Esther Isabelle (Clark) Wright

Esther Clark WrightPhoto: Steeves House Museum
Esther Clark Wright
Photo: Steeves House Museum

Esther Isabelle (Clark) Wright was born 4 May 1895 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to William G. Clark and Harriet (Richardson) Clark. Both of her parents were devout and were very involved in the church. They believed strongly in the importance of education, encouraging her to pursue her scholarship and supporting the extensive research that was to distinguish her career.

Wright attended Charlotte Street School until grade nine, when she transferred to Fredericton High School. Following her graduation in 1912, she went on to study economics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. These years fostered in her a profound love for the institution that endured throughout her considerable travels and resulted in her return to Wolfville in her later years. The Baptist affiliations of Acadia made it preferable to the more proximal University of New Brunswick. After her undergraduate study at Acadia, she studied at the University of Toronto and then at Oxford. Her studies at Oxford were cut short after just one year by her younger brother’s illness, which ended his life in October 1921. It was on the journey back to Fredericton from Oxford that she met her future husband, Conrad Payling Wright.

The courtship between the two comprised largely of correspondence over the next two years and culminated in their marriage, in 1924, on the family farm outside of Fredericton. This was unusual at the time because her family held positions of esteem in the local congregation and thus they were expected to marry in a church. After marriage, Esther Clark Wright moved to California where her husband was studying at Stanford University. She soon discovered that she was unable to have children which, though devastating, enabled her to pursue her academic studies and research at liberty. She joined her husband at Stanford, and then following that she studied at Radcliffe (Harvard University), where she graduated with a PhD in economics in 1931.

Back in Fredericton, her father had risen through the political ranks, beginning as mayor of Fredericton and eventually becoming the Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. He had also opened several car dealerships in anticipation of the coming demand for automobiles. Her family’s prosperity ensured that Wright never had to depend on any other income to maintain her material comfort and this enabled her to spend time pursuing her research. This also provided her with much more independence in marriage than her female contemporaries enjoyed. Her relationship with her husband was tumultuous with the two of them often maintaining separate residences throughout their sixty-five-year marriage.

As an historian, her research did not focus on occasions or individuals of great magnitude and renown but rather the everyday and the commonplace, specifically within the Maritime provinces. She is best known for her works, The Loyalists of New Brunswick (1955), Blomidon Rose (1957), and Samphire Greens (1961), all of which spotlight the early settlers of the Maritime provinces. She believed that the individuals who settled Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had made a considerably larger contribution to Canadian history than previously assumed, and she sought to display this in her research.

The Loyalists of New Brunswick focuses mainly on those settlers driven out of New England for maintaining loyalty to the British crown. The book details their struggles and contains a comprehensive index that includes all of the surnames of the Loyalist settlers in the region. It was well received by the scholars and critics of her time and was touted as “a thorough and scholarly piece of work” (Morrell 184).

Samphire Greens is an extensive genealogical survey of the Steeves family in New Brunswick, though written in the voice of a sympathetic historian in easily accessible language. The expanded counterpart to this book is The Steeves Descendants (1965), which is nearly 1000 pages in length. These two books encompass the genealogical history of the Steeves family beginning with Heinrich Steif’s decision to move to Nova Scotia in 1766.

Blomidon Rose is a book of local history that was steeped in Wright’s love for Nova Scotia and in particular, the landscape of the Annapolis Valley. Her strong connections to Acadia, where she taught for a short time in the mid-1940s, gave her a sense of home that she had previously lacked in Fredericton. Acadia was the place of her exposure to the Social Gospel, which married Christian ideals and ethics to current social issues. This approach to the gospels tempered the fairly stringent Baptist upbringing that she had experienced, and though she always identified as a Baptist, she was much more socially liberal and theologically tolerant than her parents.

Wright lived in many different cities throughout her life but her primary residences were in the Maritime provinces. She travelled extensively, as she describes in her last book, Back a Long Way (1986), but in the later years lived in Wolfville while her husband lived off and on in Ontario. She died at the age of ninety-five on 17 June 1990. Her husband accepted her posthumous award of the Order of Canada for her “excellent research” which, as stated on the Order of Canada website, has been of great use to all who are “studying Maritime history, particularly the Loyalist migration, or tracing family roots.” She also received honorary degrees from Acadia, the University of New Brunswick, and Dalhousie University.

Esther Clark Wright held positions with the National Council of Women of Canada and the Canadian Federation of University Women. She was a highly educated, well-respected, and deeply nationalist Canadian whose commitment to Maritime history and culture challenged what was deemed important in academia during her lifetime. All of her work bears the voice of a socially conscious, confident individual who was staunchly non-conformist and fiercely independent. Her unwillingness to bow to the Victorian norms of what a woman should be set the standard for female scholars and historians that followed. Wright led the way in the study of the Loyalist and Planter settlers, who contributed to some of the most important history of this region, and as such, won her own distinct place in our cultural history.

Dariel Green, Winter 2009
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Clark Wright, Esther. Alexander Clark, Loyalist: A Contribution to the History of New Brunswick. Kentville, NS: Kentville Publishing Co., 1940.

---. Back a Long Way. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1986.

---. Blomidon Rose. Illus. Helen D. Beales. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press, 1957.

---. Grandmother's Child: The Life of Harriet H.R. Clark. Ottawa, ON: E.C. Wright, 1959.

---. The Loyalists of New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: Wright, 1955.

---. The Miramichi: A Study of the New Brunswick River and of the People Who Settled Along It. Sackville, NB: Tribune, 1944.

---. New Brunswick. Windsor, NS: Lancelot, 1973.

---. People and Places, I: New Brunswick. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1973.

---. The Petitcodiac: A Study of the New Brunswick River and of the People who Settled Along It. Sackville, NB: Tribune, 1945.

---. Planters and Pioneers. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1978.

---. Planters and Pioneers. Rev. ed. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot, 1982.

---. The Saint John River. Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1949.

---. Saint John Ships and Their Builders. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1976.

---. Samphire Greens: The Story of the Steeves. Ottawa, ON: E.C. Wright, 1961.

---. The Ships of St. Martins: Shipbuilding and a List of Vessels Built at St. Martins, New Brunswick, 18001899. Saint John, NB: New Brunswick Museum, 1974.

---. The St. John River and Its Tributaries. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1966.

---. The Steeves Descendants. Wolfville, NS: E.C. Wright, 1965.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Andow, Joanna Elizabeth. Female Networking: The Private Life and Thoughts of Esther Clark Wright. BA thesis. Acadia U, 1998.

DeMond, Robert O. Rev. of The Loyalist of New Brunswick, by Esther Clark Wright. William and Mary Quarterly 13.1 (1956): 125-126.

Moody, Barry M. “A View from the Front Steps: Esther Clark Wright and the Making of a Maritime Historian.” Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History. Ed. Beverly Boutilier and Alison Prentice. Vancouver, BC: UBC, 1997. 233-253.

Morrell, W.P. Rev. of The Loyalist of New Brunswick, by Esther Clark Wright. English Historical Review 72.282 (1957): 183-184.

“Order of Canada: Esther Clark Wright, C.M., LL.D.” Governor General of Canada. 30 Apr. 2009. 12 Nov. 2009

Townsend, Patricia. “Esther Clark Wright: A Bibliography, 1914–1988.” Acadiensis XXVII.2 (2008): 167-176. UNB Libraries: Journals, Centre for Digital Scholarship. U of New Brunswick. 25 June 2020