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Not Fit To Print
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author
of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing
Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The
Collector, is now available.
Some of Jack Nisbet's "Boundary" columns are available here, with more on the way.
The life of Alexander Caulfield Anderson spanned most of
the 19th century, from 1812-1884. Smack in the middle of it he served
as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief trader at Fort Colvile,
(1848-53), insinuating himself into the history of the North Columbia
during a crucial period of change. He remained there long enough both
to earn the respect of his company superiors and to acquire a Salish
nickname, “S’gath poose,” from the local people. This
will come as no surprise to anyone who reads a new book from Heritage
House Press, titled The Pathfinder: A.C. Anderson’s Journeys in
the West, which explores the full sweep of his career. To say that A.
C. spent time as a clerk, fur trader, trail blazer, watercolorist, map-maker,
farmer, postmaster, customs inspector, Indian reserves administrator,
writer, historian, and fisheries bureau agent only hints at the transformations
he experienced during his lifetime.
Anderson (who some Boundaries readers may recall from a March 2009 column
on Camp Flying Squirrel) was actually born in India, the son of a retired
British army officer who had taken up indigo planting there. At age
three A. C. returned to England, where he was educated and briefly worked
in a business office before signing on as an apprentice clerk with the
Hudson’s Bay Company in 1831. Sailing immediately to Montreal,
the 17-year old was posted at the company’s Lachine House along
the water route to the old city—a quiet accountant’s job
until trade canoes and visitors arrived in a sudden rush.
Illustration: Alexander Caulfield Anderson 1849
“Unfinished sketch of new Fort Kamloops, Thompson River”
Kamloops Museum & Archives No. 7862
Visitors in late 1831 happened to include two legends of the early North
West Company explorations: Simon Fraser, the first man to run the river
that bears his name to the sea, and David Thompson, the first to make
a formal survey of the entire Columbia and, with the help of survey
notes from Fraser’s party, the first accurate map of the two major
Northwest drainages. A .C. Anderson would spent much of his career filling
in blank spots on those waterways, and the thrill of standing close
to two of its original explorers excited him greatly—not too much,
however, to note that David Thompson, then aged 61 and in the midst
of financial difficulties, appeared to be “in a very decrepit
The following year, Anderson traveled the fur trade route pioneered
by Thompson across Athabasca Pass and down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver,
where he encountered a fur trade world that had changed from a struggling
start-up to a region-wide economic monopoly. Over the rest of his career,
author Nancy Marguerite Anderson—one of A.C.’s direct descendants—
paints a story of perseverance in the face of bureaucratic frustration,
as the romantic ideal that originally drew her forbear to the Northwest
evolved spasmodically toward the place we know today.
In 1837, at the age of 25, A.C. began his adult evolution when he married
Betsy Birnie at Fort Alexander on the Fraser River. The mixed-blood
daughter of company agent James Birnie, Betsy had been born at Spokane
House in 1822, and grown up at a variety of interior posts. Though their
relationship certainly began as an arranged marriage, she stayed with
Anderson through his entire career, bearing over a dozen children and
experiencing at least at many changes as her husband saw. Together they
lived mostly in the Fraser River country through the 1840s, until the
international boundary settlement of 1846 established the 49th parallel
and began to reorder their world.
Although the settlement allowed Fort Colvile and other Hudson’s
Bay Company posts south of the new boundary to continue operating temporarily,
someone had to figure out new trade routes in British Columbia that
avoided crossing the 49th parallel. Between 1846-49, Anderson made several
runs at establishing workable trails from Forts Kamloops and Colvile
to Fort Langley on the lower Fraser. As anyone who travels through that
country can still see today, this was a daunting task, and he knit together
portions of several traditional tribal trails to try to make it work.
These journeys, clearly shown on color maps in The Pathfinder, added
a huge amount of geographical information to the earlier maps of David
Thompson. Anderson later drew several of his own watercolor maps depicting
the area, and these charts remain important primary documents for the
Although Anderson displayed real talent at both exploring and cartography,
the pressures of his job seldom afforded him enough time to pursue them.
In a letter to Governor George Simpson, written from Fort Colvile in
the spring of 1850, he makes no bones about his major distraction, and
seems to realize that mineral wealth was about the take the history
of Northwest onto an entirely new course.
Truly, sir, much as the important combination of the four small letters
sounds sweetly to the ear at most times, one wearies of it through satiety
here:--“Gold, Gold, gold” is the cuckoo cry on all hands.
Everyman has his eye open for that. The whole land is frighted from
its propriety; and the bed of every Columbia stream and rivulet, within
the range of Bother Jonathan has, I dare affirm, been pertinaciously
scraped in the hope of new discoveries.
By 1854, Anderson had had enough. Rather than accept a promotion to
chief factor, he took early retirement and turned to farming, in order
to raise his children on the lower Columbia near proper schools and
his father-in-law’s merchantile business in the growing community
of Cathlamet. In his idle time A.C. penned the first of several influential
books—this one aimed directly at the gold prospectors that had
so distressed him at Fort Colvile. Titled Hand-book and map to the gold
region of Frazer’s and Thompson’s rivers; with table of
distances, to which is appended Chinook jargon – language used,
etc., etc. and published in San Francisco in 1858, it became the standard
handbook for a flood of fortune hunters who swept north from California.
In that same year, A.C. visited Victoria, where governor James Douglas
of the nascent province of British Columbia convinced him to take the
first of a series of posts that ranged from postmaster to Indian agent.
Anderson continued to write while holding down these full-time positions,
and in 1871 he won a provincial government prize for an essay entitled
The dominion of the west; a brief description of the province of British
Columbia. When eminent historian Hubert Howe Bancroft visited Victoria
a few years later in search of material for his History of British Columbia,
he described Anderson as “of slight build, wiry make, active in
mind and body, with a keen, penetrating eye, covered by lids which persisted
in a perpetual and spasmodic winking, brought on years ago by snow-field
exposures, and now become habitual. In speech he was elegant and precise,
and by no means so verbose as in his writings.” While Bancroft
may have prickled at Anderson’s prose style, he gratefully accepted
a piece A.C. wrote titled “History of the northwest coast,”
and used it extensively in his famous publication.
Even then A. C. didn’t slow down, authoring a new book called
A brief account of the province of British Columbia, its climate and
resources; an appendix to the British Columbia directory, that was published
in Victoria in 1883. At the same time he penned numerous reports on
tribal affairs and fishery stocks for the provincial governments. On
one of these trips, in 1882, an accident forced him to spent the night
on an exposed sand bar. He never fully recovered his health, passing
away in May of 1884 at age 72.
Nancy Anderson and Heritage House publishers of Canada have done A.C.
proud with their book, following his journeys through contorted landscapes,
presenting Anderson’s informative maps and charming watercolors
in their full glory. The product of many years of research, it’s
a fully-realized biography that erases all boundaries of politics, economics,
and race as it follows one wiry, active, keenly intelligent man across
a landscape that was changing under his feet.
Reprints of Jack Nisbet's "Boundary" columns are available here.
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