by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff
Among the first settlers in the Hyas district
of Saskatchewan were a group of Independent Doukhobors. Attracted by homestead lands and the
promise of a railroad, the Russian pacifists arrived in 1902 to establish
the village of Vozvyshenie. For five years, they lived,
prayed and worked there under the motto of “Toil and Peaceful Life”,
transforming the prairie wilderness into productive farmland. By 1907,
however, the village experiment was abandoned, owing to the lack of railroad facilities
and difficulty of getting goods to market. The story of Vozvyshenie
illustrates the role of the traditional Russian village model, cooperative
organization, homestead policy and the location and timing of railroad
construction in the early settlement of Independent Doukhobors on the
Prairies. The following article by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff, a descendant of
the Vozvyshenie Doukhobors, examines their little known contribution to the
history and development of the Hyas district.
Origin and History
The Doukhobors were a religious group founded in 18th century Russia. They
rejected the rites and dogma of the Orthodox Church and denied the authority of
the Tsarist State, refusing to swear allegiance to anyone but God. Their practical, commonsense teachings were based on the
belief that the spirit of God resides in the soul of every person; therefore, to
kill another person was to kill God. The Doukhobors were frequently persecuted
for their faith by Imperial Russian authorities and forced to live in the
frontier regions of the Empire.
In 1895, the Doukhobors refused to perform military service and burned their
firearms in a symbolic demonstration against violence. Their pacifist stand was
met with renewed persecution by authorities and many were tortured, imprisoned
or exiled. Their plight attracted international attention, and with the
assistance of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends (Quakers),
the Doukhobors sought refuge by immigrating to Canada.
Doukhobor women winnowing
grain. Library and Archives Canada C-008891.
In 1899, over 7,500 Doukhobors arrived in Canada, settling on three large blocks
of land reserved for them by the Dominion Government in the Northwest
Territories, in what are today the districts of Pelly, Arran, Kamsack, Veregin,
Canora, Buchanan, Langham and Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan. Following the motto of
“Toil and Peaceful Life”, they cleared, broke and farmed the land and
established over sixty villages, as well as flour mills, elevators, saw mills,
brick factories, trading stores, roads, bridges and ferries in these areas.
During the first years of settlement, the Doukhobors adopted a communal way of
life. Organized as the “Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood”, they held
all land, livestock, machinery and other property in common. All work in the
fields was performed jointly, all produce went into a communal granary and all
proceeds, including outside earnings, pooled into a common treasury. Virtually
all aspects of Community life – spiritual, social and economic – were organized
according to the utopian communal vision of their leader, Peter V. Verigin.
As time passed, however, many of the younger Doukhobor men withdrew from the
Community and entered for individual homesteads. These men had travelled around the
country working for Canadian farmers and had imbibed some independent ideas.
They came to resent the narrowness and rigidity of Community life and grew tired of throwing
their wage labour into a pool and getting very little out of it. They retained
the essentials of their religion, particularly pacifism, but rejected the
central leadership and communal lifestyle as being not essential to true
Doukhoborism. Most of these "Independents" settled on their individual
homesteads after leaving the communalism of the Community villages. A few,
however, sought to retain the traditional village form of settlement. Such was the case of the Independent Doukhobors who settled in the Hyas
Arrival and Settlement
In the spring of 1902, a group of twenty-nine Doukhobors in the Buchanan
district broke away from the communal lifestyle to farm independently. As all of
the desirable homesteads had been taken up in that district, they were obliged
to search elsewhere for land. After careful investigation of the countryside,
traversing it from west to east and from south to north, they chose lands
situated twenty-five miles to the northeast – a day’s journey by horse and wagon
- in the Hyas district.
The Hyas district was a wilderness of rolling prairie covered with scattered
poplar and scrub, interspersed with spruce, when the Doukhobors arrived. Much of
the land was still unsettled. It was unsurveyed and there were no roads save for
a deeply rutted pack trail – a branch of the Fort Pelly Trail - which ran
through it. Nonetheless, the land met the settlers’ essential requirements:
excellent soil, a good water supply, and accessible timber to build. As well,
many of the settlers were already familiar with the district, having founded a
short-lived village in the vicinity between 1899 and 1901.
A significant factor in their decision to locate was the Canadian Northern
Railway Company’s 1902 proposal to extend a branch line from Swan River,
Manitoba west through the district. When the Doukhobors inquired with the
Dominion Lands Branch office about homesteads in the vicinity, they had been
promised the branch line within a year or two. It was well understood at the
time that rail access to distant markets would be essential if they were to
prosper on their homesteads and farms in the hinterland.
Map of Vovyshenie village site in
relation to present-day village of Hyas, Saskatchewan.
To this end, the Russian speaking settlers filed homestead entries on Section 6
of Township 34 and Sections 30 and 34 of Township 33, all in Range 2, West of
the Second Meridian along the proposed railway route. Under the Dominion Lands
Act, they could obtain patent for the land provided they cultivated at least
thirty acres on each quarter-section, became naturalized subjects and swore an
oath of allegiance to the Crown.
Ordinarily, homesteaders were required to build a house on their quarter-section
and reside there for a period of time, usually six months a year for three
years. However, the Doukhobors were granted the modifications of the “Hamlet Clause” under the
Dominion Lands Act which allowed them to fulfill the residence requirements in their traditional village form
of settlement and fulfill their homestead obligations without actually living on
their individual quarter-sections.
The Doukhobors thus selected a suitable place on the southwest quarter of
Section 6 to establish a village. It was located so that it would be more or
less central to their homestead entries to minimize the travel distance between
their homes and their fields. It was adjacent to a small unnamed stream which
offered a reliable source of water. Stands of spruce trees were situated nearby
for use for building and heating. As it was built on a rise of land, relative to
the swampy lowlands to the south, it was named Vozvyshenie, from the
Russian for “elevation” or “rising ground”. It was the first organized
settlement in the district, predating the village of Hyas by a decade.
The village initially consisted of five 18’ x 30’ houses constructed of
hand-sawn logs with low-pitched gable roofs thatched with grass. They were built
in two rows facing each other across a wide central street, laid out in the
Strassendorf (street village) pattern used in Russia. Behind each house was
a large garden plot for use by each family. Numerous outbuildings were also
built, including barns, stables, granaries, a bathhouse (banya),
blacksmith’s shop (kuznitsa) and outdoor clay oven (pech’). A row
of spruce trees was planted along the central street of the village.
The original families comprising the village of Vozvyshenie were those of Wasyl
Swetlishnoff, John Salikin, Alexei Barisoff, Peter Negraeff, John Rilkoff,
Joseph Derhousoff, Peter Sookorukoff and Semyon Kalmakoff. In the ensuing years,
they were joined by the families of Alexei Katasonoff, Efim Bedinoff, Alexei
Derhousoff and Zakhar Derhousoff from the Arran and Runnymede districts. Most of the village
families were related to one another either directly or through marriage.
Home of Syoma and Masha Kalmakoff, Vozvysheniye village,
c. 1905. This rare period photograph is the
only one of the village known to exist
The Doukhobors of Vozvyshenie lived
together on a free and voluntary basis, without formal leadership or
institutions. Village meetings (sobranie) were held from time to time at
which women and men participated equally in the decision making process, which
was similar to the traditional mir in Russia. The elders (starichki)
provided advice and direction for the affairs of the village. Disagreements were
rare, and the Doukhobor values of love, non-violence, hospitality, simple living
and justice prevailed in day to day relations.
Agriculturally and economically, the villagers organized themselves along broad
cooperative lines, as they had in Russia. Homesteads, village lots, buildings,
livestock and machinery were considered the private property of each household.
Each family worked its homestead independent of the others. At the same time,
they cooperated in common undertakings, sharing labour, draft animals and
implements whenever they could be spared from their own work. To some extent,
such mutual assistance was a practical necessity in the early years of Prairie
settlement, when survival was paramount.
The Doukhobors were almost entirely self-sufficient in food production.
They grew potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and other vegetables in their gardens;
picked wild berries, nuts and mushrooms in the forest; consumed meat and dairy
products from their cattle; slaughtered their cows, pigs and chickens for meat;
caught fish in the nearby rivers and streams; and grew wheat which was milled to
produce flour for baking.
The villagers also manufactured most of their own cloths, tools and furniture.
The women wove cloth and made garments, rugs, shawls, and hangings from homespun
fabrics. The men produced furniture, boots and shoes, ladles, harnesses,
horseshoes, spades, spinning wheels and various tools. Store-bought items
consisted of those few items which could not be made, grown or produced in the
village, such as salt, coal oil, glass, sugar, tea and soap.
As with all new settlers, the Doukhobors struggled to increase their cash
income. In summer, the able-bodied men left the village to work as railway
labourers and farmhands at subsistence wages while the women, children and old
men managed the lands and households. It was this collective sharing of
responsibilities which made their continued existence possible.
Doukhobors harvesting, c.
1907. Library and Archives Canada
Clearing and improving the homesteads was a slow, difficult process that took
the majority of the villagers’ time and labour. Before crops could be sown,
the settlers had to remove trees and scrub, drain sloughs and clear the fields
Using axes, hoes and sickles along with teams of horses hitched to walking
plows, the Doukhobors could only clear ten to fifteen acres at the most in a
year. All villagers old enough to work contributed towards this effort.
As parcels of land were cleared, the Doukhobors cultivated and sowed it to produce rye,
barley and oat crops. They put much of it into grass for pasture and hay. As more
feed was produced, additional livestock were acquired. At first, the villagers
were limited to subsistence farming, with nearly all of the crops and livestock
raised used to survive, leaving little, if any, surplus for sale or trade.
Diversions from the arduous work were few. Leisure was not a concept known to
the Doukhobors since, according to their teachings, people were not supposed to
be idle. All the same, the villagers socialized as they worked together in the
village and in the fields. Work and leisure thus formed an integrated whole.
Prayer meetings (molenie) were a major weekly social event on Sunday
morning. Other less formal social gatherings were held from time to time.
Generally speaking, the Doukhobors shared many of the same experiences as other
settlers. Isolation, loneliness, harsh weather, deprivation and adversity were
met with persistence, optimism, thrift, resourcefulness and the acceptance of
unremitting hard work. At the same time, their life was made easier in that they
were a close-knit community and worked together, whereas a single homesteader
often lived by himself, far from other neighbours.
Growth and Prosperity
In spite of the initial hardships of pioneer life, Vozvyshenie grew and even
prospered. By the taking of the Census of Northwest Provinces in 1906, it was a
bustling village of forty-five people living in eleven households. Now the
villagers had eighteen horses, thirty-seven milk cows and forty-seven horned
cattle. They had brought a large area surrounding the village under cultivation
and had begun to produce a surplus of agricultural products.
By this time, the Doukhobors were no longer alone. Following the Dominion Lands
Survey in 1904, in which sections and quarter-sections were laid out, hundreds
of new settlers poured into the district. The vast bulk of these people were
Galicians from Western Ukraine and Scandinavians – Swedes and Norwegians - who
arrived via the United States. Other groups included English and Scottish
settlers from Ontario and Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical Protestants who,
like the Doukhobors, fled Tsarist Russia to avoid religious persecution. They
all came seeking a better way of life, bringing with them a diversity of
languages, manners and customs.
It was evident that the Doukhobor village was a gathering place for many of the
newcomers where they met to discuss local news, weather conditions and matters
relating to the land and its settlement. To some extent, the newcomers were
dependent on more established settlers for advice and direction to start their
own homesteads, and the Doukhobors were foremost in offering hospitality and
generosity to all who came to them for assistance.
A line of spruce trees marks the central
street of Vozvyshenie, a mile southwest of Hyas on Highway No. 49.
For instance, when the first groups of Russian and Ukrainian Evangelical
Protestants arrived in the district, they stayed at Vozvyshenie for several
days, and with the help of the Doukhobors, got to their homesteads. The two
groups of settlers, being able to converse in their native language, remained on
friendly terms, visited one another’s homes and engaged in lively philosophical
discussions. Indeed, one Evangelical Protestant settler, Pavel Skripnik, was so
impressed by the Doukhobor way of life that he converted to their faith and took
the surname “Skripnikoff”.
With the influx of settlers, regular mail service became available in 1903 as
the Plateau post office was opened on Fred Wright’s farm on Section 16 of
Township 33. In 1905, it was moved to the general store belonging to Adolph
Kennedy on Section 20 of Township 33 and renamed the Ulric post office. Then,
from 1909 to 1911, it was re-opened as the Cokato post office on Tom Tetlock’s
farm on Section 26 of Township 33. Mail was conveyed fortnightly by stage from
Kamsack via Fort Pelly. With this convenience, settlers were better able to
transact business and maintain correspondence with friends and relatives in
outlaying parts of the country.
Despite the rapid growth of the district, however, the settlers were
disadvantaged by the lack of accessibility and distance of markets. The main
supply route, the Fort Pelly Trail, provided a tenuous link to the outside world
and was often impassible by horse and wagon. Although supplies could be obtained
locally at Kennedy’s or at the Hudson Bay Company store at Fort Pelly, fourteen
miles to the east, the nearest market for livestock and grain was the town of
Canora, located twenty miles to the south, which was too far away to be
practical and economical.
The railway had been promised, but each autumn after the ground had frozen, when
it came time for grain hauling, there was no sign of a railway and the settlers
had to haul their grain to Canora. The Doukhobors hitched two teams of horses to
a sleigh and hauled up to sixty bushels per load. The entire trip consumed two
days. During the relatively mild winters of 1905 and 1906, the journey was
bearable. However, during the severe winter of 1907, the heavy loads often got
upset in the deep snow and it was several days before they got back to the
village. Similar long and arduous journeys were made to drive the cattle the
Doukhobors raised overland to Canora.
By the end of 1907, many of the Doukhobors
had grown dissatisfied with the lack of railway facilities, the difficulty of
getting goods to market and the resulting unprofitability of their farms. It was
generally established that grain could not be profitably marketed if had to be
hauled by horse and wagon for a distance greater than ten to twelve miles to a
After much deliberation, most decided that the economic benefits of relocating
closer to the railhead outweighed the limitations of staying at Vozvyshenie.
Consequently, eight of the eleven families abandoned their homestead entries,
left the village and relocated to new homesteads which had been thrown open in
the district north-east of Canora. Their partially improved homestead entries
were eventually taken up by new settlers.
The departure of the majority of families led to the dissolution of the village.
The remaining families - those who were unwilling or perhaps unable to abandon
their efforts and relocate to another district - moved out onto their individual
homesteads. As houses and barns were removed or dismantled for building
materials, the physical structure of the village was reduced to the farmstead of
the family homesteading the village quarter-section. Thus, the Doukhobor village
of Vozvyshenie, which only a year before had bustled with activity and promise,
disappeared from the map.
Log farmhouse of Alexei Barisoff - the
last remaining building of Vozvyshenie.
The families who stayed behind – those of Alexei Derhousoff, Zakhar Derhousoff
and Alexei Barisoff - continued to prove up their entries on Section 6 of
Township 34. In due course, they obtained patents to the land. They were joined
by another Doukhobor family, that of Ivan Nahornoff, who arrived in the district
from Russia in 1910 and purchased (desirable homesteads were now hard to come by
so that new settlers had to purchase land) the southeast quarter of Section 35
of Township 33. The 1911 Canada Census reported twenty-one people in these four
families. Their mixed farming operations were
amongst the most prosperous and successful in the district.
Ironically, in the end, the railway eventually did arrive. In late 1911, the
Canadian Northern Railway Company completed the final section of the Thunderhill
Branch Line from Pelly, through the district, to Preeceville. Its construction
made life significantly easier for the local settlers, ending their isolation,
giving them direct access to markets, stimulating agricultural and economic
growth and acting as a catalyst for local improvements, including the
construction of a modern road system.
The following year, the railway company constructed a siding, with a boxcar
station and loading platform, on the northwest quarter of Section 5 of Township
34. A hamlet was surveyed there, which soon boasted a post office, school, two
general stores, restaurant, elevator, bank, hotel, blacksmith and livery stable
along with numerous residences. It became a small commercial centre where local
farmers came to ship livestock and grain to market, transact business and pick
up necessary supplies and also collect mail. Thus the community of Hyas, as it
came to be known, was established as it is today.
Ironically, the district’s earliest settlers, the Doukhobors, did not long
remain to enjoy these modern developments. As land values soared and land grew
scarcer along the new branch line, the Barisoff, Derhousoff and Nahornoff
families, unable to expand their landholdings (following the arrival of the
railway, the price of farmland per acre rose significantly), and desiring to
live closer to their coreligionists, sold out in 1914-1915 and relocated to the
Kamsack district, a predominantly Doukhobor-settled area, where they purchased
Time has erased most, but not all, traces of the
Doukhobor village of Vozvyshenie. A line of spruce trees – now part of the
shelterbelt surrounding the Serdachny family farm – still marks the central
street of the village. A solitary log farmhouse nearby stares silently at the
traffic passing by on the highway west of Hyas. Little else remains except in
old records, yellowed photographs and in the memories of the villagers passed
down to their descendants. Yet, the story of Vozvyshenie offers a unique
perspective of the history of the district, the Doukhobor contribution to its
development and the myriad factors which led to the founding of some Prairie
settlements and the demise of others.
As well, the story of Vozvyshenie offers an
interesting counterpoint to previous interpretations of Independent Doukhobor
settlement on the Prairies. In the past, scholars had interpreted the
Independents’ abandonment of communal villages as an outright rejection of that
form of settlement. In the case of Vozvyshenie, however, while these
Independents rejected communal ownership and living, they did not abandon the
concept of “community”. Instead, they sought to maintain a community in the
context of cooperativism and individual land ownership. In doing so, they opted
for a form of settlement more akin to that which they had left in Russia, than
either the utopian communalism of the Christian Community of Universal
Brotherhood, on one hand, or the rugged individualism of “Canadian” settlers, on
the other. It was only later, when increased wealth and economic opportunity
made them less dependent on each other, that the Doukhobors of Vozvyshenie
discarded the traditional Russian village model as being no longer necessary for
either their physical survival or the preservation of their spiritual life.
- Barry, Bill. Correspondence. May 13-19, 2006.
- Barschel, J.F. Paul, “A
History of Canora and District” (Canora, Saskatchewan: Canora Golden
Jubilee Committee, 1960).
- Belous, Wilf. Interview.
June 15, 2005.
Canadian Genealogy Centre, “Post Offices and
Postmasters Database”. Retrieved June 1, 2006, from
- Deduke, Dan. Interview. July
Dobbyn, Ed & Gwen Palmer, “Lasting
Impressions: Historical Sketches of the
Swan River Valley”
(Swan River: Swan Valley Historical Society, 1984).
Services Corporation of Saskatchewan:
Certificate of Title No. MM94, dated October 25,
1910, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Zakhar Dergowusoff; Certificate of Title No. 228MQ, dated December
22, 1910, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Alec Dergowusoff; Certificate of Title No. 67OW, dated October 2,
1913, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Joseph Derhousoff; Certificate of Title No. 200PF, dated April 14,
1914, issued for NW6-34-2-W2 to Louie Slegel; Certificate of Title No. 37MS, dated January 27,
1911, issued for NE6-34-2-W2 to Alexey Dierhousoff; Certificate of Title No. 129OW, dated October 8,
1913, issued for NE6-34-2-W2 to Joseph Derhousoff; Certificate of Title No. 204PF, dated April 14,
1914, issued for NE6-34-2-W2 to Louie Slegel; Certificate of Title No. 370, dated 1908, issued
for SW6-34-2-W2 to Alexey Barisoff; Certificate of Title No. 74PU, dated April 23,
1915, issued for SW6-34-2-W2 to Louie Slegel.
- Library and Archives Canada,
Census of Canada, 1911, Saskatchewan, Mackenzie District No. 210,
Sub-district No. 25, p. 6.
- Library and Archives Canada,
Census of the Northwest Provinces, 1906, Saskatchewan, Mackenzie
District No. 14, Sub-district No. 27, pp. 1-2.
- Library and Archives Canada,
RG 15, Department of the Interior, Vozsvishennie Doukhobor Village File,
File No. 5404684.
- Regehr, T.D. The Canadian
Northern Railway, Pioneer Road of the Northern Prairies 1895-1918.
(Toronto: Macmillan, 1976).
- Saskatchewan Archives Board,
Edgar Bray, Surveyor’s Note Book, November 16, 1903, File I.73.
- Saskatchewan Archives Board,
Homestead Files: File No. 878895, Alexey Barisoff, SW6-34-2-W2; File No. 1390749, George Zadubriwski,
SE6-34-2-W2; File No. 1416184, Alexey Dierhous, NE6-34-2-W2; File No. 1410052, Zakhar Dergowusoff, NW6-34-2-W2.
- Saskatchewan Archives Board,
Ulric School District No. 2432 File.
- Statutes of Canada, 1903,
Tarasoff, Koozma J. “Doukhobors” in Paul Robert
Magocsi, (ed.). Encyclopedia of Canada's People. (Toronto: University
of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 422-435.
- The Canadian Encyclopedia.
2000 edition. (Toronto, Ontario: McClelland and Stewart, 1999).
- The Norquay North Star, “History
of Hyas Dates Back to 1910.” (May 20, 1955), p.5.
- The Norquay North Star, “Pioneers
Came to South Hyas in 1905.” (May 20, 1955), p. 4.
- The Norquay North Star, “The
History of Stenen.” (May 20, 1955), p. 6.
- Tracie, Carl J., “Toil
and Peaceful Life: Doukhobor Village Settlement in Saskatchewan, 1899-1918”
(Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1996).
Woodcock, George & Ivan Avakumovic. The
Doukhobors. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 240.
article was reproduced by permission in:
The Dove No. 72 (Saskatoon: D.C.S.S.,
From Many People's
Strength, A Book of Memoirs, Hyas and Danbury District (Hyas, Saskatchewan:
Hyas and Danbury Book Committee, 2007).
(Winter 2007 Issue, Volume 59, Number 2).
to read article in journal format.