Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Diaries of Canadian colonial women

This post covers one of my favourite topics - 'life stories', also known as 'living histories' or 'life writing'  - interpreted loosely as 'an account of a person's life'.  A comment by Kiriaki Iossifidis on Heroines.ca really struck a chord with me. She says her favourite heroines are the 'nameless, faceless, immigrant women' - it is these women who are overlooked.

Through these pages, women share their stories of what it was like to settle in a young Canada. There are many personal accounts and self published books of people's experiences settling on the prairie, and I ordered these through the libraries in southern Alberta on a recent visit. Not many are available online as their availability and print runs were small - so perhaps they could be considered limited editions? Take a gander at your local library catalogue, or order them through Inter Library Loan.

AB As Grandma Said by Mildred Honess   A 20 pound pail of cookies! Can you imagine preparing cookies, bread and 3 meals a day for 20 men? This took place once a year over 3 to 4 days, in order to fuel the threshing crews who helped to bring in the harvest on farms across the country. Mildred's grandmother, Annie Armstrong, widowed at 35, moved to Alberta with 4 children aged 10 to 17 from North Dakota in 1907. She bought land and started her homestead as well as a country school and post office in the community now known as Lomond.  The experiences that Mildred recounts in her recollections are similar vignettes on many farms across the Canadian prairie at the turn of the century. This book provides a homey conversational tone, includes facts and figures of how much goods (foods) cost as well as wages: her mother was one of the aforementioned cooks who earned $9.00 per day, the same as a man on the threshing crew. (However, many were farm wives doing the same work without pay.) In the introduction, she shares: 'Use it up, Make it do, Wear it out, Do without'. This 'memory book' gives an insider view of history as it was being lived. Library copy. Published in Canada. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

AB Pioneering in Alberta by Jessie Browne Raber, published in 1951 in Canada. This 'life-story' gives a first hand account of emigrating to a farm in Alberta from England at the turn of the century. The first chapter reviews the decision to move from England to western Canada. It is poignant to hear that 'Dad didn't know anything about farming' and 'He was tired of keeping his nose in musty account books [...] 'he longed to be out in the fresh air'.  In the spring of 1895 the decision was made to leave Shrewsbury, England. An auction sale took place and 4 crates were packed with sensible items for a new homestead. The author gives a vivid account of the voyage and the happenings on board: a concert that their family took part in, the sailors pointing out whales and an iceberg and then finally the arrival in Quebec. A ship came alongside as they came up to the St. Lawrence River to take people from their ship to go to New York. She also mentions the Immigration Hall and the crowds of people. After their health inspection, they found a cab to take them to Montreal where they stayed the night, and then boarded their train to Calgary. The book continues with arriving at their new home and adjusting to the weather, the people and their new community.  Library copy. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

AB No Ordinary Woman Mary Schaffer Warren, a Pennsylvania Quaker who arrived in Alberta in 1889. Her husband Charles Schaffer died in 1903 and she is well known to have acquired 'country' skills in traipsing around in the backcountry of Rocky Mountains of Banff and Jasper. A well-known historical figure in the area. This book is available at the British Library. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

AB Lizzie Rummel: Baroness of the Canadian Rockies by Ruth Ottmann - a baroness who lost her home in Germany during WWI came to Alberta, Lizzie lived on a ranch near Millarville. In 1938, aged 41, she rode into Mount Assiniboine Lodge where she started work as a chambermaid,  eventually running the lodge and earning the Order of Canada recognizing her work as 'mountaineer par excellence'. A well-known historical figure in the area.  Library copy. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

SK Wheat and Woman by Georgina Binnie-Clark, Published in Canada.  A journalist who contributed to the Imperial Colonist, the official publication of the British Woman's Emigration Association. Within parts of the book she mentions making her living at writing for various publishers. Originally from London, she mentions : '[...] living in the very near neighbourhood of Westminster Abbey [...]'.  As I read excerpts from Georgina's diary, I became aware that the farm she purchased in Saskatchewan was all in the form of an experiment. The first line in the book: "You gave me your word that if I bought the farm your son would take off the crop." p.4  It is a book of conversations and reflections of what it was like as a woman to farm a piece of land in 1905 with hired men who were not overly confident of her skills. Georgina was a strong woman and she remained on the farm for 2 1/2 years after which a devastating fire wiped out her crops and her profit. In the conclusion she does not mention returning to England, but does say that she requested a meeting with the Minister of the Interior, : '[...] concerning the claim of women to her fair share in the homestead lands of Canada [...] p.401.  Library copy. Also available at the British Library. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

MB  How dear to My Heart by Carol B. Roberts - Published in Canada -memories about farm life on the Canadian prairie - feeding the men who were hired for harvesting; how she enjoyed walking through the fields with her mother -in all kinds of weather; memories of school days and finishing school at grade X; the church serving the community as a social building; one of the chapters - 'Things We Did Without'. Library copy. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

ON   Seven Eggs Today: The Diaries of Mary Armstrong, 1859 and 1869 Published in Canada. Mary Armstrong was born in 1819 in Mansion House Chapel, Camberwell Surrey (United Kingdom). She moved with her family to 'Upper Canada' in 1834 when she was 15. (Limited view on Google Books) This book is available at the British Library. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

Much to be done : private life in Ontario from Victorian diaries by Frances Hoffman and Ryan Taylor. Published in Canada.  A look back in time to women's lives on the farm in the 19th century, covering aspects of daily life; the chapters contain excerpts from the women's diaries and tells tales of hardships but also of triumphs. Some of the women were well-to-do who wrote in their diaries to share memories or relieve their homesickness. Other women, like Margaret Emma Griffith, wrote about working as a cook on the ship her husband was captain of. Belle Kittredge wrote about earning a living 'writing' letters on the type-writer. Another account tells of hired men who earned their keep by recording the marriages, births and deaths in families bibles as they had beautiful hand-writing. This book is available at the British Library. Ask your local librarian how to find a copy. 

Early Voices : Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914 by Mary Alice Downie, with Elizabeth Jane Errington edited by Barbara Robertson. Selected pages view on Google Books.

The Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996 edited by Kathryn Carter. Published in Canada.
         The women : Kathryn CARTER, Sarah and Susan CREASE, Mary DULHANTY, Miriam Qreen ELLIS, Marian ENGEL, Mary Eidse FRIESEN, Elsie ROGSTAD JONES, Sarah Welch HILL, Dorothy COATE HERRIMAN, Amelia HOLDER, Phoebe McINNES, Dorothy DUNCAN MacLENNAN, Jessie and Susan NAGLE, Susan ABERCROMBIE NAGLE, Caroline Alice PORTER, Sophie Alice PUCKETTE, Constance KERR SISSONS, Mina WYLIE. Somewhat available on Google Books.

Discover more:

30 Outstanding Women Canada's Great Women - Canada’s History article - Jan.8.2016

Central Alberta Regional Museum Network
Aboriginal and Ethnic Minority Women

Early Canadiana Online - a library of full-text historical articles includes books and government documents. A basic search resulted in 684 results for women's history.

The United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) (1915-2000) was an auxiliary group to the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA). 

Heroines - A guide to women in Canadian history - although the date on the home page of this website is 2004-2017, some of the linked pages are only indicated as 2004 - however some interesting tidbits. The Biographies page is a general listing of famous and not so famous Canadian women. An example: Mrs. Kwon Lee was the first Chinese woman in Canada. Corroborating evidence is not provided to prove this statement however. This online resource is created by Merna Forster, historian and author.

Global Genealogy.com -  books for sale  - this link provides search for 'diaries' - a good site for purchasing unique and difficult to find Canadian heritage titles that help in genealogy research. 


  1. I can relate to the posts about feeding the threshing crew. In Middlesex County, Ontario the threshing crews did not have cooks so the wife of the farmer cooked the meals. I will attach a section from my memoir about my memories of threshing.
    The women from the farm that they were working on supplied the meals for all the workers. Sometimes the neighboring women helped with the meals. They cooked meat, potatoes, vegetables, cabbage salad, two or three kinds of pies, cookies, bread and buns. I know from personal experience that they usually served dinner and supper and that both were big meals like this.

    1. Hi Shirley - thank you so much for your thoughts! However instead of sharing in the comment box, if you email me I would be happy to put a few excerpts from your memoirs online. A little icing on the cake as it were. My dad has memories of helping his mom make 10 loaves of bread every day during threshing. What a big job! Take care. pallenresearch@gmail.com