This started out as book review but quickly turned into a book review AND a short biographical sketch of Peter Pond, “the soldier, fur trader, and explorer who opened the Northwest”.
The Elusive Mr. Pond
By Barry Gough
Please note that all of the quotes below are taken from the book itself.
Every once in a while someone suggests a good book to read or suggests a good author who has put out another book. In one of the hiking groups I belong to, I met a fellow who hikes with the group on occasion and we found we had a mutual interest in matters of historical interest. He is more interested in maritime history and I am more interested in overland history but our interests did in fact overlap. His name is Kim Davies and we soon got the discussion onto David Thompson and that in turn switched to Sir Alexander Mackenzie. I mentioned to Kim that not too long ago, I read in British Columbia History, the magazine put out by the British Columbia Historical Society, about a book called Mackenzie of Canada about Sir Alexander Mackenzie written in 1926 by a Dr. M.S. Wade from Kamloops. Luckily I found a copy of the book in excellent condition for a reasonable price on Amazon.com. I also mentioned to Kim that a number of years ago, I purchased another book on Mackenzie called First Across the Continent that was written by Barry Gough. It turns out that Barry is a personal friend of Kim’s and that he had just written another book, this one about Peter Pond and Barry had just given Kim a copy of his new book, The Elusive Mr. Pond.
In school we learned a lot about various early explorers who ‘discovered’ and explored Canada: Cabot, Cartier, Champlain, La Verendrye, Henday, and Hearne, etc. Peter Pond was the fur trader and explorer who opened up the Athabasca/Mckenzie River systems and the access to western Canada as far as the Rocky Mountains. Mackenzie followed in his footsteps and as did Thompson a few years later and anyone who has read about Mackenzie or Thompson would have read or heard about Pond. In school, we learned a bit about Mackenzie and Thompson but nothing about Pond. I wonder if it is because he wasn’t British or Canadian or as Gough says, because he leaves Canada: “… partly engulfed by the rivalry, jealousy, and suspicion of others, and ultimately dismissed by government authorities as a native-born American of dubious loyalty”. In any event, our school system let us down!
Pond was born in Milford, Connecticut, on January 18, 1740, a fifth generation American, and the third of eleven children. He married Susanna Newell in 1762 and had at least two children and he passed away in Milford on March 6, 1807. His whole life is fascinating and one worth reading about.
Pond’s early career includes time in the army, on trading voyages to the West Indies, and in 1765, following in his father’s footsteps as he commences trading westward as far as Detroit. In 1769, he is trading in what is now Canada. He visits Montreal on a few occasions and in 1773, he was sent as an emissary of the Crown to act as a peacemaker among the warring Sioux tribal nations.
In 1775 Pond is trading on the lower Saskatchewan River and winters at Fort Dauphin (Manitoba) and by the Spring of 1778 he is extending his travels further north and west as he paddles up the Churchill River to Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse. He continues northwest through a lake now called Peter Pond Lake, up the Methye (La Loche) River to Methye Lake (Lac La Loche). From there it is a relatively short twelve mile portage over “level Country but thinly Timbered” to the now national heritage Clearwater River that flows into the Athabasca River near present day Fort McMurray. This opened up a fur trade route for the North West Company over which to take all their bounty from the fur-rich Athabasca area. Gough goes on to say: “… [Pond] was being drawn into the most vital conduit in history of the fur trade, and he was soon to become its master — the most prominent trader. North and west lay the course of the empire. He was the fist in the wilderness.” Pond couldn’t have done all this without the help from his faithful Canadian voyageurs, the Metis, and the indigenous people who spent the winters with him. As Gough so rightly notes: “They deserve nothing less than an immortal place in Canada’s story”. Along with Pond’s success came jealously and rivalry, even from within his own organization, even though he had increased the trading share values for all his partners. “He was the Nor’Wester par excellence, respected but unloved.”
1778 was the same year that Captain James Cook explored the Pacific Northwest coast and these two explorations were shaping what would later become the Dominion of Canada. While Pond produced numerous maps over his time in the western fur trade, he was handicapped by not having any proper training in the field of surveying and was thus unable to accurately depict what he had seen or where he had travelled. His maps nonetheless gave a general idea of the geography of the area even if he was out at times by numerous degrees in latitude and longitude. His later maps did show more realistically his achievements and they did give “him a place in the history of discoveries”.
In February 1785, Pond was one of fifteen charter members of the famous Beaver Club. One of the qualifications of joining was to have spent a winter in the northwest and by that Pond would have qualified numerous times over. “Pond stands firm as a geographical pioneer, for this resilient, violent, and ambitious man made a significant contribution to opening the trade of Athabasca to the nascent North West Company based in Montreal.”
In March 1790, having just turned 50, Pond returned to Milford and shortly thereafter contacted Dr. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College in the nearby town of New Haven. Pond wanted Stiles to promote his map before its locations might be proven incorrect by the likes of Sir Alexander Mackenzie. Again, while his maps may not have been accurate, they were the best representation of the area, in fact, the only representation of the area. Regardless of their accuracies, we can thank Stiles for his forward thinking in helping to promote and preserve Pond’s maps and travels. Pond lived out his final days in Milford and wrote his memoirs. Pond was not a surveyor like David Thompson or Sir Alexander Mackenzie, in later life, as he had had no schooling in that regard. However he did remarkably well considering he had very little schooling at all.
There are a number of Canadian place names named after Peter Pond. One of them is Peter Pond National Historic Site about five kilometres west of Prince Albert, SK; Peter Pond Lake, SK, as previously mentioned; and a few bars and a shopping centre in Fort McMurray, AB. “But of all the historical sites connected with him, that of Methye Portage is the most important. As Judge Frederic Howay, a member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, said at the unveiling of the plaque in a schoolyard in Fort McMurray in September 1938, it was ‘a spot far more important in the story of Canada than those whose names are emblazoned in large letters’.”
While David Thompson never actually met Pond, his description of Pond, probably told to him by his father-in-law, Patrick Small, is the one to have stuck. He describes him as: “a person of industrious habits, a good common education, but of a violent temper and unprincipled character”. With regard to the last two characteristics, there were a couple of unproven instances in which Pond may have been involved. It is not the intent of this work to go into those details but they are covered by Gough in his book.
There is no known portrait of even a sketch of Pond nor did anyone write any details about his appearance but we do know he was one not to be crossed. In fact, it was best to give him a wide berth or treat him with utmost care. “He could handle himself in a fight, and he was handy with a gun: he had been blessed with good eyesight and quick responses, essentials for being a good shot”.
Despite Pond’s shortcomings, he should be listed as one of the great explorers of Canada. He unravelled the beginnings of the Mackenzie River and showed them to the outside world, and in particular, to Sir Alexander Mackenzie, who followed the river named after him to the Arctic Ocean in 1789. Also armed with Pond’s knowledge, Mackenzie was also able to find his way up the Peace River and therefore eventually out to the Pacific Ocean in 1793.
Peter Pond, “the soldier, fur trader, and explorer who opened the northwest” was a master of logistics. If he were still alive, he could probably teach us all “how to get supplies in bulk, how to win Native support and cooperation, and how to work efficiently in a harsh northern environment”. “He was the last of the tough, old-style explorers, a man who ventured into the wilderness and helped shape the modern world.”
There are a number of maps and photographs strategically placed throughout the book and for anyone interested in filling in the gap in Canadian history in the late 18th century, this book is a must-read. The same can be said for anyone interested in the history of the fur trade or the early-known geography of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta.
There is a long list of people in the ‘Acknowledgments’, even one with a very similar name to me, one Robert S. Allen – but who is no relation to me. There are numerous end notes for each chapter which provide more excellent reading and as one can expect from a book like this, a lengthy bibliography.
Thanks to my new friend, Kim Davies for lending me the book and a special thank you to Barry Gough for writing it.
The book was published by Douglas and McIntyre (2013) Ltd. [ www.douglas-mcintyre.com ] and the ISBN is 978-1-77162-039-0 (cloth) and 978-1-77162-040-6 (ebook).
December 9, 2014.