Cemeteries and Family Histories

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

The Cut Knife Cemetery, like so many others in Saskatchewan, is over one hundred years old and, meandering through on a Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to recognize the older graves. Lettering has eroded on many of the softer marble stones, and names and dates on others have filled with mosses and lichens, both of which make the inscriptions difficult to read, and the graves to identify. A few headstones have broken, a few plots have remained unmarked for reasons unknown. Perhaps, there are records that can fill in the gaps, perhaps not.

Cemetery records everywhere, especially the older ones, are notorious for having been lost, or damaged, or destroyed in fire and flood. This makes it especially difficult for families who are searching, at a distance, for an ancestor. A grave connects a person to a place, and provides a context; a grave marker records vital statistics. Sometimes, a marker can also shed light on a personality through the choice of epitaph, the presence of religious or association symbols, nicknames, etc. When both records are no longer accessible, a vital piece of family history is lost.

Many rural cemeteries are cared for by volunteers, and are just not in a position, financially, to undertake large restoration projects. In addition, the volunteer hours required to clean, photograph, and annotate a whole cemetery of headstones is probably not realistic, either. Maybe, a simpler approach would work . . . providing online accessibility to researchers. . . 24/7?

Grave markers in disrepair

CanadianHeadstones.com is a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organization that archives photos and text of cemetery grave markers submitted by individuals, or cemetery committees. The Clayton McLain Memorial Museum has listed it on their Family History | Canada page as a genealogy resource. The Cut Knife Cemetery, and the Carruthers Cemetery are already represented online with a number of photos to view for each.

The next time you’re wandering through your local cemetery with your phone or digital camera, consider digitizing your family’s headstones, and sharing them online with those who may be searching for them. In all probability, if any part of the headstone is illegible, you or a family member would have the knowledge needed to record the correct information.

Bert Martin’s Cabin

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

Homesteading in the early 20th century, on the wind-whipped stretches of prairie was no easy task for new immigrants. Often, they knew little about farming and, even if they had experience working the land, surviving a Saskatchewan winter would still be a bitter struggle. Much of their success would depend upon how well they were able to make preparations before the cold weather hit.

Bert Martin's Cabin-front

First shelters were often considered temporary, constructed quickly with whatever materials a settler could afford, or could find on the land. Tents and caves, sod, or tarpaper shacks were common, replaced by log, frame, or stone houses as the homesteader’s fortunes improved. Severe weather events like droughts, floods, and cyclones were widespread as were their consequences – fire, insects, mud, and hailstones.

Bert Martin's Cabin-sideWinter would be the worst. Blizzards with extreme temperatures and wind chills, little visibility, and drifting snow could shut down an entire area. A settler needed a supply of food, and firewood to survive until the roads were passable, again. He would need wool blankets and quilts, lamp fuel, and something to occupy the long days of solitude and isolation.

Bert Martin's Cabin-rearImagine living in a shelter like Bert Martin’s: A log cabin, plastered with mud to keep out the wind, a small wood stove for heat, and a few small windows to let in the weak winter sun. There’s a dirt floor, a single bed, a table and chair, a few pictures to decorate the walls but it’s a simple dwelling. Could you imagine living like that for a year or two? It’s humbling to think about how many homesteaders did.

[For more details and some great pictures, visit the Saskatchewan Settlement Experience at the Saskatchewan Archives Board website.]