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IntroductionBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
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Catharine Parr Traill

Life in Canada

When Catharine wrote The Backwoods of Canada (1836), her account of the Traills' first settlement in the bush, she did so "full of hope" for their future (See Catharine's letter to Richard Gwillym, March 9, 1845). But Thomas was not well-suited to the hardships of pioneer life. As early as June 1835 he was trying to sell his bush farm. He finally did so in 1839 after the economic depression of 1836–37 had further dimmed their prospects. For the next several years they lived with their growing family at various locations in Peterborough County before moving to the "Wolf Tower" on the south shore of Rice Lake in 1846. In 1849 Thomas again bought a property and the Traills moved with their seven children to "Oaklands," east of Gore's Landing.

Photograph of Westove

They were never prosperous and suffered many hardships including the loss of Oaklands to fire in August 1857. Again uprooted, they were dependent on the generosity of good friends and relatives for accommodation and assistance. Thomas's death in 1859 brought another major change. With modest means and the help of her brother, Samuel, Catharine had a cottage built in Lakefield. She called it "Westove" after her husband's Orkney home and moved there in 1860. Except for short absences to visit family and friends, it was her home for the rest of her life.

As a prolific letter writer, Catharine helped to create a valuable record of family and community in the 19th century. Correspondence with her sisters in England, her close friends, Frances Stewart and Ellen Dunlop, and her sister in Canada, Susanna Moodie, reveals strong and enduring relationships based on mutual concerns and literary interests. As her immediate family dispersed through marriage, travels and migration westward, letters maintained the family ties. Two of Catharine's children, William and Walter, participated in the opening of the Canadian and American West after Confederation, while others remained closer to Lakefield. James was a merchant in Belleville; Mary became a teacher and writer; Harry was the first prison guard in Canada to be murdered in the line of duty; Anne farmed with her husband on the south shores of Rice Lake; and Kate, the eldest daughter, stayed with her mother. As the extended family of Moodies and Stricklands became more complex, Catharine's scriptorial network spread to include them. After the deaths of her siblings, she emerged as the matriarchal centre for the widespread clan. She was still writing letters two days before her death in 1899.

Photograph of the installation of a plaque at WESTOVE, October 1958.  Among the attendees were Anne Traill and Anne Atwood, grand-daughters of Catharine Parr Traill, and Robertson Davies

She also kept journals in which she recorded descriptions of Canadian life and landscape and penned drafts of botanical essays and stories that she wished to publish. Despite occasional contributions to periodicals following the publication of The Backwoods of Canada (1836), it was not until after the move to Oaklands that Catharine's major plans came to fruition. She began to find publishing outlets for her novels. Canadian Crusoes, for instance, was published in 1852. She incorporated her observations of nature into essays and stories of the heroic achievements of pioneers. Eventually she compiled her anecdotal, botanical descriptions in Canadian Wild Flowers (1867) and Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885). Even in the last decade of her life two new books appeared, including Pearls and Pebbles (1894). Working well into her nineties, she was celebrated as the oldest author in the British Empire.

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