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Caesars of the Wilderness by Peter C. Newman
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182498,196 (4.07)4



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The Story of the Hudson Bay Company.

This was a part of history unfamiliar to me - Canadian voyagers and the fur trade.

I liked the statement:

No voyageur ever reported meeting a small bear, a tame moose or a wolf that wasn't snarling with blood lust.

I learned about interesting people:

George Simpson - he may have been the model of the hero of Jules Verne's around the world in eighty days.

John Rowan - on one occasion when surrounded by 200 Blackfoot on the war path he marched up to the chef and roared "Stop you villain!" then turned his back and returned to his meal. Recognizing his opponent the chef not only called of the raiding party but was so abject in his apology that according to Colin Fraser many Indians "actually cried in vexation. ( )
  nx74defiant | Feb 4, 2017 |
My reactions to reading this in 1994.

Didn’t find this book as interesting as the first volume in the series.

It mainly covers the career of the penurious, womanizing, profit-obsessed, hard driving career of George Simpson, Governor of HBC for almost forty years (1821-1860). Simpson, says Newman, was ideally suited for the HBC at that time and made it profitable. In his time, the HBC holdings went from Hudson Bay to trading posts on Hawaii. He was hard working; his only pleasure seems to have been the lightening-fast canoe trips, undertaken to catch is subordinates off guards, he took throughout his commercial empire. The canoes were propelled by special squads of Indian rowers. He concerned himself with many petty details and kept a “Character Book” where he recorded his impressions (good and bad) of his underlings.

Other personalities of note in the book are intrepid HBC explorers Simon Fraser and Alexander Mackenzie who explored the rivers bearing their names, John McLaughlin – the “Father of the Oregon” – who was treated badly by his HBC superiors and the American settlers he helped and who bitterly remarked at the end of his life that it would have been better if he would have been shot 40 years early. (Newman talks about HBC fears – and until 1870, as this book makes clear, HBC controlled much of Canada – that the American’s would encroach on their “claims”.) Lord Selkirk’s life not only had historical interest for his attempt to found a quasi-utopia community of displaced Scottish crofters and for the fact that John Paul Jones tried to take him hostage during the Revolutionary War (Jones believed himself to be the unacknowledged bastard of Selkirk), but he also had a personal interest in the land grant given Selkirk by the HBC since it covers an area straddling the US (North Dakota and Minnesota)-Canada border. Swiss settlers recruited by Selkirk (with the promise of growing citrus fruit in Canada) moved to Ft. Snelling, Minnesota.

Selkirk’s project got caught up with the voyageurs (Newman has a nice chapter on their life, culture, and ethics) dispute with the HBC. It was a fierce commercial rivalry. The Nor’westers were more innovative, aggressive, and – through a complex net of intermarriage with Indians aka “country wives” – better positioned socially (though they tended to cheat the Indians more) to develop the fur trade. However, the HBC had two great advantages: patience and its very important staging area in Hudson Bay which enabled it to penetrate far into Canada by nautical transportation as opposed to the NWC’s (North Western Company) vast canoe trips via river (Newman points out that Canada is amazingly navigable by canoe.) However, the HBC eventually forced the NWC into a merger but not before a nasty shooting war between the two companies (which Selkirk got caught up in when the NWC allies, the Metís, killed some settlers).

The Metís where a true half-breed culture not only genetically (the products of matings between trappers and country wives) but culturally with the Creóle French language, settled ways and European tools as well as seasonal buffalo hunt. Newman also talks about, as in the first volume, the significance of country marriages. Some men abandoned their country wives when they gave up trapping. Others, even though they married Indians for sexual comfort and business connections, came to love their wives and brought them to their American or Canadian homes.

Newman also addressed the bad effects of the liquor-fur trade plied aggressively by both NWC and HBC. He briefly covers the dispute over whether Indians have a weakness for alcohol, either cultural (a tradition of drug influence negating personal responsibility and being a way to contact the spirit world) or genetic (or, indeed, if Caucasians have a peculiar -- relative to other races -- tolerance for alcohol) or not. Newman also brings up the pain and social havoc suffered by both white and Indian women when it no longer was acceptable to have – or acknowledge a former – country wife. (Frances Simpson, George Simpson’s wife, was pained to learn of his Indian lovers.) This book also shows the political and commercial grip the HBC had on much of Canada and why, in some quarters, it is still hated today. ( )
  RandyStafford | Apr 16, 2013 |
A readable book on the early history of Canada. ( )
  charlie68 | Jun 24, 2011 |
One of the best accounts of the early history of Canada as shaped by "The Bay". ( )
  Knud | Aug 7, 2007 |
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Shaping the destiny of Canada, the merchant founders of the Hudson's Bay Company tamed the wilderness as they built the world's largest private commerical empire. A brilliant story chronicling the unsung heroes of North American history.

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