On her journey towards a history degree, Connie Gerwing became aware of a lobby by British women to change the homestead law. Under the homestead law in Canada, only widows with dependent children could apply. Concerned that “riff raff” such as Eastern Europeans might come in large numbers and populate the prairies, a group of women of British background campaigned to allow British women to homestead even if they were single. The lobby was not successful, but Connie wondered about the “riff-raff,” those from Eastern European or other European countries.
As she has German and Ukrainian/Polish ancestry, she asked,
“Did widows from these countries file for homesteads? Who were they? What were their commonalities? What were shared problems?”
She searched saskhomesteads.com. First for “Mrs.” This reduced the numbers from 36,000 to 4,500. Next, she eliminated any women on homesteads originally filed by men. Then she looked for German, Ukrainian, and Polish surnames and checked block settlement maps. In the end, she identified 222 German and 89 Ukrainian/Polish widows.
To uncover stories, she searched local history books. She also recommended looking at theses. For example, Paul Paproski’s “The German Catholics of St. Peter’s Colony: 1903-1930.” Or “Les Autres Metis: The English Metis of the Prince Albert Settlement 1862-1886” by Paget Code.
Theresia Lutz’s story highlights commonalities. A widow, she was excited about the opportunity of a quarter section, 160 acres, for a $10 registration fee. Her adult children did their best to discourage her, but she packed supplies and hired a railcar for the trip from Nebraska to Saskatchewan. She, her dependent children, and a son and his family, waited three weeks for the spring runoff to subside to cross the North Saskatchewan River. Like Goldilocks, she did not homestead on the first land she tried but looked for something “just right” before filing a claim. Like other widows and most other pioneers, homesteading was a cooperative labour of clearing, breaking, seeding, and harvesting. After 3 years, Theresia “proved up” her homestead.
These widows shared some issues even though they often couldn’t communicate with each other because of language issues. First, they often didn’t speak English and this made it difficult to fill in the paperwork to complete homestead applications. The Ukrainian/Polish women signed with an X which implies that they were illiterate although it may be that they were illiterate in the Roman alphabet but could read and write in their Cyrillic script. The widows tended to be older, often in their 40’s or 50’s with older children who could help out. Most of them chose homesteads near some of their adult children who helped them fulfill the requirements to obtain the homestead. Evidence of children who lived nearby is common.
Connie’s process and strategies paired with persistence are an admirable model for family historians.