Thompson’s Highway: British Columbia’s Fur Trade, 1800-1850
November 4, 2013
Review By Bruce Watson
Through his publication BC Book World, Alan Twigg has contributed enormously to generating interest in BC literature. As well as drawing attention to BC writers, Twigg has also published his own work, of which Thompson’s Highway is his latest (and twelfth) book. It is divided into three sections: an introductory overview under the title “Forts and Furs,” a biographical section under “People,” and an appendix that lists fifty forts. A bibliography of primary and secondary sources follows. There is no index. To capture the reader’s attention at the outset, Twigg wryly suggests that the name “Scottish Columbia” is appropriate for an area, now largely part of British Columbia, that was dominated by Scottish traders. His narrative follows six leading fur traders, five of whom were of Scottish descent : George Simpson, James Douglas, John McLoughlin, Simon Fraser, and Alexander Mackenzie. Also included are twenty-nine biographies of Europeans and North Americans connected to the fur trade, among them six artists and scientists, nine largely maritime fur traders, thirteen land-based fur traders working in New Caledonia, and one female missionary.
Such an ambitious range of material is difficult to explore adequately in 250 pages, even for a popular audience. First, the fur trade west of the Rockies was enormously complex, ranging from the emergence of the maritime fur trade in the late eighteenth century to its land-based cousin, operating under many companies and partnerships, in the nineteenth century, not to mention a large diversity of employees. Twigg has chosen a simplified, popular approach to the subject and cheekily suggests the possibility of a Hollywood blockbuster. This perspective might give readers new to the subject of the fur trade a skewed view of its tremendous racial, national, and ethnic complexity, particularly with regard to the land-based fur trade. Even though the book is meant for a popular readership, and the use of numerous quotations does help to anchor the material, some aspects of the subject cry out for source references. References to “rampages that were sanctioned by the hbc” and the statement that “Peter Skene Ogden reputedly volunteered to eradicate all Aboriginal males from the Snake country” leave the reader wanting some contextual framework.
The challenges of tackling such a widespread subject in a popular form are many. For example, the restrictive geographical and temporal aspects of the subtitle British Columbia’s Fur Trade, 1800-1850 is problematic as the larger Pacific Northwest on both sides of the 1846 international border functioned to outsiders as one geopolitical unit from the maritime fur trade onward. To complicate matters, the continuous Thompson’s Highway referred to by Twigg is essentially the Columbia-Kootenay River drainage system, which was severed by the drawing of the border. Further north, however, the amorphous borders of New Caledonia do make logical the inclusion of the plains of northeastern British Columbia, with their even earlier fur-trading dates.
As a popular book, Thompson’s Highway usefully introduces readers to a new topic, aiding them with its extensive bibliography. However, in deference to that readership, which is today as diverse as the fur trade ever was and several generations removed from colonial British Columbia, a wider choice of biographies would have reflected more fully the nature of both the maritime and land-based fur trade systems. The author has carefully included useful visual material, but a map showing the locations of the fifty forts listed in the appendix would have been helpful. As well, several historical errors have to be addressed if the book is to be reprinted. In short, for the uninitiated there is much useful material here, but a sharper focus on one aspect of this very complex subject might have made the book more useful and readable.