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Manitoba History: Review: Richard I. Ruggles, A Country So Interesting: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Two Centuries of Mapping, 1670-1870

by Graham A. MacDonald
Canadian Parks Service, Calgary

Number 22, Autumn 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Richard I. Ruggles, A Country So Interesting: The Hudson’s Bay Company and Two Centuries of Mapping, 1670-1870. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University press, 1991. Maps, Bib. 300 pp. ISBN 0-7735-0678-0.

Readers who enjoyed the Historical Atlas of Manitoba, published in 1970 by the Manitoba Historical Society, will take great pleasure in the volume here under review, prepared by one of the co-authors of the 1970 volume. A Country So Interesting has been in preparation since the 1950s and it will stand as an indispensable reference and aid to all who are interested in fur trade history and the history of Canadian cartography. As the author aptly points out, the “Hudson’s Bay Company was our first national mapping agency.” While a large number of authors and scholars have investigated specific aspects and personalities associated with the great Company’s survey activities, the current volume fills a definite void as a general reference work, for previously “only the tip of the iceberg” of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s exploratory and mapping program had been revealed, and little had been said “about the scope and character of its map documents.”

A Country So Interesting is arranged in five major sections. Part 1 is composed of an Introduction and four chapters, and these review the more general history of Hudson’s Bay Company policy towards cartography and survey; the relationship of Company field data to map makers in Europe; the technology and methods available to the fur company surveyors; and finally the manner in which the London Committee commissioned, reviewedand employed new maps from Rupert’s Land. Along the way, Ruggles sorts out certain confusions which have crept into the archival record with respect to authorship. Hence, he contends that some maps attributed to Andrew Graham were more likely the work of Samuel Hearne (p. 42).

Ruggles draws attention to the important role played in the altering of mid-eighteenth century Company policy by some relatively obscure figures such as Samuel Wegg, whose family had been associated with the Company since 1697. Wegg became a stockholder in 1748, just in the midst of the Dobb’s affair, and gained greater and greater prominence, eventually becoming Governor between 1782 and 1799. He was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1753 and, in keeping with the mounting importance of the explorations being undertaken by British seamen in the last half of the century, Wegg strongly promoted the causes of science and geographical information throughout the Company workforce. It was largely through his advocacy that Prince of Wales Fort was employed as a station by William Wales and Joseph Dymond for the observation of the famous transit of Venus of 1769. Thus, in Ruggles words “it was during the period when Wegg was a senior official in the Hudson’s Bay Company, and wielding great influence in the Royal Society that the secretive atmosphere of the company gradually dissipated” (p. 5). This is not to say that in the pre-1750 situation the Company was entirely hostile towards an involvement in the extension of geographical knowledge. In Chapter Five the reader will gain a renewed appreciation for the creativity of James Knight and his attempts to piece together the character of the vast landscape west of Hudson’s Bay, along with the possibilities of a north-west passage. The author, here as elsewhere in the book, documents the contribution of Native map-makers and informants to the progress Knight made in charting terra incognita.
The ten chapters in part II are arranged along chronological lines, each dealing with regional and topical aspects of Company cartography, often providing rich detail on the personalities involved. Chapter Five, focusing on the period 1669 to about 1730, indicates, as might be expected, that most of the maps produced in these decades were mainly of a nautical nature when aids to navigation were pressingly sought. In Chapter Eight, entitled “Mapping Inland From the Bay and Over to Athabasca, 1778-1794,” we come to appreciate the achievements of Philip Tumor, one of the better known Company cartographers. When Philip Tumor arrived at York Fort on the autumn ship in 1778, the need for trading posts farther west of Cumberland House, up the Saskatchewan River was being discussed. The London Committee had finally decided to push inland from the Bay in a much more aggressive manner and between 1778 and 1794 Tumor was to be in the forefront of many inland probes ranging all the way from the country south of Moose Fort up to the Athabasca country.

The narratives provided in Part II tend to be titled and internally sub-divided in a way reflective of the author’s main assumptions about HBC cartography: that it was a highly pragmatic and unsystematic series of achievements, born of short-term necessity or long-term business strategies. The degree to which the Company trained individuals on the spot for survey work, as a matter of course, rather than obtaining professionally trained surveyors, provides one of the strongest hallmarks of that pragmatic policy. Tumor’s formal credentials are the exception which prove the rule. The most systematic aspect of the Company’s policy may well have been the somewhat regular way it went about recruiting young men with a potential for surveying aptitude from the charity schools such as the Grey Coat Hospital, and the Blue Coat Hospital. The latter was first granted letters patent in 1553 by Edward VI and its mathematical school was endowed by Charles II in 1673. Queen Anne continued the patronage of the schools.

Ruggles gives extensive coverage to other Company surveyors, some well known, such as Hearne and his famous student, David Thompson, (a graduate of the Grey Coat Hospital), and others less well known such as James Clouston, Joseph Howse and the wide-ranging Peter Fidler who by the early 1800’s had documented lands well south of the Alberta border. Much of his work on the southern plains was a collaborative effort with Natives such as the Blackfoot Ak ko mok ki and Ak ko wee ak. The Ak ko mok ki map, which has already gained scholarly notice by geographers, is reproduced in plate 19. Chapter twelve moves us towards the end of the Company tenure and deals specifically with the contribution of Joseph Despard Pemberton, whose survey work on the west coast between 1849 and 1859 dealt mainly with the delineation of property, as well as with mining and land claims questions. Ruggles observes about this final far-western phase that the Company had “assumed the novel role of colonial agent” (p. 110).

The narratives in Part I and II are keyed to Parts III, IV and V which compose a selection of maps from the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives; a comprehensive Catalogue of all the maps located by the author; and a series of special appendices. The maps reproduced in Part III have been selected for their clarity, representativeness and content value. While some of the maps reproduced will be familiar to students of the fur trade, many appear for the first time. The Catalogue of Maps provided in Part IV is particularly useful, especially for the reader seeking a quick reference to the maps produced in a given year, for the catalogue is arranged on a chronological plan. For example, for the year 1846, sixteen maps are listed sequentially, providing the name of the cartographer, the map size, scale, record location in the Archives, and a reference to the pages in the text where it is discussed. Among the appendices in Part V, numbers 9 and 10 will be of special interest for they list all that the author has been able to discover about original Native contributions to the cartography of the period. Similarly, the 1774 map, prepared probably jointly by William Falconer and Andrew Graham, and reproduced here, is of considerable interest to students of Native history, for it is the first to delineate a European impression of traditional Native territories west of Hudson Bay.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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