by Bill McDonald

Maybe someday on route to a paddling trip, youíll pass through Milford, CT. If so, know that Peter Pond, a man who helped shape North American history, is buried here, unmarked and virtually forgotten.

Pond (1740 -1807), a shoemakerís son and the oldest of eight children, fought in four French and Indian War campaigns. At warís end in 1763 he became a merchant mariner and made several trips to the West Indies. After which, he followed his father into the fur trade and the wilds of Detroit.

Pond thrived as a fur trader. A big, burly, ruthless man with a quick temper, he loved opening up new territory. Just before the American Revolution, he was active along the upper Mississippi and around Fort Michilimackinac where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet.

As war clouds again gathered over the colonies, Pond thought it an ideal time to seek the thicker fur pelts of Canada and in August, 1776, along with several companions, began paddling north from Lake Superior.


The canoe material of the day was birch bark


The canoes, usually ranging in length from 20 to 35 feet, were the best conveyance through the thick network of rivers and lakes in roadless Canada.

As the fur trade flourished in the late 1700ís and traders spread further westward to keep up with the demand, two different types of canoes became popular. From Montreal to the the Grand Portage Post at the western end of Lake Superior, the Canot du Maitre (Montreal canoe) was used. This was a 36 footer that could hold up to 7,000 pounds of men and freight and required four men for portaging.

Beyond Grand Portage, where the rivers were narrower and the lakes smaller, the Canot du Nord was used. The North Canoe was a 20-footer that only required two men for portages.

Pond spent the next two winters trading on the North Branch of the Saskatchewan River. He and other so-called ďitinerant peddlersĒ were competing with the giant Hudson Bay Company, who claimed the entire Hudson Bay watershed, about two-thirds of Canada, as its territory.

To avoid being shot for trespassing, Pond was chosen by a group of traders to break out of the Hudson Bay watershed and into the Athbasca region. To reach this supposedly virgin area, he had to first paddle over 1,000 miles to the end of the Churchill River, then he had to cross the Methye Portage, a 13 mile carry over of nightmare proportions, which took a week for 16 men carrying 4 canoes. From there they paddled down the westward flowing Clearwater River and up the Athabasca River to establish the first trading post in the region. He was due north of Montana, probably the furthest west any white man had ever gone in North America.

Overjoyed to see a trader come so far, the Indians were generous with the furs they exchanged for the white manís trinkets of jewelry, knives, pots and rum. The post soon became the most lucrative on the continent. This led to the formation of the North West Company which became stern competition for Hudson Bayís Company before the latter swallowed it in an 1820 merger.

Other traders started spilling over Methye Portage for part of the action. Because of this, Pond became implicated in two murders, neither of which were ever pinned on him.

The first occurred in 1783 when Jean Etienne Waden, a competing trader, was shot and killed in a cabin shared by Pond and a clerk near La Ronge, Saskatchewan. The next was in 1786 near the Athabasca post. A rival trader, John Ross, was shot in a scuffle with Pondís men. Pond was not in the vicinity at the time.

Nevertheless, the two murders discredited Pond. North West Company merged with Gregory-McLeod Company, Rossís employer, as an appeasement move. Pond was replaced at Athabasca by Alexander MacKenzie, a young, ambitious man of Scottish descent. Before departing, Pond filled in his inquisitive replacement with all he knew about the area.

Particularly intriguing MacKenzie was Pondís theory that the so called Great River of the North, emptying the western end of Great Slave Lake, was the coveted Northwest Passage and led directly to the Pacific. If this could be developed as a trade route, rich trade with China and the Indies would follow.

In 1789, a year after Pond left the North, Mackenzie explored that river, only to find it didnít lead to the Pacific but the Arctic Ocean. ĎThat river,í the second longest in North America, was later rechristened the Mackenzie River.


MacKenzie reached the Pacific by land 12 years before Lewis and Clark!


Still using Pondís notes and maps, Mackenzie tried again in 1793, this time traveling on the nearby Peace River. And though he never did find a North-west Passage, he did become the first white man to reach the Pacific by land, a full 12 years before Lewis and Clark.

Some historians also credit Pond for first suggesting the delineation of the ultimate U.S.-Canadian border along the boundary waters canoe route and 49th parallel.

Today, Canada honors him with Peter Pond Lake, just south of Methye Portage and a monument near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, where the Clearwater joins the Athabasca, a hotel, school, and shopping center all bear his name.

Meanwhile, back in Milford, the third Saturday of August is the day for the annual Milford Oyster Festivalís Peter Pond Race, where a virtual flotilla of canoes and kayaks sprint the four miles out to Charles Island and back.


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