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IntroductionBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
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About This Site

Emigration and Bush Life

First Settlement
Pioneer Life
Native People
Challenges of Emigration
Later Years in the Bush

First settlement

Log house illustration

Upon their arrival in Upper Canada in 1832, the Moodies and Traills disembarked at Cobourg. From 1832 to 1834 the Moodies attempted to farm a previously cleared property near Port Hope. Susanna bore two more children during those years. John's financial speculations, along with the need to hire help for the young family and the farm, were quickly reducing their savings. Moreover, they found their Yankee neighbours unfriendly and unhelpful. So they sold their first farm and moved to the bush near Lakefield, where the Traills had built their log home and cleared their first few acres with the help of Samuel Strickland.

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Pioneer life

The life of a bush settler is described in their famous books: Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and Catharine Parr Traill's The Backwoods of Canada (1836). The work "bees," burning the fallow, ploughing, harvesting, keeping warm, preparing food and numerous other realities of the early pioneers' harsh existence are vividly presented in these books, along with descriptions of climate, Native people, scenery and wildlife.

While the books emphasize the isolation and loneliness of the bush settler's experience, they also reveal both the self-sufficiency of the settler and the system of mutual dependence of community members. Neighbours shared work such as clearing land, building houses and numerous other large undertakings; they also shared skills as midwives, homeopathic healers, dentists, teachers and preachers. Without such a system, survival in the bush would have been precarious, given the backwoods farmer's distance from the nearest towns. In 1853 Traill collected and recorded many of the pioneers' skills and tips for survival in a handbook for women, called The Female Emigrant's Guide.

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Challenges of Emigration

The introductions to their books, and Susanna's often-cited conclusion to Roughing It, echo the contents of John Moodie's long letter to James Traill, March 8, 1836 on the conditions and challenges of emigrants' lives, as well as possible solutions to these difficulties. Emigration in the 1830s was usually a matter of economic necessity. Whether one was of the educated or labouring classes, employment that could provide for a family was not available in Britain. But many who emigrated failed to prosper because they were unsuited to manual labour, and the colony offered few alternatives for making a living. In his letter John emphasizes the need for capital to develop the infrastructure of the young colony so that it can better support its settlers and the mother country. Private investments in transportation systems, dealing in land or providing the services such development would require could provide alternate sources of income for the new emigrant unsuited to backwoods farming, or for the investor back home in England.

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Later Years in the Bush

The surviving correspondence from Susanna's and Catharine's experiences in the backwoods shows the importance of letters and parcels as links with the outside world. This was especially true when families were separated by emigration or, closer to home, by such events as the 1837 Rebellion, when John Moodie and Thomas Traill answered the call to leave their farms and join the militia.

For Moodie, this led to prolonged absences while he served in the militia. During this time, Susanna struggled on in the bush with the help of her neighbours (see Susanna and John's letters, from February 1838 to July 1839). In 1839 John Moodie was appointed Sheriff of Hastings County, and the Moodie family was able to escape from what Susanna referred to as "the prisonhouse [sic]" of the bush by moving to the town of Belleville (see John's letter to Susanna, November 24, 1839, and Susanna's introduction to her book Life in the Clearings).

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