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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

No. 8: Early Book Collections at Fur Trade Posts in 1700s

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Early fur traders did more than skin beavers and shoot rapids. They read books.

According to Michael Payne of Alberta Historic Sites Services, by the late 1700s, the fur trading posts had collected a remarkable number of books.

Probably the biggest was kept by a gentleman by the name of Joseph Colen, who was stationed at York Factory in the 1790s. And he actually claimed a collection of books of 1400 volumes at York Factory in the 1790s.

The Hudson's Bay Company sent out books that "promoted virtue and discouraged vice," things like sermons and technical materials. The North West Company also sanctioned popular novels.

As historian Michael Payne reveals, the posts at Fort Dunvegan and Fort Chipewyan were surprisingly up-to-date.

For example, the traveller John Henry Lefroy was astonished to find a copy of the architect Jean Claudius Loudon's Cyclopedia of Villa and Farm Architecture in 1844 in a northern post. This is just a couple of years after it had been published in England. And why anybody in northern Alberta or the Northwest Territories needed a copy of an encyclopedia of villa and farm architecture is beyond me.

Literacy was high among the trading posts' officers, and, in particular, labourers hired from the Orkney Islands. And as historian Michael Payne points out, some people at Fort Dunvegan and Fort Chipewyan also penned important works.

Mostly travel literature and accounts of the flora and fauna of the areas that they were working in. But also there were novelists and others who worked in these places, and people who wrote poetry.

One of the first explorers of western Canada, Henry Kelsey, actually wrote his journal in verse.

These fur trade book collections later evolved into Alberta's first lending libraries.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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