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Catharine Parr Traill's Life in the Backwoods of Canada

For the week of Monday August 27, 2007

On August 29, 1899, Catharine Parr Traill, author, naturalist and pioneer, died at age 97, leaving behind a legacy of literature.

Catharine Parr Traill with her daughter and two grandaughters in Stony Lake, Ontario, 1899

Catharine Parr Traill with her daughter and two grandaughters in Stony Lake, Ontario, 1899
© Library and Archives Canada / C-067350

Among her earliest and best-known works was The Backwoods of Canada (1836) – a collection of correspondence between Catharine and the family she left behind in England when she moved to Upper Canada in 1832 with her husband, Thomas. The letters Catharine compiled detailed her emigration and revealed the hardships and triumphs she faced while adapting to pioneer life.

Why move to the fledgling Canadian colony? The Traills left England, in part, to escape the economic depression that tore through Britain after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). The depression left the Traills with little hope of advancing their economic status in England. Thomas and his brother-in-law, John Moodie, had an added incentive. Being former military men, they were both guaranteed a free tract of land in Upper Canada as a reward for their services. Both heartily accepted. Luckily for Catharine, this meant that her sister, Susanna Moodie, would accompany her to Canada.

Despite their hopes, life in the Canadian hinterlands was hardly superior to their former lives in England. Lack of clothing and even, lack of food, made their lives difficult. Frequent illness plagued her children and during her lifetime, Catharine lost two children in infancy. These deaths devastated the Traills.

"The Emigrants

"The Emigrants' Welcome to Canada," (1820)
© Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-2056 W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana

In The Backwoods of Canada, Catharine coupled her description of the hardships, loneliness and resilience common to life in the hinterlands with a discussion of Canadian flora and fauna. While Catharine endeavoured to be an accurate observer of the natural world, she did so with modesty: “I suppose our scientific botanists in Britain would consider me very impertinent in bestowing names on the flowers and plants I meet with in these wild woods….”

Although well reviewed, reprinted three times and translated into German and French during Catharine’s lifetime, The Backwoods of Canada failed to earn more than £125 for the author.

Far from dismayed, Catharine continued to write until her death. Her works ranged from practical guides like The Canadian Emigrant’s Guide (1854) to studies of Canadian flora and fauna, including Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885) to children’s stories, like Happy Because Good (1855). All were laced with Catharine’s indefatigable optimism.

Catharine Parr Traill, a prolific and pioneering Canadian author, became a National Historic Person in 1974.

To learn more about Catharine’s sister, Susanna Moodie, please see "Susanna Moodie: Pioneer and Writer" in the This Week in History Archives.

To learn more about both Catharine and Susanna, please visit the Library and Archives Web site.

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