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Review

Angus McDonald of the Great Divide: The Uncommon Life of a Fur Trader 1816-1889

By Steve A. Anderson

November 4, 2013

Review By Deidre Simmons

The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) has been the source for North American historians since the late nineteenth century. From the beginnings of it adventures in the fur trade, the Company’s head office in London sent out writing supplies and laid down rules for keeping post account books and journals at each of their remote posts. These post journals and related correspondence were then sent back to London each year with the returning fur cargoes. Not all of the correspondence, journals, and account books made their way back to the HBC’s headquarters/offices in London, England. Some were lost (overturned canoes, unsuccessful expeditions, ships sunk at sea, mishaps at fur trade posts). Others have turned up in various museums, archives, and rare bookshops deposited by family members who found them sometimes generations later. I have documented many such stories in my book Keepers of the Record.

One such treasure, the “Memoranda” book of Angus McDonald, is in the University of Montana library (MSS 344). It may have been one of several kept by McDonald during over thirty years as post master, clerk, and chief trader of the HBC, but the only one known to survive. It is not an official HBC document, but is written in one of the standard books sent out by the Company for the documenting of the daily post routine. The handwritten manuscript has been transcribed by Steve Anderson and excerpted in his biography, Angus McDonald of the Great Divide: The Uncommon Life of a Fur Trader. The “Memoranda” contains narratives of his exploits, observations, and adventures, plus stories and poems, including stories told by his Métis wife, Catherine, and written down by McDonald. Anderson has chronicled the life of McDonald based on his comprehensive research in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (HBCA) and many archives in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, using passages from McDonald’s writing to enhance the story and to provide personal glimpses of this man’s approach to life in unsettled territory at the end of the nineteenth century.

McDonald was born in Scotland in 1816 and received formal schooling including studies in the classics, philosophy, and literature. He joined the HBC in 1838 as a general servant with his first posting in York Factory. He was twenty-two, a rugged Scot, tall and strong with an inquisitive nature, a bright intellect, and quick wit. He was soon sent west to Fort Colville (now in Washington State), and had other postings throughout the Columbia District where he hunted and traded furs, clerked at and managed fur trade posts for the Company, and lived a lifestyle more akin to that of the Aboriginal people he interacted with on a daily basis. McDonald resigned from the Company at the age of fifty-six as the fur trade was waning in 1872.  He never returned to his homeland and died in 1889 near Fort Connah in Montana.

Anderson has been researching and writing stories on the Pacific Northwest’s fur trade since the early 1980s. He is the retired manager of Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. This book provides a uniquely personal perspective to the history of the Pacific Northwest, and with the accompanying information provided by Anderson, adds to a general knowledge of fur trade history and the relevance of the HBC in the area. There have been other personal diaries published, and the HBCA post journals contain the details of day-to-day life in the trading posts, but there are no such journals for the years that McDonald served at Fort Covile or Fort Connah (or Flathead). McDonald does not report on the fort activities — supposedly he included those in other books that are now lost – and the “Memoranda” is more of a personal record. Records such as this are rare among fur traders for this time period.

REFERENCES

Deidre Simmons, Keepers of the Record: The History of the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007)

Angus McDonald of the Great Divide: The Uncommon Life of a Fur Trader 1816-1889
By Steve A. Anderson
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: Museum of North Idaho, 2011 232pp, $19.95