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Fortune's A River:
The Collision of Empires In Northwest America

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by Barry Gough

Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, B.C., 2007
400 pp., illus., $36.95 hardcover

From the days when he was the founding director of Canadian Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Barry Gough developed a parallel career as a fine writer of the history of North America’s northwest coast. In the process of writing ten well-received books he became arguably Canada’s finest maritime historian.

That scholarly and literary ability is much in evidence in his newest book, Fortune’s A River: The Collision of Empires In Northwest America. A departure from Gough’s usual concern with naval history, it deals instead with the largely overland rush to claim the magnificent northwest coast — now Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and northern California — at the end of the eighteenth century.

Soon after the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, and with the results of James Cook’s extraordinary Pacific voyages disseminated through the world’s scholarly and political communities, the stage was set for a rush to occupy the most spectacular portion of North America that remained open to claim: the Pacific Northwest.

The Russians were established in Alaska and looking southward; the Spanish were exploring north from Mexico and still considered any lands fronting the Pacific to be theirs; Cook’s arrival at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island had provided a basis for a British claim; and enterprising American merchants from the former Thirteen Colonies were on the coast pursuing sea otter pelts and envisioning an American claim to the region.

With a combination of meticulous factual backup and an engaging writing style, Gough assembles a complex picture of these various players. Working towards the Oregon Crisis of 1846 and the border agreement that brought an end to the competition, Fortune’s A River takes readers through the thrusts, misadventures, and successes that established who would eventually claim the region.

Gough shows how the pioneering explorations and voyages of David Thompson and Alexander Mackenzie inspired U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to send off the Lewis and Clark expedition, and how the energy and initiative of the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company in pursuit of furs very nearly brought a far larger portion of northwest America into a future Canada.

Gradually, American settlement pressure and the reluctance of Great Britain to seriously oppose Washington led to the retreat of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Americans claiming the Columbia River’s mouth and flood plain, and the final process that would see British North America pushed north of Puget Sound.

Gough tells this story in lucid detail and allows readers to see with clarity the competition between, in the end, two cousinly empires regarding whose flags would fly over the evergreen coast. In doing so, he has added a cornerstone study to our understanding of Pacific Coast history. Gough’s agreeably open and clear style has become his trademark.

That style is in evidence in the following passage, which neatly sums up Spain’s policy toward western North America: “Spain cast a cloak of secrecy and silence over the vast, still-undefined area west of the Mississippi. … Just as they kept secret their charts and other hydrographical data from the British, their rivals at sea, so too did they lay a veil of mystery over the western interior of North America. On the perimeters and margins of a quarter of a continent they still did not know, they, figuratively speaking, posted signs that read ‘No Trespassing.’”

Few writers of history today manage to combine evocative imagery and first-rate scholarship as well as Gough, and this alone is reason to add Fortune’s A River to the bookshelves of students of North American Pacific history. Fortunately, Gough provides many more reasons in this fine work. Highly recommended.

— Victor Suthren (Read bio)

Victor Suthren is a writer and historian with an interest in colonial-era seafaring and exploration. He is the former director general of the Canadian War Museum.


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