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Review

The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company

By Irene Termier Gordon

Forging a Fur Empire: Expeditions in the Snake River Country, 1809-1824

By John Phillip Reid

Jedediah Smith: No Ordinary Mountain Man

By Barton H. Barbour

June 30, 2015

Review By Robert Foxcurran and John Jackson

In The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company, Irene Gordon, a true daughter of the Saskatchewan prairies, has provided an informative outline of the western operations of the North West Company (NWC) as historical background to this long overdue biography of William McGillivray, a major figure in the NWC’s long battle with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) for the Indian Trade of Rupert’s Land. A casual reader or interested scholar will not find a better description of the demands of the trade upon McGillivray and his brothers, Duncan and Simon, who acted as downstream agents defending the NWC’s business in Rupert’s Land and extending the fur trade to the largely unexplored and undeveloped Pacific Northwest. Hampered by what turned out to be a faulty business plan for shipping Columbia and Snake River beaver skins to the China market, the Montreal agents of the NWC could not stem an inevitable downward profit spiral. Unfortunately the author devotes a scant seven and a half pages to a major factor – the NWC’s ill-fated China Trade — in the company’s decline and its 1821 amalgamation with the HBC. Modestly documented with a reasonable bibliography and a few samples of new writing, the “Laird of Fort William” has found his amanuensis in the author’s lively and homely treatment.

The NWC’s expansion to the Pacific slope is also the subject of John Phillip Reid’s Forging a Fur Trade Empire: Expeditions in the Snake River Country, 1809-1824. The author has published several books dealing with this period of the early Pacific Northwest: Patterns of Vengeance: Crosscultural Homicide in the North American Fur Trade (1999) and Contested Empire: Peter Skene Ogden and the Snake River Expeditions (2002). Reid’s fascination with empires has now led to another study of the only two expeditions the NWC managed to put into the field before they realized that the price paid for beaver on the Chinese market was insufficient to support its faulty business plan.

The first 100 pages of Reid’s book contain seventy-eight citations to Alexander Ross’s Fur Hunters of the Far West as the source. This brands Reid as an admiring and uncritical admirer of the data provided by Ross. Reid fails to grasp that Ross’s descriptions of Donald McKenzie, or even of Ross’s own adventures, are an untrustworthy source upon which to build an accurate new version of this oft-told tale of the early Snake River fur trade. Reid, like other fur trade historians lacking collaborative data, takes Ross’s opinions written thirty years later as unchallenged fact. After Ross served as a clerk for the Astorians, the Nor’westers, and the newly amalgamated HBC, the London directorate sent a new overseas governor (George Simpson) west in 1824/25. The astute Simpson saw through Ross without actually meeting him. The self-inflated former clerk was then sent east to return to the unchallenging role of mere schoolmaster. Ross tried to salvage his reputation through the publication decades later of two memoirs based on his experiences in the fur trade, but he was not the man he portrayed himself to be. Reid’s uncritical reliance on a questionable source diminishes this book from a respectable and long-established press.

With these two books filling in some gaps in our understanding of the NWC and HBC eras and operations, we can turn to slightly later – and American — characters in western history. Readers may have to decide whether Barton H. Barbour in Jedediah Smith: No Ordinary Man has succeeded in producing a balanced new treatment of this far from neglected western hero. Smith was indeed an overlooked mountain man of the 1820s until a few documents were rediscovered in 1902, which, together with some uncritically examined data, inflated Smith into the popular symbol of the iconic mountaineer. It is curious that Barbour starts this book with Smith’s fatal encounter on the Santa Fe Trail in May 1831 with a band of opportunistic young Comanche, before retracing Smith’s steps through a generally unfortunate fur trade career that cost the lives of many of his followers. In the present electronic world of handheld gadgets and limited twitters, it is also disappointing that the author of a book intended to refresh the facts chose to dispense with citations of documentary evidence, or even provide a bibliography of the published studies he consulted. In our opinion, Smith’s admirers, rather like the self-serving Alexander Ross, tend to rewrite the record slyly.

Of a morning Jim Hardee sits on the porch of his excellent library at Tetonia, Idaho, with a cup of coffee, watching the sun break over the snowy peaks of the Teton Mountains. As an adopted and dedicated son of the Rocky Mountain beaver hunt and fur trade, Hardee has devoted himself to keeping that sometimes over-romanticized era alive while working to better document and clarify its literature. As comfortable in greasy buckskins as an editor’s sometimes uneasy chair, Jim Hardee’s Obstinate Hope: The Western Expeditions of Nathaniel J. Wyeth is the first of a two-volume study of  this New England business-oriented ice merchant’s venture into the highly competitive skin games of the American west in the 1830s. Wyeth carried only a few beaver pelts back over the Rockies, but his attempt to reorganize the trade encouraged a passel of adventurers, missionaries, and immigrants to move west who, by their presence, influenced the outcome of the Anglo-American claim to the disputed Oregon Country. Before the HBC began withdrawing to British Columbia, Wyeth had already (1834) established his experimental Fort Hall in the declining garden of the western beaver hunt. But the HBC’s John McLoughlin refused to cut a cooperative deal with Wyeth, who sold Fort Hall to the HBC in 1837. Canadian readers who seem firmly convinced that the sun rose and set on the semi-imperial ambitions of the HBC may be enlightened by this engrossing volume.

The Laird of Fort William: William McGillivray and the North West Company
Irene Termier Gordon
Victoria: Heritage House, 2013. 208 pp. $19.95 paper

Forging a Fur Empire: Expeditions in the Snake River Country, 1809-1824
John Phillip Reid
Norman, Okla: Arthur H. Clarke Company, 2011. 208 pp. $29.95 paper

Jedediah Smith: No Ordinary Mountain Man
Barton H. Barbour
Norman, Okla: University of Oklahoma Press 2011. 304 pp. $19.95 paper

Obstinate Hope: The Western Expedition of Nathaniel Wyeth
Jim Hardee
Pinedale, WY: Sublette County Historical Society and Museum of the Mountain Man, 2013. 500 pp. $24.95 cloth