Peter Fidler - The Forgotten Geographer

Some years ago my history pal Dr. James Cousins came across an unpublished manuscript of Peter Fidler's journey entitled Journal of a Journey over Land from Buckingham House to the Rocky Mountains in 1792-93

As the 200 anniversary was approaching the decision was made to make available a few copies so that people would come to know the man Dr. James Cousins called The Forgotten Geographer and Dr James MacGregor in his book called Canada's Forgotten Surveyor. ( Listen to Dr. Cousins and Dr. MacGregor talk about Peter Fidler)

In November of 1792 Peter Fidler, working for the Hudson Bay Company, journeyed from its most westerly post, Buckingham House , on the North Saskatchewan River near present-day Elk Point. He would be the first European to see the southern Alberta Rockies on an expedition to encourage trade with the Blackfoot of the plains and the native tribes of the mountains. On his way southwestward from the parklands across the plains, Fidler made a number of valuable observations about the way of life of the nomadic buffalo hunting peoples he encountered.

Fidler was the first European to explore and write about Southern Alberta. He was the first person to describe the cactus and the coal . He was the first to record the existence of Chinook winds and the only European to witness and record the spectacle of communal buffalo driving in the foothills, involving the use of strategically located cliffs or jumps or constructed corrals known as pounds .

In late December Fidler joined a group of Kutenai Indians camped just inside the front range of the mountains in an area known as the Gap of the Oldman River, north of the Crowsnest Pass.(TV news clip - 200 Anniversary of Fidler's Journey)

Background on Peter Fidler

Peter Fidler was born in Bolsover, Derbyshire, England and at the age of 19 years signed a 5 year contract with the Hudson Bay Co. (H.B.C.) as a labourer at York Factory. Because of competition between the H.B.C. and the North West Co. (N.W.C.), it became evident that trading posts be established inland among main waterways and with this decision, it was obvious that detailed maps of rivers and lakes be required to make further company decisions. Peter Fidler's brilliance, as well as his ability to read and write, soon became obvious to company officials and in 1790, Peter was called to learn the art of surveying.

During the winter of 1791, Peter mapped Lake Athabaska and made mention of the Tar Sands in his journals. Returning in the spring, he mapped the 1,600 mile route from York Factory to Athabaska and Great Slave Lake. That same year, Peter mapped the North Saskatchewan River and established a trading post. The winter of 1792-93, he surveyed and mapped the Battle, Red Deer and Bow Rivers, also outlining the Rockies (the first to indicate the Rockies on a map). During this trip, he was also the first explorer to see and record the coal at Drumheller. He also made notes of several passes in the Rockies which he heard of from the Kootenay and Snake Indians and he also made note of cactus, the buffalo and birch trees which were necessary for inland survival. In 1793, Peter mapped the Seal River. By 1797, Fidler became the only mapmaker for H.B.C. and in 1799, was sent to establish more trading posts and head a campaign against the N.W.C. During this time, he mapped a second shorter route to Athabaska via the Churchill River and became responsible for several posts he had established including Bolsover House, Greenwich House and Chesterfield House.

Once again, Peter Fidler was sent to Athabaska area and established Nottingham and Mansfield House. It was during this period of time that several years of misery and severe harassment were imposed on him from the N.W.C. and in 1806, all posts were abandoned and left to the competition. Fidler then took charge of Cumberland House and mapped Wollaston Lake area, Lake Winnipeg and the Nelson River outlet.

In 1812, he was sent to the Red River colony as assistant to Lord Selkirk and surveyed lots and supervised building of houses.

Peter Fidler was also a meteorologist. He kept records faithfully every day for over 30 years. His thermometer, wind vane and barometer were read many times a day and not even the Indian attack on York Factory in 1794 where 6 met their death interfered with his daily recordings. He also recorded bird migrations, the annual break up of ice and vegetation conditions. He even noted the different temperatures at which different liquors froze and also recorded the progress of his garden, making him one of Canada's first horticulturists. In his lifetime, Peter accumulated a library of over 500 volumes indicating his pleasure in the art of reading. It has also been noted that during his active years he travelled over 47,000 miles on foot and that most of our maps of Western Canada are based on his works. Peter Fidler was appointed District Master at Fort Dauphin in 1819 and died there in 1822. He lies in an unmarked grave at Fort Dauphin.

Peter's will should indicate to us the complexity of this amazing man. His invested estate was to pay interest to his wife and children until the youngest child became the age of 21 years. The principal was then to accumulate interest and to be left, both principal and interest, to the eldest direct grandson of his son Peter on his own 200th anniversary of his birthday, 1969.

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Peter Fidler

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