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The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West

By Nancy Marguerite Anderson

Review By Ken Brealey

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 180-82

Alexander Caulfield Anderson was born to British parents on a plantation in India in 1814, raised and schooled in England, and in 1831 arrived in Lachine, Lower Canada, where he was promptly hired on as a servant in the Hudson’s Bay Company. The following year he was on the northwest coast, and for the next fifty years, worked or served variously as explorer, fur trader, trailblazer, cartographer, customs agent, businessman, farmer, amateur historian, Indian Reserve Commissioner, and fisheries inspector, this latter a position he held until two years before his death in 1884. Geographically, and during this period, Anderson negotiated the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Columbia Department — an expansive territory that reached from the Columbia River in the south, to the Peace River in the north, up the archipelago from Vancouver Island to Bella Coola in the west, and to Rocky Mountains in the east.

Indeed, there are few landmark studies of the historical and/or geographical evolution of British Columbia that do not, at some point, mention Anderson or elements of his work, but Nancy Anderson, Alexander’s great granddaughter, is the first to have devoted a separate work to his life and in so doing given us a more complete picture of both the man and his legacy, and the rapidly changing cross-cultural world in which he lived.

Part biography, part historical geography, and several years in the making, the book is clearly a labour of love on the author’s part, and written in the easy accessible style of popular historical authorship. There are thirty chapters telescoped into about 200 pages of text, but the author weaves them together nicely, preserving the fluidity of the text while capturing the episodic character of Anderson’s life. It is well illustrated, mostly with selected black and white historical photographs and sketches, but also eight full colour plates showing thematic cartographic summaries of Anderson’s travels as trader and trailblazer between 1833 and 1848, reproductions of some of Anderson’s own field sketches, and portions of some of the fourteen maps of the cordillera that Anderson is known to have made between the late 1840s and through to the 1870s.

The book is well researched, the author having thoroughly mined the usual sources of the Hudson’s Bay Company and British Columbia Archives, but also locating and incorporating primary materials culled from public archives in Scotland and eastern Canada and private and family collections as far away as India, Australia, and Japan. The text is nicely sprinkled with quotes from Anderson’s own journals and letters, and thoroughly indexed.

I have only two criticisms, both minor. The first is that while it is inevitably a consequence of this style of writing, it is mainly only direct quotes that are footnoted. The numerous other references are grouped separately in a bibliography, but not differentiated by page, the result being long sections in which factual claims from multiple sources are not directly sourced. This surely helps readability, but more consistent footnoting would help take readers more directly to the original sources. The second is that the author might have made a little more of Anderson’s cartographic oeuvre. She is right to highlight the importance of Anderson’s 1867 masterpiece, Map of a Portion of the Colony of British Columbia, as well as maps of his surveys of 1846 and 1848 and the in Peace River country in the 1870s, but other important maps, such as his 1858 Map showing the different Routes of Communication with the Gold Region of Fraser’s River, could have been included, especially as many of the features on some of them are referenced in the text.

Overall, however, Nancy Anderson has provided a much needed, long overdue and highly enjoyable account of one of the more important nineteenth century historical geographical agents on the northwest coast. The author shows that like many fur traders, Anderson loved the spirit of adventure that drove his exploratory, trailblazing and mapmaking activities, even as he was less enamoured with the business and practical exigencies of the trade itself. As the northwest coast transitioned from a fur trade frontier into a place of commercial capital and settlement he shared with his contemporaries the promises of civilization, but his respect for Indigenous peoples was not common to most, and one of the reasons he was chosen as the federal representative on the Joint Indian Reserve Commission in 1876. Indeed, it is in this sense that Anderson not only “found his path” across time and through space, but from a political economy perspective participated in Indigenous, mercantile, commercial, and industrial capitalist modes of production, and at the end was one of the agents who helped sediment them all together. I am grateful that his great-granddaughter has finally told a story that long needed telling.

The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in the West
By Nancy Marguerite Anderson
Victoria: Heritage House, 2011. *** 240pp, $19.95 paper