Traill, Catharine Parr (Catharine Parr Strickland)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Traill, Catharine Parr (Catharine Parr Strickland)

Traill, Catharine Parr (Catharine Parr Strickland) (1802-1899) British autobiographer and children's writer

A pioneer of Canada before the formation of United Province of Canada in 1840, author-naturalist Catharine Parr Traill produced a classic settler's handbook and guides to North American plants. Born Catharine Parr Strickland in Surrey, England, and raised in Suffolk, she was the sister of Susannah Strickland Moodie, who also wrote accounts of life in early Canada (see FRONTIER LITERATURE). In her youth, Traill studied botany, debate, geography, history, and mathematics with her father, and she became a children's author at age 15. After marrying a Scots widower, Lieutenant Thomas Traill, at age 30, she emigrated to Upper Canada, where she compiled The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America (1836). In a gendered environment where males performed the outdoor work of clearing land, planing lumber, planting crops, and tending and trading livestock, the feminized text covers her adaptation to bush country while making a home and giving birth to the first of nine children. During 60 years away from England, she contributed feature stories on the frontier to Anglo-American Magazine, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, Home Circle, Literary Garland, Maple Leaf, and Sharpe’s London Magazine, and she issued children's pioneer stories—Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains (1852) and Lady Mary and Her Nurse: or, A Peep into the Canadian Forest (1856).

As Canada's first female journalist, Traill surveyed the purpose of emigration from the motherland. She explains in the introduction to The Backwoods of Canada that economics drives Europeans into the colonies: “The emigrants to British America are no longer of the rank of life that formerly left the shores of the British Isles. It is not only the poor husbandmen and artisans, that move in vast bodies to the west, but it is the enterprising English capitalist, and the once affluent landholder” (Traill 1836, ii). For the sake of investment opportunity, outdoor living, and personal liberty, newcomers, particularly the young, accept the solitude and hardships of leaving home to settle the Western wilderness in a “Robinson Crusoe sort of life” (123). The transition offers adventure, but requires compromise. On forested land on Lake Katchawanook outside Peterborough, Ontario, with her sister living a mile away, Traill misses English hedgerows, rosebeds, and riverside vistas. Accepting new and different challenges, she learns from the Great Lakes Chippewa how to dig Indian turnips, dye and decorate willow baskets with quillwork, boil maple sap into sugar, ice fish for pike, and sew sheets of birch bark into a canoe. Her descriptions introduce readers to a positive image of Native Americans as peaceful, productive people.

Based on middle-class Christian values, Traill's epistolary memoir defines the role of the settler wife. In an era that threatened the traditional British caste and class systems, the text looks to the confident, industrious gentlewoman to ameliorate the crudeness of cabin life. Traill, a forerunner of the independent “new woman” of the mid-19th century, declares that the true lady, even humbly dressed, can never be vulgar. She sets about refining the outback: She hangs maps and prints on rough walls, paints wildflowers and birds, embroiders petit point by the fire, bakes bread, stitches moccasins from animal pelts, and plants hops along the porch for decoration. Lacking a frontier tradition, she regrets so great a shift from Britain to a country where the imagination starves because of “no historical associations, no legendary tales” (153).

Traill's memoir emphasizes a love of the unspoiled outback, to which vigorous emigrants are drawn. From an ecological perspective, she, like such writers of NATURE LORE as Grey Owl (Archibald Belaney, 1888-1938), John Muir (1838-1914), and Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), longs for a pristine environment. She explains in Pearls and Pebbles (1894) that she wants to protect the Canadian wild from sodbusters clearing and plowing land and introducing alien plantings—corn and grain fields, potato and turnip patches, and clover pastures. Her pragmatism advises the wise use of wood lots by chopping out old trees for firewood and leaving saplings to flourish with sunlight and added root room. To distract squirrels from the corn crib, she offers them a basket of sunflower heads. Her writing and coping mechanisms rescued her from loneliness and displacement that must have been increased by her husband's death from depression in 1859.

For the remainder of her widowhood, Traill drew on colonial Canada for popular works— Canadian Wildflowers (1868) and Studies of Plant Life in Canada: or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (1885). In the latter, she extols the courage of settlers, who “spread themselves along the then unbroken forests on the shores of the St. Lawrence, and bore hardships and privations of which there are few parallel cases” (Traill 1906, 121). Writing almost to the end of her life, she was 97 when she died on August 29, 1899. A campus of Trent University, Catharine Parr Traill College, bears her name.


Chilton, Lisa. Agents of Empire: British Female Migration to Canada and Australia, 1860s-1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Hessing, Melody, and Rebecca Sue Raglon. This Elusive Land: Women and the Canadian Environment. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005.

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America. London: Charles Knight, 1836.

----- . Studies of Plant Life in Canada: Wild Flowers, Flowering Shrubs, and Grasses. Toronto: William Briggs, 1906.

Whitlock, Gillian. The Intimate Empire: Reading Women’s Autobiography. New York: Continuum, 2000.