Friday, 7 March 2008

The Canadian Settler's Guide - Catherine Parr Traill

Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill were sisters, who emigrated to Canada after their brother Frederick settled in Canada. It was 1832 when Catharine arrived in the Peterborough area of Ontario (northeast of Toronto). The Canadian Settler's Guide is her guide for women emigrating to the backwoods of Canada to settle. It was written in 1852, distilling her 20 years experience of living in the backwoods - deep in the dark forests that made up most of Ontario at the time. The settlers would arrive, and begin the painstaking work of clearing their land and setting up a cabin, a barn, and eventually clear enough to be able to farm. This is the guide that showed the second wave of settlers - especially the huge wave of Irish settlers arriving after the potato famine - in the 1850's and 1860's, as well as most other European countries beginning to emigrate then. The Canadian government was welcoming - encouraging - immigrants, as a way to secure hold on the land and grow into a nation. In 1832, when Catharine and Susannah arrived, Canada wasn't even a nation yet. It was under the control of the British Empire, and had settlements only as far west as London and Toronto. All the rest of western Canada remained to be developed. Canada was divided into Upper Canada (now the modern-day province of Ontario), and Lower Canada (Quebec and the Maritime provinces). Her book is based on her 20 years in the bush of Ontario.
I read this book with great interest, partly because I love history, and partly because during my own genealogical research I have discovered that one of my great-great grandfathers arrived in 1832 from Wales. He went to the Welsh settlement just outside London, which had begun to be settled in 1820 by Colonel Talbot. The Canadian government was anxious to put settlers in the area after the War of 1812 with the Americans. Detroit was well settled, but the peninsula between Toronto and Detroit was not. Another set of my ancestors arrived from Ireland in the 1850's, and settled in London Township. So as I read Catherine's instructions for building a log cabin - a shanty - and how to clear land, I thought of my own ancestors and what they must have gone through. Everything had to be done by hand (of course!), but what the book makes clear is that nothing went to waste -everything was used - because most often the settlers in the backwoods were very poor, and had to rely on their own skills and hard work for everything.
When Catherine wrote the Settler's Guide, it was directed towards women, who she felt had no instructional guide on what to expect when they landed in this new country. So she advises that those women coming from a village or town with a bakery, to learn how to bake bread, because they will have to bake their own if they are living away from a town in Canada. She discusses fermentation for bread, and advises growing hops for the fermenting process as brewer's yeast was always in demand and short in supply. How to grow an orchard, and begin a garden - there are so many useful tips for building a garden that work as well today as well as 150 years ago! She advocates growing as many vegetables as you can, and an orchard for the fruit, because these along with brown bread are the greatest for health! It is a book filled with sound, practical advice, and yet she doesn't forget about beauty - she says some flowers should be grown that will delight the eyes and spirits, and pretty an otherwise ugly yard, and for interior decoration, a rag carpet made up of the scraps of clothing, both kept the feet warm and added to the colour of the various rooms. She makes no bones about the poverty that most settlers are coming from and will experience the first few years as they wrest farming land from the forest; but she is also direct enough to say that only the lazy fail and fall into abject poverty in Canada; a comfortable living and the pride of owning your own home is what awaits those who come with an eagerness to work.
My favourite line is, in the section on fires (which were a great menace for most of the 19th century): "In cases of emergency, it is folly to fold one's hands and sit down to bewail in abject terror: it is better to be up and doing."
She adds little things like : "Canada is the land of cakes. A tea-table is generally furnished with several varieties of cakes and preserves."
If you are ever in Canada and driving in the countryside, most of the older farming houses have a verandah. She explains why: "Nothing contributes so much to comfort and outward appearance of a Canadian house as the erection of the verandah or stoup, as the Dutch settlers call it, round the building. It affords a grateful shade from the summer heat, a shelter from the cold, and is a source of cleanliness to the interior. It gives a pretty, rural look to the poorest log-house, and as it can be put up with little expense, it should never be omitted." Now you know!
Recipes for everything the backwoods settler would need to know are given, from potato bread to brown bread, to maple syrup and maple beer. Eating wildlife is covered, as well as keeping chickens and ducks. How to make cheese, 12 pages of corn - called Indian corn - varying from how to grow corn, to how to husk it, to how to make corn pudding, johnny-cake, hominy, fried corn, stewed corn, Indian pudding, supporne, and finally, corn straw beds and mats.
It is a fascinating compendium of early Canadian life, and is invaluable as a historical document of settler's daily life. She talks about the months of the year and what the settler generally did each month, and the weather to expect: for March, she writes: "The early part of March often resembles February,with this difference, the longer days cause a relaxation of the severe cold during the sunshining hours; the very surface of the snow thaws, patches of bare earth begin to appear towards the middle of the month; the weak but pleasant note of the little song sparrow and the neat snow sparrow in its quaker-like plumage may be heard and seen as they flit to and fro, picking the seeds of the rough green amaranth and tall woolly-stalked mullein which stand faded and dry in the garden patch or on the road side. The equinox is often attended with rough gales and snow storms: these past, the sun begins to melt off the snow, and a feeling of coming spring is experienced in the soft airs, and a look of life in the bark and birds. The rising of the sap is felt in the forest trees; frosty nights and sunny days call forth the activity of the settlers in the woods; sugar making is now at hand, and all is bustle and life in the shanty."

As I write this, we are beginning the second snowstorm for this week. Our sidewalks are not plowed yet from Wednesday's storm, so it is very difficult to walk anywhere. Buses let passengers off into snowbanks, which the city haven't had time to remove yet. We are expecting at least the same amount of snow, most forecasts are showing much more between tonight and early Sunday morning. If we get the 40 - 50 cms they are predicting (close to two feet) I will take pictures and post them here!!! The snow looks beautiful falling tonight - it began before I left work, and by the time I arrived home, the snow was falling in the lovely silence that comes with no wind, just the snow muffling all sounds so it is quiet and peaceful. I love this kind of snowfall. It is warm out (near 0 c), warm enough to not need a hat or mitts coming home. The tree branches and shrubs are covered with white (again!) and a couple of inches have already fallen. It is a beautiful winter night. Yes, Catherine Parr Traill was right - March is indeed like February! At least the early part of it so far......Tomorrow we get the winds and blowing snow. So from snowy Canada, I bid you goodnight, and I hope wherever you are, Gentle reader, you are warm and enjoying the weekend!


Patricia said...

It would be very interesting to read the book; I'm glad I didn't live back then...I like my modern conveniences!

Hey, could you keep that snow? I've sure seen enough of that crap for a while. We are getting the second round of rain rather than snow. More flood warnings...

Had son's birthday party/meal today. He carefully planned the meal, dessert and drinks. Hard to believe he is 15! Maybe I will go read "Mansfield Park"; picked it up at the bookstore the other day. I just might turn into a Jane Austen fan yet!

Anonymous said...

What a dilemma, on the one hand, how could I not love a country described as the land of cakes, on the other I definitely don't do snow. A real contrast. Here in the UK we are having our worst storm of the winter, no snow but gales and flooding. The weather really doesn't like us, does it.

Bybee said...

I've heard of Susannah, but not Catherine. Sounds like a great book, and I'm really getting into all things Canada.

Canada is the land of cakes? Cake...ummm....delish...

Eva said...

That's neat that an older book still offers so much good advice! I don't think I could have been a frontier settler-not tough enough. Unless I absolutely had to for my family's sake. But I did love Oregon Trail when I was little. :D

Susan said...

Hi lady p (sis) - I know about liking modern conveniences. Can you imagine doing laundry in the winter in a three room cabin? Ugh. And having to bake bread every day....make everything by scratch. I'm full of complete admiration for the pioneers. See my blog for news on snow :-) we 're almost at the record....

Tabletalk: my husband goes online to check out the UK regularly, so he was telling me about the gales too. He (and his parents in Essex) say the early spring has been really wet for you this year.
You could always visit Victoria, which is where alot of expats end up (very little snow, right beside the sea....)!

Bybee: cakes is right! and pies, and's to ward off the COLD! My excuse, anyway! Do the Koreans have many sweets or cakes?

Eva: Have you been on the Oregon Trail? That would be cool to see. And while we all think we couldnt' survive as settlers, I think of the end of the world came (some idiot did blow up a nuclear bomb) then the few that survived, would find a way. About the only reason I could watch Jericho on tv was to see how they survived the nuclear fall-out. Given how that show survived cancellation, I'm thinking there are alot of us who grew up in the 1970's and '80's who remember the nuclear proliferation and clock-countdown. So I think it is fascinating and wonderful that you are going into a career to prevent nuclear proliferation! It didnt' exist 20 years ago as a university program - so it shows things are changing, and for the better (at least in understanding the causes if not at getting countries to not build them!)

Melwyk said...

I so love this book. Catherine is amazingly cheery and dutiful, isn't she? :) The advice is still useful for the most part, and it sure gives a fascinating look at how they actually lived, day to day, during those years.

Unknown said...

i rented a video from the public library that drew me to the two sisters' books. It compares the two women's experiences in settler life. The comparisons are hilarious at times. Catherine enjoying every aspect of life here in Canada, while Suzanna was miserable. Have you read "Roughing it in the bush"? By the end of the book I wanted to smack that poor silly Suzanna...for all her misery and complaints about life in the backwoods. Both very interesting reads.

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