Traill, Catharine Parr

views updated Jun 11 2018


b. London, United Kingdom, 9 January 1802;

d. Lakefield, Ontario, Canada, 28 August 1899), botany, natural history, settler, author, conservationist.

Traill, a nineteenth-century backwoods settler in Canada, was a well-known pioneering naturalist, author of two major books and several articles on botany, and the writer of immigrant and children’s literature.

Background. Catharine Parr, the fifth daughter of Elizabeth Homer and Thomas Strickland, was educated at home and showed an early interest in science and literature. At a young age she learned to observe, collect, label, and classify plants and in her teens wrote and published stories and books for young readers. She married Thomas Traill in 1832; they emigrated to Canada and settled in the Peterborough district of what is now Ontario. Catharine Parr Traill brought with her a curiosity about the natural world and a keen observing eye for botany, zoology, geology, and ecological processes. Her observations of nature, people, and social customs in her new environment became topics she explored in letters and in her published works.

Science Writers and Science in Canada. In early-nineteenth-century Europe, many women disseminated scientific knowledge in popular science books from which they earned an income. By contrast, in the 1830s, science writing was not yet an accepted occupation in sparsely settled Canada, a huge and varied geographical area insufficiently known by European and American naturalists. Catharine Parr Traill was the first naturalist and the first woman in this British colony to spend several decades studying nature. Prior to her studies, only native Canadians had a thorough environmental knowledge of any given area. European-trained explorers, naturalists, and military and survey personnel, all of them men, could only spend little time in the field and based their natural history studies on short-term observations. They focused on questions and problems defined by the European scientific community, sent collections to European naturalists, and published their findings in European journals.

In the early nineteenth century, the only scientific book on the botany of northern Canada was Frederick Pursh’s Flora Americae Septentrionalis but this Latin work was only useful for specialists. Traill had no access to English-language works on science, there were no field guides to aid her, and she had no immediate colleagues with whom to exchange information. The mail service was slow, since road and railway networks were practically nonexistent. Thus she was effectively isolated from centers of learning and collections, such as universities, museums, and herbaria. She did have, however, considerable knowledge of botany and many years of field experience in England, was self-reliant, willing to learn about the medicinal and nutritional properties of plants from native women, and able to make systematic field observations around her new home. With her early training, inquiring mind, and fine observational skills, she soon built up a herbarium, kept nature journals, and, with time, developed a correspondence network. Better roads and railways enabled her, by the 1860s, to visit Kingston, Ottawa, and Toronto, and exchange ideas with male scientists, such as botany professor George Lawson and Dominion Naturalist John Macoun.

Science in the Backwoods. Traill’s first Canadian book, The Backwoods of Canada (published in England in 1836), was based on letters she sent to her family. At the time there was need for books that explored life in a new settlement, provided practical advice for prospective settlers, and dealt with the physical and social environments of a recently colonized area. Backwoods did all this and also contained considerable information on natural history. Thus, it provided science lessons from the backwoods to English, Canadian, and American readers.

The popularity of Backwoods and The Female Emigrant’s Guide (Toronto 1854), republished as The Canadian Settler’s Guide (1855), made Catharine Parr Traill a household name among emigrants and the chief breadwinner of her large and struggling family. Her children’s books, Canadian Crusoes (1852) and Lady Mary and Her Nurse (1856), added to her reputation as a writer. While the Female Emigrant’s Guide was intended to be a practical “how-to” guide for prospective emigrant families, it incorporated references to applied science (food chemistry, mycology, and nutrition), and information about animal behavior and ecological relationships. The children’s books (published first in England and republished in Canada) also contained considerable scientific information about plants, animals, geology, and climate as they dealt with living and surviving in the outdoors in a northern forest ecosystem.

Traill’s long-term studies resulted in Canadian Wild Flowers(1868), the first Canadian botany book with an accessible text, written by Traill, and illustrated by her niece, Agnes FitzGibbon. From her lively readable descriptions, in which Traill used scientific terminology and mentioned her work with a powerful microscope in addition to fieldwork, it is evident that by this time she knew the work of European and North American male scientists. She referred to several systems of classification, and was not afraid to challenge the statements of American botanists. The book was well received and went through several editions.

Encouraged by its success she embarked on a more extensive volume, but given her age the work progressed slowly. By the time Studies of Plant Life appeared in 1885, botany had become institutionalized in Canada and there were other, dry, scientific books for the specialist. By contrast, Traill wrote for the general public and included descriptions and illustrations of the flowers, trees, shrubs, and ferns she had observed during half a century. Although Studies had fewer scientific terms than Canadian Wild Flowers or her botanical articles, she used scientific names and integrated nonwestern scientific information and practices. Additionally, she made strong statements about the disappearance of plants and animals and called for the preservation of fragile habitats.

Importance. Trained in the British natural history tradition, Traill became a pioneer of long-term botanical studies. Her accessible and popular plant books were the forerunners of modern field guides and, together with her articles on plants, provide important historical records of habitat destruction, changes in plant and animal life, ecological succession, and native environmental knowledge.



The Young Emigrants; or, Picture of Life in Canada, Calculated to Amuse and Instruct the Minds of Youths. London: Harvey and Darton, 1826.

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

Canadian Crusoes: Tale of the Rice Lake Plains, edited by Agnes Strickland. London: Arthur, Hall, Virtue, 1852.

The Female Emigrant’s Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping. Toronto: Maclear, 1854. Reprinted as The Canadian Settler’s Guide. Toronto: Old Countryman’s Office, 1855.

Lady Mary and Her Nurse; or, A Peep into the Canadian Forest. London: Arthur, Hall, Virtue, 1856.

Canadian Wild Flowers. Montreal: John Lovell, 1868.

Studies of Plant Life in Canada; or, Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain. Ottawa: A. S. Woodburn, 1885.

Pearls and Pebbles; or, Notes of an Old Naturalist. Toronto: Briggs, 1894.

Cot and Cradle Stories, edited by Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon. Toronto: Briggs, 1895.


Ainley, Marianne Gosztonyi. “Last in the Field?: Canadian Women Natural Scientists, 1815–1965.” In Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science, edited by M. G. Ainley. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1990. Provides a history of women and science context for Traill’s scientific contributions.

———. “Science in Canada’s ‘Backwoods’: Catharine Parr Traill.” In Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science, edited by Barbara T. Gates and Ann B. Shteir. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. The most up-to-date study of Traill’s scientific contributions by a historian of science.

Ballstadt, Carl A. “Catharine Parr Traill (1802–1899).” In Canadian Writers and Their Works, edited by Robert Lecker et al. Downsview, Ontario: ECW, 1983. Treats Traill mainly as a writer of emigrant literature.

Caitling, P. M., V. R. Caitling, and S. M. McKay-Kuja. “The Extent, Floristic Composition and Maintenance of the Rice Lake Plains, Ontario, Based on Historical Records.” Canadian Field-Naturalist 106 (1992): 73–86. Recognizes the historical importance of Traill’s botanical writings.

Cole, Jean M. “Catharine Parr Traill—Botanist.” Portraits: Peterborough Area Women Past and Present. Peterborough, Ontario: Portrait Group, 1975.

MacCallum, Elizabeth. “Catharine Parr Traill, a Nineteenth-Century Ontario Naturalist.” Beaver 360, no. 2 (Autumn 1975): 39–45.

Needler, G. H. “The Otonabee Trio of Women Naturalists: Mrs. Stewart, Mrs. Traill, Mrs. Moodie.” Canadian Field-Naturalist 60 (1946): 97–101.

Peterman, Michael A. “‘A Splendid Anachronism’: The Record of Catharine Parr Traill’s Struggles as an Amateur Botanist in Nineteenth-Century Canada.” In Re(dis)covering Our Foremothers: Nineteenth-Century Canadian Women Writers, edited by Lorraine McMullen, 173–185. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1990. A literary scholar’s attempt at evaluating Traill’s scientific work that lacks the context of nineteenth-century Canadian science and women’s history.

Pursh, Frederick. Flora Americae Septentrionalis. London: Printed for White, Cochrane, & Co., 1814.

Marianne Gosztonyi Ainley

Catharine Parr Traill

views updated May 14 2018

Catharine Parr Traill

Catharine Parr Traill (1802-1899) was a Canadian naturalist and author who wrote books for children, studies of Canadian flowers and plants, and, most important, accurate accounts of pioneer conditions in Upper Canada.

Catharine Parr was born in London and began to write stories for children while still a girl. Her first children's book, The Blind Highland Piper, was published in 1818, when she was only 16; her most popular book of this type, Little Downy; or, The History of a Field-mouse: A Moral Tale, appeared in London in 1822. She married a half-pay British army officer, Lt. Thomas Traill, in 1832 and in the same year emigrated with him to Upper Canada (now Ontario). The Traills settled in the backwoods near the present town of Peterborough, and she was very close to being a centenarian when she died at Lakefield in 1899.

Traill's best-known book had its genesis in a series of letters she wrote home to her mother in England describing her impressions of early life in Canada. The book was published in London in 1836 with the following informative title: The Backwoods of Canada; Being the Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer; Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British North America. It was an instant success and was soon translated into German and French. For actual or potential emigrants it provided useful information on the hazards of pioneer settlement and practical hints on how to survive these hazards.

Having achieved success with this book, Traill followed it up with a similar work: The Female Emigrant's Guide, and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (1854). She became increasingly interested in the botany of her adopted country and embodied the knowledge she acquired of this subject in four books: Rambles in the Canadian Forest (1859), Canadian Wild Flowers (1869), Studies of Plant Life in Canada (1885), and Pearls and Pebbles; or, Notes of an Old Naturalist (1894). She also continued to practice her first literary skill, that of writing stories for children. One such book was The Canadian Crusoes (1852), which was republished 30 years later under the title Lost in the Back-woods; another was Lady Mary and Her Nurse: A Peep into the Canadian Forest (1856), published a year later in Boston as Stories of the Canadian Forest and in London in 1869 as Afar in the Forest; her last children's book was Cot and Cradle Stories (1895).

Further Reading

There is as yet no book-length study of Catharine Parr Traill. The most useful sources of information are Clara Thomas's introduction to Traill's The Backwoods of Canada in the New Canadian Library edition (1966) and the appropriate chapter of George H. Needler, Otonabee Pioneers (1953). See also Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada (1961), and Carl F. Klinck, ed., Literary History of Canada (1965). □