Peter Pond’s Pistol Unwanted by Canadian Museums???

The above image shows details of a flintlock pistol (subsequently converted to a percussion cap weapon) that is associated with Peter Pond, a somewhat notorious 18th century fur trader in the Canadian northwest. The words “€œPeter Pond his pistol”€ are engraved on the barrel and the gun is decorated with silver beavers, snakes and turtles and bears the initials “€œNWC”€ for North West Company.

An article titled “This fur trader’s pistol is up for sale, but Canadian museums don’t want it” appeared in the Montreal Gazette of 11 August 2018 (Scott 2018).

This news story piqued your blogger’s interest because the attributed original owner of the pistol, Peter Pond (1739/40 to 1807) (possibly armed with the above pistol), played a role in one of the most illuminating episodes in the competitive fur trade era. It hinged in part at least on the strategic ‘weight’ of European firearms—not to say fire power—in the lower Saskatchewan River region in 1775 (Thistle 1986: 52-53).

Fur trader Peter Pond may well have been carrying the flintlock pistol in question when, on 8 October 1775, he and a large party of 130 Nor’Westers including other experienced traders Alexander Henry, Étienne Cadotte, Joseph & Thomas Frobisher, attempted to pass Basquiau (located at present-day The Pas, MB, Canada) as they made their way westward along the Saskatchewan River.

Basquiau was an important traditional Aboriginal aggregation centre & annual rendezvous site for a ‘regional band’ of Western Woods Cree (Meyer & Thistle 1995: 406-8 passim; Thistle 1986: 10 n. 28, 22, 26, 27 passim).

When Pond and his canoe brigade associates arrived, Chatique (the Pelican) who was head man of 30 families occupying this site at the time waylaid the trading party by inviting them to his tent. During the course of this interaction, Chatique demanded stiff tribute in return for safe passage though this Western Woods Cree regional band territory. Alexander Henry reported on the discussions with Chatique as follows:

  . . . that we must be well aware of his power to prevent our going further; that if we passed now, he could put us all to death on our return; and that under these circumstances he expected us to be exceedingly liberal in our presents; . . . that with the number of men which he had, he could take the whole of our property, without our consent; and that therefore his demands ought to be regarded as very reasonable; that he was a peaceable man, and in order to avoid quarrels,— finally  that he desired us to signify our assent to his proposition, before we quitted our places (Henry 1969: 260).

The upshot of this event was the Europeans’ agreement to the ultimatum presented to Peter Pond & the other presumably well-armed North West Company traders. One might well imagine that Pond may have squeezed his pistol rather more tightly as Chatique’s parlay intent became clearer. An ironic postscript to this incident saw Chatique, in a single canoe, follow the departed 130-strong trade brigade as they made their way upriver. The Cree leader demanded & obtained one additional keg of trade goods as right of passage. Pond’s firearm & the weapons possessed by his canoe brigade confreres turned out to be useless in this power struggle.

This incident in fur trade relations at Basquau in 1775 is only one of the many examples adduced in this blog’s anchor publication Indian-European trade Relations in the Lower Saskatchewan River Region to 1840 (Thistle 1986) to support my thesis that Indigenous partners during the fur trade in the territory & era in question  were able to demonstrate their control over the commercial and strategic relationship—this in opposition to the interpretation of ‘quick decline of Cree power into dependence on Europeans’ propounded by both liberal and Marxist historians.

Given your blogger’s 26+ years of experience in museum work & my interest in the irreplaceable noumenal[i] qualities of material culture, I have the following questions for the museum staff members who apparently are uninterested in this fur trade-related object:

QUESTION ONE: Is it because Mr. Pond was born & died in the United States? If so museum folks, please attend to Gough (1983) for the details on the extensive & significant career Peter Pond spent in Canada. Inter alia, Pond is recognised for his invaluable mapping of the Canadian northwest, his participation in the founding of the North West Company, and his role as “a pioneer in the last great fur-bearing area of North America” (Gough 1983). Surely there are many significant & celebrated figures in the Canadian fur trade history represented in museum collections who also were not born in Canada, but rather in England, Scotland, or France.

QUESTION 2: Is it because of there is some doubt about the provenance of this piece? Scott (2018) presents the arguement in counterpoint that the Canadian Museum of History (formerly called the Canadian Museum of Civilization) purchased what was rumoured to be “Champlain’s astrolabe — a mariner’s navigational instrument that is highly unlikely ever to have belonged to the famous explorer.” Scott continues: William Buxton, professor emeritus of communication studies at Concordia University, states that “There’s much better evidence this pistol belonged to Peter Pond” than for the dubious Champlain fable.

QUESTION 3: Is it because of the reserve bid at an American auction house is all of $3,495 US [ca. $4,599 CDN]? Scott (1983) reports that the Canadian Museum of History “is spurning Pond’s pistol when it spent $250,000 in 1989 to acquire Champlain’s [dubious] astrolabe.”

Finally, QUESTION 4: Have any museum folk who have made it known that they do not want to acquire the pistol attributed to Peter Pond read the recent May/June 2018 article in the American Alliance of Museums journal Museum  titled “When You’re Under Fire: A step-by-step guide for creating a comprehensive crisis communications plan”? In cases such as this, a museum’s reputation with the public is in jeopardy.

Author Tim Hallman (2018), director of communications and business development at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, CA, urges museum folk to attend to potential “communication problems.”

Remember, the public believes that transparent organizations don’t run from a problem. When you commit to your convictions, you remind your stakeholders why your organization is worth supporting. . . After all, most audiences only remember the last headline (or tweet).

Museum staff involved in rejecting the pistol, need to consider how museum audiences, financial supporters, & other stakeholders will react to collecting decisions such as the one in question. Museum folk need to “maintain or rebuild stakeholders’ confidence and faith in your essential daily work” (Scott 2018)—like acquiring objects of significance. We need to avoid ending up “on the wrong side of a hashtag revolution” that social media can foment surrounding an institution’s reputation. A concise, transparent, & understandable justification for decisions such as not to acquire an apparently important heritage object such as the pistol of Peter Pond are absolutely required!

So, to maintain your musuem’s credibility with the public, what are the actual specific reasons why you are not interested in Peter Pond’s pistol? Our audiences need to be more extensively educated on behind-the-scenes decision-making in our heritage institutions.

Come on museum folks in Canada; get with the programme of preserving & interpreting Canadian fur trade history! Isn’t this a no brainer—& a bargain to boot—especially when compared to the astrolabe boondoggle?

If nothing else, couldn’t we crowdfund $4,600 CDN?

References Cited:

Gough, Barry M. 1983. “POND, PETER.” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 5. University of Toronto/Université Laval http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pond_peter_5E.html  (accessed 14 August 2018).

Hallman, Tim. 2018. “When You’re Under Fire: A step-by-step guide for creating a comprehensive crisis communications plan.” Museum 97 (3): 27-30.

Henry, Alexander. 1969. Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776. Rutland, UT: Charles E. Tuttle.

Meyer, David & Thistle, Paul C. 1995. “Saskatchewan River Rendezvous Centers and Trading Posts: Continuity in a Cree Social Geography. Ethnohistory 42(3):403-44 [the full article is available on this web site at https://indianeuropeantraderelations.wordpress.com/indian-european-trade-relations-in-the-lower-saskatchewan-river-region-to-1840-thistle-1986/saskatchewan-river-rendezvous-centers-meyer-thistle-1995/ ].

Scott, Marian . 2018. “This fur trader’s pistol is up for sale, but Canadian museums don’t want it.” Montreal Gazette Updated: August 11 https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/fur-traders-pistol-up-for-sale-but-canadian-museums-not-interested (accessed 14 August 2018).

Thistle, Paul C. 1986. Indian-European Trade Relations in the Lower Saskatchewan River Region to 1840. Manitoba Studies in Native History II.  Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press [the entire published version of this out-of-print national, provincial, & academic award-wining  book is freely available on this web site at https://indianeuropeantraderelations.wordpress.com/ .

Endnotes:

[i] Noumena  is a theoretical concept  that is known by the mind because it cannot be known through the senses, only evidence for it can be so known [such as the 3-dimensional object]. This can often be an emotional understanding of the object’s associations, such as an historical connection with a relative or other historical figure.

 

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