Skip navigation links (access key: Z)Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives CanadaSymbol of the Government of Canada
Français - Version française de ce siteHome - The main page of the Institution's websiteContact Us - Institutional contact informationHelp - Information about using the institutional websiteSearch - Search the institutional - Government of Canada website

Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
Graphical element


Peter Pond (c. 1739 - 1807)

Peter Pond was born in Milford, Connecticut, around 1739. After a brief military career, in 1765 he joined his father in Detroit to work in the fur trade. He quickly made enough money to enter into partnership with free traders who would be involved in the future North West Company (Simon McTavish, Alexander Henry, the Frobisher brothers, and others) and to organize an expedition west of the Great Lakes. It was while looking to extend their territory that he discovered Athabasca, that rich reservoir of pelts between Lac Île-à-la-Crosse and the Peace River. The maps he subsequently drew, based on his explorations and on the information provided to him by Native peoples, would grant him international renown at the end of the 18th century.

From 1773 to 1775, Pond collected furs in present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. His journal reveals that he had not completed his studies but that he had an acute sense of observation when describing the Sioux, the Saulteux (Ojibwa) and the Mandan. In 1775, two events drew his interest to the northwest: the First Nations wars in the Mississippi area and the many furs from Saskatchewan that he had heard of traders bringing to Montreal and to Hudson's Bay. Pond then joined Alexander Henry to winter at Dauphin Lake  --  which had been known since La Vérendrye  --  while Thomas Frobisher went up the Saskatchewan with Charles Paterson, another free trader.

In 1777, the profitable trade conducted by Thomas Frobisher at Lac Île-à-la-Crosse, on the edge of the Athabasca drainage system interested other traders in the area. However, at such a distance, labour and the transport of supplies were very expensive. Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, as well as McTavish and Company, joined forces and asked Pond to lead an expedition into the Athabasca region, an area not well known by traders beyond accounts by Native peoples.

In 1778-1779, Pond travelled to Île-à-la-Crosse, crossed a few small lakes and reached the La Loche (Methye) portage, which was shown to him by Native people. Some 19 kilometres long, this portage was so steep that it took him eight days to cross with the canoes, food and trade-goods, but allowed him to cross from La Loche Lake, in the hydrographic basin of Hudson's Bay, to Pelican River (Clearwater) in the Athabasca basin. This find would open up the Athabasca country to the fur trade. Pond wintered on the Athabasca River some 25 kilometres from Lake Athabasca. He intercepted a large group of Cree and Chipewyan who were making an annual trip to Fort Prince of Wales. Pleased not to have to go as far as Hudson's Bay, they agreed to pay a little more for trade goods. As a result, Pond found himself with more pelts than his canoes could carry. He had to hide some and return for them later.

After this success, Pond joined the trading company of McBeath, Côté and Graves and, in 1781-1782, wintered at Lac La Ronge with Jean-Étienne Waddens, a representative of another company. An argument arose between the two men and Pond shot Waddens. He escaped the law, his action having taken place in an area outside the jurisdiction of the courts.

In 1783, Pond went to Athabasca where he explored the waterways around Lake Athabasca. Native people told him the approximate locations of Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake and possibly also those of the Peace and Mackenzie rivers. During the winter of 1784-1785, in Montreal, Pond transcribed this information on a map, showing rivers and lakes from west of the Great Lakes and Hudson's Bay to the Rocky Mountains and, north, to the Arctic. The map included a large river (the Mackenzie) which, originating in Lake Athabasca, crossed Great Slave Lake and flowed towards the Arctic Ocean. In 1785, a copy of this map, accompanied by a report  --  probably written by one of the Frobishers, but signed by Pond  --  was submitted to the United States Congress and another to the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, Henry Hamilton. Pond asked Hamilton to support his project to explore the limits of North America's northwest. Sent on to London, the request was denied.

Image: Remarks by Saint-Jean de Crèvecoeur written on the copy of Peter Pond's map

"Copy of a Map presented to the Congres by Peter Pond, a native of Milford in the State of Connecticut

This extraordinary man has resided 17 years in those countries & from his own Discoveries as well as from the reports of Indians, he assures himself of having at last Discovered a passage to the N.O. Sea; his gone again to ascertain some important observations. New York, 1st March 1785.
The original Map being incumbered with great deal of writing, I have thought it best to transcribe it separately with the references marked, by the numbers. - Copied by St. John de Crevecoeur for his Grace of La Rochefoucault."

Having become a partner in the North West Company, founded in 1784, Pond got as far as the Peace River area in 1786-1787. During the winter, he again quarreled with a competitor, John Ross, who was killed by a bullet during a brawl. A witness would later state that a Canadian called Pesche shot Ross, on Pond's orders. This second murder forced the trader-explorer to abandon the fur trade, and he left the northwest in the spring of 1788, never to return.

Pond continued to draw maps of the northwest. A version prepared for the Empress of Russia showed that he was aware of Captain Cook's discoveries. The latter had taken an Alaskan inlet (which bears his name today) for a river flowing from the east. Pond transposed this information onto a map in 1787, leading one to believe strongly that it flowed from Great Slave Lake. The alacrity with which Pond made changes, trusting to James Cook's unconfirmed discoveries, severely tainted his credibility. However, he was not the only one to make this kind of mistake.

Map: "Copy of a Map Presented to Congress...," by Peter Pond, 1785

In 1790, Pond sold his shares in the North West Company to William McGillivray and returned to Milford, Connecticut, where he died in 1807. A violent and ambitious man, Peter Pond contributed to the mapping of Canada by drawing the general outline of the river basin that Mackenzie, heavily influenced by his predecessor, recorded in 1789.

Dorchester's letter regarding Pond:

"Quebec 23rd November 1790.
I transmit a Sketch of the North Western parts of this Continent, communicated by Peter Pond, an Indian Trader from this province, shewing his discoveries, the track pursued, and the stations occupied by him and his party, during an excursion of several years, ... Mr. Pond proposing some advantage to himself from publishing it hereafter with a detailed account, had requested care may be taken to prevent its getting into other hands, than those of the King's Ministers.
I am told he has quitted this province somewhat dissatisfied with the Trading Company, whom he served, and with a view of seeking employment in the United States, of which he is a native."

(Wagner 1955, 37-38)

Proactive Disclosure