Rural Settlement Patterns

Rural settlement patterns describe the “distribution of farmsteads and dwellings” across the rural landscape. Most rural settlement in Saskatchewan is associated with agriculture, although northern communities and Indian reserves could also be included. A settlement can be considered rural where the greater part of the working population is employed in primary sector activities; rural homes may be isolated from one another (dispersed) or clustered together in small groups (hamlets) or larger villages. Rural settlement patterns in Saskatchewan have been greatly influenced by the policies and practices implemented in the late 19th century to promote the spread of agriculture. Foremost was the Dominion land survey that divided the prairies into a grid of six-mile square townships, each subdivided into 36 square-mile sections. Land within each township was allocated for differing purposes; most even-numbered and some odd-numbered sections were available as homesteads. A homestead comprised one quarter-section of land; each homesteader had to build a home on that land. This resulted in a predominantly dispersed settlement pattern, comprised of isolated farmsteads. One way to lessen the resulting isolation was for neighbours to locate farmsteads on adjacent corners of land, creating a cluster of homes sometimes referred to as a “four-corner hamlet.” (See Legal Land Survey)

The density of rural settlements varies across the province. It is influenced by a number of factors including the characteristics of the physical environment and the economic orientation of farms. Fewer farmsteads were located in the semi-arid southwestern region, where early farms were typically one-half section or more in size (because many homesteaders purchased an additional quarter-section as a pre-emption). Density was greater in the park belt, where smaller and more numerous farms were the norm—especially on land reserved for the settlement of particular groups, on which both odd and even-numbered sections were made available for homesteading (see ethnic bloc settlements). The density of rural settlement diminished, beginning in the late 1920s in the southwest and in the 1950s in all areas, as rural depopulation and farm enlargement took hold. The abandonment of farmsteads was particularly evident in areas that proved ill suited to crop production and reverted to pastureland. As farm size increases, the number of farmsteads continues to decline.

Not all rural settlement in the province is dispersed. Some Métis and a few Euro-Canadian settlers had occupied land in advance of the survey. They tended to cluster along creeks and around trading posts and trails. Other clustered settlements were formed in the late 19th century, under special provisions of the Dominion Lands Act. The “hamlet clause” of the Act permitted certain religious groups to establish farm villages. Both Mennonite and Doukhobor settlers took advantage of the clause to establish farm villages in Saskatchewan. Mennonites settled near Rosthern, northeast of Saskatoon, and near Swift Current, in the southwest. These settlements fell into three categories: organized villages with a communal administration; unorganized villages; and four-corner hamlets. Both village types initially adhered to the Strassendorf (street village) pattern, with houses aligned on either side of a central street. Some villages such as Blumenhof, south of Swift Current, have survived in modified form; but Mennonite settlements were subject to the same economic forces felt elsewhere in Saskatchewan, and many farmsteads have been abandoned. Out-migration of more conservative Mennonites in the 1920s also diluted enthusiasm for the traditional ways. Doukhobor settlement patterns varied over time, but also included a number of street villages built on reserves located in five areas across the park belt.

Other clustered rural settlements were located on purchased land. The most prominent contemporary examples are the more than fifty Hutterite colonies, spread throughout agricultural Saskatchewan but concentrated particularly in the southwest. Colonies typically house between 80 and 120 individuals, living in a housing complex at the heart of the colony. Orientation of buildings is governed by tradition: housing and communal kitchen are typically arranged in a north-south direction, while secular buildings such as barns are oriented east-west. Rural settlement patterns today are greatly influenced by economic forces that have encouraged a steady increase in farm size and a reduction in the farm population. As more farmers depend on off-farm work for survival, many no longer reside on their land. At the same time, the attractions of rural living have encouraged the development of hobby-farms around larger urban centres. Rural settlement patterns, while still reflecting earlier influences, continue to respond to the shifting social and economic conditions of the 21st century.

Marilyn Lewry

Further Reading

Friesen, R.J. 1977. “Saskatchewan Mennonite Settlements: Modification of an Old World Settlement Pattern,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 9 (2): 72-89; Pacione, M. 1984. Rural Geography. London: Harper & Row; Tracie, C.J. 1996. “Toil and Peaceful Life”: Doukhobor Village Settlements in Saskatchewan, 1899- 1918. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.