The Doukhobors in 1904

by Patricia L. McCormick

The early years of Doukhobor settlement in Canada were turbulent and emotional.  But by 1904, much of the dissension and disorder of the early years, caused by lack of leadership, the fear of governmental interference and the activities of radicals within the sect had been replaced by a firm sense of purpose under the leadership of Peter “Lordly” Verigin.  The following article by Patricia L. McCormick, reproduced from Saskatchewan History (31, 1978, No. 1) outlines how in 1904, under Verigin’s leadership, the traditional Doukhobor qualities of thrift, industry, self-discipline and hospitality were concentrated on building a thriving community with good and modem equipment and enough stock and necessities to give them hope for a more comfortable life in the villages and an economic surplus for the community as a whole. By the end of 1904, however, this spirit of hope was again lost.

In 1899, over 7000 Doukhobor settlers arrived in Canada and travelled overland to the Districts of Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. The Doukhobors had been living in exile in the Caucasus for over half a century, but renewed political harassment and religious intolerance prompted them once again to seek a new home. Canadian officials were at the same time anxious to settle the vast prairie with experienced farmers, and quickly acceded to the Doukhobors request for reserved land, the right to live in villages and exemption from military duty. These concessions to the Doukhobors were similar to the terms granted to the Mennonites when they formed their reserves in Manitoba in 1874 and 1876, and in Saskatchewan in 1895.

The four boatloads of Doukhobors which arrived in Canada in the spring and summer of 1899 were directed to three separate reserves: the North Colony or Thunder Hill Reserve; the South Colony, with its Devil’s Lake annex to the west; and the distant Prince Albert or Saskatchewan Reserve. The North and South Reserves were both situated in the Yorkton area, and they came to form the core of Doukhobor settlement in the Territories.

The first group of settlers to arrive in the North-West travelled to the Thunder Hill or North Colony, and settled mainly near the Swan River valley. These people came from the Wet Mountains in the Caucasus. They were poor and their fares to Canada had been subsidized by the federal government. The second boatload of Doukhobors came from the Elizavetpol and Kars regions of the Caucasus. They settled in the South Colony, particularly in the Devil’s Lake annex. These settlers were relatively prosperous; they brought many of their belongings from the Caucasus, and most of them paid their own fares. The third boatload, however, brought to Canada Doukhobors who had already spent a distressing year in Cyprus, due to an ill-advised re-settlement scheme. These families, who were destitute and in poor health, settled in the main South Colony. In July 1899, the last group, made up of well-to-do Kars Doukhobors, arrived in the Canadian west. They were directed to the Prince Albert Reserve, situated along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River between the Elbow and Blame Lake. The geographical isolation of this colony from the main body of Doukhobors in the Yorkton area emphasized, from the very beginning, their desire for cultural and spiritual independence.

When the Doukhobors started to organize their new settlements, they adhered rigorously to instructions issued by Peter Verigin from exile in Siberia. They were to establish small villages composed of 40 families, and situated two to four miles apart; maintain communal production and distribution of all goods; try to keep self-sufficient and isolated from other groups; and, in their personal habits, be abstemious and rigidly vegetarian. To begin with, most of his disciples conformed to these strictures, but there was a rapid falling off of enthusiasm. As Maude noted:

Now in Canada, the time had come to live a ‘Christian’ life, and to show the advantages of communism over individualism. The various forms their attempt took, and the continual drift from communism towards individualism that occurred as a result of practical experience, until Verigin arrived and established a communist despotism based partly on moral coercion, furnish an interesting study.

It is not surprising, given the origins of the various groups, that the colonies which held most tenaciously to a communistic form of life were the main South Colony and the Thunder Hill or North Colony, where the poorer Doukhobors lived. Most villages attempted various compromises between the two extremes. However, two settlements, the Devil’s Lake annex of the South Colony and the Prince Albert colony, showed rampant individualism. Herbert Archer, a Quaker, estimated in August 1900 that in the Prince Albert colony only one village in ten was communistic.

When Peter Verigin arrived in the Yorkton colonies in December 1902, his immediate objective was to crush the individualistic tendencies of the Doukhobors and to re-impose communism on the more recalcitrant communities by moral and economic force. His success was dramatic. Most villages returned to a communistic organization, although pockets of disaffection with Verigin’s rule remained in the Prince Albert and Devil’s Lake colonies. When Mavor visited the colonies in 1904, at a time when defections from communal village life were few, he estimated that non-community Doukhobors numbered only one-fifth of the total.

Verigin, nonetheless, decided to cut his losses and early in 1904, he concentrated his attention on the South and Thunder Hill colonies where the “truest” Doukhobors lived. It was there that he demonstrated his flair for organization and his shrewdness in business and financial matters. Under the strict control of the Committee of three, made up of Verigin, Zibarov and Planidin, all aspects of the Yorkton colonies were supervised, and the economy was shored up by keen management.

In the accounts for 1903, presented at Nadezhda in the South Colony on February 28, 1904, Verigin itemized his purchases: 4 portable steam engines and 2 traction engines with threshing machines; 2 saw mills (to be driven by the steam engines); 50 binders; 32 mowers; 45 disc harrows; 20 seeders; 16 wagons; 109 ploughs; 234 sections of harrows; 12 fanning mills; and 152 sleighs. In addition to the equipment, Verigin also bought 370 horses for $36,765.00 and sheep for $1,461.00.

Although one of the avowed aims of the community was self-sufficiency, it is evident from the accounts that many goods still needed to be imported, either from Yorkton or Winnipeg. Almost $30,000 was spent on dry goods, and wheat, oats and flour cost the colonies $9,720. Other bulk items, such as leather goods, salt, coal oil, glass, sugar, tea, wool and soap were also purchased, although there was some debate at the meeting that they should abstain from such luxuries as tea and sugar in 1904.

Doukhobors plowing, North Colony, 1905.  Library and Archives Canada A021179.

The Doukhobors, then, started the year 1904 with firm leadership, good and modem equipment and enough stock and necessities to give them hope for a more comfortable life in the villages and an economic surplus for the community as a whole. And, according to the minutes of the meeting, Verigin was deeply preoccupied with plans for future improvements and purchases. The Doukhobors resolved to set up a brickyard so that the log and sod houses might be replaced by brick structures. Verigin proposed to buy a hundred milk cows, more seed drills and 2000 puds (i.e. a traditional unit of weight in Russia equal to 16.38 kg) of wool for homespun cloth. He wanted to construct a new saw mill for each of the North and South colonies and to build a large warehouse near Verigin on the new main line of the Canadian Northern Railway. The Doukhobors also decided to build their own roads in the future and to permit no schools on the reserves unless they themselves wished to establish them.

Although ambitious, these plans turned out to be realistic. In 1904 a brick-making machine was bought and set up near good clay in section 26, township 35, range 30, W.I. A hundred purebred Ayrshire cattle were purchased so that the Doukhobors might vary their vegetarian diet with more dairy products. In the summer they bought a steam-plough, and Mavor reported that it was used on the reserve that autumn. In July 1904, C. W. Speers, an official of the Department of the Interior, observed that there were ten miles of graded road in the Yorkton district reserves and 20,000 acres of crop “looking excellent”. He also stated that:

They intend to cultivate a large area next to the railway and go extensively into wheat-raising … They have every material want supplied and excellent equipment for their work in their district. There is an air of prosperity among the people and great promise for the present year.

When the 1904 crop was finally in, the Doukhobors enjoyed for the first time in Canada a small grain surplus. The statistics for the Yorkton reserves were as follows:

  South Colony Devil’s Lake Annex North Colony
wheat 40,261 bushels 10,317 bushels 17,085 bushels
oats 49,948 bushels 12,131 bushels 16,569 bushels
barley 23,396 bushels 5,646 bushels 10,673 bushels
flax 3,584 bushels 895 bushels 975 bushels

In a letter to Alex Moffat, dated January 17, 1905, however, Verigin lamented the fact that the Doukhobors were unable to sell their wheat, which they offered at 85 cents to 40 cents a bushel, depending on the grade. And of the 17,000 pounds of seneca root gathered by the women of the reserves in 1904, only 4,000 pounds had been sold for the small sum of $2,600. This letter underlines the precarious financial position that confronted Verigin. His attempt at deficit financing depended on a great increase in the production of grains and the sale of grains and the sale of agricultural surpluses outside the reserves. At this stage he was helped by the money brought into the colonies by men who worked as navvies grading railways, as mill-hands and as harvesters on neighboring farms. But, as Mavor cautioned in his Report, “It is clear that when external earnings diminish, as after the construction of the railways they must, the exports will have to be increased, or their external purchases diminished.”

The population of the three Doukhobor colonies in 1904, according to Mavor, was between 8,000 and 8,500. Most of the Doukhobors lived in villages, and each village accommodated an average of 40 families or 200 persons. Not surprisingly, though, the sizes of the villages varied. In a list of villages in the Yorkton reserves drawn up by C. W. Speers, only 7 of the 45 villages conformed to the ideal size. In the Prince Albert colony the largest village was Spasovka with 190 inhabitants; the smallest of the 13 villages was Uspenie with 65 inhabitants. The average population for the 13 villages in the Prince Albert reserve was only 115, but there the Doukhobors were allowed to settle only on even-numbered sections, and their density was thus lower than in the Yorkton reserves where they had been granted both odd- and even-numbered sections.

The villages in the Doukhobor reserves were laid out in the Strassendorf pattern, so familiar then in the Mennonite settlements, with a wide central street lined with shade trees and houses aligned perpendicular to the street. A visitor to the South Colony in October 1904 brought back a detailed description of a Doukhobor village and the interior of a Doukhobor house:

The houses of this village were all built of small logs, roofed with poles and sod. They were neatly plastered with clay, and I was told that this work was done by the ‘girls’. Some of the buildings were whitewashed, and then looked very well. All the houses were set back fifty or so [feet] from the fence bounding the road, but these spaces were not used as gardens, though perhaps that was the intention.

When the visitor entered a Doukhobor house, he found everything “spotlessly clean”. The entry room was bare of furniture. The living room measured approximately twenty feet square, and in the middle of it was a post which supported the roof. The log walls and roof poles were plastered with clay.

The floor was also of clay mixed with straw, and perfectly level and smooth. The big clay box-stove was built in one comer, but the door for feeding the wood into it was in the other room… Around three sides ran a bench – one side very wide, forming a bedstead on which two beds were made up covered with patchwork quilts… Above the bench, half way to the ceiling, the wall was covered with newspapers.

In the Yorkton reserves the major departure from the existing Mennonite model of village settlement was the central location of communal facilities such as granaries, stables and, in some cases, prayer homes. In contrast to the individual houses, these buildings were usually aligned parallel to the central street and situated on larger lots. In October 1904, the visitor observed the men of the village thatching the barn roof, which projected over the ends of the structure by five or six feet. The bam itself was built of logs and the exterior plastered with clay. It was set back 200 yards from the road, and the large stable had room for nine teams.

I was told that there were eight teams in the village, which was a small one of only thirty-five families. All the animals were in splendid condition, showing good care. They were of no one breed, but all large and shapely, good general purpose horses.

James Mavor noted another characteristic structure of Doukhobor villages, small bath houses, or saunas, built behind the homes.

In the Prince Albert or Saskatchewan colony many Doukhobors farmed individually on their own quarter-section. Where the farmers lived in villages and farmed individually, there was no sharing of common implements, nor was the crop divided up according to need. Their independence was also reflected in their houses. They adopted the traditional house-bam combination, a one-story structure aligned perpendicular to the central street. In addition to his own house and stable, each farmer had a granary on his own property. As a result, there were few communal buildings in the Prince Albert villages, and no prayer homes.

Village of Vosnesenya, North Colony, c. 1904.  Library and Archives Canada C-000683.

Sgt. Major Schoof, who visited two Doukhobor villages in the Saskatchewan reserve in June 1904 remarked, “Their houses are so perfectly weather tight and withal thoroughly clean,” and added that the gardens were “flourishing with all kinds of vegetables” and that “He enjoyed the luxury of a Turkish bath, one of which is built in each village with a competent assistant in attendance.”

In many ways the village life was attractive and admirably suited to the rigors of pioneer life on the prairies. The needs of the old or the sick were always taken care of by close neighbours and by the communal distribution of goods and produce. Mavor described, somewhat romantically, a summer scene in a Doukhobor village.

Men and women worked in the fields together, and they adhered to the pleasant Russian custom of marching in groups from the village to the scene of their labour, singing as they went. The earliest risers began to patrol the village street singing a hymn to the rising sun, and their voices aroused the others. When the band was completed, the workers marched away, their voices gradually becoming more distant. They returned in the evening in the same manner.

Even though 1904 was probably one of the more constructive years in Doukhobor history, there were portents of future confrontations with the federal government and of strong dissension within the community itself. Early in 1904 Peter Verigin started to prepare for some of the problems which were to emerge from the Department of the Interior’s inconsistent interpretations of the Homestead regulations as they pertained to the Doukhobors. In March or April, Verigin bought 13 square miles of land from a land company for $10,000, and three quarter-sections of partly improved land for $360.

His seeming prescience was confirmed by government action on December 15, 1904. In flagrant disregard of promises given to the Doukhobors by Sifton, the government served notice that only 180,000 acres of the 722,000 acres in the reserves had been legally taken up, and that the balance would subsequently be disposed of by the government to new settlers. The Saskatchewan Herald reported that the land office in Battleford was “besieged” when the Prince Albert Doukhobor reserve was opened up: “Some 60 entries were made, several of the applicants having waited outside the office several hours in order to put in their claim.”

With the extension of the Canadian Northern line past Buchanan, in the Devil’s Lake annex, in the autumn of 1904, the Assiniboia colonists also began to feel hostility and public pressure from the new settlers pouring into the area. The isolation the Doukhobors had sought and cultivated was irretrievably lost. This external pressure only exacerbated the resentment building within the communities of the so-called “true” Doukhobors for their more independently minded brothers. These they ostracized from the community and called “No-Doukhobors”. Early in 1905 Verigin urged all his loyal followers in the Prince Albert colony to come to the Yorkton reserves. The siege mentality which characterized the Doukhobor settlements on the prairies for the next three years was just beginning.

The history of Doukhobor settlement in the North-West was turbulent and emotional. But by 1904 much of the dissension and disorder of the early years, caused by lack of leadership, the fear of governmental interference and the activities of radicals within the sect had been replaced by a firm sense of purpose. There were, of course, occasional outbursts of frustration and fanaticism, but the years 1903-1904 represented a time of relative order and harmony in the colonies.

Under Verigin’s leadership all the traditional Doukhobor qualities of thrift, industry, self-discipline and hospitality were concentrated on building a thriving community. James Mavor’s observation in the spring of 1904 was that: “The people were in good spirits, and … adjusting themselves cheerfully to the country and the climate.” By the end of 1904 that spirit of optimism was again lost.

This article originally appeared in the pages of Saskatchewan History, an award-winning magazine dedicated to encouraging both readers and writers to explore the province’s history. Published by the Saskatchewan Archives since 1948, it is the pre-eminent source of information and narration about Saskatchewan’s unique heritage.  For more information, visit Saskatchewan History online at: