Pioneer Quest: Reality vs Reality Show

I was browsing through Amazon Prime's movie list and came across Pioneer Quest. It's an old documentary/reality show shot in Canada in 2000. The producers screened thousands of people who applied to live one year in the Canadian 'wilderness' as people would've lived in the 1870s. Two couples were chosen. If they could make it a year, each couple would receive $100,000 Canadian.

Pros and cons: Things got off to a rocky start when one of the first couples chosen ended up being charged with sexual assault the day before they started shooting. I felt they did that couple a disservice by putting that information on national television. They should've just excused them and moved on to another couple. The charge had nothing to do with what they were trying to accomplish.

They eventually got another couple, the Treadways, but right from the start the new couple didn't get along with the existing (younger) couple, the Logies. The younger couple wanted to stay true to the mission of living in the 1870s. The Treadways were a little more willing to bend the rules and accept help from outsiders.

I take nothing away from them. They endured horrific months of mosquitoes, ticks, and the worst aspects of each season. They had the coldest winter, the wettest spring, the driest get the picture. They suffered tremendously, but they stuck it out even while disliking each other.

According to the show's producer, they chose couples that either had farming experience or hunted, but I feel they did a poor job preparing the couples. You can't throw someone from the 21st century into the 1870s with only their 21st century knowledge on farming and hunting. At the very least, they should've given them a period book about farming, or given them some education before throwing them into the deep end.

On the other hand, these two couples scored low marks on frugality and animal husbandry. Throughout the series, their animals suffered from neglect or poor nutrition. The pregnant sow had to be shot when her pen caught fire and she was nearly burned alive.

The worst part though, is that instead of butchering it, and preserving the meat as much as possible, they buried it because they didn't think they had enough salt to preserve it.

I get it. It was a traumatic experience. They were exhausted and depressed, but your personal problems play no part if you're trying to eek a living in the wilderness. Nature will eat you alive and then swallow the bones had this been for real.

I would've had a ladder of poles set up over a fire and dried the meat, boiled down the fat for cooking oil, fried the skin-side fat into cracklings, and tanned the hide. I was so angry at the waste. That poor animal suffered for nothing.

Another time, one of them was tossing away the milk from the cow because they can't drink it all. Had they had some education on 1870s living, they could've made butter or soft cheese. At the very least they could've fed the milk to the chickens. They had some starter plants with them too. Raw milk makes remarkable fertilizer.

There were other mistakes too like planting in soggy mud or trying to get unwilling animals into their pens. They were mad at the animals when it was entirely their fault for not planning ahead.

I'm not overly intelligent when it comes to farming. If mistakes were bricks, I could brick my entire house, and probably yours too. But I've found if you focus on the simplest components of a problem, you end up solving the bigger problem with a lot less grief.

Many pioneers died, some whose names we'll never know, but they were the building blocks that made us who we are today. This is why I think it's important not to forget the simple things. Not that you'll have any reason to know how to butcher a pig, but your freezer might die on you one day and you could be left with hundreds of dollars worth of meat gone to rot for not knowing the most fundamental means to preserve it.
For the record this actually happened to us during Hurricane Rita, but the devastation was so tremendous we had to tackle bigger issues like restoring water and getting trees off the house. We had no outside help for 21 days.

Still, I learned a lot from the show. I realized just how much 'stuff' we have--a commentary of 21st century living. We don't know how to be quiet either. Electronics, traffic, power tools, and overcrowding is constant, loud, and obnoxious.

The pioneers had none of that and I think the quiet is the one thing they missed most after the series was over. They did a final episode where they visited each couple back in the 21st century.

The show suffers from pacing, especially in the beginning but it does have better moments when they learned to plow with horses successfully and build their homes. The home building was especially well done. Tim Treadway was a contractor so he had some prior knowledge of construction.

If you're interested in 19th century living, it's got some interesting aspects to glean. For a better perspective, I'd recommend the British productions of Victorian Farm or Edwardian Farm that I reviewed in this post.

It's been several weeks since we've seen Pioneer Quest but it stays on my mind. The producer wanted to create a social experiment but he failed on so many levels. For a true social experiment the series should've lasted at least three years and preferably four. By the time these pioneers got three-quarters of the year behind them they weren't bothering with anything anymore since they knew their stint was nearly up. What was the point?

Would you ever consider applying for a job like this? I think Greg and I are too old now, but it would've been interesting to test our mettle back in our youth.

Have you ever seen Pioneer Quest? Are there any other shows like this you'd recommend? Have you ever lost a freezer full of food?

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I remember a show that was similar to this. It was years ago and on PBS, but I can't for the life of me remember the name of it. And I believe it was around the time Oprah was still on TV, and her and her friend Gayle went and tried to live like that for a day....
Maria Zannini said…
Madeline: No kidding? I'm going to have to look that up. I didn't have PBS back in those days, but I'm sure they have something in their archives. Thanks!
Sarah Ahiers said…
I watched this show back when it was on TV! I'm still angry about the sow. I'm angry that it even happened, that she was pregnant with a litter and that they wasted her meat. But, I did like that the younger couple really did give it their all and tried their best to live as close as they could to the way it would have been
betty said…
I haven't heard of it, but it does sound interesting. I think if it was on TV and hubby was watching it, I would have been intrigued by it all. I know for sure I would not survive the time out there and the conditions and probably would have given up sooner than later.

Susan Gourley said…
Never lost an entire freezer full but when I was growing up on the farm, we were without electricity once for almost a week after a hurricane. Had to milk the cows by hand which took all day and then start over again. My dad finally figured out how to rig something up with a tractor so we could use one milker. We had to dump hundreds of gallon of milk. After the mess was over, he bought a generator that ran off the tractor and could power the whole farm.
I think I could manage okay in such a situation but I wouldn't want to do it.
Rebekah Loper said…
I watched Pioneer Quest a couple months ago when I had my annual Amazon Prime free trial.

I think one of the things they (the producers) forgot to account for was someone setting off to be a pioneer was going to have the basic knowledge of how to grow food, how to butcher at least a few animals, how to use up food, etc.

The people they picked out SHOULD have been the ones to buy the initial supplies. It was clearly the people acquiring everything who made the mistake of buying all roosters and only one hen, for starters. As soon as the couples were at their spot and looking over everything they were pointing out forgotten things, and complete mistakes the crew had made.

As for the pig... personally, I would've tried a little harder to save it. Although they didn't show pictures of how badly it was burned, so maybe there really was nothing that could be done. I don't know. I felt like they gave up too quickly. It often seems like people have no idea how resilient animals really are.

I thought the decision not to butcher it for the meat afterward was because they literally had nothing that would have been required for doing so? Which is definitely an oversight - if you have animals, you should have the means necessary for proper dispatching/butchering. If I was in a situation where it was absolutely necessary, I could at least put a chicken out of its misery with one of my kitchen knives.

I also can't believe they weren't burying their smudge fires after putting them out. That simple step could have prevented the fire popping back up.

The well situation, too... I suppose it was smart for them to not let them use the e. coli infested well, but even back then people would have known to boil water to kill germs. Especially if the water was dirty, which the well didn't look like clear water AT ALL.

And I agree that the experience should have gone longer, but they probably didn't have the funding for that.

Is Madeline possibly talking about the show Frontier House? PBS had several different "House" series at one point. Colonial House, Frontier House, Victorian House, Texas Ranch House, etc. back about 15-20 years ago. (I may not have all those names right.) I remember some of them from when I was in highschool. Not sure when they actually started airing though.
Maria Zannini said…
Sarah: Agreed. I think the older couple had more experience with building and cooking, but the younger couple had more tenacity. I felt between the two of them, if this had been real life, the younger couple would've out-survived the older ones.

Even though they didn't like each other, they were a good match because each brought different skills.
Maria Zannini said…
re: I know for sure I would not survive...

LOL. I'd never give up, but boy, I know I wouldn't be pretty when it was over. :D
Maria Zannini said…
Susan: The first hurricane we ever faced convinced us to buy a generator. We still have it and it still runs!

I can't imagine having to milk that many cows by hand. It's bad enough not to have power but to keep operating a dairy had to have been a nightmare.
Maria Zannini said…
Rebekah: I'm going to have to browse through Prime and PBS, and see if they have some of those other titles.

re: the pig
I have a feeling they didn't tell us everything. Who knows how long it was before they got a vet out there. The poor pig looked like it was in shock. Without immediate attention it probably would've died, or miscarried and then died.

re: chickens
I know! The first thing I thought of was who in the heck was in charge of picking animals? And why would the pioneers release the chickens out in the open? I was surprised they ever caught them again.

There were so many problems that could've been avoided had they been properly prepared. As a social experiment it was flawed from the onset.

Greg was laughing at me because several times I would slap my forehead and yell at the tv.
I haven't seen any shows like this, but it reminds me of the real-life BioSphere 2 experiment.
Maria Zannini said…
Sandra: I forgot about BioSphere! That was a true social experiment. I was fascinated with the journey.
Jenny Schwartz said…
Those survivor shows leave me wanting to shout at the TV :) Ahem, and I know the fact that I'm watching them comfortably in my 21st century suburban home makes that hypocritical, but still ...
Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: I guess if I had 10,000 mosquitoes eating at me I might not be very willing to do the right thing either. Still, they could've treated the animals better.
LD Masterson said…
I wonder, if they tried to do that show today, if the various animal protection groups would veto putting farm animals into the hands of people who have no clue how to care of them. (Can you imagine me trying to raise a pig?)
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: I don't know what the animal protection laws are in Canada or how it affects people doing documentaries.

The couples were chosen for their ability to handle animals, but I think exhaustion and being overwhelmed got the better of them.

re: pig
I have a feeling if you had a pig, it would share daily snacks and tv with Sophie. :)
Lynette Connor said…
About the pig incident. Who was filming that scene? Someone was there with a camera. I had a difficult time accepting that no help was given (screw the show), to the screaming, suffering living creature. Refused to watch another's all about money and ratings. I hope they lost their freaking shirt!
Maria Zannini said…
Lynette: Exactly. The whole thing seemed suspicious to me, as if there was more behind the scenes they didn't want to bring up.

That poor sow should never have been allowed to suffer that long.
I just watched the entire series in two sittings....even the very last one of 'Surviving' the show. What a saga!

The PBS series on pioneer life was a bit better all round than this show. However, credit to those involved...they went through a lot. I did find Elena and Frank kind of 'snubbing' their experience "We have to just move on" a bit disappointing. They may find when they age that this experience, and the Treadways, were very cool indeed to have done that with them.
Both couples experienced themselves involved with the elements, with the land....and we could clearly see that. Good for viewers. The 'gossip' part of any of it as a reality show was not of interest to me.

I found it amazing Elena was a psych nurse only at the end of the series (or did I miss it at the beginning). I'd have thought her to be more expansive in thought than was shown at times.

Tough all round, being on camera for all that. Not sure i could have done it that way...however, there were times I wish I'd had a film camera on my shoulders living on the land...reading Foxfire books, figuring out how to kill chickens...irrigating our outhouse on a hot August Sunday. Fun times!

I could write my own book, I kept telling myself while watching the show. I survived the winter blizzard of 1977 in Southern Ohio in similar living conditions. We already had a house built, but in 1974 my husband and I moved to our second farm. In Butler County, Ohio...we had no running water, no indoor plumbing and no central heat. I cooked on a woodburning stove. We taught ourselves everything. I wallpapered our outhouse (so our visiting town friends wouldn't be too uncomfortable) and I had our second child while living there. We had a stocked fishing pond. We had hogs, cows and a so much acreage I can't remember for cash crop vegetables.

Thing is....Settlers in 1870 could read...some better than others, but they could read. So why in the world didn't these people have a book on animal husbandry, ferriers and other topics, that were written in that time period. There were plenty. It was seriously stupid for the horses to be not fed what would work. The pig should not have been treated the way it was...and it was pregnant when they got her and didn't even have the basic info on a pregnant sow that would have been printed in 1870.

I could say so much about the show...though I thought both couples were troopers and did what a lot of people would do...but it was clear the producers had no clue themselves about agriculture and farm life or history.

Neighbors and connections helping played a big part in how people survived back then. I thought the provisions being brought to them monthly? was kind of cheating. Sorry. Whatever the chemistry that didn't make it was never came quite clear the entire series, watching it back to back episodes.

Thank you for this space for me to write and thanks for your own work.
Peace Out
Maria Zannini said…
Bonnie Jeanne: I agree 100% on the points you brought up. I have to assume the producers took shortcuts and cheats for "entertainment" value.

re: Frank & Elena
I don't think they realize the worth of their experience yet. Maybe they do now that they're older. I hope so anyway.

re: book
You should consider writing a book! That's a lot of knowledge. One book I've always loved and written about the same time as your experience was Carla Emory's "The Encyclopedia of Country Living" She was a big influence on me when I started this road.

Thanks for sharing Bonnie Jeanne!
Amy Dee said…
I just watched the series on Prime last week and I enjoyed it tremendously. I genuinely liked the couples that were chosen. (Even the 1st couple who were only there for a day or so; I felt a bit sad for them because the nature of the alleged crime was disclosed before they had a chance to defend themselves.) Like most everyone though, I don't think the producers spent enough time preparing the 21st century pioneers on how the original pioneers did things.

The original pioneers would've already had experience and knowledge with the tools and horses and how to do certain tasks. They were thrown into this "experiment" without proper preparation or much basic knowledge in animal husbandry, 1870's farm equipment training and using primitive tools. A book or two about pioneering life would've been helpful for them in a lot of ways - maybe even prevented the loss of their pig and unborn piglets as well as other tips for them to use as reference. I wouldn't have considered it unauthentic since, as I stated above, the 21st century pioneers didn't know the ways of that period like the original pioneers did.

As a whole, I truly enjoyed the series. It was educational in a way that I wouldn't have been able to learn about by just watching a documentary, reading a book or listening to a lecture. It was entertaining because real people left their modern day lives and actually lived like the original pioneers did. I think both couples did very well in keeping with the ways of the 1870's.
Maria Zannini said…
Amy: I think it's nearly time for me to binge it again. The docu-series on English farms ( was more enjoyable, but I still liked this one.
Alisa Ricketts said…
That traumatized me greatly. I cried as I watched it. And felt so helpless for that poor pig. I felt such anger towards those couples; they never appreciated the animals. Always complained about them. This documentary was, in my opinion, such a farce.
Maria Zannini said…
Alisa: The producers really needed to do a better job vetting the applicants. It makes me wonder what their true intentions were in creating this documentary. What did it accomplish other than frustrating viewers?
Maria Zannini said…
pneal: Actually, I am an expert when it comes to homesteading. If the purpose of that show was to show pioneer life in the 1870s they would most definitely have eaten that pig. It would've been a travesty to waste food.

I really feel the producers of the show were torn between selecting couples who would be "entertaining" and couples who could actually do the work.

The couples tried, but in the end they just got a reality show and now actual reality.
Tammy Hammy said…
FWIW, the first set of couples were matched quite well I think. One couple being the Logie's Frank/Alana were more into hunting and being handy where as Tom/Pat knew more about farming/Manitoba. It was when Tom/Pat left that the show was "caught" for a lack of a better word and it left the producers scrambling for another couple after what I assume they let everyone know that the couples were picked.

As far as the concept of the show, I really wish they would do another show like it. I think if they actually did a show based on 3 or 4 couples with at least one of them with kids as I think it may actually show a better representation of how things actually were but it would be great to be made by the same producers that did Pioneer Quest.
Maria Zannini said…
Tammy: I absolutely would love it if they tried again. I think it's a good idea to have kids on too, but I imagine someone would accuse the producers of child abuse. Never mind that millions of kids grew up this way, and some still do.

But yes, I would love to see them try again.
Anonymous said…
It’s now June 2023 and I have just finished watching this series. I was intrigued with the synopsis of this series BUT city farmers? Farmers with no idea on basic animal husbandry? Farmers with no basic idea on cropping? No idea on how to read the weather? The choice of the couples spelt failure from the beginning. And no basic common knowledge or common sense regarding fires? Perhaps the production team should have done more in depth research on the pioneer times. And it took 6 months before they made bread? What was the social experiment? Did the producer not ever watch Little House on the Prairie or the Waltons?
Maria Zannini said…
Anonymous: re: city farmers
I know. Right? It reminds me of those survivor reality shows. How did they think dumping people with no real experience was a good experiment?

It would've been a grand idea if they could've gotten more seasoned couples and a well thought out basis from where to build from.
Jean Ellen said…
June 2023: my husband and I just completed this series. We somewhat enjoyed it, but it was also lacking a lot of common sense. Not learning to bake bread until later in the show was ridiculous. They built a shelter for the cow but nothing to get those poor horses out of the brutal cold and then they were improperly fed. The worst thing to watch was that poor pig. It had been scorched black and screamed in pain. Instead of doing the right thing, they waited a day or so for the veterinary, who looked thoroughly disgusted. His advice was to humanely put her down, which Tim Treadway did with a shotgun. I don't know why no attempt was made to run the poor animal from the pen. They should've used the meat. I didn't mind Tim and Deanna, but Frank and Alana were usually whining. Oh well, to each his own I guess.
Maria Zannini said…
Jean: The pig situation really angered me. And I agree. They should've used the meat.