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Pioneers of the Pacific Coast: A Chronicle of Sea Rovers and Fur Hunters

By Agnes C. Laut

Review By Chad Reimer

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 128-9

Until the later decades of the past century, historical writing was by men, about men, and for men. Narratives of the past made room for a queen, and the odd Laura Secord or Florence Nightingale, but the all-important realms of business of war, politics and commerce were strictly masculine. Rarer still were women who became published historians, even while literary fiction and journalism began opening their doors to women. It is in this light that we can gain an appreciation of the life and work of Agnes Laut.

Between 1914 and 1916, Laut contributed three titles to the 32-volume Chronicles of Canada series.Pioneers of the Pacific Coast appeared as the series’ twenty-third volume, and is here republished by TouchWood Editions, with an introduction by Rosemary Neering.

While most of the Chronicles’ authors were established, academic historians, Laut was chosen because of her ability to appeal to a more popular readership. Born in 1871, Laut grew up in the fledgling province of Manitoba and became one of the first female journalists on the prairies. Her writing subsequently made it into publications from Harper’s to Saturday Night, and while she relocated to the United States, she kept up an interest in the history of western Canada – particularly stories of its pioneer founders.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast was a product of this interest. As with other “pioneer history” of its time, it chronicles the stories of Great Men accomplishing Great Deeds. First up is Francis Drake, who brazenly defies the gunships and arrogant presumption of Spain to be the first to sail up the far west coast of North America. More than a century later, Vitus Bering is seen venturing into a hostile North Pacific, only to be undone by the weakness of his own men. But in this English drama, it is the British – in the steadfast guise of James Cook and George Vancouver – who close the curtain on this first act, the initial “exploration of the Northwest Coast.”

The second act brings in British invasion from the east: Alexander Mackenzie, the first to cross the continent by land; Simon Fraser, risking all in a reckless descent of the Fraser River; and David Thompson, doggedly tracing the tortuous valleys and rivers of the Rocky Mountains to the mouth of the Columbia. And so ends this act, “the period of discovery on the Pacific coast.”

The book’s final chapter is a hasty sketch of the reign of the Hudson’s Bay Company west of the Rockies. The Company’s “feudal” hold on the region ends with the Fraser Gold Rush and establishment of British Columbia as a colony, and with that “the pioneer days of the Pacific became a thing of the past.”

On its own terms – those set by its publisher in 1915 – Pioneers of the Pacific Coast does succeed. Laut’s writing is smooth and mostly effective, its florid or overblown sections more apparent to us than its contemporary readers. Laut’s treatment of the region’s first peoples might make us wince, but they were liberal by the standards of the time.

But what is the value of the book for us, today? In scholarly terms the book adds little to our understanding of these familiar events and characters. Nor does Laut’s retelling of these breathe new life into them. Indeed, a book about Laut herself – her fascinating, peripatetic life, her struggles as a female writer in the early twentieth century – would have been a far more interesting read, and bring us much greater historical insights.

Agnes C. Laut
Pioneers of the Pacific Coast: A Chronicle of Sea Rovers and Fur Hunters
Victoria: Heritage Books, 2011  pp. $14.95