- Freshwater Passages: The Trade and Travels of Peter Pond by David Chapin
Peter Pond, Fur trade, Canada, Great Lakes
Peter Pond was a Connecticut-born fur trader who, in the late eighteenth century, played a significant supporting role in the creation of the Montreal-based Northwest Company and in the mapping of the far northwest regions of North America. David Chapin has produced a well-written and thoroughly researched biography. His volume reveals a mastery of the subject that was won in numerous archives as well as via canoe and portage over lands nearly as wild today as they were in Pond’s day.
Pond has had a somewhat tarnished reputation in fur-trade history. While he has long been recognized for his role in expanding the Canadian fur trade into the Arctic drainage, he also has been disparaged as unrefined and virtually unlettered. More importantly, Pond has been portrayed by fur-trade historians as a quarrelsome, violent figure likely guilty of one or more murders. Chapin has undertaken an exhaustive review of a wide range of primary sources to offer a sympathetic and revisionist depiction of the Yankee trader and his Canadian adventures. In Chapin’s view Pond was an ambitious man who rose above his limited education to succeed in a rough frontier business. In addition, he aspired to play a role in a trans-Atlantic Enlightenment community interested in the geography, ethnology, and natural history of the unknown corners of the world. Chapin’s Pond is a careful observer of the wilderness world he inhabited, alert to the possibilities of new discoveries and sympathetic [End Page 307] to the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Cree who made their homes amid the lakes and rivers of the far northwest.
The task of telling Pond’s story in detail is formidable because his own memoir, which covers his early life in episodic fashion, ends before he entered the Canadian fur trade. Thereafter, as Pond embarks on the most significant part of his career, Chapin has to rely upon the reports of others about Pond’s activities. The picture produced by fur traders like Alexander and Roderick Mackenzie and later David Thompson is not flattering. Chapin judiciously parses their accounts for bias, innuendo, and malice. Particularly at issue is Pond’s alleged involvement in the deaths of fellow fur trader Jean Etienne Waden in 1782 and John Ross, a competing fur trader, in 1787. These events occurred in winter at trading posts far beyond the reach of civil authorities. Most historians have accepted that while Pond may not have pulled the trigger he held some responsibility for the deaths. Chapin acts as an able defense attorney and clearly establishes that what we know of the events is based on third-hand hearsay evidence. Nonetheless it is hard to escape the conclusion that Pond’s contemporaries, including his partners in the Northwest Company, thought him responsible for Ross’s murder. Why else would Pond, at the height of his success as a trader and explorer, withdraw from the Northwest never to return? It seems likely that Pond was pressured by his partners to remain in Montreal because of the Ross killing as the Northwest Company reconciled with Ross’s former associates. Chapin documents the fur trader was very explicit that he planned to return north in 1788 and conduct a journey down waterways he discovered to the Pacific Ocean. To be denied this opportunity must have been a bitter pill for Pond. Instead it was his young subordinate, Alexander Mackenzie, who followed up on Pond’s ambitions, tracing a route to the Arctic Ocean in 1789 and the Pacific in 1793 and winning the knighthood and fame that eluded Pond.
Among the most important contributions Chapin makes to our understanding of the early fur trade is his careful explanation of the fluid partnerships and agreements between the New England and New York merchants who, like Pond, entered the Great Lakes fur trade after the French and Indian War. He makes clear that while...