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Review

Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858 Volumes 1-3

By Bruce McIntyre Watson

August 14, 2014

Review By Nancy Marguerite Anderson

In 1793 Alexander Mackenzie crossed the continent in search of a route to the Pacific for the North West Company trade. He reached the Pacific at Dean Channel but failed to find a viable trade route, and the North West Company temporarily abandoned the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. Twelve years later, fellow Nor’Wester Simon Fraser constructed his first post at McLeod Lake, and David Thompson entered the territory a few years later. In the fifty or more years since those first posts were constructed, thousands of fur trade employees came by sea or land to work as far apart as Stuart’s Lake, in north-central British Columbia, and Fort Hall in today’s Idaho. Their stories remain, sometimes indexed in the impressive volumes of the Hudson’s Bay Record Society or the Champlain Society, but more often in obscure unpublished archival collections.

After more than twenty years of intensive research in primary sources housed all over North America and Great Britain, Bruce McIntyre Watson put together Lives Lived West of the Divide, a massive three-volume Biographical Dictionary that lists the fur trade employees who worked on the west side of the mountains — Scots, French Canadians, Iroquois and Abenaki First Nations, Kanakas, Americans, and many others of various ethnicities and backgrounds. Though he omits some groups such as Russian fur traders and employees of the HBC’s subsidiary, the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company, he includes many American adventurers as well as the three shipwrecked Japanese sailors who arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1834 — an astounding piece of research in itself.

Watson wants Lives Lived West of the Divide to cast light on the complicated lives of the men who worked in the fur trade on the west side of the Rockies. He eases us into his dictionary with a manageable introductory survey of the twenty fur trade companies that existed here; detailed information on the sixty-three forts, their locations, and their construction; and a handy chronology to tie all this information together. Half way into the first volume he begins what he calls the core of the book, his biographical listing, which is not complete until well into the third volume. Watson concludes volume 3 with more important information from the districts west of the Rocky Mountains: the ships, the medicines, the fur trade libraries, and a listing of primary and secondary resources.

Personally, I am a heavy user of Watson’s three indispensable volumes, both on my blog and in my upcoming books. As a fur trade biographer, I know that I will use these essential reference volumes for years to come. They are a vital resource for those historians — alas, too few of us! — who research the history of British Columbia in the half century before the arrival of the Fraser River gold miners. Unfortunately, historians who do not specialize in this period of BC (or American Pacific Northwest) history might decide they do not have a use for the book, but they should remember that the descendants of fur traders are everywhere. Indeed, my sense is that most purchasers are fur trade descendants or historians researching specific posts. Both these groups might quibble or argue about the details of his research, but all are loud in praise of the work Watson has done.

The biographies are in alphabetical order; it is easy to find people unless Watson identifies them with a different name than used in the fort records (as in the case of Louis Desasten, who also went by the name Marineau). I found some editing errors (mostly punctuation), but they are not serious. As a researcher I have discovered a few people whose stories are missing. And while sometimes I have questions, for the most part I trust Watson’s research.

Lives Lived West of the Divide will be valuable to anyone interested in the early history of the political territory that most British Columbians think originated with the Fraser River gold rush. It is eye opening to realize that almost 3,500 mainly non-indigenous men played significant roles in our history before that event occurred. Academics will eventually mine these volumes for ideas, patterns, and stories, but their immediate fans are fur trade descendants like myself and others interested in the people and lives of the fur trade era. We descendants are everywhere; we are interested in our history; we share information with each other; we re-enact our own stories at fur trade events, and we are the primary purchasers of the few books written about what we feel is the real history of our province. We don’t want to be ignored, and Bruce McIntyre Watson has not ignored us in this valuable work.

Lives Lived West of the Divide: A Biographical Dictionary of Fur Traders Working West of the Rockies, 1793-1858 Volumes 1-3
Bruce McIntyre Watson
Kelowna: UBC Okanagan, 2010. 1292 pp. $45.00 paper