While a handful of Romanians lived in the area around Regina, Saskatchewan as early as 1891 the larger numbers of immigrants didn't start arriving until after 1905. One of the early families to arrive was the Donisans and in this interesting first-hand account we learn a little bit about their journey to build lives in Canada.
A Telling of the Donison Journey to Canada in 1900
The author of the below story, born Julian Donisan (later known as William Donison) around Satu Mare, Romania in 1895, would have been around five years old in 1900 when the story begins. I love that some of the details are first-hand memories while others are probably second-hand favourite family stories told and retold as he grew up.
Below is the story as it appears on pages seven through eleven in The Donison Family Tree although I have corrected a couple of typos and added some title-breaks, hyperlinks and images.
The Account of William Donison
Nicolai -The Lame One
Nick apparently was a very rough and tough and hearty character, and he met with a peculiar accident or ailment to one leg when only about 20 years old. No one ever knew what really happened. However, it left him with only one leg. The other one withered up below the knee. He strapped his bad leg up to his thigh and fashioned a wooden peg, and because he walked around with a limp and a cane he was called “Shkeoppo”, meaning Lame One. This did not appear to have affected him much, for he lived to the age of 93.
A few years after his wife died, he decided to move to Canada. In July of 1900, at the age of 71, he and three of his sons George, Laurenti and John and all of their children left Romania to come to the New World. Constantine and his family decided to remain behind. Nick's daughter Elizabeth stayed in Romania as well, as she was married and had a family.
They paid their fare to the agency who had arranged their trip to Canada with the understanding that on a certain day the ship will be at Hamburg, Germany.
When the day for their departure arrived they bid goodbye to their friends, their village, and their country. They were dressed in Romanian attire of white tight fitted pants, shirt tail out of pants, a 6 inch wide leather belt fastened with three brass buckles, sheepskin vest decorated with flowers of many shades and colors, and sporting long hair, according to the tradition and style of those days.
Arriving in Hamburg, they were told that their boat would not leave for a week or 10 days. This unexpected news was a shock to the whole group. The women began to cry, and the children seeing their mothers crying, also cried. There was some commotion and arguments between the families and the agency. Finally the agency agreed to transfer them to another ship which was ready to sale for Canada.
Luck was with them, to board one of the classiest ocean liners of the time, known as the Pretoria. Because of the clothes they were wearing, the captain of the ship thought they belonged to some kind of cult so they were received with magnificent splendor, cheer and music. After the families got aboard the ship, the captain wanted to separate the families, but they did not agree to this and insisted that they all remain together. The captain of the ship, being a man of good sense, assigned them to the best quarters, which were right in the middle of the ship just above the water line.
George, the oldest son, started helping around carrying food, setting tables, scrubbing floors, and before long most of the family who were capable of doing odd jobs aboard ship. This was appreciated by the captain and he saw to it that they were well treated. They got first-class treatment, even whiskey, all through the trip.
Travelling to Saskatchewan
Arriving at the Port of New York, they went to the railway station to buy tickets to Regina. They found that they only had enough money to go as far as Winnipeg. They reasoned that once in Winnipeg they could find a way to obtain more money to continue to Regina perhaps a job, or maybe the agency would stake them and see them through.
Arrived in Winnipeg flat broke and tired. Nicuta was the only one with a few dollars remaining. After a few days of arguing with the agent in Winnipeg, the agent finally allowed them to continue. However, first John (Nicuta) loaned his brother George $4, and $8 to his brother Laurenti.
They arrived in Regina on August 1, 1900. At that time it was known as the Northwest Territory, District of Assiniboia. Not knowing the English language, everyone and everything was so strange to them. They lived at the railroad station for several days. Sleeping on the floor. At the height of their desperation in came a German fellow who knew several languages, including Romanian. He recognized their odd wearing apparel as Romanian and he began to speak Romanian to them. Excitement ran high among them when they heard someone who could speak their language.
They all begin to talk and ask questions at once, explaining their problems to this newfound friend. After he quieted them down some, he assured them that they could find work among the farmers and he knew some empty houses that they could live in temporarily until they established themselves in something permanent. They also learned that there were a few other families of Romanian stock which had settled in the Regina area.
Money was First Priority
George's oldest son John, got a job on a farm. Nick got a job on another farm and smaller children like Sebastian got jobs doing farm chores and herding cattle. They arrived shortly before the harvest season and Nick’s boys George and Laurenti got jobs on threshing crews. The threshing machine had no blower and George and Laurenti's job was to keep the straw away from behind the separator, forking the straw by hand. By evening they were an awful sight as they still sported their long hair. It was full of dust, burrs and straw. After several days of this they became disgusted or perhaps more embarrassed and had their hair cut. Old man Nick never did cut his hair. He died with it still shoulder length.
Homesteads North of Regina
After the harvest the three brothers took up Homestead's 12 and 14 miles north of Regina. The first fall of 1900, George and his brother John dug a hole into a hillside on George's homestead. The roof was made of sapling pulpwood poles hauled on their backs, as they had no horses yet. The poles in the roof were covered over with grass and sod dug with spades. They dug a ditch on the low side to let the light in. A ditch was dug at one end of the dugout and this served as a door. This home was called a “borday".
The next year, 1901, George built his mud house about half a mile east of the borday. Nicuta also built a mud house not far away. The mud houses were built of pulpwood and plastered with mud and reinforced with sod. The only lumber that was used was for the door and window and the lid that allowed access to the cellar. Even the floor was made of plaster mud. The roof was made of poles and sod.
Homesteads South of Rouleau
In 1903 Nick (the old man) and his son Constantine (who came to Canada in 1902) took homesteads south of Rouleau. George's sons John and Nick also took homesteads nearby. George worked his father's farm and looked after his needs. In the fall the old man Shkeoppo used to come and live in his sons borday. Nick did this for three years. At the end of three years, Nick got the title to the homestead and he transferred it to his son George, with the promise or expectation of getting enough money to go back to Romania. Nick had been planning to return to Romania to live out his life.
Nicolai "Shkeoppo" to Romania and Back
The fall of 1907 Nick did return to Romania but only for about three years. Perhaps his return to Canada was hastened by the peasant upheaval in Romania at that time which was caused by Russian instigation. This began in 1905, when Russia wanted the states of Moldovia and Bessarabia. The country was in financial difficulties and there was much unrest among the people, particularly the peasants. War and the riots again appeared to be on the way. In 1907 the country was once again a mess with an internal uprising and changes in administration due to Russian influence. The turmoil and depression lasted for several years.
Nick wanted to return shortly after he got to Romania, but his money had run out and he did not have enough for boat fare back to Canada. His sons could not send him any as they were struggling themselves to make ends meet. Besides not having any money they were not particularly anxious to have him back because they knew he would be a burden in their small homes. However Nick met a man in Romania whom he recognized as a neighbor of his sons back in Canada, and he talked this man into lending him the money to return. When he got back, he made his son George pay the man back as George still owed money to his father for the land deal between them before he went to Romania. From the time Nick came back in 1910 until 1919 he stayed with his son George. After this he began to move from one son to another until his death in 1922. He was living with the grandson, Efrim, on George's old homestead north of Regina when he died in April or May 1922. He is buried in the Regina Cemetery. It is interesting to note that Nick (Shkeoppo) walked from the farm to Regina a distance of 14 miles one day at the age of 80, and he had all his own teeth when he died in his ninety-third year.
In honour of these early Saskatchewan pioneers a street in Regina bears their name. Read more about this commemoration in Landmark: Donison Drive!