Everyday Life in the Fur Trade

  • Barbara Belyea
    Peter Fidler: From York Factory to the Rocky Mountains. University Press of Colorado (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jean Barman

In writing Iroquois in the West, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2019, I drew extensively on historically contemporary accounts. None was more revealing of Iroquois everyday life in the fur trade than Peter Fidler’s descriptions of their encounters with local Indigenous peoples in 1802, in what is now Saskatchewan. I came upon Fidler’s account in Alice Johnson’s finely edited Saskatchewan Journals and Correspondence of Peter Fidler, 1795-1802, published in 1967.

In consequence it is a special pleasure to welcome, half a century later, Barbara Belyea’s finely edited collection of the journals of the talented Peter Fidler for 1790 and 1792-1793, as he was beginning his career in the North American fur trade. As set out in Belyea’s introduction and commentaries, Fidler brought to his position as a journal writer and as a cartographer with the Hudson’s Bay Company both practical skills and an intelligent, clearheaded approach to what he observed, surveyed, sketched, mapped, and wrote about. Fidler’s daily entries sometimes contain maps, technical measurements, and descriptions, which are included in the published edition.

Peter Fidler copied detailed daily entries into notebooks, two of which are reproduced in Peter Fidler: from York Factory to the Rocky Mountains. Along with records of the ordinary business of travel, daily entries are wide ranging, including descriptions of encounters with local Indigenous peoples and of the natural world from plants to the everyday lives of buffalo. As we read along, it is almost as if we are there, such was Peter Fidler’s talent with words and descriptions:

10th Monday—Light Breezes at ENE with a continual rain ’till 3pm, & at 4PM 4 Canoes more Embarked for the upper settlements. Inds Drnkg. It is a general rule, that every spring & fall when the Head Master passes here, the Indians all meet; as they always expect a treat of Liquor at those times particularly if they have been industrious in killing furs in the Winter.

This short entry in Fidler’s first journal for September 10, 1792, is illustrative of so much about history—the density, complexity, and seeming inconsequence of its raw materials, the insights those materials offer into ordinary existence and into the larger trends or developments in the past, and—perhaps most of all—the pitfalls scholars face when undertaking interpretation of single entries and of their significance.

In 1792 Peter Fidler was young, in his early twenties, born near Bolsover, England, and contracted by the Hudson’s Bay Company for four years, initially as a labourer, but acquiring soon after his arrival in North America the duties (if not the title) of a writer or clerk. He also possessed skills as a surveyor, possibly gained during service at sea, which were indispensable for collecting the data needed for the creation of maps. In September 1790, Fidler began three years of almost constant travel that took him into the heart of the fur country, reaching as far west as the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The present book is a transcription, with an introduction and copious annotations, of the two daily journals Fidler kept, the first of his travel from York Fort to Buckingham House running from July to October 1792 and the second of his sojourn among the Peigan, now Piikani, people from November 1792 to March 1793.

The entries for the 213 days recorded in the two journals are the raw materials of history—some being just a line or two of text (September 5), and others covering several pages (December 31). The content, succinctly recorded, is often both monotonous and repetitious in subject: the weather, geographical features, conditions of travel, with human beings occasionally appearing (more so in the second journal). The life described is no less monotonous and repetitious, not to mention exhausting and challenging—day after day of slog work. The entries leave the reader with a deep admiration for Peter Fidler’s persistence, self-command, and attention to duty.

The same admiration must be felt for the editor, Barbara Belyea, a retired professor at the University of Calgary, for her devotion to the long and demanding task of transcription and annotation. Belyea’s care and thoroughness is attested by the length of the annotations that, with the introduction, amount in length to twice that of the journals themselves. Fidler’s two journals have interest and utility for more than historians of the fur trade. Anyone who is an explorer of sorts—a walker, hiker, canoer, or outdoorsperson—will find the text comforting, and possibly a model for their own jottings, given the evocative word descriptions of physical features and of everyday life complemented by the hand drawn maps.

This review “Everyday Life in the Fur Trade” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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