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Review

Undelievered Letters to Hudson’s Bay Company Men on the Northwest Coast of America, 1830-57

By Judith Hudson Beattie, Helen M. Buss

November 4, 2013

Review By Carolyn Podruchny

In Undelivered Letters, editors Judith Hudson Beattie and Helen M. Buss provide a voice for those North American fur trade people usually thought to be voiceless. This publication of over 200 undelivered letters to men who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in the Columbia District from 1830 to 1857 reveals the rich worlds of the mostly non-literate labourers who worked as seamen, voyageurs, tripmen, and servants. Letters addressed to labourers that never found their marks (usually because the men had died) were meticulously filed and stored by the HBC, which seldom threw anything away. The letters eventually surfaced in the massive HBC Archives that was moved from London to Winnipeg in 1974 and officially donated to the Province of Manitoba in 1994. Beattie, then keeper of the HBCA, and her colleague Buss, a specialist in memoirs, letters, and diaries, began to read, discuss, transcribe, and research an ever-growing collection of these letters. Their published volume is divided into four sections: (1) letters to the English, Scottish, Orcadian, Welsh, European, North American, and Hawaiian sailors who worked on the ships travelling between Britain and North America; (2) letters to French-Canadian voyageurs from the St. Lawrence Valley who were working at far western posts; (3) letters to English, Scottish, and Orcadian men who were working at posts; and (4) letters to emigrant labourers who hoped to settle in a new colony. 

Today these letters will find a vast audience of readers, including genealogists, social historians, cultural theorists, and the general public. Anyone interested in acquiring information on people who lived in the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian and American borderlands, the St. Lawrence Valley, the Hawaiian Islands, and/or Great Britain during the nineteenth century will be interested in these letters, as will anyone intrigued by, for example, family life, women’s history, fur trade politics, and the role of gossip and jokes in early modern and nineteenth-century communities. Although it may seem strange that published handwritten letters could open up the worlds of the non-literate, these letters do just that. And they do it by revealing the techniques these people used to communicate across vast distances as well as by revealing their personal lives, emotions, dialects, and language rhythms. Many of the letter-senders dictated their letters to local clergy, notaries, or lords, and it seems likely that the letters that did arrive safely in the hands of their intended recipients were read with the help of fur trade masters, officers, and clerks.  

Beattie and Buss provide an exemplary case of how to edit a collection of letters. The volume’s introduction situates the time and place of fur trade employment on the Northwest Coast, describes the process of preserving the letters, and provides a guide for the many ways to read the letters. The introductions to each of the four sections provide historical narratives that situate the information presented so that the content of the letters is crystal-clear to non-specialists. The letters are reproduced with original spelling and spacing, with added punctuation and words noted in square brackets. Any text that was stricken through has been preserved. The letters to voyageurs are printed in the original French with careful English translations. The editors’ meticulous and well researched notes provide tantalizing biographical information on the workers and their families – people who barely left a trace in conventional documentary records. The rich appendices list and describe the HBC ships and posts mentioned in the correspondence, while a detailed bibliography and index complete the volume. None of these editorial additions detracts from the compelling nature of the correspondence – in fact, they only add to the readers’ and researchers’ enjoyment.