Historian revives the story of the enigmatic Peter Pond

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November 5, 2014

Dr. Barry Gough is a noted historian and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society recognized for his scrupulous research and engaging narratives. He is the author of many books, including Juan de Fuca’s Strait: Voyages in the Waterways of Forgotten Dreams and Fortune’s a River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America (Harbour, 2007) which won the John Lyman Book Award for best Canadian naval and maritime history and was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Most recently, Dr. Gough explored the life of a fur trader who has long fascinated him in The Elusive Mr. Pond: The Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who Opened the Northwest (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014). He spoke to Margaret Thompson about this enigmatic figure.

The title of your book—The Elusive Mr. Pond—immediately suggests that Peter Pond is a shadowy figure, historically. What first drew your attention to him as a subject for a book?

The authoritative Dictionary of Canadian Biography, one of the great national literary institutions of [our] country…asked me to write for their pages a large biography of this unusual character. The staff of the Dictionary also knew of my fascination with the intersection of the fur traders, the First Nations, and the opening up of the Canadian northwest. Since then and even today I have been drawn to a personality who does not fit the norms of Canadian history—and who challenges us to think in new ways about our past, particularly that of the distant eighteenth century. Put differently, I could not put Peter Pond aside, could not consign him to the scrap heap of history. He deserved better, and therein lay the fascination of his incredible story—and my desire to tell it.

From your account, Pond’s life is not well documented by himself or others, and there are large gaps in the record. This must have presented a challenge even to an experienced researcher like yourself. Will you tell us something about the process of disinterring verifiable fact about Pond, and what caused you the most difficulty?

The art of the historian is to recount the past and explain this to the interested reader, the latter constituting an increasingly difficult task given the fact that fewer Canadians read of their history, more particularly that before the end of the Second World War. (It is a fact that Canadian history is disappearing as a subject of public interest, a reason for considerable worrry to those of us who have spent lifetimes trying to educate our fellow Canadians in the rich depth of our history.) The historian, however, often has to read between the lines—and go beyond the documents. I do not have a photo of Peter Pond but that did not stop me from writing a speculative pen portrait of the fellow. Peter Pond left a wonderful memoir, short though it is. But from other sources in the North West Company files, from other fur trade biographies, and from Hudson’s Bay Company papers, and above all Colonial Office papers in Kew, Surrey, we can complete a very wide and deep literary portrait. And by his maps shall he also be known. Of specific interest and importance are Pond’s various maps; and these are important historical records besides being quizzical and fabulous cartographic creations of the age.

If you have an inquisitive instinct and love the pursuit of the documentary chase, there is no shortage of material about Peter Pond. But the working historian has to know how to get at it and have the abilities to mine that particular vein of gold.

As you point out, Pond enjoyed good relations with the First Nations he encountered, and was even employed on occasion as a sort of diplomatic envoy. How much of his success would you ascribe to this quality?

He was not born in the wilderness or the frontier, but he took to it naturally, even intuitively. He welcomed the freedom of the frontier. That meant living with the First Nations, sleeping with the native women and encouraging the diplomacy with the various tribes—all part of “the custom of the country,” so called. The Peter Pond “gene pool” is probably well spread throughout the vast geography stretching north and west from Detroit running up to Lake Athabasca and beyond. But it was more than his ease of living with the First Nations, the American Indians. He had become a fearless fellow from his warrior years in the Connecticut and New York militias. He was hard-nosed and capable of the hardest physical demands placed upon him: he was a marathon runner of the fur trade. Among all fur traders, save Mackenzie, he was first among equals in capabilities.

In fur trade history most historians treat the fur traders as a class of equals; in fact, some were stronger than others. Pond and Mackenzie were among the toughest, and from them devolved the great expansive strength of the Nor’Westers that led them against all odds to the Arctic (or Icy) Sea and to the Pacific. It is shocking to my sensitivities, however, that Mackenzie gave Pond so little credit for his zeal, leadership and geopolitical vision—the essence of this biography. Why was Mackenzie so selfish? Was it his Scots disposition? Or was it the fact that Pond was a Colonial American? The book probes this question, and it speaks to the essence of who is a Canadian. Do we lose our Canadian status when we leave our country? And do we have to stay in this country to be famous in it? The Peter Pond story speaks, in a way, to the shallowness of the Canadian nationality and to the fragility of our collective belonging. But he was a significant figure in the creation of the Empire of the St. Lawrence, the political and economic system that was the progenitor of the modern Canadian state.

Looking at Pond’s maps, I was struck by the enormity of his undertaking—not so much the sheer size of the country, which he could not know, but the courage it would take to strike out into a limitless unknown. That he managed a successful trading career, as well as demystifying vast river systems and almost working out a route to the Pacific, suggests that he was a remarkable man. Why, then, is he not as much of a household name as Mackenzie and Fraser?

He was not Scottish. That’s the first answer, the primary one. The next answer is that he did not remain in Canada. He left the fur trade and Canada and retired or returned home, as some of us do, to his home town, in his case Milford, Connecticut, in my case, teasingly, Victoria, British Columbia. The Scots had a profound influence in our history; I proved that in my biography of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, First Across the Continent, a book which did so much to explain to Americans (as well as Canadians) and those beyond our borders, how important the fur trade was to our national alchemy. Yes, he spanned the greater northwestern scope of Canada, from Montreal out to Windsor and Detroit then up through the Great Lakes to all the river courses (often against the flow of current) right up to the English River and then the Methye Portage that took him into the new fur trade eldorado, Athabasca, and to the Canadian north leading to the Arctic and the rivers of British Columbia.

In your preface you make this comment: “It may be fashionable nowadays to engage in creative non-fiction, but I can assure the reader that I have declined this seduction, save where I have speculated on Pond’s appearance.” The phrasing makes it clear that you disapprove of creative non-fiction in a historical study, yet your own example of succumbing to the “seduction” illustrates the colour that fictional techniques can give a narrative without tainting its authenticity. Can you elaborate a bit on your take on creative non-fiction?

I am not opposed to creative non-fiction… [but] we who are biographers or historians are bound by the rigorous craft rules set down in our callings. We cannot create facts; we cannot create circumstances; we cannot change chronology; we must respect those who have written about the subject already. Someone writing creative non-fiction, by contrast, can exercise greater liberties. For myself as a working historian I am particularly bound by the main materials of my subject—a personal narrative or memoir, related trade narratives, business and political records of the age, maps and charts, and the views of others about the personality and circumstances that form the main subject. My search as a biographer has always been to provide an authentic representation of the individual under examination. That is my credo.

But the biographer’s calling also requires imagination and the perspective of the years and of the age in question. It is a wonderful challenge and I hope to find another figure as compelling as Peter Pond though, alas, I am not sure I will ever find it. He stands in the same category as Lawrence of Arabia and Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the world cries out for figures whose stories have yet to be told and retold.

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