Battle for the West: Fur Traders and the Birth of Western Canada
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
T.D. Regehr is a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan and
author of The Beauharnois Scandal: A Story of Entrepreneurship and
Popular historians often focus on one or several colourful individuals and try to portray an entire age or society simply by retailing anecdotal material about their chosen heroes. Daniel Francis is one such historian. Battle for the West begins with a chapter on Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye who, together with his family, opened up the western fur trade. The stage on which La Verendrye performs is provided with some suitable props, but in chapter one of Battle for the West La Verendrye is the principal actor and hero. When he leaves the scene, there is a transitional chapter on the pedlars from Montreal, followed by more intimate portrayals of Alexander Mackenzie and William McGillivray. After the 1821 merger of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, sketches of David Thompson, Peter Pond, and John McLoughlin are used to tell the story of the fur trade in British Columbia, the Athabaska country, and the Oregon Territory, respectively. The main policies of the Hudson’s Bay Company are represented through portraits of George Simpson before 1862 and Edward Watkin after that date.
In his introduction the author promises to use some of the newer research, particularly that relating to the Indians and to women in the fur trade. In fact, aside from a few anecdotes, he fails to deliver much that is new. This is traditional fur trade history, simplified and distorted by the author’s preoccupation with only a few of the major figures in the trade. Even these major figures, however, are not portrayed clearly or convincingly. Stories of Alexander Mackenzie and William McGillivray spending a youthful night drinking and carousing, or of the precise arrangement of the bodies after one of La Verendreye’s parties was murdered by the Indians, may be titillating but not necessarily very enlightening about the underlying dynamics of the fur trade. The publisher’s note suggests that Francis’s subjects come alive “as they never have in previous books.” That is simply not true. Almost all the journals and biographies from which Francis has taken his anecdotes do a better job of bringing these people to life.
This, in short, is pop history of a very dubious sort. Those who envy the Americans their Davey Crockett legends and wish to read similarly colourful anecdotal material about major figures in the western Canadian fur trade, unencumbered by academic analysis, will enjoy the book. Those looking for a sound, easy-to-read, popular-style, non-academic book on the fur trade may find this book interesting, but those really familiar with the history of the fur trade will be disappointed. They would do better to read A.S. Morton’s Under Western Skies, Being a Series of Pen Pictures of the Canadian West in Early Fur Trade Times, published in 1937 by T. Nelson & Sons.