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One Family's Journey West


To mark the 100th Anniversary of the arrival of her parents on a homestead on the banks of the Sturgeon River, in 1981 Mabel5 (Long) Clark compiled this account of their journey westward.  She dedicated it to the memory of her parents and to those Pioneer Women who struggled and suffered in silence so that the generations to follow would have a more abundant life.

"When will Poppa be home?"

This was the question on Mary's mind as her Poppa and Uncle Charlie had left the previous day to travel to an area of the windswept endless prairie region south of Morden, Manitoba.  The necessity of their absence was to travel by oxen to a sparsely wooded area some 20 miles distant to get wood to keep warm for the remainder of the winter.

Mother had two cows to milk and Aunt Martha stayed with Mary while her Momma did the milking and tried to keep the cows contented with their scant bit of feed.  Cracks in the log barn made it almost unbearable for man or beast in such a climate.

Pioneers in that area were trying to make the best of their situation, but it was such a contrast to their home surroundings in Ontario and other parts of the east.

The Laycocks and my parents came by boat and train from Meaford, Ontario to try and locate land that would provide a better living in the open areas of the West.  While living in Ontario, there was publicity of the great opportunities to develop farms in the North West Territories.

Mother and Father were both born near Meaford, Ontario.  Mother was born in 1852 and father in 1853.  There were ten children in the family of Adam and Eleanor Long.  My father was second oldest son.  His Father, Adam Long, was born in Palace Kenney, County of Limerick, Ireland in 1820.

In 1840 Adam Long came to North America by sailing vessel with his parents and settled in what is now Ontario.

In 1847 he married Eleanor Smith, a school teacher, whose father was a Methodist minister.  They farmed or tried to farm on land near Meaford, but the soil was very poor with many stones that had to be cleared away to get enough land to grow food and feed their few animals.

When twelve hungry occupants sat around the huge table there was scarcely enough for everyone.  At an early age, Harry, the eldest son, set out on his own to do farm work in Illinois where reapers were still unknown and grain was cut and tied by hand.  In the winter months he did lumbering in Michigan.  His meagre wages were sent home to help with his family's necessities.

It was while working at these places that he became acquainted with some men who were making up a survey party.  From 1873 to 1876, Harry spent his time with the survey party and doing chores during the winter season for Horace Reid of Winnipeg, superintendent of Indian Agencies.

My mother was the eldest of ten children in the family of John and Mary Laycock.  John Laycock was the third son of Henry Laycock who came from South Hampshire, England in 1840 and first settled at Kingston, later moving to Meaford in 1842.

John Laycock married Mary York in 1851 at Owen Sound, Ontario.  The York family emigrated from England in 1841 [actually 1844] and first lived in Quebec [Picton ON].  They moved to Meaford in 1845.  For the balance of my story, my parents will be referred to as George and Annie.

In February 1881, a letter came to the John Laycocks who lived on a farm near Morden.  The letter was to be forwarded to George Long and one of Annie's sisters brought the letter over, but it took all day as it was a long cold walk.  What a letter!  It was from George's brother Harry in the North West Territories and had been written in November 1880.

Harry was so impressed with the great new part of the Territories that he had filed on a homestead of 160 acres and when he had improved it by breaking fifteen acres he was eligible for another 160 acres as a pre-emption.

Harry described the wonderful soil; he could dig and dig and still have black soil.  There was an abundance of large trees for building and for firewood, and a river was close by for water supply and best of all, no stones.  George was getting discouraged with trying to grow grain on stoney land near Morden and the wind that never stopped blowing.  The long journey for wood was not pleasant at any time and it seemed like a gloomy future to bring up a family in such a place.

It was a difficult decision, so George and Annie planned a day to go to Annie's folks and talk about their intention to go west to where Harry Long was living.

Annie's mother could hardly believe that her eldest daughter, who had been such a help with the family before she married, would undertake a journey of one thousand miles and perhaps encounter hostile Indians.

Annie's brothers and sisters thought that it might be a good place with good homesteads and good soil.  The railroad was at Brandon and would soon be going further west.

Annie's two oldest brothers were not happy with the conditions in that part of Manitoba and they planned on moving west as soon as the railroad was built so they could take their families and a few possessions.  Annie's sister, Kate, had gone to Portage La Prairie to do housework and she liked it there.  Annie's two youngest sisters tried to find some things to do to earn a few dollars for the family.  There were so many things they needed.

Annie wrote a letter to George's parents at Meaford to tell them of Harry's letter and the prospects of establishing a home in the North West Territories, and of the great opportunities for settlers.  George did not have the opportunity for much schooling so it was Annie's task to do the letter writing.

George heard of a man in Emerson, Manitoba who made Red River carts and would be glad to be paid by rails for firewood. He made a three-day journey to order a cart as he needed one whether he went west or not.

Eventually George and Annie made plans to leave Manitoba in May when there would be grass for the oxen and the cows.

While George was in Emerson getting the cart made, he was given some maps by a government agent, and while it looked like a long journey, he remembered his mother telling of the McDougalls who came west in 1862 from Owen Sound.  Annie heard of baking bread and bannock by reflector oven and George was able to get a piece of tin and had it bent into an elbow curve.  When it was placed close to the camp fire it would become red hot.  The pans of bannock could be placed close and turned often enough to bake through.

They would have to sleep on the ground under the cart with a canvas around it to keep out the wind.  A cowhide robe was put on the ground to keep out the moisture.  This robe could be rolled up and fastened to the cart.

A box was made for two small pigs and another for eight hens.  Mary could use the box as a seat and there were tin containers for flour and matches.  George heard of a freight barge that went up the Saskatchewan River to Fort Edmonton and so he secured some wooden barrels and strong boxes to pack extra winter clothes, quilts and a feather bed.

It was a two week trip by oxen to take the boxes to Fort Garry where it would go by a freighter boat on Lake Winnipeg and then up the Saskatchewan River to Edmonton.  George mailed a letter to Harry that Annie had written advising of their plans and asking that he make inquiries about the freight when he visited Fort Edmonton.

When George returned, there was a letter from his mother.  She and the rest of the family were pleased to hear that they were going west and suggested it would be a great help for Harry as they could work together.   This letter bolstered their plans to make the trip west.  In the letter was fifty dollars to help buy some supplies.  This was a Godsend as George felt the need for another ox.  With three oxen, one could be rested each day, making it easier for the two hitched to the cart.

At last a day was set to say "Good-bye" to Annie's folks and to start their journey to Brandon where they could buy some supplies.  Tears of sorrow were shed for George and Annie as they began their journey, especially so, since Annie had told her mother that she was expecting a baby in November.

The first few nights were rather uncomfortable as it was not easy to adjust to sleeping on the ground, especially when Annie's thoughts turned to mice and snakes.  When Brandon came into view they were glad of the opportunity the Assiniboine River afforded to do some washing and baking.

Brandon at that time was at the end of the railroad and there was a lot of activity with many construction workers.  Several oxcarts with settlers going west were camped in the area.  It was a comfort to Annie to talk to other women who had hopes of The Promised Land in the North West Territories.

From Brandon there were more trees and more grass for the oxen and cows.  One chore that had to be attended to night and morning was milking the cows.  After the milk stood in the pail overnight, the cream could be skimmed off and kept until it was sour when the jolting cart churned it into butter without difficulty.

Next stop for rest was Fort Ellice.  It was refreshing to talk to settlers heading west and to learn from their experiences crossing rivers without either bridges or ferries.  Fort Ellice was located approximately three miles south of the junction of the Assiniboine and Qu' Appelle Rivers.  There was a Hudson Bay Company post at the fort and Archibald McDonald was the factor.

Rev. Andrew Baird in his diary of 1881 tells of having met a Mr. W.F. King, surveyor for the Dominion Government, in Fort Ellice.  This was the same Mr. King that Harry Long worked for in 1877 when he first went west.

At Fort Ellice, George and Annie had been a little more than a month on the trail and Mary could not understand why the pigs squealed so much.  George explained that they were growing too fast on the milk diet, so he opened the crate and tied each pig with a rope to the wheel of the cart.  The pigs enjoyed rolling in the dirt and a good feed of grass.

George found some old boards to increase the size of the crate and now Mary could sleep more with the motion of the cart.  Mary had been amused to see the cows and the extra ox follow so faithfully.  She was sure they, too, wanted to see The Promised Land somewhere in the west.

Mary found a name for the oxen.  The biggest one would be Barney, the next one Mike and the smallest Jake.  The cows were Bell and Daisy.

After leaving Fort Ellice, one of the unpleasant experiences was crossing the river.  At first the oxen were stubborn about taking the first plunge.  It would be interesting to know if the animal brain of the beasts was fully aware of the disaster that could overtake the precious load they were pulling.  After weeks of travel, Barney, Mike, Jake, Daisy and Bell had become attached to each other and willingly followed the cart into the river.

Annie held Mary in her arms, and Mary was excited to see the cows and oxen keeping their heads above the water and swimming behind the cart.

When they reached the north shore, they made a fire, using buffalo chips, the fuel used by numerous other pioneers, and tried to dry out some of their belongings.

George was able to snare some prairie chickens and with some wild berries it was a change in their diet.

The next stop was Fort Qu' Appelle where there was a Hudson Bay post, Mounted Police barracks, a store and three houses, occupied by the Indian agent, the Mounted Police and Mr. W.J. McLean, in charge of the Hudson Bay post.

After a few more weeks of travel, they passed by the Touchwood Hills and by Quill Plains.  They rested a few days by Quill Lake to do some washing and pick some wild Saskatoon berries.

There seemed to be more settlers now that they were farther west.  Some were fortunate to have horses or cayuses and made better time.  However, horses needed the occasional feed of oats and George did not have money to buy feed.  Furthermore, he had become accustomed to the gait of the oxen.  Occasionally they gave those with faster transportation a message to be left at Fort Edmonton for Harry Long or W. Nicholson, Harry's travelling companion in 1879, to let them know how far they were on the trail.

The next prolonged stop was at Humbolt.  There was a telegraph station located in Humbolt which was on the line from Selkirk, Manitoba to Hay Lakes near Edmonton.  It was operated by a Mrs. Weldon.  This telegraph line was the one built by Alex Taylor in 1879 under the supervision of the Dominion Government.

Next stop was Batoche with another river to cross, but they were becoming used to this part of their journey and it did not present as much dread as on the first crossing.

Other travellers assured George and Annie that there was rather good accommodation at Fort Carlton, perhaps even a bed or bunk.  What a treat that would be!

The few days rest at Fort Carlton was a welcome change as clothes had to be washed.  The Factor at the Hudson Bay post let Annie make some bread.  She was also able to make some butter and store it in a pail for future use.

George was able to get some boards to enlarge the pig's crate.  He hoped he would not have to face that particular task many more times as their journey was now well over half completed.  They were anxious to reach Edmonton before the weather got much colder.  Annie often wondered about the well-being of her unborn baby.

Before leaving Carlton, George felt they both should have some new shoes.  Other travellers had said the forthcoming trail was stoney, and if they stayed on the north side of the river the trail was not as well travelled.  There were still a few dollars left from the money the folks had sent from Meaford so two new pairs of shoes were purchased at the Hudson Bay post.  It was subsequently proven to have been a good idea as the ground was damp from much rain.

Annie was reluctant to leave Fort Carlton as she had enjoyed sharing experineces with other women and Mary enjoyed being in a real house even if it was called a Fort.  Goerge tried to push the oxen a little faster as there was no more really hot weather.

Some travellers were going by the Battleford Trail, but that meant there were more rivers to cross.  The trail they did take was the one to Fort Pitt.  It was lonely and dreary, but when the Fort came into view it was a welcome sight.  It meant a few days to rest, bake more bannock and cook some beans they had bought at Fort Carlton.

Fort Pitt was established in 1835 and served for fifty years until 1885 when it was destroyed by fire at the time of the North West Rebellion.

The next stop would be Fort Victoria on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River where the McDougalls, the missionaries, lived.  From there it would be on to the Sturgeon where they hoped to have a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep on.

When they reached Pakan, which is the same location as Fort Victoria, they rested and shared news and trail conditions with travellers going east for supplies.

The McDougalls gave Annie encouragement with the news that the Sturgeon could be reached in five or six days if the weather was good.  George had sent word with other travellers going west to Fort Edmonton for Harry or Mr. Nicholson.  The word was that they were getting close to their journey's end and after passing Fort Saskatchewan would be looking for a marker of some sort.

However, across the river from Fort Saskatchewan, George and Annie encountered the Lamoureux brothers who had built and operated the first grist mill on the Sturgeon River and they knew where Harry had taken his homestead.

At last!  At Last!  There was a pole with a rag tied to it on what is now the Correction Line and there was a sign of a log building among the trees.  This must be the place.

Many were the tears of joy and prayers of thanksgiving for a safe arrival.  It would be difficult to tell what Annie's thoughts were when Harry carried Mary in his arms and showed Annie the place she would call home for the winter.

Annie was truly exhausted, but she welcomed the small log cabin.  It was primitive, but she could manage.  The home made bunk nailed to the logs was filled with hay that Harry had cut by hand.  It was dry and clean.

After the relief of the safe arrival, one of the first things on Annie's mind was the whereabouts of the boxes of quilts, clothes and personal effects that had been forwarded by river freighter.  It was an occasion for much heartache when Harry had to tell her that there had been no word of them at Fort Edmonton.  Nor were they ever located, apparently lost or stolen on the long river journey.

From among their meagre supplies Annie produced a small quantity of tea and Harry produced an iron pot of boiling water.  But tea did not heal the heartache when Annie found she would have to use the clay fireplace for cooking.  Prospects of doing the family laundry under such conditions and caring for a baby due to arrive in seven weeks without benefit of the boxes, were equally disheartening.

Their first meal was boiled prairie chicken that Harry had prepared.  To this Annie added some bannock to cook in the broth.  That night, by the light of the fireplace, as Harry had no candles, they talked of how they would manage through the winter.  Harry had quite a good supply of barley flour and there were a few dried apples.  George said he had seven dollars and he needed a new axe and that he would have to pay someone who would come when the baby was born.

George and Harry started at once to get out logs for George and Annie's own home, which they hoped they could start in the spring.  The supply of food was discussed and it was decided that they would butcher the smallest oxen, Jake.  If they had beef and barley flour, they could manage with the occasional prairie chicken adding a bit of variety.

Mr. Nicholson, who was called "Nick", had grown a few turnips and some lady finger potatoes and they were a real treat.  Frank Oliver M.P. used to tell of the many meals he ate when he first came west and one of them was boiled muskrat and lady finger potatoes.

When the time came for the baby to arrive, George made arrangements for Mr. Nicholson to go with his pony to Mrs. Hutchings and have her try to locate a woman who would stay with Annie.

Mrs. Hutchings had arrived at Fort Edmonton in May 1881.  The family had travelled west in the company of Frank Oliver and others.  Mrs. Hutchings had been able to locate a lady to stay and be with Annie, so Harry found enough boards and poles to make another so-called bunk on the wall for the lady to sleep on.

At last, in those primitive surroundings, a son was born, and all was well.  However, there was a shortage of bedding and needs for the baby.  Mrs. Hutchings, in true pioneer spirit and concern, assured Annie that she and some others would make certain the baby had enough clothes to keep warm through the winter.

Harry and George spent the daylight hours getting out logs for George's house on his newly acquired homestead.  It ran parallel to Nicholson's and there would always be access to the Sturgeon River for a water supply.  Harry's homestead had a spring on it for water, so he decided to have his land run east and west for more ready access to the correction line.

The land where George filed for his homestead had not been surveyed and he was later to find that the site he had chosen for his house was on the west quarter of Harry's land.  However, that problem never caused any disagreement and the four-acres building site was transferred in the 1930's to my mother's estate.

In the first year of living in the west, one of the many tragedies was a fire that destroyed most of Harry's log home.  It was evidently started by hot ashes.  Fortunately most of the family's belongings were saved.  George and Annie's house had begun to take shape and it was made livable until Harry could build another home of his own.

A letter arrived from Meaford and it contained enough money to purchase two stoves and some candle molds.  That was progress!

My mother did not talk of the real hardships and heartaches as I am sure she did not wish to call them to mind.  It was better to look to the future with hopes that the generations to come would have a more abundant life.

In 1893 an epidemic of diphtheria brought untold sorrow and tears as three of George and Annie's family succumbed to the disease.  Mary, fourteen years, Ernest, nine years, and Leslie, eight months, all died within a week.  By this time there were more settlers, Craigs, Wilsons, Baileys, Harolds, Carsons, Flynns and many others and their many acts of kindness and sympathy brought comfort in such a time.

In 1883 the relatives in Ontario sent money for Harry to make the trip to Meaford to marry his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Whitelaw.  At this time the railroad had been built to Swift Current and he used a wagon and a team of cayuses to get that far.  They were married in May and Elizabeth, always known as Libby, was a musician.  Her parents insisted she take her instrument, a piano, with her.  In fact, it was a baby grand piano.  It was crated and shipped to Swift Current to complete the trip to the Sturgeon by wagon.  What a treasure!

However, once again joy turned to sorrow.  In August 1884 Libby died giving birth to twins.  One twin survived and he was the apple of his father's eye.  Harry's sister Lizzie came from Meaford to mother the baby son.  There was no cemetery at the Sturgeon so Harry donated a corner of his land which still serves the community.

Another heartache that my parents endured came when they learned that their eldest son was subject to epilepsy.  It remained with him for many years.  The third son served in the 1914-1918 war and there were many anxious days and years when rumors were never bright for his return.

Such were the heartaches of the pioneers, but they ploughed and prayed and I am sure God gave them courage and strength to carry the cross they had to bear.

My dear father passed away in September 1915, and home was never the same for those who were left; especially my dear mother.  God Bless her.  The memory of her life will always be precious.  My mother lived at Namao for sixty-one years and never enjoyed the comforts of running water or electricity.

The great door of The Eternal Home has opened for most of these pioneers, but the altars of their sacrifices remain in the churches, schools and the bridges they built, in the homes they built and made, the fields they cleared, the principles which they upheld and endeavored to pass along to their children.  Perhaps it was the conditions under which these pioneers lived, the shared experiences which developed that spirit of friendliness and hospitality for which they will never be forgotten.

NOTE... The first survey west of Winnipeg was made in 1877 and Harry Long was in charge of the transport which consisted of cayuses and carts.  In this year they came as far west as Lac Ste. Ann where there was a mission and a place for the cayuses and men to spend the winter.

The purpose of the survey was to take levels, descriptions and observations of the land.  Harry told us of seeing large herds of buffalo as this was near the end of the "wild buffalo era."  I remember the telling of how the ground would vibrate at night as the survey party tried to sleep.

This survey party was in the charge of Major W. King, who was Chief Astronomer of Canada.

It was while returning to Winnipeg that Harry Long passed through the Sturgeon area and he was so pleased and impressed with the rich soil and growth that he felt this was where he would like to come and file on a homestead.  This he did in 1879.

Before leaving Winnipeg in 1879 to return west, he met William Nicholson, a Scotchman recently arrived from Scotland on adventure.  He was a brother of Mrs. John Harrold Sr.

Harry and Nick became close friends and travelled to the Sturgeon in November 1879.  They wintered in a dugout with poles making a roof to protect them and their oxen for the cold months.  The dugout was on the land homesteaded by one of the McKinley brothers and now owned by Jack Nelson.

NOTE... The Mrs. Hutchings mentioned in the account of mother's experience giving birth to a son in such primitive surroundings was Mrs. Alf Hutchings.  She also gave birth to a son the same year, Herb Hutchings, a steam engineer.  The Hutchings lived at Poplar Lake and she was one of mother's dearest friends in time of trouble.

Mrs. Plumley was another of mother's sources of help at the time of giving birth to her children.  Mrs. Plumley was a relative of the Whetely family who came from England in the early 1800's and were always close friends of our family.  Mr. Whetely homesteaded on land where the Namao Airport is now located.


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© 1998 Shirley York Anderson