These are series of postcards published in 1910, commemorating life on the Canadian frontier at the turn of the last century. The development of the Canada’s Old West followed similar pattern to the United States.
Like the United States, Canada came into possession of an enormous tract of sparsely populated prairie land. In Canada’s case it stretched from the easternmost fringes of Ontario to the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. In between this vast land were millions of square miles of prairie suitable for cattle raising and wheat growing.
These lands were inhabited by the First Nations people of Canada, who had lived in these regions since time immemorial. There were also settlements and communities inhabited by the Metis people, descended from children born from European traders and Native women. These Metis inhabited a cultural and legal status midway between European settlers and the First Nations people. They possess their own culture and have since been recognized as one of the First Nations peoples of Canada.
As in the United States, the Canadian west was settled by a wave of settlers from the East and from Europe, who displaced the original First Nations inhabitants. However, unlike the settlement of the American Old West, which was marked by numerous wars between the Indian tribes and the United States government, and many massacres of the native inhabitants by settlers and government soldiers, and many raids by tribes against settlers, the expansion of Canada into the Western regions proceeded relatively peacefully.
The British Crown, on behalf of Canada (then a British colony), negotiated treaties with most of the First Nations, who surrendered their lands to settlement and were relegated to reserves. This is not to say that the First Nations were treated fairly. In many cases, the original inhabitants were pushed away from prime farm land and fertile hunting grounds into small marginally productive lands where they suffered great hardships. In addition, Indian Agents working on behalf of the Canadian government intruded into the lives of the native population, barring them from practicing their religion or speaking their own languages. Native children were sent to residential schools, where many suffered abuse and the loss of culture and a loss of connection to family which is a dark episode in Canadian history.
However, for the most part contact between white settlers and the First Nations people was peaceful. The only exceptions were two rebellions in the western provinces which resulted in armed conflict. The last armed conflict between Canada and its Native peoples occurred in 1885 during the Northwest Rebellion. By the time these photographs were taken, the west had been pacified and settlement was proceeding at a breakneck pace. Although most villages and homesteads were still isolated by endless miles of prairie, the cities of Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg had boomed.
The government promoted the settlement of white inhabitants into these regions by offering land at very reduced prices on condition that the settler clear and farm the land for a prescribed number of years. In addition, the government subsidized the creation of a transcontinental rail line which connected Eastern and Western Canada, in much the same way as the United States transcontinental line had joined the two coasts of the United States together.
These period photos are of course staged but they are not too far off from what pioneer life was like on the Canadian West. They correctly depict the emptiness of the landscape and the hardscrabble existence that people were willing to endure for the sake of owning their own land and the chance to forge their own futures.
The postcards were colored using the photochrom process, which required the printer to hand color each black and white negative in order to produce a color print. Colors were added manually. In theory the photographer would make a record of the colors that he observed in real life and create a guide so that each item – each article of clothing, each building, and so on, could be painted with colors matching the original. In practice the process never produced an exact replica of the colors and some photographers were less diligent than others in taking notes of the colors they observed. In many cases, the final product was colored based on what the printer thought it should look like and so may not have any correlation with the scene’s original color scheme. The limitations in photography during this period also meant that some of the details had to be drawn in to make up for poor resolution. If you look closely you will see that many of the people in the background have been crudely drawn in.
Here we see one of the impoverished little hovels typical of those built by the new arrivals to the Canadian frontier. The house is actually more developed and luxurious than most. In many cases the house was built partially underground and the walls were made entirely of sod cut from the prairie due to a lack of bricks and wood. This house is actually constructed of milled lumber and has a wooden roof, a metal chimney and a glass window. Perhaps his side hustle as a barber paid well. Notice however that the house is surrounded by a low wall of sod “bricks”. These were segments of grass and soil cut from the ground and piled one on top of another; they were used as a windbreak to keep the frigid winds out of the little house.
In this photograph, a man and a woman are riding a cart pulled by giant oxen. Note that the wheels have no spokes and appear to be made out of solid wood cut into a circle, a throw back to the dawn of the wheel, that would not have been out of place in the ancient civilizations of Sumer or Babylon.
The prairies were ideally suited to raising cattle. Like the American West, the Canadian prairies had supported vast herds of buffalo. By this time, they had been hunted nearly to extinction. A few small herds of buffalo now remain in national parks and on some cattle ranches, raised for meat. However, for the most part the buffalo herds had been replaced by domesticated cattle.
The cowboys’ leg warmers seem like they would have made it hard to ride. There is also something a bit ridiculous about them. Can you imagine these types of cowboys, with their leg warmers billowing in the wind, chasing after stagecoach bandits or fighting. The Magnificent Seven or the Good, the Bad and the Ugly would have been completely different if they had been set on the Canadian frontier.
A group of mounted cowboys and in the background a herd of cattle. This sort of cattle drive is reminiscent of the cattle drives common on the American West, except that these cowboys did not have to worry about hostile Indians or cattle rustlers. The Canadian frontier was much more tame than the American West had been, especially by this date.
A cowboy is branding a cow with an on bearing the rancher’s mark. The man on the left is wearing a tie, likely because he dressed up for the occasion of this photograph; it’s highly unlikely that he would have worn it for his everyday chores. Note the improvised corral and shelter for the animals which uses branches and all kinds of wood scavenged or collected on site; there is no finished lumber to be seen.
Here we see a more developed and established farm than the ones in the previous photos. There is a sizeable barn and a wind powered pump to raise water from a well. A group of men us harvesting the field using teams of horses. If you look to the left of the photo you will see two small children in wearing white clothes. See if you can spot the woman half hidden by the sheaves of wheat.
This now brings us to the end of our trip back in time when the Canadian West was an untamed frontier. Very soon the world in these photos would be gone, replaced by automobiles, telephone wires and roads.