by Dorthea Calverley
Who among the Europeans first saw the Peace River? Probably, but not certainly, it was Peter Pond. Pond was a Yankee born on January 18, 1740, the son of a fur-trader of the same name. When he first appeared in the Peace River Country, he was thirty-eight, but already a man of much experience. At sixteen he had been apprenticed to a shoemaker. Bending day after day over a cobbler’s bench must have been an exasperating job for a boy with a foot itching to be off into the western wilderness. The army offered a way out. He said later that he was caught up by the “The drums and the instruments of Musick [sic].” He must have shown ability in the wars with the French and Indians for he quickly went up from private to officer when he was only twenty years old. At the end of the Seven Years’ War he was in Montreal.
Visions of making a fortune took him on what he called “a voige to the Islands of the West Indies” where he undoubtedly made connections with the rum manufacturers. Rum was better than money for bartering with Indians.
He married, but settling down to family life was not for him. He afterwards wrote that the first year of his marriage were “the ondley three years of my life I was three years in one place since I was sixteen years old up to sixtey”. Being a fur trader’s son, he entered into the trade at Detroit in 1765. There, history records that he killed a man in a duel. Dueling was not an uncommon way to settle an argument in those days.
In a duel a wealthy man usually had an advantage over a poor boy in weapons and in training; perhaps Peter’s army experience put him on an equal footing. However, it seemed a good idea to go west. In the Mississippi valley he traded so successfully that he is remembered in American History books.
When the American Revolution broke out, the ex-British soldier remained a Loyalist, traveled north to the Lake Winnipeg area, and wintered at Fort Dauphin in what is now Manitoba. From there he penetrated to the Upper Saskatchewan in Alberta, and became friendly with the Blackfoot and Cree. Three years later he had penetrated Lake Athabasca. Some of the Saskatchewan traders had found one summer that they had trade goods to spare. They pooled their resources in five large canoes and put them under the management of Peter Pond with orders to enter the English River (now the Churchill) and “penetrate into the “A, tho, pus, cow [Athabasca]” country as far as he could possibly go and stay the winter.
At this time he was a rival of the Montreal trader’s cooperative group headed by the Frobishers and Simon McTavish, the beginnings of the later powerful Northwest Company. The old Hudson’s Bay Company charter granted them sole rights in all the land draining into Hudson’s Bay, but they had not been establishing their proprietorship for over hundred years. Meanwhile coureurs de boisand French adventurers like Verendrye and Pond had invaded the Saskatchewan River and Churchill River valleys, and stopped the Indians from going to the Bay to trade.
The company began to feed the pinch. They awakened from their dreams of all furs and no work.
The free traders had the advantage. Since they were self-employed and not under orders like the Bay men who had instructions to pay only specified amounts for furs, they could make any deal they liked with the Indians. They were more generous with the rum, which the pious shareholders in England frowned upon for Indians (wisely as it appeared later). The free traders could choose their own trade goods according to what the Indians fancied, not what was considered by men thousands of miles away to be good for them. What was more, the Montreal traders always made a little party with well-watered rum and trade tobacco before the barter began. It was called a regale. The Indians liked that and they certainly liked Peter Pond.
To fight such opposition the Bay men, at long last, were told to get off their well-cushioned office chairs and establish inland forts. The first was Cumberland House in 1774 on the Saskatchewan River not far south of where Flin Flon, Manitoba, is today. A new fort was built in 1777. In May 1778 the master of Cumberland House, Tomison, reported in his journal that Peter Pond with five canoes of goods had gone past on his way to the “Atho, pass, cow” country. Two years previously a man named Primo had approached it. The Frobisher brothers sent him. Where he entered or where he operated is not recorded, but word of the richness of the area had leaked out. Tomison was unaware that a history-making event was about to happen that would shake his company, the Bay, all the way to London.
When the ice went out of the rivers in early spring, the Hudson’s Bay traders started for the Bay with their furs; the Montreal group started for the Grand Portage headquarters on Lake Superior. In late summer they would return. In the interval, Pond slipped past the Bay’s fort, and advanced up the terribly difficult Sturgeon-Weir River, then into the Churchill, which is really a series of lakes separated by dangerous rapids. Then he moved up the Methye River, swift and treacherous because of shallows and ledges that required hours of lining or poling the canoes up the Lac La Loche. A small winding creek leads to a low sandy ridge, then a small lake, and a pleasant place to rest. Pond pushed on, for the Indians had told him of another big river, which could be reached by a tributary only four miles away, the Clearwater. Pond finished the portage, to become the first white man known to have crossed from the Hudson’s Bay watershed to the Arctic river system of which the Athabasca and Peace Rivers are a part.
Down the Athabasca he went, in fast water, but with no serious problems. At a place later called McMurray, Pond was the first white man to see the famous Athabasca tar sands. Why he stopped about forty miles above Lake Athabasca is not known, but he did, and there constructed Pond’s House, the first white man’s house in the Peace River Country.
Word got around among Indians that a man had brought to them the trade goods that they had formerly obtained from their hostile Cree neighbors. The Chipewyan Indians, speaking a different tongue, flocked into trade. The furs were the finest ever seen, glossy and abundant and cold winters made for thick pelts. Before the winter was over Pond had more furs than he had voyageurs and canoes to carry, and he had even traded away the clothes on his back.
During that winter in Pond’s house we can be sure of one thing–he was questioning the Indians about the lay of the land and the course of the waterways. Ever since he had entered the fur trade he had been driven by an ambition to find a way to the Pacific, to build a great fort there, and to trade with China and Russia. Any Indian who could be induced to tell him what lay beyond would be given an extra prize. Pond kept notes on bits of birch bark, or copied maps traced with a finger in the sand. In his camp he would transfer the information to a map. With so little education, and such poor instruments it is remarkable how nearly correct some of his maps were. For many years, they were the best obtainable, and were actually consulted when establishing the International boundary.
Pond’s House was for more than ten years the headquarters of his operations. So prosperous had Pond become, after his second trip to Pond’s House to bring out the furs that he had to leave after that first winter, that the Frobishers and other Montreal companies wanted him as a partner rather than a competitor. He became a full-fledged shareholder, and entitled to part of all the Company profits.
He was called “Old Peter Pond now, being all of forty-nine.” That was “Old” in the fur trade, one of the most grueling of occupations. Hours at the paddle and in the icy waters, exposure to cold, poor food, and sometimes near starvation, carrying 200 pound loads of trade goods, and the canoes over portages, the ever-present risk of injury and drowning, made men old before their time. Pond seems not to have made the hard journey to Pond’s House for some years.
In 1781 he was at post at Lac la Ronge. The Gregory-McLeod Company, always bitter rivals of the original “Nor’westers,” showed up in the person of a Swiss trader named Etienne Waden, who was building a log house nearby. Pond had got along well enough with the Hudson’s Bay people who had begun to move in. After all, it was their territory and he was the intruder. He tried to get along with Waden, too, but he could not entirely forget that it was he, Pond, who had discovered this area, and opened it up for trade.
At first another white man was welcome in the lonely post, but they quarreled. Either Pond or one of his men fired a short. Waden was hit and died shortly after. Pond had to stand trial in Montreal but was acquitted.
In 1785, in Montreal, he read the account of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery and mapping on the West Coast of British Columbia, and Cook’s conclusions that there was a way to get inland. Such a way would enable Pond to reach the Pacific where the trade in the “sea beaver” (sea otter) could be added to the northern beaver. It would be good business! Two thousand five hundred and fifty-two skins obtained on the west coast for sixpence each from the Nootka Indians had sold in China for $54,857. That was a gain of over 20,000 percent. It sounds incredible but figure it out for yourself at six-pence being worth about 10 1/2 cents! Since really prime skins had sold at $120 each rather than $21.50 on the average, the lure of the China trade was understandable. To the maps of the Northwest that he knew, Pond added his new knowledge, and made some very shrewd guesses about a way to get from the Athabasca country to the Pacific. He returned to Pond’s House. Just at that time Alexander Mackenzie finished his apprenticeship with Gregory-Clark, and became a free trader himself.
After his return to Pond’s House in 1786 he went on down the Athabasca River, crossed the end of Lake Athabasca and passed down the Great Slave River to Great Slave Lake. George Woodcock in his book The Hudson’s Bay Company records that Pond had established Fort Resolution there in 1786. To get there he or his agents Cuthbert Grant and Leroux had to pass the mouth of Peace River where it joins the Great Slave River some miles beyond Lake Athabasca. However, as the Peace peters out in a great swamp now famous as the Athabasca delta, (although it is on neither the Athabasca River nor Lake) he might not have recognized it as a separate stream. Nobody is ever likely to know whether he made the short side trip to the Peace River. If he did, the record went to kindle a kitchen fire years later when part of his journal was burned. He should have been the first white man to see the Peace, unless a story told by the late Mr. Alan Robinson of Bear Flat gives a clue to someone much earlier than he. Perhaps a party of coureurs de bois had ascended it, and its tributary, the Halfway, very much earlier, and had to stay over winter. On a survey party, Mr. Robinson said, far up the Halfway after World War I he had discovered the remains of a large log building completely rotted into wood dust with no sign of charcoal to indicate a fire. The building would almost certainly have been older than any known explorer’s to have reached such a stage of decay. Coureurs de bois left no records.
During the next year or so the Detroiters, Gregory-McLeod, followed him again, this time under the man John Ross. This was not to be tolerated! Ross had more rum and trade goods than Pond. He began to debauch the Indians, who traded where the rum was. Besides, Ross carried a grudge against Pond, because Pond had been admitted as a full partner in the Northwest Company, and Ross had been refused. Ross seems to have been an insufferable man–or maybe Pond was getting old and cranky after his long years of hard work. Tempers flared. There was scuffle between two of Pond’s men and Ross. Ross was shot and killed.
Two episodes of bloodshed were too much! It was there that the Northwest Company offered generous terms to the Gregory-McLeod Company and took them in as partners. Alex and Roderick Mackenzie came into the Northwest Company with the deal and Mackenzie was sent to the farthest outpost to relieve Pond, who was again to be tried — and acquitted. He seems never to have come back north again.
Between Mackenzie’s arrival in the fall and Pond’s departure in the spring two seem to have got along well. It could have been a disastrous situation for the very young new master, taking the superior position over the experienced old hand. Mackenzie was aristocratic, literate, precise and careful in all his work. Pond was rough, illiterate, careless. Probably each read, the other’s temper — fiery Highlander and violent Yankee –and like two dogs that take each other’s measure and decline to make an issue of which is to be top-dog, retreated from each other in dignity. It speaks well for young Mackenzie’s tact that the older man liked and accepted him.
The old man showed Mackenzie his maps and around the roaring log fire he told his tales. If he could spin a good one in his laboured writing, doubtless his oral ones were more exciting. At any rate, during the winter Alexander made a surprise snowshoe trip of three hundred miles to Ile-a-la-Crosse where his cousin Roderick was a clerk. He confided to Roderick the gossip that Pond was “preparing a fine map to lay before the Empress of Russia”, so sure was Pond of reaching the Pacific and commerce with Russia. Truly a man of large dreams! Alex also confided some of his own “intentions” under great secrecy. Undoubtedly they included a trip to the Pacific, perhaps (as hinted by Thomas Bredin, in his book From Sea to Sea – Alexander Mackenzie) he plotted to grab Pond’s territory for himself. He wanted Roderick to come north to help him. At this time Roderick refused.
There must have been some intrigue at Grand Portage the next summer when Alexander’s brigade took the winter’s catch there. Roderick was on hand also. Pond had to be transferred. Alexander had to arrange to be posted back to Athabasca. As well, he must raise money for trade goods, and get permission to leave his post for a summer run to sea. Only if Roderick would take his place in the Athabasca country would the other partners agree. Finally it was arranged. Roderick agreed.
Pond did not rest on his explorations or his maps, impressive as those were. Probably that is as well, for Pond was not above revising his maps to feature the idea most likely to impress whomever he was submitting them to, but he hoped that the Pacific was as close as Pond represented. Probably in his army days when he was a lad, Pond had been impressed by the manner in which an army handles supplies by assembling things at supply depots where they could be picked up as the troops advanced. Instead of carrying pemmican and other foods all the way from Lake Superior to the Rockies as the other traders did at the expense of trade goods and furs, he recognized the need to have supply depots or caches at strategic places along the way. His years with the Blackfoot and Crees on the prairies, where the Indians highly respected him, now came in good stead. The buffalo were still there. Pemmican could be made and carried to the supply depots and be traded by the Indians for the rum, guns and goods they coveted, although furs were less plentiful and less long and glossy. Pond, the uneducated, seems to have spent his last days as a trade organizer and in writing of his exploits. It is fitting that his career should have been commemorated in the naming of an office building in Edmonton, Peter Pond House, although those who do not know the historical significance have now changed it.
No record of his death has shown up in this biographer’s research on this visionary, but violent man. When Alexander Mackenzie reached Grand Portage with the news that Pond’s river led to the frozen Arctic and not the Pacific, Peter Pond was brokenhearted.
How could his calculations have been so wrong? He quit the fur trade, sold his share in the Northwest Company to William McGillivray for only £ 800 (about $4000) returned to his native United States and took employment with the government.
It has been said that he served the American government well when, although he knew better, he represented the great interior plains as worthless, and so the British allowed the International boundary to be fixed at the 49th Parallel. Thus a large part of the mid-western United States was lost to Canada, although David Thompson had explored and mapped it.
Recent research questions the old assertion that Pond was the first white man to stand on Lake Athabasca shores. E.E. Rich, in his History of the Hudson’s Bay Company says that a Hudson’s Bay man named Isham spent the winter, of 1777-78 tenting near the “Pedlar’s Post” on “Beaver Lake and Athabasca.” In 1785 Pond sent Cuthbert Grant and Laurent Leroux to establish a post on Great Slave Lakes afterwards known as “Fort Resolution” and another still further North on the Lake, a post afterwards called Fort Providence.
Now enters a report that has gained little publicity. A historian named Woolacott has written that when the Northwesters reached Great Slave Lake in 1786 they found there a family of French Canadian descent by the name of Beaulieu. Thus it would appear that some French voyageur or coureurs de bois had long preceded Pond.
Whether or not Pond or Beaulieu first saw the Peace, one thing seems to be certain – the Beaulieus are the “first family” of Metis recorded to this date in Peace River history.