The phrase "child labour" carries negative undertones in today's society. However, only a century ago on the Canadian Prairies, youngsters laboured alongside their parents' working the land, cleaning stovepipes, and chopping wood. By shouldering their share of the chores, these children learned the domestic and manual labour skills needed for life on a Prairie family farm. Rollings-Magnusson uses historic research, photographs, and personal anecdotes to describe the kinds of work performed by children and how each task fit into the family economy. This book is a vital contribution to western Canadian history as well as family and gender studies.
About the author
Sandra Rollings-Magnusson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at MacEwan University. She has studied western Canadian homesteaders for over thirty years. Since receiving a Master’s Degree from the University of Regina and a PhD from the University of Alberta, she has written numerous academic journal articles on homesteading life and lectured on a number of homesteading topics. She has also written two books, Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders: The Labour of Pioneer Children on the Canadian Prairies (University of Alberta Press) and The Homesteaders (University of Regina Press).
"[The book], the culmination of a study the author undertook to explore the role children's work played on family farms in the prairies during the period of settlement between 1871 and 1913, is enlightening and fascinating. The story of children in pioneer communities, much like the story of women, is not well understood, so this project adds much to the understanding of the history of the Canadian west and the role that children played." Rob Alexander, Rocky Mountain Outlook, August 13, 2009
"Only a century ago on the Canadian prairies, young people labored alongside their parents working the land, chopping wood, and doing other necessary chores, all the while learning the domestic and manual labor skills needed for life on a family farm. The author uses historic research, photographs, and personal anecdotes to describe the kinds of work performed by children and how these tasks fit into the family economy. The book contributes to the study of western Canadian history as well as family and gender studies." Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2009
"This is a useful little book, accessible to undergraduates in history, sociology, Canadian Studies, and other fields, while providing a handy addition to the libraries of scholars of child labour and family life. Its strength lies in its detailed confirmation of children's work as critical to family survival in the nineteenth and early twentieth century period of prairie farm settlement. Using diaries, letters, memoirs, autobiographies, and other first person accounts, historical sociologist Sandra Rollings-Magnusson draws on the evidence of 260 children, 97 girls and 132 boys, aged from three to their late teens, living in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The result is some wonderfully thick description that is hard to find elsewhere. I especially enjoyed the fulsome account of the process of building a soddie, or sod house, in the second chapter and of youngsters' efforts to aid family economies, and sometimes their own dreams of pony or rifle ownership, through entrepreneurial initiatives. Children's voices, dreams, and pride emerge very clearly as a marked feature of this volume." Veronica Strong-Boag, Left History 14.1
"The labour of sturdy women and children was vital to development of the Prairies and author Sandra Rollings-Magnusson provides fascinating examples of work done by children during the opening of the West. She makes no judgments, but it's plain from the anecdotes she has compiled that children from the late 1800s and early 1900s were called upon to do work that few parents would ask of children today. Hand-milk 11 cows twice daily? Cut sod blocks for houses? Drive a herd of cattle for 60 miles, on foot, at the age of 11? Arduous tasks undertaken by children, documented in the book, and no longer required. Children on prairie farms were expected to work, plain and simple." Barb Glen, The Western Producer, November 12, 2009 [Full article at http://www.producer.com/Opinion/Article.aspx?aid=14010]
"This book shows through charts and first-person accounts that children were put to work on farms and homesteads as soon as they were able, and that families benefited because of it. When setting out, homesteaders had so much to do that any family contributions were essential." Alberta History, Autumn 2009
"Rollings-Magnusson's work is a treasure trove. Anyone familiar with rural and agricultural history knows that young people worked, but her book provides a wealth of information with which scholars may not be familiar.... The author gives the children the opportunity to speak for themselves, sometimes revealing desperation and overwhelming burdens, but also acknowledging the pride they felt in vital work done well.... The book provides an excellent addition to the scholarship on prairie agriculture in North America and the family dimensions of farm-making. Historians may, however, want a bit more.... That said, Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders is an engaging, well-written, and highly useful book that should be read by anyone with an interest in the development of prairie farms." Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, South Dakota History, Winter 2010
"The author's questions underscore my own fascination with pioneer homesteading in southern Alberta; namely, what was life really like back then? How did families survive? What roles did women and children play?... If you are interested in Western Canadian pioneer history, if you are a descendant of a pioneer family and have heard about the trials and tribulations of prairie life, or even if you are convinced that today's children might learn from reading about pioneer farm life in the 1890s and early 1900s, then this book is worth reading. For most readers, the book will be an eye-opener on how children played a significant role in pioneer farm life." David Flower, ATA Magazine, Vol. 90, No. 2 [Full review at http://www.teachers.ab.ca/QUICK%20LINKS/PUBLICATIONS/MAGAZINE/VOLUME%2090/NUMBER%202/Pages/BookReview.aspx]
"If you have ever indulged in a flight of fancy about the romantic simplicity of pioneer days, then you must read Sandra Rollings-Magnusson's book. It will set you right in no time....Her book is absolutely fascinating, and that's because Rollings-Magnusson understands that if the devil is in the details, so is the beauty. Fully aware that the best and most revealing history is to be found in the lives of everyday folks, she has mined an incredible motherlode of journals, letters and memoirs to draw a riveting picture of life as it really was lived on the Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan prairies.... The author's emphasis is on child labour on the prairies, and these pioneer children were spared little of it....Rollings-Magnusson has written a marvellously fresh account of the lives of prairie pioneers in the most delightful way possible--by giving those long-gone folks the freedom to tell the stories of their daily lives in their own words." Naomi Lakritz, The Calgary Herald, August 2, 2009
"Heavy Burdens is a well-researched and documented study which illuminates an important aspect of pioneer life on the prairies. In many books of this nature, children are rarely, if ever, mentioned. In this book, their contribution to the establishment and survival of farming is the story. Pioneers, given land grants for moving to Canada, were expected to have their farms up and running in three years. Without the help of children, this would have been impossible.... Some of the details in Heavy Burdens are fascinating.... The experiences of some of the children included in Heavy Burdens could form the basis of scenes in plays.... There are a number of helpful teaching aids in Heavy Burdens, which make it useful for independent study. These include an index, data sources, a bibliography, and extensive notes. In addition, there are a number of quite dramatic black and white photographs placed throughout the book. There are also a number of useful tables illustrating the activities of farm children.... Highly Recommended." Thomas F. Chambers, CM Magazine, November 2009 Full review at [http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/vol16/no12/heavyburdensonsmallshoulders.html]
"Drawing on a wealth of diaries, memoirs, letters, photography and poems, and supplemented by official records including census reports, this book analyses the work experiences of 260 children, concentrated between the ages of nine and fourteen. Although it does not look at such topics as children's schooling, social interactions, religious practices or play, it exemplifies a new paradigm in child studies, one that foregrounds children's voices, experience and agency... Like Elizabeth Hampsten, Pamela Riney-Kehrberg and Lillian Schlissel, this volume paints a grim picture of demanding labour and bitter exploitation, loneliness and privation. But this volume also breaks fresh ground. First, it demonstrates that farm children contributed to virtually every job on pioneer farms and that these contributions were essential. Without child labour, many pioneer farms would certainly have failed. Second, this work shows how children's economic contributions, like those of their mothers, were rendered invisible. Unpaid and subsumed within a farm's total production, children's farm labour went unmentioned in public records, leaving the misimpression that it was of marginal value. Third, and perhaps most important, this book's highly detailed and profoundly moving first-hand accounts of children's work make it devastatingly clear that children worked not out of a fear of punishment, but out of an understanding that their labour was essential to their family's collective wellbeing." Steven Mintz, Gender and History, 2010
"The contribution of pioneer children (aged 4-16) to the economic survival of Canadian prairie farms is little known. Heavy Burdens examines the self-reported labor of 260 children in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba between 1871 and 1913... The nature and value of such tasks are considered through extremely readable excerpting and summarizing of first-hand accounts. It is difficult to convey how truly engaging this approach is--the work, its circumstance, meaning and effect are vivid and poignant.... The book's essential values is in clarifying the extent and worth of child agricultural labor and, secondarily, the role of children in the pioneer family. Yet it also sheds useful light on modern policy debates.... Pedagogically, the book is accessible to undergraduates and provides a useful introduction to both frontier life and the way in which families adapt to the demands of economic systems." Bob Barnetson, Great Plains Research, Vol. 20, No. 2., 2010
"Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders by Sandra Rollings-Magnusson makes noteworthy contributions to our understanding of children's work in the past. The overarching point that Rollings-Magnusson's study fleshes out is that the varied labor contributions made by children, particularly during the intense phase of settlement on the prairies, was critical to the survival of settler families. Likening the 'economically invisible' but critical work done by farm women to that of children, Rollings-Magnusson lays out a typology or system of classification based on both gender and age to more fully account for the kinds of work that children did and what this work represented for various farm family economies. This compact book would be an excellent volume for undergraduate courses devoted to the history of the family, work, and/or the history of children and youth" Mona Gleason, H-Canada, H-Net Reviews, November 2009. [Full review at: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=25772]