An intimate critique of the activities and business methods of the Hudson’s Bay Company and one of the earliest narratives of the fur trade in Western Canada and the Great Lakes region. Umfreville had been in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company for eleven years from 1771, and was at York Fort in 1782 when it was captured by the French under La Pérouse. Upon his release after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, he joined the rival North West Company and was engaged in exploring a new canoe route from Lake Superior to Lake Winnipeg (via Lake Nipigon). From 1784 to 1788, he served on the North Saskatchewan River, commanding at its most westerly post.
In his narrative, Umfreville supports the general charges of selfish and greedy monopoly levelled against the Hudson’s Bay Company, and refers to the Company’s skill in repressing the governmental investigation of its affairs which followed Arthur Dobbs’ petition for the revocation of the Company’s charter in 1749. By contrast, he emphasizes the greater shrewdness and prosperity of the North West Company for actively exploring and penetrating the more lucrative interior of the country. Umfreville also gives a detailed account of his own experiences, and describes the climate, soil, and natural history of the country, as well as the manners and customs of the native Indian tribes. One of the tables records sales of various furs; the other gives a synopsis of Indian languages. [From ABEBooks 8/22/06]
Umfreville’s animus against the company is directed at their protection of their monopoly, their sale of alcohol to natives (who are completely affable when sober), their cruelty in trade with natives, and their ineptness in trade compared to the Canadians. They knew the weakness of their claim to the monopoly and thus were motivated to show the miserable state of their operations. The book is also an extended and odious comparison between the iniquities of the HBC with the sensible practices of the Canadians of the North West Company.
[J. R. Tyrrell, in his Introduction to David Thompsons’ Narrative 1784-1812 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916) says of Umfreville: … a man in whom the virtues of sobriety, industry and hardihood were blended with a quarrelsomeness so vindictive as to make it impossible for anyone to get on with him in his own day or for any historian to trust his unsupported word in our day. (p. xvi-xvii)