Plants in Toronto: In the Backwoods

Album Cover

Album cover from a Catharine Parr Traill scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Though I am not well-versed on United States history, I am even less up on Canadian history or natural history.  However, on the few occasions when I’ve ventured north, I’ve tried to learn a little more.  On a trip to Vancouver I visited an exhibit of the artist Emily Carr’s paintings and that opened up to me not only her visual art but her writings about the Canadian Northwest (Shadbolt, 1997).  This time, thanks to my visit to the Green Plant Herbarium (TRT) at the Royal Ontario Museum (see last post), I was led to the work of Catharine Parr Traill.  I had heard of her in the sense that I knew that she was a 19th-century Canadian pioneer who had also collected plants and sent them to Eastern botanists.  But while at TRT, the assistant curator Deborah Metsger gave me more information on Traill and introduced me to this woman’s writings as well as to her collections.  At TRT there are two Traill scrapbooks of pressed plants, both conserved but with different methods because of their different levels of fragility.  In one case, the pages were almost crumbling, so the book was taken apart and the beautiful cover (see photo above) stored separately.  Each page was placed on acid-free mounting board and kept in place with plastic strips that are pasted to the board but not to the page itself.  The boards are matted to lessen the pressure on the specimens when they are stacked in an acid-free box.  It’s a beautiful conservation job and insures the collection’s survival.  The pages in the other scrapbook were in better shape and remain in their original binding.  Traill made it for her granddaughter and was over 90 at the time.  It opens with a beautiful wreath of leaves (see photo below).


Wreath from Catharine Parr Traill scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Now that I’ve discussed the physical evidence related to Traill at ROM, I’ll give some background on her life and botanical work.  She was born in England in 1802, one of eight children.  When she was 16, their father Thomas Strickland died shortly after suffering a financial disaster.  Her brother Samuel Strickland emigrated to Canada in 1826.  After Catharine married Thomas Traill, a lieutenant in the British Army, they left for Canada, arriving in the fall of 1832 around the same time as her sister Susanna Moodie and her husband, also an army man.  Canada was attractive at the time for those whose British prospects weren’t bright, because military officers were being given land that they could clear and farm.  All three Strickland siblings ended up in the area around Peterborough, Ontario in what was then wilderness.  Just four years after arriving in Canada, Traill (1836) published a book on her experiences settling into a life with none of the amenities of middle-class England.  I got a copy on the recommendation of Deb Metsger and found it wonderful.

The Backwoods of Canada is based on letters Traill wrote home to her family and friends.  She never mentions her brother and sister though she does say that she knows people in the area which is why they chose to settle there.  Her husband doesn’t receive much attention either, rather she focuses on what they did to make life bearable in this very foreign environment.  First she describes the voyage, and in more detail, the trip down the St. Lawrence River.  I am accustomed to US pioneer stories which start with landing at an East Coast port and then coach travel West.  For the Traills, their first stop was on Green Island off the coast of Newfoundland.  This was three weeks after leaving England, but they had another 4 weeks to reach Peterborough, traveling by boat and stage coach.

Also at variance with other accounts I’ve read, Traill focuses a great deal on class.  From the very first letter, she makes it clear that she and her husband are educated, middle-class people who did not leave England out of desperation as did many lower-class immigrants.  She frames their decision in terms of trying a new kind of life, but she also admits that it is not the life presented in the advertisements used to attract settlers to the Canadian wilderness.  Yet, by the end of the book, she feels that they have triumphed.  She has a son, she trades with Indian women, they have a log home and have cleared land.  Also, she exults in the nature around her and devotes an entire letter to birds and another, one of the longest, to plants.  However, Charlotte Gray’s (1999) biography of the two sisters paints a different picture, more in sync with the experiences of American pioneer women.  Their lives were physically difficult, and in addition, their husbands were not good at making life in the wilderness financially successful.

In the following years Traill continued to write as a source of income, including a guide to Canadian Wild Flowers, with illustrations by her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon (1869).  She also corresponded with botanists who could answer her questions about plants and were eager to have an extra pair of educated botanical eyes on the lookout for new species.  Her sister, too, wrote a book on life in the Canadian backwoods (Moodie, 1852), as did her brother, though he didn’t summarize his experiences until he had been in Canada for over 25 years (Strickland, 1853).  Two sisters who remained in England wrote biographies of the royals, so they were definitely a literary family and one that used their talents to keep themselves financially afloat.

Note: Thanks to Deb Metsger for taking the time to show me these wonderful treasures of the TRT.


Gray, C. (1999). Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Canada.

Moodie, S. (1852). Roughing It in the Bush, or Life in Canada. New York, NY: Putnam.

Shadbolt, D. (1997). The Complete Writings of Emily Carr. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Strickland, S. (1853). Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West; or, The Experience of an Early Settler. London, UK: Bentley.

Traill, C. P. (1836). The Backwoods of Canada. London, UK: Knight.

Traill, C. P. (1869). Canadian Wild Flowers. Montreal, Canada: Lovell.

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