The roughest, toughest bandits of Canada’s Wild West.
James H. Gray, a trail-blazing chronicler of the manners and mores of the people of the Prairies, once quipped that historians had led him to believe only “monks, eunuchs, and vestal virgins” settled the Canadian West. To explode the myth he wrote a dozen books documenting aspects of Western social history — most famously, whoring and boozing — that had never before been closely examined. Since that time, other historians, taking their cues from Gray, have shown how the West attracted hundreds of individuals who lived beyond the boundaries of convention and the confines of the law.
The fur trade spawned the first of them. One of the most notorious was Peter Pond, a pugnacious Yankee who killed a fur-trading rival in a duel before moving in 1775 to the northwest. By 1779 he had formed a loose coalition with other independent traders who called themselves the Nor’Westers. Pond became their agent in the Athabasca region of what is now northern Alberta, where he was one of the first non-Aboriginals to see evidence of the oil sands deposits that now form the richest energy reserve in the world.
Athabasca was a lucrative fur-trading district for Pond. Word of his success spread to Montreal, headquarters of the Canadian fur trade, and that brought him some competition. His contemporaries both admired and detested him. Explorer David Thompson summed it up best, saying: “He was a person of industrious habits, a good common education, but of a violent temper and unprincipled character.”
One of his rivals was Jean-Étienne Waden (or Waddens) — a man described by explorer Alexander Mackenzie as being of “strict probity and known sobriety.” Waden encountered Pond at Lac La Ronge (in present-day northern Saskatchewan) in 1782. According to Mackenzie, “Mr. Waden had received Mr. Pond and one of his clerks to dinner; and in the course of the night, the former was shot through the lower part of the thigh, when it was said that he expired from the loss of blood.” Two years later, when Pond was next in Montreal, he appeared before a judge and was apparently acquitted.
Pond’s next homicidal encounter, with a rival named John Ross in the Peace River country in 1786, also resulted in no charges. But that was the last straw for his fellow Nor’Westers. They fired him at the end of 1787 and sent him packing back to the United States, where he fell into poverty and died in 1807.