Ilene Johnston has an unusual hobby.
A certified provincial genealogist and president of the Weyburn branch, she has been documenting gravesites throughout southeastern Saskatchewan since the mid-1990s. But her ever-growing index is not restricted to community cemeteries.
Ilene’s passion is locating the graves of people who are buried on former homesteads or other places where you might not expect to find a grave today.
She tackled the project by rural municipality, checking town offices for early maps and asking for the names of local historians or old-timers who might have information. Any lead was followed up and often led to bumping down roads that were little more than trails.
Some of the plots are still tended, tucked into the corner of a quarter-section. Others are located near a barn or in the former homestead yard. A few have become overgrown with vegetation. Ilene recalls once waiting for a crop to come off before she could check on a reported grave in the middle of a field.
Fortunately, most of the gravesites still have names, dates, and occasionally, other information. The dead are usually members of a farm family, sometimes hired hands. They include flu victims. At least half of the graves belong to children. Several belong to women who died in childbirth and were buried with their babies.
Ilene’s research serves to confirm the fate of many homestead women on the prairies in the early 20th century.
Women may have been a critical factor in the pioneer farm’s success, but the isolation, primitive conditions, constant work, and childbirth took their toll.
Women worked alongside their husbands on the homestead with a sense of purpose and determination.
But it would be a mistake to view them as stoic “helpmates,” who simply played a supporting role in wresting a living from the land. Survival meant that wives had to learn new skills, do new things, that were not normally expected of women at the time.
At the same time, they were expected not to lose their femininity but continue to handle traditional duties in the home, including the rearing and care of children. These new responsibilities meant that women “hauled a double load” or worked “a second shift” on the homestead.
Their life was one of constant toil. And they performed these never-ending tasks with a flexibility and resourcefulness that seems truly incredible today.
One of the perils, though, was pregnancy and childbirth.
Expectant women often had to make do without the support and advice of other women, especially if they lived on isolated homesteads. Those who lived in tight-knit immigrant communities usually received better care and attention. Other early women settlers turned to the aboriginal community for help.
Babies were generally delivered at home with the assistance of local women. Some had formal training as midwives, while others acquired knowledge through elder teachings or on-the-job experience. Sometimes only husbands were there to help.
It was not uncommon for mothers and/or their babies to die from complications.
Most infant deaths in Saskatchewan occurred within the first week of birth; in 1914, one-third of all childhood deaths under five were newborns. In fact, it was unusual for a family not to have lost at least one child.
In 1910, the Saskatchewan government took steps to deal with infant mortality by introducing a maternity package for newborns and a maternity grant for mothers in remote areas or in financial need. But the other real need, pre- and post-natal care, was virtually non-existent in pioneer districts.
Because of the need for labour on the homestead, women commonly had several children, in some cases over a 20-year period. They also had little time to recuperate before they were back to work or tending to their other children.
Difficulties during pregnancy or child birth, together with the strain of multiple pregnancies, exhaustion, poor nutrition, and homestead poverty, consequently took their toll.
Sadly, though, women were taken for granted far too easily.
Suffragette Nellie McClung liked to tell the story of Jane, who died three days after giving birth to her seventh child: “The bereaved husband was the most astonished man in the world. He had never known Jane to do a thing like that before, and he could not get over it. In threshing time too!”
(Those interested in Ilene’s index can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo: A Saskatchewan homestead family.
Photo courtesy Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan RA 72269(1)
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