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The Elusive Mr. Pond: The Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who Opened the Northwest

By Barry Gough

Review By George Colpitts

June 25, 2015

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 151-152

Barry Gough has masterfully grappled with the challenge of interpreting an important figure in the Canadian fur trade in his book, The Elusive Mr. Pond: The Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who Opened the Northwest. Peter Pond has raised many obstacles to generations of biographers. Famous for having expanded the Canadian fur trade from Montreal into the Athabasca district in 1778, Pond unfortunately left few written documents, a fragment of a memoir, and unscientific maps of his discoveries. North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company journals make only brief mention of him. Pond’s own marginal literacy and his cartographic unorthodoxy, in turn, left him overshadowed in his time by his more politically-engaged peers and their greater paper record. Sir Alexander Mackenzie, the most notable example, wrote a definitive narrative and crafted maps of greater use to empire-builders. Historians writing about Pond, then, have had to accept what contemporaries said of him, often disparagingly, or contain Pond’s story within the larger history of the North West Company and, with it, a Canadian transcontinental narrative.

Gough works within the extant record and draws on his talents both as a superb writer and an established historian of empire to lay out what is and what is not known about Pond. He effectively describes Pond’s birthplace and youth in Milford, Connecticut, and the likely formative influences of colonial Congregationalist values, entrepreneurship, geographic expansionism, and militia service. Pond’s engagement in the fur trade after the Seven Years’ War, following in the steps of his father who traded fur, provided him backwoods experience in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His plains Sioux trade further joined Pond’s strong personality with the individual autonomy offered in bourgeois trading. Pond entered the British Northwest trade from Montreal in 1775; in 1778, by then in partnership with the recently-formed North West Company, he used the Methye Portage to become the first trader in the Arctic drainage, an event of not only commercial but imperial significance. Gough then returns with Pond to Montreal in 1784, examining how the trader’s geographic discoveries reached Quebec and metropolitan audiences keenly interested in unlocking an overland connection to the Pacific coast. Still aloof from the close social and commercial networks of Montreal, even though still partnered with the Nor’Westers, Pond’s next inland foray implicated him in a murder – the second in his career – that made Pond’s place in Montreal increasingly untenable while his own discoveries and maps were being eclipsed by Alexander Mackenzie’s. Pond retired from trading and returned in 1790 to his former Connecticut birthplace to live out the rest of his life.

Gough well establishes Pond as “an outlier, an extraordinary person standing apart from others…”(6); indeed, his personal inclinations, fierce independence, and strong temperament throughout his life seem to have made him, at best, “respected, but unloved” among his peers (119). His outlier status is key in understanding Pond’s place both within and beyond Montreal society. The author superbly situates this Connecticut Yankee’s enterprising personality in the distant Athabasca district, while explaining how his discoveries, in turn, were critically appraised and sifted by British and American geographers and strategists building empires. Gough’s biographical treatment of Pond, then, offers valuable insights into an individual who, through his “Athabasca odyssey,” changed fur trade and imperial history in the northwestern portions of the American continent.

The Elusive Mr. Pond: The Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who Opened the Northwest
Barry Gough
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2014. 256 pp. $34.95 cloth