Peter Fidler, 1769-1822

by Ross Mitchell MD

Manitoba Pageant, April 1963, Volume 8, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant 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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Not long ago the writer received a letter from Dr. George Walton of Regina who served as Medical Officer under the Ministry of Railways at York Factory and Churchill during the building of the Hudson Bay Railway. The pertinent paragraphs read:

I am sending along another and much more valuable book Lexicon Physico - Medicum or A New Medical Dictionary by John Quincy M.D., The Fourth Edition with new Improvements from the latest Chymical and Mechanical Authors, London, 1730.

On the flyleaf of this is the signature of P. Fidler, 1797. Peter Fidler was, of course, Surveyor to the Hudson's Bay Company. This had been in the old library of York Factory for many years.

This book was given to me in the early autumn of 1931 by my old friend Christy Harding, Manager of the Nelson River District of the H.B.Co."

This old book has been placed in the Medical Library of the University of Manitoba.

"Queer old Peter Fidler", as Dr. George Bryce calls him, deserves to be remembered in Western Canada. He was a contemporary of David Thompson who, according to J. B. Tyrell was "the greatest land geographer that ever lived." Both learned surveying from the first surveyor of the Hudson's Bay Company, both surveyed much of the three prairie provinces, but fame has dealt unequally with them. David Thompson was the great explorer, his name has been given to a river in British Columbia, but Professor A. S. Morton states that Fidler took a more intelligent interest in his surroundings than Thompson did and was probably a man of more culture. Fidler's surveys were later incorporated into a map made for J. G. McTavish.

Peter Fidler was a good friend to the Red River Colony. He conducted one of the parties of settlers from Hudson Bay to the Red River, he surveyed the District of Assiniboia and the river lots of the Kildonan settlers, he superintended the erection of buildings for the colony and was a member of the Council of Assiniboia. He was in charge of Brandon House when it was plundered by Cuthbert Grant and his Bois Brules prior to the massacre at Seven Oaks in 1816. More important was the bequest of his printed maps, surveying instruments, and his library of 500 volumes which was the nucleus of the Red River library. According to Dr. George Bryce, Mrs. Mary Hislop and Dr. C. N. Bell, his name was given to a Hudson's Bay trading post, Fidler's Fort, located between Notre Dame Ave. East, now Pioneer Ave., and McDermot Street and several hundred yards from the river. This was a palisaded enclosure built in 1817-18 which disappeared probably in the great flood of 1826.

He was born at Bolsover, Derbyshire, on August 16, 1769, and entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company as a "labourer" at the age of eighteen. However he had had some education, wrote a good hand and for thirty years he faithfully kept meteorological records. He taught himself algebra and was assigned from York Factory to Cumberland House under Philip Turnor, first Surveyor of the Company, and from him learned the rudiments of surveying. David Thompson who had been Tumor's assistant was to have accompanied him to Athabasca but was injured and replaced by Fidler. This may account for the bad feeling between the two men. In 1796, when Thompson quit the H. B. Company for the rival North West Company, Fidler was appointed Chief Surveyor. After thirty-four years service he died in the Swan River District in 1822.

His achievements are set forth on a cairn erected by the Government of Canada at Meadow Lake, Sask., in 1955. The plaque reads that he traded on the North and South Saskatchewan and the Churchill Rivers and that he built the fur posts, Chipewyan, 1791, Bolsover 1799, Greenwich 1799, Chesterfield 1800, Nottingham 1802. "His Extensive Journal Fully Reflects the Life of the Land."

The toughness of the man may be judged from the entry in his journal Sept. 4, 1791: "left with 4 canoes of Jepewyans to remain the whole winter with them and acquire their language." The young man left to winter with the Chipewyans in a notoriously cold area with no provisions, no kettle, scanty clothing and hardly any ammunition yet came through unscathed.

In his will made a year before his death, he provided for his Indian wife, his mother and left his printed maps, surveying instruments and library of 500 volumes to the Red River Colony. The residue of the estate, some £2,000 was to remain untouched until Aug. 16, 1969, the 200th anniversary of his birth when the principal and compound interest would then be placed at the disposal of the "next male child heir in direct descent from my son Peter Fidler." The will is preserved at Somerset House, London, but the courts must have set aside the last provision since no trace of the residue has been found in the Bank of England or in the Hudson's Bay Company's headquarters.

In later years his subordinates found him arbitrary and headstrong but despite that he was in Dr. Walton's phrase, "quite a man."

Page revised: 1 July 2009