52 Ancestors: Helen Gammie (nee Shand) 1864-1951 – "The Strongest Woman I Ever Saw"

Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight an ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

Helen (nee Shand) Gammie was described to me by my grand uncle Alexander (Alec) Hadden as “the strongest woman I had ever seen.” Helen was Alec’s paternal grandmother and he had watched her strain and toil, carrying heavy loads long distances as she worked the Gammie homestead lands of southwest Saskatchewan, Canada. 

Helen Shand was born 20 Sep 1864 at Hillhead of Aucharnie in the Parish of Forgue, Aberdeenshire. She was the daughter of John Shand, an agricultural labourer and his wife Isabel Morrison. All was well for the working class Helen, or Nellie as she was called. She worked as a domestic servant, a maid in a local home, until the day she met was smitten by John Hadden, an assistant shopkeeper to his father Alexander Hadden who ran a general merchandise shop in Insch, Scotland. 

Helen ‘Nellie’ Shand

John and Nellie were both teenagers when they found out that they were going to be parents. And so, on 6 Sep 1883, just before her nineteenth birthday, Nellie gave birth to a baby boy. Following the Scottish naming convention, John and Nellie named their son after John’s father Alexander and they included Nellie’s surname as the baby’s middle name. As they were just teenagers, John in fact was even younger than Nellie and he likely had no real means by which to support Nellie and their son, they decided not to marry. Nellie kept the baby to raise on her own.

A few years later, Helen met and married Andrew Gammie, a local farm servant who is recorded in the 1891 Census of Scotland as the head of his small household and step-father to Alexander, who was then recorded as being seven years of age. Helen and Andrew soon started a family of their own children, three half brothers and two half sisters to Alexander.

When the Canadian government began offering free land as part of an initiative to settle the western prairies, Andrew and Helen decided to leave Scotland and become landowners in the far off land that had been made to sound so attractive. On 22 Apr 1907, Andrew, Helen and their five children arrived in Canada on board the ship “Lake Erie.” According to the Gammie family in a commemorative local history “Ponteix Yesterday and Today” (Ponteix and District Vol. 2), the family rented some land while their homestead application was being processed. In 1910, they made the last part of their journey by horse team and wagon to their land, described as W 1/2 of 2-8-11-W3rd south, where they lived in a sod hut until a two-story frame house was built.

When Helen’s son James Gammie was killed in World War I, land that James had owned was transferred to Helen as next-of-kin. I’m told that Gammie family members knew Helen was corresponding with someone whose identity she did not divulge. That someone was her first child, the son she left in Scotland as a young man, Alexander Shand Hadden. Helen convinced Alexander to bring his family to Canada and join her working the land. And so, the Hadden family arrived late in 1923 on the Canadian prairies, only to move away in 1927.

Helen’s husband Andrew died the year before the Hadden family departed and she continued living on her land for many years before she too passed away at the age of 86 on 2 Apr 1951 in Ponteix, where she was buried next to her husband.

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