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Review

Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860

By Anne F. Hyde

November 4, 2013

Review By Jean Barman

Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, by Anne Hyde is the second of six volumes scheduled to appear in the “History of the American West” series intended to reflect current thought alongside earlier approaches to gender, ethnicity, and the environment in texts that are at one and the same time scholarly and broadly engaging. Empires, Nations, and Families has been justifiably commended for doing so, winning the Bancroft Prize and being shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. The volume is relevant to British Columbia both for what it does and for what it does not do.

While British Columbia as such never enters the text, Hyde considers the Pacific Northwest fur economy, centred first at Astoria (Fort George) and then at Fort Vancouver, across the Columbia River from today’s Portland and extending north through much of the future province. She takes this region so seriously that it merits a full eighty pages of text and notes (89-145, 400-07, 507-11, 522-29, 550-51, 561-62). In doing so, Hyde extends the usual approach by attending to, as she frames it, the local alongside the global. Centring on longtime Fort Vancouver head John McLoughlin, her account is distinguished by its close and respectful attention to his family with a half-Cree woman and to women’s roles more generally in the fur economy. “Native people” and “métis,” to use her terminology, are integral to the story she tells at a sometimes very personal level. Hyde rightfully reminds us that, in probing such relationships, we need to move beyond “our own deep cultural worries about race” to “how these families thought about themselves” (97), and this she very commendably accomplishes.

Hyde does not, at the same time, extend her interest and analysis much beyond that thin layer at the top of the Pacific Northwest fur economy. Regular employees she characterizes not very accurately as “Native or French Canadians, often of missed race and illiterate” (119), their number purportedly including for some inexplicable reason “West Indians” (120). Hyde’s recognition that, while officers were likely to leave at the end of their employment, employees “often settled in frontier areas with their Native families” (101) she equates with their heading to Red River and hence out of her purview, whereas in practice they remained in clear sight, which she would have realized had she cast her net a bit more widely. Hyde’s account is perforce limited by her reliance on the usual secondary and some printed primary sources, and by American historical assumptions, as with her placing French Canadian settlement in the Willamette Valley south of Fort Vancouver chronologically after the arrival of American Protestant missionaries (133), whereas in reality the latter set themselves down next door precisely because French Canadians were already there doing so well.

Empire, Nations, and Empires is well worth reading not only for its Pacific Northwest sections, which essentially form a small monograph, but in its entirety for setting early British Columbia within a larger North American context.

Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860
By Anne F. Hyde 
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. 628 pp. $45.00 cloth