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Reviewed by:
  • Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill, 1864 - 1893
  • Bill Moreau (bio)
K. Douglas Munro , editor. Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill, 1864 - 1893. University of Alberta Press. 2006. xxviii, 340. $34.95

In 1864, twenty-year-old Willie Traill, the eighth of Catharine Parr Traill's nine children, set out from Upper Canada for Fort Garry and life as a Hudson's Bay Company clerk. Over the next three decades, Willie steadily made his way west and north across the Plains - and up the rungs of the HBC - before at last crossing the mountains to conclude his career as chief trader at Fort St James. Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill contains 177 items drawn from the entire span of these years and as such serves as a significant primary source for late-nineteenth-century fur trade history.

The collection achieves its effect cumulatively, in the gradual accretion of details about the day-to-day conditions under which fur trade life was lived, and through several emblematic vignettes: the tale of an 1865 bison hunt on the Souris River, description of the ravages of the smallpox epidemic of 1870, evidence of the collapse of the bison economy, and accounts of the work of Chinese labourers in the British Columbia interior in the late 1880s. Traill had a deep sense of the large-scale changes being wrought as the transfer of the West from HBC control initiated the era of the railroad and mass immigration, and he often cast his eye reflectively to the future (even if his predictions were not always borne out; in 1872 he wrote, 'Saskatchewan is destined to be something yet, tho I doubt if it will ever be a great wheat growing country').

But this collection is also the story of Traill himself, as he passes the landmarks of career advancement, marriage (in 1869 to Harriet McKay, daughter of HBC factor William McKay), fatherhood, frail health (both physical and financial), and loss. His account of the deaths of three of their children, one the victim of whooping cough and two of scarlet fever, still elicit fresh feeling in the reader, sharpened by Traill's admission that he often dreamed of his 'darlings who are now in heaven.' Traill also becomes a more mature and self-assured writer over the course of these years, as early formulaic descriptions of Plains landscape and customs give way to specific and evocative accounts, particularly of the BC interior. There are flashes of dry wit, especially welcome for their rarity, such as the description of pemmican as including one per cent hair, two per cent blankets, and five per cent 'miscellaneous trash.' [End Page 573]

Despite the volume's title, this collection consists solely of personal letters to family members, preeminently Willie's mother, a focus that is perhaps explained by the fact that the editor, K. Douglas Munro, is a great-grandson of Traill's. Indeed, in 1890, Catharine had already anticipated the publication of her son's letters, so this is a family project finally come to fruition. Editorial comment tends to lack critical distance, while a eulogizing tone predominates: Willie and Harriet are presented as 'exemplary role models for our younger generations,' and Willie as 'courteous, devout, kindly, industrious, well-mannered, honest [and] decent.' While family matters are well annotated, the contents of many of the letters themselves belie tensions in the extended clan that stand at odds with the editor's rather idealized presentation.

Catharine herself valued her son's letters for their wider significance, and so it is unfortunate that this edition often fails to reach beyond the family circle. Historical guide posts are virtually absent, and even the reader reasonably familiar with the period will have difficulty navigating through the mass of personal names, geographical locations, specialized vocabulary, and references to historical events and cultural contexts. One example may serve for all: Traill's passing mention of a 'cruel massacre by the Sioux Indians' remains puzzling unless placed in the historical context of the 1862 Dakota Uprising. In a similar vein, the current selection of letters might have been complemented and enriched by the inclusion of items from Traill's professional correspondence, easily...


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