The Problem of the Pioneer

Among my papers is a set of guidelines for writing oral histories, handwritten in the 1950s for members of a particular Tasmanian small town’s local history society.  The members used it when interviewing elderly locals. These interviews usually focused on local pioneering heroes.

I love pioneers and their world as it appears in popular media.  The idea of brave families travelling into the wilderness and recreating civilization always appealed.  But as an adult, I’ve learned a lot more about the world. I’ve met many people who have nothing good to say about pioneers. I’ve worked hard in my own garden to eradicate weeds that should never have been introduced to this country.  I’m aware of native animals on the verge of extinction. I know Indigenous people fighting to reclaim their traditional lands. I know the environmental damage caused by sheep and cattle. I am also aware of the huge absence in our local and national histories of whole swathes of immigrants from non-British countries, not to mention those who were already here.  I’m also quite aware that some of our great pioneers were actually absent pioneers who simply sent a workforce out with all the equipment required to build a mansion and set up a cattle ranch.  Those particular pioneers did not come out themselves until their current lifestyle could be maintained in their new homeland.

Pioneers even in fiction could be autocratic, racist and traditionalist. Was this a required characteristic? What were real pioneers like?

Was a pioneer really a good thing at all?

My copy of the oral history guidelines came from an octogenarian who recorded many oral histories of people now long deceased.  Forty years later in his turn he was interviewed by myself, and since he had nobody to pass his papers on to, they became a much valued part of my scarily large collection.

The guidelines include suggested questions.  One of those questions asks whether the interviewee was acquainted with any early pioneers of the district, what those pioneers were like and whether they had told any stories of their life and of the district.  Another asks if the pioneers had had any trouble with bushrangers or Aborigines.

Rural Australia
The edge of native bushland near Mungo National Park New South Wales

As a family historian of the modern world, the wording of that question sort of made my blood run cold.  It’s a valid question and one that the local historian definitely wants an answer to.  It’s the way it was phrased that took my breath away.  There are a multitude of assumptions in there about the demographic of that early pioneer and the legitimacy of various lifestyles in colonial societies.  We’re talking almost seventy years ago, of course, about matters which are still burning issues today.  But it led me to consider the concept of the pioneer.

Google dictionary defines the word pioneer as (1) ‘a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area‘ and (2) ‘a person who is among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity‘.  Both are applicable at times to our colonising ancestors, but chiefly the first definition is the one we are thinking of.

It’s a fair starting point, but people actually mean something different to this when they think of a pioneer.  For a start, wherever a colony is set up among indigenous people the first definition is actually invalid.  I went through a stage of thinking that the very word ‘pioneer’ was dodgy, with its connotations of domination and destruction. This was a matter of regret to me since I love the idea of a pioneer – someone who doesn’t give up, someone resourceful who manages to survive even without the support structures set up to enable survival.

Gate Wangaratta
A good example of English influence in an Australian inland city. Wangaratta 2017.

It’s very easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater, as the saying goes. There are many pioneers among the Indigenous people of the world, who really were the first to settle in a new country.  I’d love to have heard their stories. Luckily the bushrangers had enough fans to have their lives recorded. Lately in Australia, people are starting to examine the lives of our Chinese and Russian pioneers.  The more aspects of society we have, the better the true picture of life in a particular time.

But a pioneer really isn’t just someone who got somewhere first. A pioneer is someone who transplanted themselves to a place that was culturally and materially barren for them, who then proceeded to retain much or all that they held dear, and to pass that on to their descendants. Well, this is how I personally define a pioneer.

Pioneers were courageous souls who may have chosen their path, but equally may have had that path forced on them.  They may have been explorers or wealthy families but they might have been convicts or famine victims, or orphan children who were shipped to the colonies to be domestic servants.  In some countries they might have been slaves, or displaced Indigenous people, or displaced due to war or religious conflicts or straightforward poverty.  They might have been shipwrecked. Whatever it was, the ability to hold on to one’s values and to create security in the midst of hardship is a remarkable skill.

Wheat field inland Australia
European crops in Australia

A pioneer did not necessarily recreate that which he or she had left behind.  Successful pioneering required adaptation. Different crops, different clothes, different working hours in extreme heat or cold.  Different language, different financial system. Even today in my state of Australia, a wood paling fence is a rare thing because of termites. Surviving early fences are stone or brick.  This is a practice that must have been learned the hard way.  That said, sometimes the pioneer did successfully import something from their home.  The manor house for example.  Immense parliament houses. Paved roads. Village markets and wedding dresses and musical recital nights.  Just what came and which adaptations were made is one of the fascinating things we can learn from the lives of the pioneers.

Plus, sometimes the pioneer left nothing behind at all except a descendant or two and perhaps their grave (if we are lucky). This is quite enough to qualify them for the title. The Indigenous people that I know do not use the word ‘pioneer’ much, but they number many of what I would call pioneers among their ancestors who left a strong legacy of knowledge and skills.

As blog posts go, this one is a little bit shorter and a bit different to most of my others, but I felt a need to tackle this subject because I do consider many of my ancestors to be pioneers, but I am deeply aware of the downside of their circumstance – that probably, someone with a greater claim to that bit of country was displaced by my ancestors’ arrival.  The story of that displaced person or people is a part of my ancestor’s story whether my ancestors knew it or not.  If I can learn those stories, I will include them in my family history. But it doesn’t negate the remarkable qualities my ancestors possessed which I still admire today.  It’s simply a bigger and more nuanced picture.

Murray River at Tocumwale
Murray River at Tocumwal.