beautiful ‘city furniture’, five cows, fifty chickens, ducks, a team of mules, their dog Maggie and a canary. Mary arrived in Calgary by train in the early morning hours of July 12, 1906 with her two young children in tow. Shortly thereafter, she saw her new home for the first time – and I’m thinking she wasn’t too impressed:
“How my heart sank when I saw this unfinished, ugly log house. I thought I just couldn’t live here. However, I took the bull by the horns and decided I had to make the best of it.”
Me: I left an upper middle class neighbourhood and all my urban furniture after eight years of itching to move to rural property. To say I was compelled to leave the city and live a little more self-sufficiently is an understatement – it was an obsession. Lucky enough to have a ‘homestead’ to come to that didn’t involve breaking sod or hitching everything to a covered wagon, and having moved into the woods by choice and not by default to my husband, I think I might have gotten the better end of the deal than the ladies who forged my trail so many years ago. But our city-to-country transformation does connect me with them – I feel a certain kinship in that regard.
How We Travelled to Our Homesteads
Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: River boat and horse-drawn covered wagon.
Great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth: Train and horse-drawn wagon.
Me: A 5-tonne U-Haul with a covered wagon painted on the side. Seriously. Or maybe it was a giant kraaken overtaking a pirate ship… I think it was a kraaken. So much for any similarity there… except I think the suspension on the uHaul was probably similar to the wagon – and had about the same horsepower.
How We Cook and Stay Warm
Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: Burned buffalo ‘chips’ (read: dried buffalo manure collected from the prairie) for cooking and heating.
Great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth: Burned wood collected from the prairie, and brought inside from -40 storage in winter.
Me: Have a supply of windfall firewood so huge I could never burn through it all – and it’s right outside my door. And it never really gets much below freezing.
The Things We’re Afraid Of
Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: Losing children in childbirth in a cold sod house, growing enough food that her family didn’t starve, ambush by bandits and thieves, and collecting sufficient buffalo chips to stay warm and cook otherwise inedible foodstuffs.
Great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth: Predatory animals that regularly took out her livestock, the First Nations peoples who lived all around her (which seems laughable – and more than a little racist – now, but at the time, for a woman often alone for days on end with young children on the prairie, I can imagine she was more than a little nervous from all the crazy tales she’d heard during her years growing up in the US midwest), and thinking she’d possibly never see her parents again because they simply lived so far away.
Me: My internet connection going down right in the middle of a website launch. And maybe an extended power outage. (Yes, I realize that does sound pathetic now that I’ve actually written it down).
How We Feed Our Families
Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: Spent hours every day tending food grown in substandard soil, collecting whatever wild crafted foods she could find, and hunting and fishing where they could find it.
Great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth: Spent pretty much every waking moment tending vegetables in much better soil, collecting an abundance of wild crafted berries and fruits, hunting and fishing ample game, and putting it all up for winter via canning and drying.
Me: Zip up to the local health food store in my car to pick up organic, grass fed meats and cheeses, and locally grown organic vegetables and snacks. Sure, we grow vegetables in the summer, but not everything we eat (by far). This year will be the first year that we’ll be growing enough to ‘put up’, and even then it will likely be mostly from produce purchased from local commercial organic growers. And we’ll have chickens. Beyond that, for this year, we’ll be depending on the hard work of others in our area for the majority of our food supply.
What We Do if We Get Sick
Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: Depended on local knowledge of herbs and emergency medicine – there were very few doctors working in the rural areas in those days.
Great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth: Depended on years of knowledge gained from other women on the prairie, as well as her own experience with traditional remedies. Again, no doctors anywhere nearby.
Me: Check the internet for symptoms, consult with a myriad of professionals in essentials oils, homeopathy, naturopathic medicine and energy medicine, and the odd time it’s appropriate, head to the local clinic or in emergencies (of which we’ve luckily had very few), the local hospital emergency room. Pretty cushy…
So as you can see, while I come by my interest in a more self-sufficient lifestyle honestly, I can in absolutely no way describe myself as a ‘pioneer woman’, or even a real homesteader. These women were true pioneers, living in rough and often dangerous conditions in order to seemingly create a better life for themselves and their families. Funny thing is, though, that in my matriarchal line, the women came from fairly well off families in the city, and they only moved to the homestead after their men showed interest in pursuing that lifestyle. So was it really a better life? Only they would be able to answer that question.
What I do know is that in my case, our life is absolutely, 100% better here, in our tiny hand-hewn log cabin in the woods, than we were in our fancy townhouse in the city. But I had a choice – my great grandmothers didn’t… at least not really. But we all have tales to tell and wisdom to share, them through their journals and letters, and myself and others pursuing this dream through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and myriad other social media and digital means, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. They provide me such a brilliant example of strength and perseverence… even if they didn’t realize it at the time.
Do you have any homesteaders in your lineage? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!