Trading fur (and words) across generations

Elby Adamson

By A Contributor

This well-researched and finely crafted book will appeal to readers with an interest in the history of the American West, especially the years when fur trade was the major economic engine of the Northern Rockies.

The book consists of three sections. The first is a pretty thorough biography of Andrew Dawson who worked for the American Fur Company from 1847 to 1864. He has been called the “Last King of the High Missouri” as he resided over the closing years of fur trade on the Upper Missouri River.

The biography provides a look at the hardships and privation Dawson faced including freezing blizzards and feuds with Native Americans in the region.

It also gives a background for what led Dawson to America and ultimately his return to Scotland as a man with severe health issues, due in a large measure to what he had to endure in the fur trade.  His biography also makes it clear he did not return home with the fortune he hoped to make in America.

The second section of the book is composed of letters Dawson wrote home during his time in the West. These provide not only an insight to his loneliness, but also give vivid pictures of what life was like in the rugged frontier outposts where he served. What sets Dawson’s letters apart from letters written by other traders is the personal details he includes in them and the sheer number that survived.

The shortest section of the book is titled Lodge Talks. Dawson unquestionably wrote these two stories but his exact purpose in doing so is not clear.  Today, they may be studied at the Montana Historical Society where Dawson’s son donated them after his father’s death. It seems likely Dawson may have intended to publish them along with his extensive journals. The journals were lost when the Chippewa, a boat Dawson was traveling on, caught fire, burned and sank. The loss of the journals was a significant personal loss to Dawson and also to history.

Dawson’s letters have crossed the Atlantic at least three times.  He originally sent them to his family, usually having them hand delivered by someone going to Scotland. Later, the letters returned to America, because after his mother had stored them in an old desk, the desk was sent to a family descendent living in British Columbia nearly a century later. 

The relative later returned to Scotland, taking the desk and letters with him.  Upon his death, a great-great-nephew of Dawson, Hamish Dawson, inherited the desk and the letters.  He made copies of all 37 letters and gave them to his siblings, including his younger brother Andrew Dawson, a namesake of the original, who researched the American fur trade and his great- great-uncle’s role in it.

He found a possible publisher and a book titled “Frontier Diplomats” by Lesley Wischmann that dealt with the life of Alexander Culbertson, a friend of the Dawson of the American Fur Company.

The publisher put him in contact with Wischmann, who agreed to work on the Dawson letters project.

In addition to Dawson’s lost journals, there are almost certainly some of his letters that did not survive. Two periods,  from June 1850 to January of 1852 and January of 1859 to April of 1861, are represented by no letters. The reason letters of these periods are absent is not clear.  Perhaps they never reached Scotland or were later lost. It seems unlikely a correspondent like Dawson didn’t write during these times.

What is clear and significant about the surviving letters is that Dawson captured in these epistles much of the human drama and extreme hardship that played out daily during the 17 years he was with the American Fur Company on the Upper Missouri. This is history well worth reading.

Elby Adamson is a retired English teacher and a Clay Center resident.

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