The Emigrant Woman in the 1850s

The Female Emigrant's Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic
Cover for The Female Emigrant’s Guide: Cooking with a Canadian Classic

To consider pioneer living in Derby Township in the 1850s and 1860 from the point of view of Jean Stewart Fleming and her daughters, there may be no better resource than Catherine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide published in 1855. Traill wrote this guide explicitly to help women manage the difficult and unfamiliar conditions in Canada West in order to procure, harvest, and prepare foods for their families whether living deep in the bush or on a cleared farm. From her experience during her first  twenty years in Canada , Traill could advise women on everything from salting pork, storing potatoes, making  dandelion coffee, or furnishing a log cabin.

Titled Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide. Cooking with a Canadian Classic, this edition of 2017 from McGill Queen’s University Press was edited by  Nathalie Cooke and Fiona Lucas, both with academic and culinary credentials.   It includes the 1854 first edition of Traill’s guide with explanatory notes, and an equally sized supplement providing background and explanation of the “foodways of the period”.  The editors expand on Traill’s life and writings to describe the foods, availability of supplies, type of menus, measuring practices and tools, and much else to help the reader in the 21st century have a greater appreciation of the period.  Moreover, the editors help the curious prepare historical recipes adapted to current materials and cooking arrangements.

Catharine Parr Traill’s general guidance on life and housekeeping in Canada West and her carefully written instructions on food stuffs and preparation show us how extremely capable pioneer women had to be to feed their families and survive themselves.

“The pioneer’ wife’s knowledge and capabilities had to extend far beyond the home, the kitchen and the promotion of gracious and thrifty living – ideally, she must also be competent in the garden, in the fields, with the animals, as nurse and mid-wife, as manufacturer of clothing, and in emergencies, she must have hands as strong and head as clear as a man’s”. [Quoted from Clara Thomas, “Happily Ever After”.  (Pg xxvii)]

Traill provides practical advice on clearing the land – underbrush in the fall, and chop large timber in the winter, then pile appropriately to burn well. This advice she obtained from her brother Sam Strickland, and included in her book so that women, on whom so much fell, would know too. (p. 49)

She has  many tips for  gardening  (p. 56-63), which she saw as the domain of women and children. There are details on wild plants in Canada  – such as lamb’s quarter as a substitute for spinach-  that will do well in any garden. “Plant carrots in the spring for seed”, she advised.   “The second week of May is generally the time for putting in all kinds of garden seeds”, she wrote – and to this day, (in spite of global warming)  we use the third weekend in May as our rule of thumb.  She remarked on the aesthetics as well.  How much pleasanter to have a weeded, well-kept garden by the house with fruits and vegetables, the rocks removed by the men and “rendered ornamental” as a rockwork. Yes. Today’s gardener could learn much from her writings in the planting and the design.

She singled out planting an orchard as being a “matter of great importance of the future comfort”. The apples are “convenient”, “wholesome”, and the “cooling acid of fruit .. essentially necessary for the preservation of health”.  Traill encouraged women to sow the seed, nourish the seedlings,  enrich the soil (with wood ashes). Jennie Fleming  was very attentive to her orchard at Springfield in Derby Township.  She was well read and curious – had she read Traill’s description of best practices, best apple varieties, and recipes?

Hops aren’t only for beer.  Traill recommended planting them by the front verandah or fence where the vines could twine around railings and pillars, and be close at hand for making a yeast called hop-rising employed in making bread. (p, 60 ) Isabella and Abraham Finch’s cabin in Derby was entwined in greenery. Might it have been the hop? The making of bread was so important that Traill made it the third chapter, after gardening and wild fruits.

Butchering and salting meat were jobs for men, but Traill thought women should know the processes. Likely it was the woman who  prepared the brine – “Fourteen pounds of good salt, half a pint  of saltpetre, two quarts of molasses or four pounds of coarse brown sugar, with water enough to dissolve the salt and a pint of good beer or of vinegar, if you can command either. Bring this liquor boil, and scum off all the impurities  … When cold, pour this over your hams .” It wasn’t for the faint of heart.  They might use  charcoal as a preserver, or if the pork had been  “injured” by weevils or other taint, one remedy was  “a pint of the drippings from the stove-pipe joints added to the brine will also restore meat, and give it the flavour of smoke”. (p. 155)

Settlers weren’t limited to beef and pork for meat. Other meats included venison, pigeons, pheasant, and  – black squirrels, considered “very delicate food” (p. 16)  that might very well  serve as a “wholesome change of diet”. (p. 162 ) There is no record that the Flemings ate squirrel, although Abraham Finch liked to hunt them. If not squirrel  – why not blackbird? These flew in great flocks and could be turned into an “excellent pie” (p. 163)

There is a fair amount of chemistry at work in the recipes: Saltpetre, pearl ash, wood ashes, charcoal, and other ingredients for preparing meat and cooking many of the dishes. Soap was made from the lye of wood ashes combined with grease, which pioneers obtained from entrails of butchered hogs — not a simple chore and for which  one would surely prefer to buy from a store.

Traill had a high regard for Indian corn, ranking it next to wheat in importance. The Flemings, being Scots, seemed to have preferred oats.  The 1861 Agricultural Census shows that the Flemings  grew oats but not corn. But Traill presents a convincing case on the economy, convenience, and versatility of corn that might make one want to whip up a johnny cake using her recipe.

For sweeteners, there was cane sugar available from stores even in the backwoods, but it was costly and not the finely ground sugar we know today.  (p. 388) Many farmers grew sugar beet, known as mangel-wurtzel; but the molasses made from it, Traill wrote, “was not so pure nor so agreeable as that from the maple” (p. 472).  More about foods and cooking terms of the time is provided by the editors in the Glossary.

For anyone seeking to learn more about the lives of the women as home makers  in Canada – procuring food, making meals, obtaining furnishings –  during these rough times  (roughly 1840-1880) ,this  edition of  Catharine Parr Traill’s The Female Emigrant’s Guide is an excellent read and a supreme reference.

Resources and Reviews:

Find in a library near you —

Or buy at Indigo –

“A guidebook for women immigrants to nineteenth-century Canada in a deluxe edition that shows why it is still relevant today.” McGill-Queen’s University Press.  Publisher’s page.—s-the-female-emigrant-s-guide-products-9780773549296.php

“A new edition of The Female Emigrant’s Guide provides modern cooks with historic context” by Sue Carter. Quill and Quire.  19 June 2017  – interview with the editors

Recipes older than Confederation: Lessons from a 160-year-old cookbook  by Kateryna Gordiychuk, CBC News (4 July 2017)

Has two audio segments in which CBC interviews Nathalie Cooke who recounts in Part 1 the background to Catharine Parr Traill and her book “Female Emigrant Guide  and in Part 2  discusses recipes.

The female emigrant’s guide, and hints on Canadian housekeeping , Toronto (1854)  Digital copy in the Internet Archive. Not a good scan but adequate.

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