Book tells beginnings of fur trade on Prairies

When the Europeans came to Western Canada in search for furs in 1781, the natives of many tribes made them welcome.

Kisiskatchewan: The Great River Road

By Barbara Huck

Published by Heartland Association

When the Europeans came to Western Canada in search for furs in 1781, the natives of many tribes made them welcome.

The natives knew the intruders to be as helpless as babes in this country for they could neither find their way or feed themselves. The intruders who came from far away demanded furs, even when the fur-bearing animals were hunted into scarcity.

They also brought smallpox, which decimated the people.

This is a detailed and exciting story of the Hudson Bay Co, fur trade, in the three prairie provinces. The author, Barbara Huck has woven this story from the journals kept by William Tomison.

An Orkneyman, Tomison came to the “Nor’West” at the age of 21 in 1760. He stayed for 51 years, eventually becoming HBC governor, Inland.

At the 30-year mark, he made a trip home. While there, he encouraged a young lad, Alexander Kennedy, to come to the West when he was of age.

In the main Hudson Bay Co. store in Edmonton, a large plaque on the wall tells of the accomplishments of Tomison. This book is his story: a man known by the natives to be fair and honest in his dealings.

Fiercely loyal to the HBC, he learned the Cree language and was instrumental in setting up several posts, including Cumberland House, Buckingham House, Manchester House, Fort Edmonton and others. He was a man keen on education, and he had a broad view of the opening of a country that he knew belonged to others.

As admirable as Tomison was, the stories here of Many Birds and Red Sky, her father, and Bear Caller, her brother, of the Nahathaway tribe, recreate a time and a place right here, close to our home, but in a time long ago.

The story opens with the young boy, Raven Caller out hunting. He has a strong rope, a brave heart and his village is on the verge of starvation.

A large bear comes his way and an exciting scene follows. Raven Caller is eight years old. Soon he is known as Bear Caller.

As the story unfolds, smallpox kills many natives, already suffering from starvation. Red Sky is among those stricken. Only, his daughter Many Birds and young Bear Caller are left and Many Birds is due to deliver her baby. In desperation, they come to Cumberland House where Tomison is in charge.

The tribal life changed as the fur traders moved in among them. As the years pass, William and Many Birds become close. Her daughter Aggatha is a bridge between the two peoples — she learns native skills and English, too.

There is sadness but a hopeful ending to this story. Tomison died at 90 years old. Kennedy did come west and his story marks a new beginning.

These people left an indelible mark on Canadian history.

This very good book is available at Kerry Wood Nature Centre.

Peggy Freeman is a local book reviewer.

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