Reflections of Ponoka: Our early pioneers made the long trip to the promise land

When we think about those countless families of immigrants who came by covered wagon over a century ago from Nebraska and other

This is the actual wagon train that in 1900 brought William and Alice Johnston (inset) and their seven children from Nebraska to the USA/Canada border — and eventually to the Morningside area — where they would establish one of the first homesteads in the area.

This is the actual wagon train that in 1900 brought William and Alice Johnston (inset) and their seven children from Nebraska to the USA/Canada border — and eventually to the Morningside area — where they would establish one of the first homesteads in the area.

When we think about those countless families of immigrants who came by covered wagon over a century ago from Nebraska and other regions of the United States in search of the Promised Land of Canada, we are reminded of the early biblical travels of Abraham and his wife, Sarah. The Lord said onto Abraham, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house unto a land that I will show thee.”

That wagon trek across hundreds of rugged miles of unforgiving terrain would present overwhelming hardships, dangers and even death for those hardy pioneers but their strong desire to create a new life from the rich soil of the prairies would eventually be the exciting foundation and humble beginnings of this great nation that we now call home.

William Henry Johnston and his wife, Alice, would present a remarkable similarity to the old patriarch Abraham. They were married in Iowa in 1885 and over the following 16 years they worked hard to establish their homestead and raise a family, facing problems and sadness due to drought, low prices for their crops and livestock, and no schools to educate their children.

In early 1900 they heard the rumours of a land of promise far away in Alberta, Canada and on the beautiful morning of May 1, 1900 they bid goodbye to their loved ones, friends and neighbours, and began an unbelievable adventure. Joining many others in their covered wagons, William and Alice headed west with seven children (Ray, May, Hillis, Mabel, Pearl, Nellie and Lillie), as well as 10 head of horses, nine cattle and their precious worldly belongings. The first night they stopped at a sheep ranch, and their thoughts and prayers around the fire were of what they had just left behind, and what might lay ahead. They took pictures of the 24 wagons and families before leaving the next morning, and were informed when they left at dawn that there would be only short stops for dinner and to rest the stock, and then the train would move on until nightfall.

Along the way the mothers would bake bread to feed their families, while others gathered wood that would be their only fuel. The children grew weary sitting in the rough riding wagons for many hours, and although they were allowed to walk along behind for a while, had to be constantly watched so that they wouldn’t get lost, run over or attacked by predators. The evening stop was where they could find water and grass for the stock but that was quite often difficult in that desolate hilly expanse of rocks and dust. Other arduous daily chores included pitching the tents, preparing supper, making beds and hobbling the horses that on one occasion decided they wanted to head back home and had to be chased down by the men on horses. The wagon train did not travel on Sundays, which was remembered as the Sabbath Day, where the travelling minister did the morning service, followed by the women doing the washing, preparing food and tending to the children.

Most of the days they were blessed with good weather, although occasionally the conditions became windy and dry with little rain. They enjoyed a change of scenery as they passed across the badlands of South Dakota, having to watch out for wolves at night that constantly threatened to attack the livestock. The weary travellers finally arrived at the Missouri River, where they visited with the members of a friendly Indian reservation, who later assisted them to make undertake the precarious half-mile journey across the river. They could take one wagon at a time, so the crossing would only take two days, during which one of Johnstons’ best horses drowned. The wagon train continued north until they reached Porton, located on the border of the United States and Canada. Here they met several other travelling families from Nebraska and with joy were able to hire two train coaches for the families and three freight cars for their belongings and stock. But there would be no water or food for the stock during the slow 30-hour trip to Lacombe, NWT.

They arrived sometime in June, discovering the small town under flood waters but stayed until August, and then with $100 and their stock and belongings, the Johnston family headed north to Morningside and established their first humble homestead on the N.E. 32-40-26. First there was the log house and barn corrals and fences to be built and a well to be dug. Their neighbours were the Riddocks, Tuckers, Unbrights, and Coopers, who were all wonderful to supply their new neighbours with vegetables and other supplies to get them through their first winter in Alberta.

In September there was a foot of snow and severely cold temperatures when baby girl Ethel arrived, but William and Alice and their eight children would somehow survive that first bitter winter in the small shack with the dirt floor but were very excited when spring finally arrived. Once settled, Mr. Johnston would later help to build the district’s first school (Pleasant Hill), also serving as a trustee and secretary-treasurer.

In 1904 after daughters Birdie and Clara were born, the Johnston family moved to a new quarter along the new Edmonton/Calgary Trail, just north of what is now known as the bird sanctuary. At that time Morningside had become a vibrant little town, with two grocery and dry goods stores owned Jimmy Dodds and Mr. Mathias, the Webster Hardware Store, blacksmith shop and a hotel that caught fire one night and nearly wiped out the entire community.

In 1912 Mr. Johnston sold out everything and bought the general store and post office in Morningside, then later helped to establish the first town school with Mr. Bowie and Mrs. Sutherland. This active gentleman resided in Morningside until his death at the early age of 57 in 1919. Many generations of the Johnston family have continued to live in the surrounding district and throughout the nation, and will proudly carry on the traditions, memories and accomplishments of their brave and ambitious early ancestors.