- Fortune’s a River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America
- Harbour Publishing, 400 pp.
A Detailed Account
Fortune’s a River – The Collision of Empires in Northwest America is an excellent, exhaustively researched book that offers reading only for the stout hearted among us or those who never quite got enough of wading through factual texts in college. Author Barry Gough tackles the labyrinthine subject of how British Columbia became British Columbia and part of present day Canada while Oregon, Washington and Alaska eventually wound up as part of the United States.
By the closing years of the 18th century the stage was set for a major international confrontation over the Pacific Northwest Coast. Imperial Russia controlled the untamed Alaskan wilderness, Spain was expanding its holdings north from Mexico, Captain James Cook had claimed Northwest America for Great Britain and Captain Robert Gray had discovered the Columbia River, the historical basis for the United States’ claim to the river and the extensive watershed that extends eastward far into Montana.
In Fortune’s a River historian Barry Gough re-examines this Imperial struggle for the region and despite the overwhelming abundance of factual references manages to evoke the drama of the sometimes diplomatic and sometimes not so diplomatic conflict. He looks at the players in this territorial drama – their lives, motivations, hardships and struggles.
I have spent a good deal of my adult life roaming the wilds of British Columbia and farther north and as a result am well aware of the wild, often brutal nature of the land even today despite the encroachment of modern civilization. Exploring, mapping, claiming and then taming this land was and is a momentous task. The lure is the vast acreage and the incredible wealth found in the timber, water power and minerals that include gold, silver, lead, manganese, precious gems, nearly unimaginable reserves of coal and oil largely found in tar sand deposits. All of this was readily apparent to explorers centuries ago as thick veins of coal and oil seeps were spotted along river cut banks and in muskeg swamps. Gold flakes and nuggets lay exposed in mountain tributary streams glistening the sun.
The history of this region is marked by noble and often tragic explorations of uncharted wilderness, battles with hordes of biting insects, harsh weather with temperatures often dropping below minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit and lengthy periods of total isolation from the outside world. News of discoveries and mappings often didn’t reach authorities for several years following completion of a given expedition. Fur traders were often the only conduits of news to the outside world.
My only problem with Gough’s competent work is that I am perhaps more of an individual who prefers reading books of this nature that are written along the lines of Stephen Ambrose’s narrative about the Lewis and Clark expedition Undaunted Courage. Gough’s sizeable effort is scholarly in nature and features over 30 pages of referenced textual notes and an extensive, useful, bibliography. An example of the prose is from the section where Northwest explorers encounter Lewis and Clark:
Already an inveterate, tireless traveler, he was equally a man of science, ethnography and history. The Nez Perces called him “Koo-Koo-Sint,” meaning “Star Man” or “He who Shoots the Stars.” From the time he began with the North West Company in 1797 until the summer of 1812, he unlocked the secrets of many rivers in the west. Details of this were only revealed much later with the discovery of his unpublished Narrative (completed 1857); the disclosure of the details of his surveys, notes and maps by his first biographer, Joseph Tyrrell; and more especially through the publication of David Thompson’s Narrative of his Explorations in Western America by the Champlain Society of Toronto in 1916. But of even greater value are his detailed journals, now in the archives of Ontario in Toronto.
While the time spent researching and authenticating the material in the book is admirable and at times mind boggling, reading page after page in this style becomes tedious at times.
Dr. Gough’s credentials are impressive. He was founding director of Canadian Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Fellow of Kings College London and Life Member of the Association of Canadian Studies. He is the author of numerous books including Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914; Gunboat Frontier: British Maritime Authority and Northwest Coast Indians, 1846-90; First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Fighting Sail on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. He has been writing about history of the Pacific Coast for nearly four decades and is known for the authenticity of his work, which has received international recognition. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia with his wife.
Fortune’s a River is clearly the most detailed and accurate work on the subject and as such is worthy of reading by anyone interested in the subject who is willing to devote the time and effort to assimilating all of the information Gough has compiled within this book.