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Freshwater Passages

The Trade and Travels of Peter Pond

David Chapin

Publication Year: 2014

Peter Pond, a fur trader, explorer, and amateur mapmaker, spent his life ranging much farther afield than Milford, Connecticut, where he was born and died (1740–1807). He traded around the Great Lakes, on the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers, and in the Canadian Northwest and is also well known as a partner in Montreal’s North West Company and as mentor to Alexander Mackenzie, who journeyed down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Sea. Knowing eighteenth-century North America on a scale that few others did, Pond drew some of the earliest maps of western Canada.


In this meticulous biography, David Chapin presents Pond’s life as part of a generation of traders who came of age between the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. Pond’s encounters with a plethora of distinct Native cultures over the course of his career shaped his life and defined his career. Whereas previous studies have caricatured Pond as quarrelsome and explosive, Chapin presents him as an intellectually curious, proud, talented, and ambitious man, living in a world that could often be quite violent. Chapin draws together a wide range of sources and information in presenting a deeper, more multidimensional portrait and understanding of Pond than hitherto has been available.



Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

List of Maps

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

When Peter Pond was born in 1740 none of the people living in North America could accurately picture the entirety of their home continent. To the British colonists along the Atlantic, the interior beyond the Mississippi River was mostly unknown, while their countrymen on Hudson...

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A Note on Maps

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pp. xiii-xiv

Peter Pond prepared at least three maps in his own hand during his lifetime, but none of these originals are known to have survived. Instead historians must rely on several contemporary copies, drawn by people to whom Pond showed his original maps. The following shorthand names...

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Introduction: The Methye Portage

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pp. 1-9

On the upper reaches of the Churchill River, far to the northwest of Lake Superior and well beyond Lake Winnipeg, five large birch-bark canoes glided north across a quiet lake. White pelicans may have skimmed the water on this late summer day in 1778, looking for fish, undisturbed...

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1. Provincial Soldier

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pp. 10-30

The town of Milford, Connecticut, where Peter Pond was born in January 1740, was in many ways a typical eighteenth-century New England seacoast town. The sixth oldest town in the colony, it was founded one hundred years earlier by followers of the minister Peter Prudden....

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2. A Connecticut Yankee’s Pathway to Detroit

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pp. 31-50

With the end of the war, Pond returned home. He would later observe of this time: “All Cannaday subdued I thought thare was no bisnes left for me.”¹ If he now considered his father’s wish that he settle back in his hometown for a quiet life as a shoemaker, he...

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3. The Great Lakes Trade

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pp. 51-67

In July 1767 the British commandant at Detroit, Captain George Turnbull, wrote to General Thomas Gage in New York about the difficulties he encountered in trying to oversee the activities of local traders. He complained, “I do believe the greater part of them...

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4. Imagining and Exploring a Continent

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pp. 68-84

In the 1760s and 1770s the phrase “these parts unknown” still described much of North America from a European perspective. This would have been very clear to Pond as he began his career as a trader. On arriving in Detroit he would have begun to learn about the geography...

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5. Mississippi Trader

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pp. 85-115

When Pond returned from his latest voyage to the West Indies around March of 1773, he received a letter from Felix Graham with a business proposal. He visited his old partner in New York, and the two veteran traders came to an agreement for the coming...

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6. Partners and Rivals

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pp. 116-139

In late August 1772 Andrew Graham, the acting chief factor at York Factory, the Hudson’s Bay Company post at the mouth of the Hayes River, sat at his desk composing a letter to his employers in London. At that time of year, along the flat western shore of Hudson...

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7. Saskatchewan River Trader

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pp. 140-155

From the summer of 1775 to the summer of 1779 Pond remained in the Northwest, probably never traveling east of Lake Superior. When spring came at Dauphin Lake, he went down to Grand Portage, delivered furs to his associates there, and picked up new trade...

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8. North to Athabasca

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pp. 156-170

On May 26, 1778, William Tomison of the Hudson’s Bay Company reported seeing Pond at Cumberland House. “At Noon Peter Pond, one of the Canadian traders, arrived here with five large Canoes from above [i.e., from the upper Saskatchewan] loaded with Goods...

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9. Back East

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pp. 171-186

Pond made his way down to Grand Portage during the summer of 1779 then continued on to Michilimackinac and probably Montreal that autumn. Along the way, as he encountered other traders, he would have boasted of his pathbreaking journey. He also...

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10. The Churchill River and Athabasca, 1781–1784

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pp. 187-206

On October 11, 1781, William Tomison observed in the Cumberland House Journal that it was a cloudy fall day with a stiff wind coming out of the west. That evening, he continued, “passed by on their Journey to the Northward Mr. Pond with 8...

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11. Observing the Northwest

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pp. 207-220

Sometime in the late winter of 1785 Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, the French consul to New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, sat at a desk or table, likely at his home in New York City, making a copy of a remarkable new map of North America. He titled...

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12. Voyages, Schemes, and Petitions

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pp. 221-245

In May 1778, when Pond was leaving the Saskatchewan River on his first trip to the Athabasca Country, several hundred miles to his west two Royal Navy vessels, the Resolution and the Discovery, were cruising along the foggy southern coast of Alaska under the...

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13. Athabasca, 1785–1788

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pp. 246-272

In the spring of 1785, when he was not meeting with Lieutenant Governor Hamilton or working on the new map, Pond was preparing to return to the Northwest. The arrival of warmer weather saw the typical scene at Lachine as crews readied canoes and cargoes...

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14. Final Explorations

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pp. 273-288

Reconnaissance was an important part of Pond’s job—a part he clearly enjoyed. When he had the opportunity, he explored his surroundings on foot, on horseback, and by canoe. Such was the case during the summer of 1787. When the ice went out in the spring...

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15. Return

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pp. 289-302

On May 15, 1788, Pond left his fort on the Athabasca River, southward bound for Lake Superior. He traveled in a lone canoe with eight paddlers, racing ahead of the brigade carrying the year’s haul of furs. Five weeks later, at Cumberland House, he stopped and talked...

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16. A New World

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pp. 303-314

In early March 1790, when Pond arrived back in Milford, he was returning to where he had been born, but it was an entirely different nation. George Washington had been president for less than a year. The United States Constitution, drafted while Pond...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 315-316


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pp. 317-342


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pp. 343-354


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pp. 355-367

E-ISBN-13: 9780803253414
E-ISBN-10: 0803253419
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803246324

Page Count: 376
Publication Year: 2014