The earliest settlers who made their homes in the wilderness were known as pioneers. Many of the homesteaders who settled in western Canada came from France, England, Scotland, Italy, Germany and other countries in Europe. People who come from one country to live in another are called immigrants.  


Why did people want to immigrate to Canada? There were a number of reasons why these people chose to leave their homeland and come to a strange new land.

  • They were not allowed freedom of religion.
  • The government had control over their way of life.
  • Men were forced to serve in the army.
  • There were no jobs or the jobs were low-paying jobs.
  • Many were poor and barely made enough to survive.
  • Farmers wanted to own their own land.
  • Cities were overcrowded, dirty and polluted.

The Government of Canada was offering free land to those who were willing to settle on the prairies. For many, this was an opportunity to own land and have a better life. People were also told that there were plenty of jobs available. Some immigrants hoped to make some money and buy land or set up a business.

For more information on where the pioneers came from and why, click here.


The family had to pack all their belongings into a large trunk and three or four large suitcases. Some of the things they packed were clothing - blankets - tools used to make new clothing - pots for cooking - dishes - tools needed for farming - seeds - food for the trip. Before the voyage overseas, the family had to get passports and medical checkups. Finally they were ready to board a ship and cross the ocean to a new country.




For the people who came from Europe, the journey to Canada was a long one. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean often took two weeks by steamship, and even longer by sailing ships. The steamship was faster than a sailing ship, but most of the steamships were overcrowded and dirty. Many passengers became seasick. The poorer families could not afford a cabin, so they had to sleep below in the steerage with hundreds of other families. The steerage was a large area under the deck of the ship. Since so many families had to live together there was no privacy. It was damp, crowded and noisy. There was no fresh air to breathe.

In bad weather the waves tossed the ship about. People became seasick and were unable to eat. Many brought their own food. Food spoiled and was unsafe to eat. On some ships food was served to the passengers. People slept in bunks that were put up along the side walls of the ship. Their belongings were placed on the bunks during the day and on the floor at night. There were only a few toilets and washbasins provided. The passengers were unable to wash themselves or wash their clothes. They wore the same clothes for days.

People fell ill because of the cold and the dampness in the steerage. Diseases spread among the passengers. Some did not survive the voyage.

Crossing the ocean took anywhere from ten days to a month depending on the weather and the type of ship. To pass the time, the immigrants went up on the deck when the weather was nice. They played cards, sang and talked with others.


After the ship finally docked at the ports of Halifax, Montreal or Quebec City, the immigrants could not leave right away. They were given medicals and their travel papers were checked over. During this time, they stayed in large buildings called immigration halls. Their next journey was by train to the prairies.

Canadian Portraits site

Galation Immigrants in Quebec

 Dutch Immigrants in Quebec,1911


Scottish immigrants on a train heading west(1911)

German immigrants in Quebec, 1911 



covered wagon



Families who came to Canada from the United States often travelled in covered wagons. The wagons were made of wood and metal and were pulled by horses or oxen. All the belongings were packed in the wagons - cooking pots, clothing, tools and furniture. They also brought along a cow and some chickens.



(prairie schooner, Conestoga Wagon)



    The prairie schooner was one way that pioneers travelled. The prairie schooner was a large wagon with a framework over it. The frame was covered with white canvas. The wagons measured over a meter in width (four feet) and three and a half meters long ( twelve feet). This wagon was a family's home for months.

    In the wagon was everything that family would need - bedding, clothing, pots, pans and dishes, food and water, butter churn, washtub and pails. The pioneers also brought hunting gear (guns and ammunition) and some furniture. Tools (crow-bar, axes, shovels, hammer) and other supplies were hung on the sides of the wagon.

    Clothing was packed in chests. Dishes, linens, books, pictures and other special items were carefully packed in a trunk. The dishes used for the trip were made of tin.

    Meals were prepared outdoors. Food that was packed for the long journey included bacon, coffee, flour, sugar, salt, corn meal, bags of rice, beans, and dried fruit. Water was carried in barrels.

    Furniture might include a table, chairs and spinning wheel. Furniture that would not fit in the wagon would have to be bought or made later.

    Cattle and chickens were also taken on the journey. The cattle were tied to the wagon and walked along behind it. Chickens were kept in a coop.



    This type of wagon was first used in the eastern United States for hauling freight (cargo). The wagons were large and heavy with a canvas cover to protect the supplies. Because of the size and weight these wagons were pulled by teams of horses or oxen (4,6,8 or more). The wagons carried supplies to forts, mining camps and communities. These wagons were widely used before the railroad was built.

    Pioneers preferred to use the prairie schooner. It was smaller in size and easier to handle.



    There were no roads, just rough trails. People traveled together in wagon trains. This was safer and they could also help each other when necessary. The wagons broke down and needed to be repaired. Tools and supplies for fixing the wagons were kept in a box attached to the outside of the wagon.

    Sometimes guides were hired to lead the wagon trains. A guide would know the shortest and safest route to take.