From Barrow to Boothia: The Arctic Journal of Chief Factor Peter Warren Dease, 1836-1839

William Barr, editor

Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002


Reviewed by Jonathan Dore


William Barr has done a great service to the historiography of Arctic exploration by making available the journal of Peter Warren Dease, co-leader with Thomas Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s expedition to explore what were, in 1836, the remaining blanks on the map of the Arctic coastline of continental North America. It should be said at the outset that the journal does not contain any startling new revelations, and on the whole offers only a limited amount of new insight into the expedition and its protagonists, but in the same way that the study of literature requires the publication of reliable texts of even minor poets and novelists, so the study of exploration history requires that primary sources such as this are made available for study, and this function the editor has fulfilled with great skill and thoroughness.

Many people familiar with the general outline of the expedition, and of Simpson’s famously disparaging remarks about his "supernumerary" co-leader, will be surprised to learn that Peter Dease kept a journal at all, so thoroughly does he fade into the background of Simpson’s Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America. Yet he not only kept notebooks in the field with careful notes of the day’s movements and hunting returns, but at the end of the expedition he wrote out a fair copy of the journal. Why he undertook the considerable labour of transcription is unclear, since he does not seem to have submitted the journal to the HBC Committee or, apparently, sought to have it published. The manuscript was still in his possession at his death some 25 years later, eventually finding its way into the collection of the McCord Museum at McGill University. It is this fair copy of the journal, supplemented where necessary by notes from the surviving original field notebooks, that forms the basis of the publication.

The great value of the book is threefold: firstly, the text of the journal is presented with great care, accurately transcribing the orthography and abbreviations of the original (I spotted only two obvious typos in a book littered with constantly varying non-standard spellings, word spacings, and capitalizations, a considerable achievement by both typesetter and proofreader); secondly, it is supplemented with more than a thousand explanatory footnotes clarifying people or places referred to, glossing unfamiliar vocabulary or usage, and giving background to events; and thirdly, the journal is interspersed with letters to and from Dease and Simpson (or between others about the expedition), both public and private, previously published and unpublished, which are interleaved at the appropriate chronological point and do much to throw light on the journal, on the events described, and on the personalities of the participants. It is the inclusion of these documents, and the variety they bring, that make the publication something that can be read with interest from beginning to end, rather than simply a resource to be referred to. A further bonus is an appendix of biographical sketches of many of the voyageurs who made up the expedition’s muscle power and hunting skill; some of them made important contributions to more than one expedition and these sketches will be one of the few places interested readers will be able to find information on them.

Barr’s aim in publishing the journal is to redress the balance caused by Simpson’s biased account being the only one available until now. Whether it succeeds in doing so is, however, open to debate. When Simpson claims (even if in private letters) that "I and I alone have the well-earned honour…of unfurling the British flag on Point Barrow", and insisting, in planning a follow-up expedition for 1840, that "Fame I will have, but it must be alone" (both emphases original), he is clearly giving vent to a streak of emotional immaturity that is deeply worrying for someone seeking sole command of an expedition that would have made him responsible for the lives of a dozen men in a very remote spot. That he seemed to harbour a long-standing grudge, of obscure origin, against "half breeds" would have made his leadership of an expedition largely manned by Metis voyageurs even more dangerous. Within nine months of the main expedition ending in October 1839, and while waiting to hear if his follow-on expedition would be authorized, Simpson was dead, killed in a shooting incident in Minnesota involving Metis travelling companions, and Barr quotes Ian Stone’s perceptive comment that, but for Dease’s moderating influence, such an incident "that took place once the expedition was over might have occurred during it". Barr’s most telling point — and one which can only be inferred from the situation, for the documents give no hint of it — is that Dease’s calmness and natural authority from his years of experience as a voyageur must have played a crucial role in reassuring those under his command that it was safe to continue at points in all three years’ journeys when many of them must have wished to turn back, a factor which Simpson consistently refused to acknowledge or value.

Yet a rehearsal of Simpson’s character faults is not the same as establishing Dease as a dynamic, energetic, or ambitious co-leader whose singular achievements have been falsely ascribed to Simpson — and in truth, Barr’s aim is much more modest. He notes that Dease’s journal gives information that Simpson omits, such as daily activities during the winterings at Fort Confidence (on Great Bear Lake) and the careful tally of meat and fish brought in by the hunters. Simpson passes over them, in his own words, because "our whole thoughts were bent upon subjects of far higher interest". An arrogant statement, certainly, but surely an accurate assessment of what would interest the reader of a published expedition journal. In fact, most of Dease’s journal is rather dull reading. Barr quotes John Richardson, on reading a proof of Simpson’s journal, asking why extracts from Dease’s journal (which he had not seen) could not be used to supplement and temper Simpson’s jejune self-glorification. Richardson no doubt had in mind the self-confident, urbane, and polished supplements he and others had supplied for inclusion in Franklin’s published journals, but the present publication clearly demonstrates why the suggestion would never have worked. At most, Dease’s journal could have supplied factual information for footnotes - distances travelled, voyageurs engaged on particular tasks, hunting returns, and most importantly information on the (mostly unoccupied) Inuit camps they encountered - which Simpson omitted, but they could never, without being completely rewritten for the purpose, have formed the basis of a sustained piece of prose indicative of a lively and enquiring mind. This is not to say Dease was incapable of such interest: the outward journey of the second year sees the journal blossom into longer entries that show a genuine interest in geology and flora and suggest a warm human sympathy both with the Inuit and with the voyageurs under his command. But even the entries of these few weeks would have needed much further work for publication, and they form a high-water mark that was not reached again in the journal.

On the evidence presented here it seems fair to assume that Dease never intended his journal for publication. The origin of its utilitarian character is surely revealed in the occasional extracts from "post journals" - the daily log of events and business kept by each trading post - that are included for the few days that the expedition passed through each post. Over the decades Dease must have been responsible for making thousands of such entries himself, and their minimal information, absence of speculation or personal opinion, and restriction to events of strict relevance to the business at hand, are trademarks that can be seen continuing in his own journal. For that reason, it is still very hard to get much sense of Dease’s personality from his own writings. Decisions and actions are always taken by the corporate "we" - the word "I" scarcely appears in the entire text - or are couched in the passive voice, so that even at critical junctures such as the decision for a small party to press on to Point Barrow by foot at the end of the first summer, one gets no sense of whose idea it was or how Dease felt about it; the discreet habits of the company servant, reluctant to draw attention to himself even in a position of command, seemed deeply ingrained in Dease - hardly surprising for one who had been in the business for 35 years. In the end, there is not much with which to counter Simpson’s self-aggrandizing claim that Dease "moves just as I give the impulse". If he fades into the background of Simpson’s narrative, he does the same in his own.

The greatest disappointment of the publication is the lack of analysis of the dynamics of the relationship between Dease and Simpson as it ebbed and flowed over the three years they were together. The final chapter, "Assessment", is a brief three pages that does little but repeat all the insulting remarks that Simpson made over the period, piling them up like icefloes against the shore so that they take on the character of a sustained attack, rather than mostly casual asides at infrequent intervals over a three-year period. Barr makes no reference to the most interesting allegations, that suggest that the relationship reached crisis point in late Summer 1838, and contained in Simpson’s letter to his cousin, Governor George Simpson, of 18 September that year — in human terms the most interesting single document in the book. Here he complains that Dease wanted to turn back on 20 August because that was the date on which naval expeditions to the Arctic were traditionally ordered to turn about; and that Dease wanted to leave the boats at the mouth of the Coppermine when they returned, because Franklin and Richardson had thought the river was unnavigable upstream. In both cases Simpson had insisted on going forward, and in both cases had been vindicated; the ten days after 20 August had seen the only surveying of new coastline done that year, and the decision to take the boats upstream preserved them for use the following year. In the circumstances, Simpson’s assertion that Dease is "so much engrossed with family affairs that he is disposed to risk nothing; and is, therefore, the last man in the world for a discoverer" seems not so much a gratuitous insult as a perceptive comment that hits the mark. He goes on to claim that Dease did not want to continue the expedition for a third year and that many of the voyageurs had applied to be relieved and sent to other postings, and seems justified in claiming that only his determination ensured that a third campaign was prosecuted; it later proved to be by far the most important and productive journey of the expedition. Later in the winter, however, Simpson writes that his misgivings about Dease "are now happily removed", hinting at reconciliation. Dease’s journal makes no mention of his misgivings or reluctance, and he played a full part in the following year’s proceedings, yet Simpson judged him "supernumerary" to the expedition at its end, though expressing admiration for his personal character, as he had throughout. The twists and turns, ups and downs, light and shade in the relationship can only be inferred from the often opaque language of the written sources, but sadly Barr makes no attempt to chart their course, characterizing them only as a sustained campaign of injustice against Dease.

Barr’s reluctance to offer an interpretation of the documents leaves some puzzling peripheral enigmas. Simpson’s private letters containing the disparaging remarks were published, due to his untimely death, well within Dease’s lifetime, yet the question of how Dease reacted to this, or whether he was even aware of it, is not broached. Similarly, John Richardson’s claim in one letter that "the two individuals [Dease and Simpson] are quite unknown to me, even by character" directly contradicts another which shows him to have met and corresponded with Dease barely two years earlier (and indeed the two must have encountered each other when both served in Franklin’s second expedition fifteen years before that). That the questions are not only unanswered, but unasked, gives the reader a frustrating sense of disengagement from the text.

From the three years of the expedition only one personal letter by Dease survives, written to an old friend who had retired from the HBC to Scotland. It is the poignant letter of a man whose friends have mostly retired or moved far away, who feels that his best years are behind him and the end of his career approaching. It reveals more about how Dease saw himself, and throws more light on his probable attitudes to the expedition, than the entire journal, and it is sorely regrettable that there are not more such windows into his character. Simpson, by contrast, was a voluminous letter writer whose sharply enquiring intellect and lively, if at times disturbed, personality leap from the page. It is a sad irony that in a book devoted to helping Dease emerge from Simpson’s shadow, Simpson’s personality is almost the only thing we can see, his dominating voice the only thing we remember.