FIDLER, PETER, fur trader, surveyor, explorer, and cartographer; b. 16 Aug. 1769 in Bolsover, England, son of James Fidler and Mary –; m. autumn 1794 according to the custom of the country and formally on 14 Aug. 1821 at Norway House (Man.), Mary, a Swampy Cree, and they had 14 children; d. 17 Dec. 1822 at Dauphin Lake House (Man.).
In April 1788 at London, in the midst of a renewal of the rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company for the fur trade of the northwest, Peter Fidler joined the HBC as a labourer and reached York Factory (Man.) later that year. He had certainly received some formal education: he was soon promoted from labourer to post journal writer because he was “in every way qualified for that station, being a good Scholar and Accountant.” Moreover, he was regarded as “a sober steady young man.” Within a year of his arrival he was sent inland as a writer, first to Manchester House (near Standard Hill, Sask.) and then to South Branch House (near Batoche). The HBC’s confidence in Fidler was again demonstrated during the spring of 1790 when he was ordered to Cumberland House and given intensive instruction in surveying and astronomy by the esteemed Philip Turnor*, the first surveyor engaged by the company to work in the northwestern interior.
The summer provided Fidler with unusually good prospects for advancement, the result of an accident to another promising student of Turnor, David Thompson*. Incapacitated through an injury and partially blind, Thompson was unable to travel, and accepting a suggestion that Fidler would be “a useful assistant,” Turnor took him on a journey “to the Northland.” The purpose of the HBC expedition was to observe the nature and extent of the NWC’s hold on the fur trade of the Athabasca country and, most important, to find a short, direct, and navigable water route from Hudson Bay to the Athabasca and Great Slave (N.W.T.) lakes – a northwest passage which would link the Atlantic to the Pacific. The novice Fidler evidently did not comprehend the wider implications of the expedition; he noted that “our sole motive for going to the Athapescow is for Mr. Turnor to survey those parts in order to settle some dubious points of Geography, as both Messrs [Samuel Hearne*] and [Peter Pond*] fixes those places in their respective maps far more to the westward than there is good reason to think them.” In fact, Turnor’s more accurate astronomical observations did place Lake Athabasca much nearer Hudson Bay, but the great western river linking east to west proved to be illusory.
Although the Athabasca expedition of 1790–92 was a disappointment for the HBC, the venture significantly improved Fidler’s skills in surveying and map making as well as his knowledge of wilderness and Indian life. Turnor commented that his young assistant had become an astronomer, had written away for “Sextants, watches,” and seemed “a likely person to succeed me.” Fidler’s robust nature and competence were not unnoticed; he was observed by Malchom Ross*, who had accompanied the expedition, to be “a very fit man for surveying in this quarter, as he can put up with any sort of living, that is in eating and drinking.” Fidler spent mid January to mid April 1791 with Chipewyans north of Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.) and after reaching the Athabasca country he furthered his expertise by accepting an invitation from local Chipewyans to winter among them. With no provisions or tent and with little clothing, shot, or powder, he passed the winter of 1791–92 with them in the area of Great Slave Lake. The following spring he returned “in good health” to Turnor’s temporary Athabasca camp. He had managed the experience well. His sojourns with the Chipewyans had enabled him to acquire, in his own words, “a sufficiency of their Language to transact any business with them,” an accomplishment that was to be particularly important for him and the HBC in the years ahead.
Fidler’s enthusiasm, skill, and endurance were rewarded immediately. He was sent to the Saskatchewan River region in 1792 to assist the company in stabilizing and extending its new inland settlements along the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan River. In part to trade and survey, but also to gain more knowledge of Indian life and manners, he undertook a winter journey from Buckingham House (near Lindberg, Alta) to the Rocky Mountains. He mapped much of the area to the southwest of the North Saskatchewan River as far as the foothills of the Rockies. In addition, he not only observed and recorded various aspects of Plains Indian life, but spent much of the winter of 1792–93 among the Peigans and managed to learn their language. Before returning to the Saskatchewan, he became the first European to trade with and describe the customs of the Kootenays.
The interest of the HBC in finding a short and direct water route to Lake Athabasca was demonstrated again in the summer of 1793 when Fidler was sent from York Factory on an expedition to the Seal River (Man.); no direct passage to Reindeer Lake via that river, north of the Churchill, was found. Following this attempt Fidler remained at York Factory for two years, performing routine duties. In the autumn of 1794 he married à la façon du pays a local Swampy Cree named Mary. Also during this period, he sent the first of several maps to the London committee of the HBC. Dated 1795 and illustrating the winter journey of 1792–93 to the foothills of the Rockies, it contributed to the cartographic knowledge of that part of North America. The London committee became annoyed that Fidler was shackled at the bay and wrote his immediate superiors that “for the future we direct him to proceed inland on discoveries.” Thus, after travelling from Cumberland House to the upper reaches of the Assiniboine River, Fidler built Carlton House (near Kamsack, Sask.) in the autumn of 1795. There the fur trade rivalry was so intense that of five trading houses in the vicinity, two were actually HBC establishments competing with one another. The following summer he was in charge of Cumberland House.
Fidler spent the next winter at Buckingham House and in the spring of 1797 he journeyed to York Factory with 19 canoes and 2 boatloads of furs. He returned to Cumberland House in the autumn and remained there for the next two years, engaging in trade and acting as the writer. By 1799 the London committee had determined to push vigorously into the Athabasca country to compete more effectively against the NWC. Fidler left Cumberland House on 5 August and two weeks later, near Île-à-la-Crosse, caught up with William Auld, an HBC trader. Auld, leading an advance into the Athabasca from Churchill (Man.), and Fidler, under similar orders from York Factory, were both attempting to establish a chain of trading posts which could supply provisions for the HBC’s penetration into the Athabasca. Deferring to Auld, Fidler agreed to travel farther south, along the Beaver River to Meadow Lake (Sask.), where he built Bolsover House, and then west to winter at Greenwich House (Alta), a post he established at Lac la Biche. The NWC reacted angrily to the HBC intrusion into the Athabasca watershed and “used every mean and rogish method” to force the HBC to retire. During the winter Fidler recorded that he was “constantly harassed by Canadian men,” who tried to prevent the Indians from trading at the company post. He none the less experienced a good trading season and surveyed the route from Greenwich House to Lesser Slave Lake. But the expected sequel to the voyage to Lac la Biche, an HBC expedition to Lake Athabasca, failed to materialize. Instead, Fidler was sent to the South Saskatchewan River, where he established Chesterfield House (Sask.) in August 1800. This house survived only two trading seasons because of unrest among the various Indian tribes of the region.
By the summer of 1802 Fidler was back at York Factory; he remained only briefly at the bay before being ordered to lead an expedition to trade at Lake Athabasca. After a decade of HBC vacillation the struggle between the two companies for the richest beaver country in Rupert’s Land was to begin in earnest. Before departing, Fidler sent “some Maps and Papers” to the London committee. One map, dated 1801, purportedly showed for the first time the drainage network of the Missouri River, and provided new insights into the location and width of the western mountain system. Aaron Arrowsmith, the noted British cartographer and publisher, thought the map contributed significantly to geographical knowledge about “the face [of an area] until now unknown to Europeans.” The map, based in part on one drawn by A-ca-oo-mah-ca-ye*, a Blackfoot chief whom Fidler had met at Chesterfield House, was quickly incorporated by Arrowsmith into the new maps he was to publish of North America.
Although the HBC had long desired another expedition to the Athabasca, there had been great difficulty in recruiting men for it because of the rough living conditions, isolation, danger, and staple diet of fish. There was optimism for this mission, particularly since the local Chipewyans had always been more favourably disposed to trade with the HBC. In mid September 1802 Fidler and 17 men, including Thomas Swain who was to establish a provision post on the Peace River, began the construction of Nottingham House on English Island in Lake Athabasca, less than a mile from the NWC post of Fort Chipewyan, which had been relocated on the northwest shore about 1800. For the next four hectic years, this small HBC post attempted to compete against the large and solidly entrenched NWC.
Throughout these years Fidler and his contingent were continually harassed by the NWC. The HBC traders and the employees of the New North West Company (sometimes called the XY Company), also established in the region, occasionally joined forces to oppose the NWC. But after the union of the NWC and the XY Company in 1804 Fidler faced a formidable opponent, especially in the person of the cruelly effective Samuel Black*, who arrived the following year. According to Fidler, the NWC used abusive tactics to intimidate him and his men. They destroyed a canoe, ripped up the garden, scared away game, and nearly burned down the post. “I suppose it was their intention to starve our people out.” Black and his cohorts humbled the HBC men and, with little prospect of trade, Fidler became convinced that the competition was unfair and senseless. As a result, a loose “agreement” was made in which Fidler promised to quit the Athabasca for the following two years; in return the NWC agreed to provide Fidler and his men with provisions and pay 500 made beaver, roughly equivalent to the HBC credit in the Athabasca. The agreement was not honoured by either side, however, and the intimidation continued until June 1806 when a dispirited Fidler and the HBC contingent paddled out of the lake. For Fidler, the abandonment of the Athabasca was the nadir of his fur trade career. In a final comment in the Nottingham House post journal he excused the adventure with a simple truth – “Too few to do anything for the Company.”
Fidler reached York Factory in mid summer 1806. He rested briefly at the bay before being dispatched as postmaster to Cumberland House. The contrast between this post and the Athabasca was incredible; he even dined with the NWC “gentleman” at Christmas and all was friendliness and good cheer. The following summer, under orders from Auld and William Tomison, he explored the area around Reindeer Lake, another lake to the north which he named Wollaston Lake (Sask.), and as far as the eastern end of Lake Athabasca. He wintered at Swan Lake House (Man.), and surveyed and mapped much of the Lake Winnipeg-Red River region during the summer of 1808. In August he sent these and other maps and papers to England. He spent the following winter with Auld near Reindeer Lake. In 1810 he was rewarded for his long, dedicated, and valuable service: he was appointed surveyor, his salary was raised to £100 per year, and there was a suggestion that he would eventually be appointed chief trader with a share in profits.
The rewards bestowed on Fidler were part of the London committee’s recently devised “retrenching system,” which accentuated efficiency, economy, and individual initiative in combatting the NWC. As part of this program, Fidler was ordered to Île-à-la-Crosse in June 1810, but there the NWC, led by Black and Peter Skene Ogden*, so badgered Fidler and his men that they departed within a year. Tired and discouraged, Fidler was granted a one-year furlough in England. By late August 1812 he had returned to York Factory and was transferred to the Red River settlement (Man.), where the colonization scheme of Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] was in progress. To the NWC, the Red River colony was a direct threat to its transportation and canoe routes to the northwest, and to the buffalo hunting-grounds of the Métis, who provided the company with pemmican, the staple food of the fur trade. The colony was therefore to be opposed at any price. Fidler, newly appointed postmaster of Brandon House, escorted the second party of colonists to the settlement in autumn 1812. The following spring he began surveying property lots along the river using the river-lot system of Lower Canada. By June 1815, after the resignation of the colony’s governor, Miles Macdonell, Fidler was temporarily in command. As a result of constant harassment by the Métis, led by Cuthbert Grant* and encouraged by the NWC, he signed, on 25 June 1815, a capitulation that ordered “all settlers to retire immediately from this river, no appearance of a colony to remain.” Fidler and the colonists abandoned the settlement and fled to Jack River House (Man.). There they were met by Colin Robertson*, who returned with some of the settlers to re-establish the colony. Fidler went on to York Factory, to be given the task of transporting the newly arrived governor of the HBC territories, Robert Semple*, and additional settlers, to Red River. He then went back to Brandon House, and from there continued to aid the struggling colony. The Métis retaliated in early June 1816, plundering Fidler’s post. Two weeks later at Seven Oaks (Winnipeg), Semple and about 20 men were killed. The next year Selkirk re-established the colony once again, and Fidler resumed the surveying of property lots.
In September 1817 Fidler left the colony to return to the fur trade and from then until 1821 he lived an uneventful life as chief trader at the HBC posts of Brandon House and Dauphin Lake House. In failing health, he travelled in August 1821 to Norway House, where he was informed that he was soon to be pensioned, in large part because of the need to reduce surplus employees following the merger of the HBC and the NWC that year. Within a week of receiving the unhappy news, Fidler arranged for the baptism of his wife and some of his children, he and Mary were formally married, and he prepared his will. His retirement was postponed, however, and the ageing and sick Fidler returned to Dauphin Lake House with the nominal rank of a clerk at his old salary of £100 per year. In the York Factory list of servants for 1821–22 he was described as “a faithful and interested old Servant, now superannuated, has had a recent paraletic affection and his resolution quite gone, unfit for any charge.” He lingered in this condition at Dauphin Lake House, where he died in 1822. For his family Fidler had possessed a genuine affection. He and Mary had had 14 children, of whom 11 were alive in 1822. His Indian wife had accompanied him on most of his journeys and postings, sharing the hardships and joys of a fur trader’s life.
Throughout his long and remarkable career, Fidler was a serious, dedicated, and loyal servant of the HBC. His meticulous post journals, personal notebooks, and journey accounts reflect his zeal for writing and education. He was a conscientious student all his life, acquiring much of his knowledge in the northwest largely on his own initiative. His extensive collection of books reflected his desire to refine his professional skills as surveyor yet his inquisitive mind also probed into such subjects as algebra, meteorology, wild animals, and Indian customs and languages. His detailed post journals and notebooks provide a valuable record of life and adventures in the northwest during the era of fur-trade rivalry. As a result of his penchant for learning, however, Peter Fidler assumed a rather didactic manner, particularly in his later years at Red River, where he was considered something of an eccentric prig by the settlers.
Fidler’s character was undoubtedly moulded by the ordeals and hardships he had endured in the company’s service. Although distinguished, his career was marred by ill luck. At Nottingham House he found himself in a hopeless situation, faced with the harassment, intimidation, and overwhelming superiority in numbers of the NWC. He reacted in a controlled, practical, yet determined manner, and capitulated only when the Athabasca adventure was obviously lost; however, misfortune continued to dog his steps. Brandon House was sacked while he was master, and the colonists under his direction were chased from the Red River settlement; they were led back by the more aggressive Colin Robertson. What may seem to be failure in these incidents is excusable, yet Fidler appeared to lack dash and spirited leadership, with the result that he was not always fully supported by his followers in critical situations. His most significant and lasting contributions were not as a fur trader but as a surveyor and map maker. His meticulously drawn maps, which covered areas from Hudson Bay to Lake Athabasca and the Rocky Mountains, as well as his lot surveys at Red River, are testimonies to his dedication and competence.
This text is based on the author’s article “Peter Fidler. and Nottingham House, Lake Athabasca, 1802–1806,” Hist. and Archaeology (Ottawa), 69 (1983): 283–347, parts of which are reproduced by permission of the minister of Supply and Services Canada.
Peter Fidler is the author of “A journal of a journey with the Chepawyans or Northern Indians, to the Slave Lake, & to the east & west of the Slave River, in 1791 & 2,” published in Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, ed. J. B. Tyrrell (Toronto, 1934; repr. New York, 1968).
PAC, MG 19, El (copies; mfm. at PAM). PAM, HBCA, B, D.4, D.5, E.3 (mfm. at PAC). David Thompson, David Thompson’s narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). J. S. Galbraith, The Hudson’s Bay Company as an imperial factor, 1821–1869 ([Toronto], 1957). Innis, Fur trade in Canada (1962). J. G. MacGregor, Peter Fidler: Canada’s forgotten surveyor, 1769–1822 (Toronto and Montreal, 1966). A. J. Ray, Indians in the fur trade: their role as trappers, hunters, and middlemen in the lands southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660–1870 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974). Rich, Hist. of HBC (1958–59), vo1.2. D. W. Moodie and Barry Kaye, “The Ac ko mok ki map,” Beaver, outfit 307 (spring 1977):5–15. J. B. Tyrrell, “Peter Fidler, trader and surveyor, 1769 to 1822,” RSC Trans., 3rd ser., 7 (1913),