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North to Athabasca!

For the Week of Monday, September 25, 2017

On October 1, 1775, Peter Pond and his fur trading partners and voyageurs reached the mouth of the Saskatchewan River where they began challenging the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) by trading with Indigenous fur-suppliers to the northwest. In 1778, Pond and his men crossed Methye Portage, opening direct trade with Indigenous peoples in the Athabasca country.

Pond’s 1778-79 expedition used Methye Portage (Portage La Loche), pictured above by Sir George Back on July 16, 1825. It was the main route into the Athabasca country until the 1880s, when the recently established Athabasca Landing Trail replaced it
Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1955-102-25 / MIKAN no. 2833809

Pond was born in Milford, Connecticut, ca. 1739/40. As a young man, he fought in the Seven Years’ War, and worked for a period as a merchant sailor, before becoming a fur trader in 1765. After a decade of trading in the Mississippi River and Great Lakes regions he joined Thomas and Joseph Frobisher, and Alexander Henry (The Elder), in expanding operations beyond Lake Winnipeg into the Saskatchewan Valley.

In 1778-79, Pond led the first Euro-Canadian trading expedition to enter the fur-rich Athabasca watershed, establishing a base on the Athabasca River, where he intercepted Cree and Dene bands who had intended to trade with the HBC. They sold him more furs than his canoes could carry. They also introduced him to pemmican, a mixture of dried meat and fat which would later fuel the fur trade just as it had fed Indigenous travelers for centuries. In the 1780s, Pond became a member of the North West Company (NWC) and his Athabasca base was a key part of their challenge to the HBC.

Pond extended trade into Lake Athabasca and onward to the Peace and Slave Rivers (though he failed to realize they were two different rivers). He likely explored parts of the Slave River (pictured above) in the southern portion of what is today Wood Buffalo National Park
Bergeron, J.F./ENVIROFOTO © Parks Canada

In 1787-88, Pond spent his last winter as a fur trader on the Athabasca mentoring his replacement, Alexander Mackenzie. Using maps that Pond and his Indigenous informants prepared, Mackenzie led the first European expeditions to reach both the Arctic and the Pacific oceans. Pond’s maps described most of the area’s major features and served Mackenzie well. Pond sold his NWC stock in 1790 and eventually returned to Milford, where he died in 1807.

Peter Pond, Thomas and Joseph Frobisher, Alexander Henry (The Elder), and Sir Alexander Mackenzie are designated national historic persons and Pond’s crossing of Methye Portage is a national historic event. To learn more about the fur trade and Canada’s Northwest read "Good Fire" and "Bad Fire" Cross the Mountains, Battle of Seven Oaks, and Get Walking! Franklin Crosses the Methye Portage in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore #Canada 150!

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