- Creating the Distance of Print:The Memoir of Peter Pond, Fur Trader
In eighteenth-century Britain and its North American colonies, the publishing industry both throve upon and enabled European empires, facilitating and profiting from the flow of information between center and periphery. In the North American hinterlands, far from the urban centers where texts were published and from which they were diffused, the discourse of empire and colony that printed texts conveyed nonetheless held sway. In European metropolitan centers and in the port cities of North America, daily life bore little resemblance to that in a fur trader's shack, at a military outpost, or on a backwoods farm, yet the successes or failures of these traders, soldiers, and farmers were felt through the systems of commerce.
Firsthand accounts of the remote interior of North American were valuable in several direct and indirect ways. Peter Pond's account of his exchange of goods with a group of Lakota Indians suggested, very concretely, an underserved market for English goods. Alexander Mackenzie's published Voyages (1801) projected a practicable transcontinental trading route linking an established fur trade directly with far eastern markets. Jonathan Carver's Travels (1778) claimed a similar lofty goal. A modern editor observes that this element was not present in the extant journals in Carver's hand, suggesting that Carver and/or his editors attempted to add value as they prepared the manuscript for printing (Parker 31). By the mid-eighteenth century, such travels also attracted many readers with no direct commercial, military, or scientific interests. Such "general readers" of travel accounts developed along with the expanding publishing industry in the eighteenth century and were not readily distinguishable from those who bought novels.1 As Defoe's fictions earlier had demonstrated, the distant lands of Europe's imperial expansion engaged even those who never ventured abroad. Informing readers about the distant reaches of empire offered an occasion for men like Peter Pond to imagine and present themselves [End Page 415] in terms of the vast distances and cultural frontiers they had crossed. The publishing successes of his fur-trade contemporaries were part of the flourishing state of travel publishing during the later eighteenth century, and as such they perhaps helped foster Peter Pond's ambition, despite his rudimentary literacy, to author a book.2
The ideal travel author during this period might be imagined as combining experience at the boundaries of the empire with command of the discourses emanating from the center. Such individuals were rare, perhaps because extensive education in the reading and writing of books tended to attach a person to the centers where these things were consumed and produced, whereas really to know life in the Americas, beyond colonial centers, was to be drawn away from literate culture generally, into sign systems and matrices of experience that functioned on alien terms. Daniel Richter claims, for example, in discussing the sources upon which he relied for The Ordeal of the Long House, a study of "The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization," that he found little intersection between those who knew the Iroquois by experience and those who wrote:
A few of the authors spent much of their lives among Indians, but most wrote comparatively little because they were not the bookish sort and their audiences were not much interested in the minutiae of native cultures. Many of those who produced more voluminous prose had little familiarity with Iroquoian languages or social structure and relied on inadequate translations.(5)
Here the historian's ideal source, the well-informed producer of written documents, is conceived of as a near absence. He is there somewhere among the "few . . . authors [who] spent much of their lives among the Indians, . . . most [of whom] wrote comparatively little" (emphasis added). While such a figure may well remain but an ideal, the demands of this historian—for authentic knowledge gathered on local ground, but recorded in writing—suggest something of the conflicted rhetorical zone entered by those who undertook to write about their experiences in the original countries of America.
Peter Pond (1740–1807) lived much of his life as a fur trader among Algonkian...