What My Pioneering Family Taught Me

My Pioneering Family

By: Victoria Gazeley

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 the how they lived 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 worldly 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:My great-grandmother's city house.

“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 Traveled 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 it 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 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

Pioneer log house

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 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.

Victoria Gazeley started dreaming about living on a small homestead around 2000 and hasn’t looked back. After 8 years of homesteading research, hands-on gardening and self-sufficiency workshops, interviewing experts and reading more books late into the night than she cares to remember, she packed up her 5 year-old son in the fall of 2008 and moved to a rural area near the ocean outside of a small town in coastal British Columbia, just a ferry ride away from Vancouver. She runs a website design company, Sunshine Coast Web Design, out of her homestead, and spends considerable time volunteering her online technical skills to local non-profits. She spent many years volunteering for civic environmental committees, and is an avid student of life and earth sciences. She enjoys ocean kayaking, exploring the coast of her home province with her son, and contributing her many years of communications experience back to her community. After more than 20 years of city living in apartments and townhouses, she’s finally found her place in the woods. And she can’t imagine it any other way. Get connected with Victoria at ModernHomesteading.ca!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachelle April 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm

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). – This does not sound pathetic! Not life threatening for sure, but most definitely heart stopping!

I think the shocks on the uHaul were probably similar to the wagon – and it had about the same horsepower. – ok, this made me laugh out loud!


Elvie Look April 19, 2011 at 5:29 am

Victoria is one busy lady. Love this article and thanks for sharing!


Denny April 18, 2011 at 10:33 pm

You are for sure a pioneer at heart Victoria! Such a wonderful story of courage and conviction of women from different generations…perhaps different obstacles and challenges but none the less, not every woman would be so resilient! High Five to you Victoria! Thanks for sharing Victoria’s amazing story Susan!


Scott Hay April 18, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Really interesting insight into your family life over the generations, Victoria. A great story. We made the opposite change of going from rural life to city life, simply due to my Dad’s job. However, I have a strong desire to move out to country life at some point in the future. Thanks for posting this fascinating story, Susan.


Olga Hermans April 18, 2011 at 4:31 pm

So enjoyed reading your story Victoria! It made me think about the time that I moved out of Amsterdam to the prairies of Alberta, south of Calgary. My parents had died in my young twenties; I moved to Amsterdam to find myself rolling in sin after just a few years. All of sudden on an evening I heard a voice telling me to go to Canada, to my future husband. I am soooo glad I did; it was one of my best choices I ever made. Now, we live in Vancouver after much traveling but we still long to live on the prairies…who knows! Thanks Susan for posting this beautiful story!


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