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A Trailblazing Pioneer Woman – Catherine Parr Traill (1802-1899)

This month at the library, we are looking at women’s history and the contributions that they have made to the world at large. For your consideration this week we will introduce you to Catherine Parr Traill, who was an early emigrant to Upper Canada in the 1800’s. While she is not local to our area, we feel that she is an important woman of whom you should be aware, given the fact that much of what we know of settler life in Upper Canada comes from her writings.


Catherine was born in 1802 as the fifth child of Thomas and Elizabeth Strickland. She had four older sisters, who were named Elisabeth, Agnes, Sarah, and Jane Margaret. After her, another sister was born, named Susannah, as well as two younger brothers named Samuel and Thomas. Shortly after Catherine was born, their father retired from his job as the manager of the Greenland Docks on the River Thames and moved the family to a stately manor house called Reydon Hall, near Suffolk. With a lot of time on his hands, Thomas Strickland was determined to give his daughters the same sort of education as his sons did. He homeschooled them on a wide variety of academic topics such as history, geography, science, and mathematics.


At the age of 16, Catherine became a published author with the publication of The Tell-Tale: An Original Collection of Moral and Amusing Stories (1818). This occurred shortly after the death of their father; he had died suddenly and left the family without much money on which to live. Therefore, Catherine and her siblings decided that the best way to support themselves was through writing. Several of her siblings would go on to become accomplished writers, Catherine included. She was the most prolific of them all, averaging about one book a year before her marriage.


In the spring of 1832 she married Thomas Traill, who was a widowed, retired Lieutenant from the British army with two sons from a previous marriage. In the summer of that year, they emigrated overseas to Canada; her husband, Thomas, was in debt and “hoped to take advantage of land grants and cheap property in Upper Canada.”[1] Additionally, Catherine’s brother Samuel had already moved there and was working for the Canada Company and helped them obtain a land grant. Her younger sister, Susannah Moodie, also married a half-pay British officer named Dunbar Moodie and emigrated to Canada with them that very same year. Catherine and Thomas eventually settled near the Otonabee River in Peterborough and settled into her role as a housewife in a rural Canadian setting; they eventually had nine children together.

She wrote 9 books about her time in Canada, the most famous of which is titled “The backwoods of Canada: being letters from the wife of an emigrant officer, illustrative of the domestic economy of British America” (1836). This was a collection of letters between herself and her family members relating the story of her emigration, settlement, and cheerful adjustment to her situation. This was a carefully curated picture of her life; in reality, she suffered from financial hardships due to her husband’s poor business decisions, as well as his bouts with depression. Helen and Mary Eleanor, two of Catherine’s children even died in infancy while they were living in Peterborough. Despite these struggles, she remained true to her husband and her adopted country of Canada which she came to love and appreciate.


Catherine was also an amateur botanist and was extremely interested in the variety of plant life that could be found in Canada. After her husband’s death in 1859, she once again turned to writing to support herself and her family. In the 1860’s, she collaborated with her niece Agnes Dunbar Fitzgibbon who was a celebrated botanical artist, to do the illustrations for her book Canadian Wildflowers (1868), and again in her longer work Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (1885).


She died at her residence, “Westove” in Lakefield, Ontario, of heart failure at the age of 97 in 1899.



Figure 1: Miniature Portrait of Catherine Parr Traill as a young woman. Photo credit, Library and Archives Canada.


If you want to learn more about this prolific early Canadian author, we suggest that you check out the following books:

· Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susannah Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, by Charlotte Gray.

· Sisters in Two Worlds: A Visual Biography of Susannah Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, by Michael A. Peterman.

[1] Fowler, Marian & James-Abra, Marian (2019, March 25). “Catharine Parr Traill”. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/catharine-parr-traill

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