Peter Pond, a larger-than-life voyageur, is responsible for the deaths of three men. Death wasn’t uncommon back then, but murder was rare. And three of them?
On the credit side:
- Pond is one of the founders — the only American — of the North West Companywhich organized voyageur expeditions to successfully compete against the Hudson’s Bay Company.
- He helped negotiate a 10-year peace between Ojibwe and Dakota nations.
- He recognized that pemmican was the perfect voyageur food commodity to allow them to travel long distances.
- He explored the far reaches of northern Canada and constructed accurate maps of the area. (At that time, finding the Northwest Passage across North America was still dreamed of so Europe could ship goods directly to Asia.)
Soldier, sailor, trader…
We know about Pond’s early life through his writing, found in “Five Fur Traders of the Northwest;” his account, “Being the Narrative of Peter Pond,” is first of the five.
Born in 1740 in Connecticut, Pond enlisted at 16 as a soldier in the French and Indian wars. At 21, he tried seafaring. Upon his mother’s death, he took charge of his younger siblings for 3 years. And then he entered the fur trade in Detroit, Michigan, for 6 years.
One incident near the end of that time ended badly — the first man died in a duel.
In Pond’s own words (and spellings):
“… it Hapened that a parson who was in the trade himSilf to Abuese me in a Shamefull manner Knowing that if I Resontd he Could Shake me in Peaceis at the same tim Supposeing that I Dair not Sea him at the Pints or at Leas I would not But the Abuse was two Grate we met the Next Morning Eairley and Discharged Pistels in which the Pore fellow was unfortennt I then Came Doan the Cuntrey & Declard the fact But thare was none to Prosacute me …”
In 1771, about age 31, he began a partnership to trade with the Menominees, the Winnebagos, the Foxes, the Sauks, and, after a resupply at Prairie du Chien, up the Mississippi to St. Peter’s River (Minnesota River, nowadays).
Here’s Pond’s description of life is southern Minnesota, where he wintered twice:
“…On acount of the fase of the Cuntry & Soile the Entervales of the River St Peter is Excaland & Sum Good timber the Banks Bend the Intervals are High and the Soile thin & lite the River is Destatute of fish But the Woods & Meaddoues affords abundans of annamels Sum turkeas Buffeloes are Verey Plentey the Common Dear are Plentey and Larg the Read & Moose Dear are Plentey hear Esesly (especially) the former I have sean fortey Kild in One Our By Surrounding a Drove on a Low Spot By the River side in the Winter season, Raccoons are Verey Large, no Snakes But Small ones which is not Pisenes Woolves are Plentey thay follow the Buffeloes and often Destroy thare young & Olde Ones in winter…”
When the Dakota and Ojibwe threatened war, six wampum belts were made to request a peace, imploring them to keep to “their side” of the Mississippi. Pond was asked to carry the three belts to Prairie du Chien and assemble Sioux chiefs to explain them. Eleven chiefs followed him to a grand council in Michilimackinac — and a decade of peace ensued.
His account ends with his notes about the culture of various Dakota groups that he traded with, including the Yanktons. Pond was the first white person they’d ever seen.
The other events of his life are told through the writings of others, as most of his journal was destroyed accidentally.
Explorer of the far north
The winters 1776-1778 he wintered at the junction of the Sturgeon and North Saskatchewan Rivers. At the next rendezvous, he brought 140 packs of beaver, about 8,400 pelts. He was licensed for 4 canoes in 1780. One year he took in so many pelts he couldn’t carry them all back — many had to be cached for later retrieval.
The second death
During 1781-82, he wintered in Saskatoon. An intense rivalry developed between him and a trader for another company, Jean-Etienne Waddens. In March they fought — Waddens was shot and mortally wounded, perhaps by Pond, or his clerk. Pond was examined but the case occurred beyond the jurisdiction of Quebec’s legal system and dismissed.
A founder of the North West Company
Over the years he had become acquainted with all the major players of the fur trade: Alexander Henry the elder, Simon McTavish and three Frobisher brothers — Thomas, Benjamin and Joseph. In 1784, the group organized into the North West Company and secured a trade that Hudson’s Bay Company could not divert.
Pond’s ambition and organization were admired — but he was regarded with suspicion, both for the murder and for his American background and loyalty.
Winters he continued exploring and trading. Pond explored Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake and their tributaries, keeping notes and diaries. During the winter of 1784-85, he drew a map of lakes and rivers from the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay westward to the Rocky Mountains, northward to the Arctic Ocean.
He recognized that the Mississippi River did not extend up north of the Boundary Lakes between Minnesota and Manitoba.
The third death
But competition with other traders was continuing to ramp up.
Assigned to the Peace River in 1786-87, the competition between him and rival trader John Ross became severe and Ross was shot in a scuffle. It was determined that Ross had been shot by Pond’s men, at his order. In a Quebec trial, Pond’s men were acquitted. Pond left the north country that spring, never to return. The deaths of Waddens and Ross led to his forced retirement.
He was replaced by Alexander Mackenzie, who built his career on Pond’s geographical discoveries. The map so inspired Mackenzie to further explore that area, and name the Mackenzie River after himself.
Pond left the NWC in 1788 and and returned to the U.S., selling his shares back to the company in 1790.
Hoping for financial support to continue exploring North America, he sent maps and reports to the U.S. Congress, the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec and the empress of Russia. No one sent funds.
In 1792, the American Secretary of War instructed “Captain” Peter Pond to go to Niagara and Detroit to seek peace from warring tribes — it is unknown whether he went or not.
About the journal
Living in Connecticut, he wrote his account for publication, about age 60. The greatest part of it was accidentally destroyed — as waste paper. Though he had amassed great wealth, Pond died in poverty in 1807.
Murderer, explorer, mapmaker, peace-keeper. There’s a wide variety in that life, and not easily characterized. Would I like to meet him? Yes, even with his anger management issues.
The map Andre studied at the rendezvous in “Treacherous Waters” was drawn by Peter Pond, who was long gone by the time Andre arrived. But Joseph might have known of him.
- Hear more about Pond’s life — come to my presentation (“The Fur Trade and Why it Matters to Us Now”) from 9:30-11:30 a.m. April 9 at Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud ($5) — a costumed Dan Henning will portray him.
Read another voyageur tale — buy a paperback of “Treacherous Waters” through PayPal. Or the ebook.
Ask your local bookstore to stock copies.
Got a question? I’ll research the answers for a future post.
“Five Fur Traders of the Northwest: Being the Narrative of Peter Pond…”, edited by C.M Gates. Minnesota Historical Society (St. Paul, 1965)
Directory of Canadian Biography: Peter Pond
Wikipedia: 1785 map by Peter Pond