When we hear familiar words such as: settlers, frontiersman, wagons, and natives, images of the American West come to mind. Beautiful landscapes with red rock or rolling plains will seem appropriate to associate with those words. What may not come to mind is the country of Canada. But much like our American West, Canada was also explored and inhabited by native tribes and, eventually, European explorers. The wife of an emigrant British officer, Catharine Parr Traill was one of these first European explorers. She chronicled her harrowing travel from the port of Greenock, Scotland to the large Canadian island of Newfoundland and from there to the established town of Peterborough. The entire trip and settlement lasted from July 18, 1832 to May 1, 1833. Her letters go into great detail about the various meetings with natives and methods of survival required to successfully settle the wild Canadian backwoods. Several events that exemplify Catharine Traill’s hardships include the loss of a yoke of cattle, learning to duck hunt, surviving a woods hurricane, dealing with the unbelievable number of insects, and, of course, the process of designing and building of a log home to house her family. She describes her journey with great detail and enthusiasm; she’s constantly enamored by the new methods of collecting food or interesting species of animal that lives in the forest. In this letter she encounters a furry creature that many of us are all too familiar with,
“THIS has been a busy spring with us. First, sugar-making on a larger scale than our first attempt was, and since that we had workmen making considerable addition to our house; we have built a large and convenient kitchen, taking the former one for a bedroom; the root-house and dairy are nearly completed. We have a well of excellent water close beside the door, and a fine frame-barn was finished this week, which includes a good granary and stable, with a place for my poultry, in which I take great delight.
Besides a fine brood of fowls, the produce of two hens and a cock, or rooster, as the Yankees term that bird, I have some ducks, and am to have turkeys and geese this summer. I lost several of my best fowls, not by the hawk but a horrid beast of the same nature as our polecat, called here a scunck; it is far more destructive in its nature than either fox or the hawk, for he comes like a thief in the night and invades the perch, leaving headless mementos of his barbarity and blood-thirsty propensities…”
This, being her final letter in the series, provides us with a glimpse of her completely settled and enjoyable farm life. She ends the letter to one of her friends with a description of the fantastic light show that is the Aurora Borealis,
“Coming home one night last Christmas from the house of a friend, I was struck by a splendid pillar of pale greenish light in the west: it rose to some height above the dark line of pines that crowned the opposite shores of the Otanabee, and illumined the heavens on either side with a chaste pure light, such as the moon gives in her rise and setting; it was not quite pyramidical, though much broader at the base than at its highest point; it gradually faded, till a faint white glimmering light alone marked where its place had been, and even that disappeared after some half-hour's time. It was so fair and lovely a vision I was grieved when it vanished into thin air, and could have cheated fancy into the belief that it was the robe of some bright visitor from another and a better world;—imagination apart, could it be a phosphoric exhalation from some of our many swamps or inland lakes, or was it at all connected with the aurora that is so frequently seen in our skies?
I must now close this epistle; I have many letters to prepare for friends, to whom I can only write when I have the opportunity of free conveyance, the inland postage being very high; and you must not only pay for all you receive but all you send to and from New York.
Adieu, my kindest and best of friends.
Douro, May 1st, 1833.”
(Transcribed by Project Gutenberg)