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Published Date: Sep 07, 2006
Photo: This 1958 provincial plaque unveiling to commemorate Catharine Parr Traill was attended by Mrs. Anne Atwood and Miss Anne Traill, the author’s granddaughters. Also in attendance (shown here second from left) was the then-editor of the Peterborough Examiner – Robertson Davies – who, in time, became a literary giant in his own right.
Catharine Parr Traill is one of Canada’s literary luminaries. Her life story spans most of the 19th century, crossing oceans, battling cholera and journeying through Ontario’s backwoods. Yet, despite the struggles and hardships, she maintained a positive attitude to life in the new world and channeled those experiences into rich and popular chronicles. She was formally commemorated in 1958 when the Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario (now the Ontario Heritage Trust) unveiled a provincial plaque in Lakefield at the site of the author’s former home.
Born in 1802 in Suffolk, England, Catharine Parr Strickland came from a literary family that claimed kinship with Edward III and Catharine Parr – the sixth wife of Henry VIII. Her sisters (including the distinguished Susanna Moodie) also wrote history texts, volumes of verse, short stories and several novels.
Catharine married retired Lieutenant Thomas Traill in 1832, whereafter they immediately left England for Upper Canada. After landing in Montreal, she was temporarily stricken by cholera that raged through the country at that time. After she recovered, they proceeded by steamer, wagon and foot to Katchewanooka Lake about 15 miles (24 km) north of Peterborough. Among the first settlers in the area, the Traills were not prepared for the hardships of the backwoods experience. After seven challenging years, they sold their farm. Fortunately, Traill’s army half-pay and the money earned by Catharine from the short stories and sketches she sold to English and American magazines helped them remain solvent.
In 1846, the Traills bought a cleared farm on the south shore of Rice Lake. Here, at “Oaklands,” they made their home until 1857 when their house and most of their belongings were destroyed by fire. Thomas Traill died shortly thereafter and Catharine spent the remainder of her life in Lakefield where she could be near members of her family. In 1862, her daughters purchased "Westove" in Lakefield where Catharine resided until her death in 1899 at the age of 97.
Catharine Parr Traill’s literary and historical works have gained her a lasting reputation in Ontario and Canada. Her works are unusual in that they show the efforts of a person of superior education and refined upbringing who struggled with the same financial and physical difficulties experienced by all early settlers. Most immigrants of the time lacked the education to record these experiences, and those who did possess such skills usually lived in urban centres where they had little real knowledge of the pioneer existence. She was also able to convey her experiences with a genuine sense of humour.
As well, she was a gifted botanist and, in all her works, devoted considerable attention to native wildflowers and other plants. Her beautifully illustrated books, Canadian Wild Flowers (1868) and Plant Life in Canada (1885), remain outstanding resources to early Canadian botanical study.
Catharine Parr Traill remains one of Canada’s – and Ontario’s – early literary giants.