Catharine Parr Traill and her sister Susanna Moodie were two of Canada’s most important 19th-century writers. Catharine Parr Traill College, a campus of Trent University in Peterborough, is named for her. Catharine was particularly famous for her books: The Backwoods of Canada (1836)and Canadian Crusoes (1852). A French edition of The Backwoods of Canada, Les forêts intérieures du Canada, was published in Paris in1843. It was not until 1929 that a Canadian edition of The Backwoods of Canada was published. She also wrote The Female Emigrant’s Guide, The Tell Tale, The Young Emigrants, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping. As Lynn Westerhout put it, Catharine “wrote to earn money, but her work showed that wonder,courage and faith are most important in life.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica speaks of Catharine who, with richly detailed descriptions of frontier life, was one of the first to praise the beauties of the Canadian landscape. Catharine left England to pioneer with her new husband Thomas in the unknown Canadian backwoods. She wrote a farewell letter to a good friend, saying that “she (was) willing to lose all for the sake of one dear valued friend and husband to share with him all the changes and chances of a settler’s life.
Catharine faced dire poverty in the early pioneering days: “On examining the state of my purse, I find just $4.30. This is all the funds I have to begin the year with. It is true that I have half a barrel of flour,and some meat and I have often been without meat and money. God will provide as heretofore.” She wrote in 1852 to her sister Susanna: “`I feel it is a miserable state to be like a vessel without a pilot drifting before an overwhelming storm on every side rocks and shoals and no friendly port in sight, no beacon light to guide us on our perilous way. Do not think, dear sister, that I lose my faith in God’s gracious providence. I believe that he can in his good time bring all things to an end of these our troubles…”
Catharine’s husband Thomas was often downcast by the financial they faced. Catharine wrote: “I wish that he could look beyond the present and remember that the brightest of earthly prospects endure but for a season – and it is the same with the trials and sorrows of life –they too come to an end.” As Charlotte Gray notes, “Catherine at ninety-five was left virtually penniless…Without Catharine’s knowledge, an urgent plea was sent to the British Prime Minister, at 10 Downing Street, for help…” Over $1,000 was raised. Along with the money was sent a letter to Catherine saying: “We cannot forget the courage with which you endured the privations and trials of the backwoods in the early settlement of Ontario, and we rejoice to know that your useful life has been prolonged in health and vigour until you are now the oldest living author in her Majesty’s dominion.” Catharine responded by saying: “I can only adopt the hearty simple phrase used by the Indian women of Hiawatha village–‘I bless you in my heart.’
May Catharine Parr Traill’s deep pioneering faith and courage be an inspiration to a new generation of women and men who seek to break new ground in the twenty-first century.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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