My Pioneering Women – A Modern Homesteader's Family Tree

Reader Contribution by Victoria Gazeley
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 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 – in
the least.  I’ve also been pondering how they recorded their experiences
– in journals, in letters home to their mothers and fathers… sort of a
‘pioneer woman blog’ if you will.  I’m so grateful I have access to
those journals and letters from my great grandmothers.  Their stories
inspire me, and give me a tiny glimpse into how their days and nights.

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… ah, yes, I think it was a kraaken. So much for any
similarity there… except I think the shocks on the uHaul were 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 poo 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 deadfall 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

How We Feed Our Families

Great-great-grandmother Mary Ann: Spent hours every
day tending food grown in substandard soil, collecting whatever
wildcrafted 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 wildcrafted 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 about 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
Me: Check the internet for symptoms, consult with a
myriad of professionals in 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…

The Wrap-up

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 off 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 me
through my blog, Facebook, and Twitter, and for that, I am incredibly
grateful.  They provide me such a brilliant example of what can be
done… 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 below!

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