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Fortune’s a River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America

By Barry M. Gough

Review By Robert Campbell

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 158 Summer 2008  | p. 116-7

If you tackle this readable but detailed history of imperial rivalry in the Pacific Northwest, I recommend that you reread the preface after finishing the book. It will help to explain what you just read. While at times fascinating, Fortune’s a River can also be overwhelming and a bit disjointed.

Gough describes his work as “comparative imperial history,” or “the history of empires in rivalry and conflict” (10). Geographically the book examines the area from northern California to Alaska, with a curious side-trip to the Missouri River valley. The time period extends from the early 1700s to around the Convention of 1818, which provided for joint occupation of Oregon Country by Britain and the United States. Four empires vied for the region: the Russian, Spanish, British, and American. Yet Gough’s emphasis is the competition between Britain and the United States, particularly over who would control the Columbia River.

According to Gough, the agents of empire were explorers and traders. As he puts it: “The maritime enterprise on the Pacific coast, exercised by competing American and British traders, came to a head with the overland quest for dominance by rival American and Canadian concerns” (11). He identifies “four giants of western overland exploration and imperial expansion” (12): Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson (both of the Northwest Company), and American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. He is particularly impressed with the accomplishments of the Montreal-based Northwest Company, especially since it received little support from Britain, except briefly during the War of 1812. He claims that the “Nor’Westers were the true lords of the wilderness,” and he optimistically concludes that “Nor’Westers achieved their goals, winning the prize of the upper Columbia River watershed and all of the Fraser River watershed” (340). I found this conclusion a bit odd, since Gough makes it clear that the real prize was the mouth of the Columbia River, which now forms the border between Oregon and Washington. I was also puzzled by his comment, unsourced, that since the 1740s the 49th parallel had been discussed as the “proper boundary” (205). My immediate thought was boundary between what? The United States did not yet exist, and Louisiana was part of New France. Britain was largely confined to the Atlantic seaboard and the lands whose waters drained into Hudson Bay.

Conceptually Gough says this book fits in the “borderlands” interpretation of exploration, as defined by Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron in an article in the American Historical Review (104, 3 [1999]). According to Gough, historians “have moved from an Anglocentric, triumphalist narrative of continental expansion,” to one that emphasizes “newcomers’ relations with aboriginal peoples, stressing accommodations or forms of resistance” (10). It would be a stretch to say that aboriginal people are at the centre of this book, but they are not invisible, and Gough highlights their determination to control, often forcefully, trade and their traditional territories. 

Barry Gough is a seasoned historian who has published a number of critically acclaimed books. This one is very well researched, and Gough has a talent for taking archival documents and turning them into compelling narrative. I just wish the structure of the book were more narrative in orientation. Chronologically it would have made sense to begin with the Russian explorations of Alaska. Instead, the book opens with a prologue on John Ledyard, who was with James Cook at Nootka Sound in 1788. The Russians do not appear until Chapter 4. Rather than linear, the structure is more episodic, and the result is both jarring and a bit repetitive as explorers arrive, depart, and then return in later chapters. That said, reading Fortune’s a River made me realize how much I did not know about the early exploration of the Pacific Northwest. I finished it feeling wiser, if a bit dazed.