Peter Pond pistol
Peter Pond"s pistol


This newsletter is almost two years too late. It should have closely followed PPS 51 sent in April 2018 since more news was soon available at the time. But things got in the way and I forgot about it so here we are.

I left you hanging with the fact that a gun dealer in Arizona was seeking bids for an 18th century pistol with the words "Peter Pond his pistol" inscribed along the barrel. His asking price was $3,495.00. He was seeking the help of PPS to move the item since there had been few takers.

PPSer William Buxton told a contact at the Montreal Gazette about this and a story was written. The pistol was snapped up soon after by a person whose name has been kept confidential by the dealer. The dealer did state that he got his price "plus a little extra once the article first came out. Since then we have had many inquiries about the pistol being still available (some from museums). Apparently now that it is too late they all want it."

Below are two articles lamenting the apparent lack of interest in the item once owned by a significant figure in Canadian history, the first from the Gazette and the second from a historical blogger.

This fur trader's pistol is up for sale, but Canadian museums don't want it

The 18th-century weapon is engraved with the name of one of Canada's most important explorers, so what is it doing sitting on a U.S. auction site?

Updated: August 11, 2018

A pistol that belonged to one of the most fascinating figures in Canada's fur trade is up for sale, but no Canadian museum is interested.

In the late 1770s, explorer and trader Peter Pond (1740-1807) pushed northwest into the Mackenzie River basin — establishing a continental trading network that would lay the foundation for Canada as a nation from sea to sea.

"You could consider him to be in some sense a Father of Confederation," said William Buxton, a professor emeritus of communication studies at Concordia University.

Pond was the first non-Aboriginal person to traverse the Methye Portage in northern Saskatchewan and reach the Mackenzie River basin, flowing north to the Arctic Ocean.

"He presciently forecast a transcontinental Canada — linking the St. Lawrence with the Pacific — all based on trade and under the British flag," said Barry Gough, author of The Elusive Mr. Pond: The Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who opened the Northwest (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013).

Pond's explorations, which he depicted in famous maps, made trade across the continent possible, Buxton said.

"They started to trade across the country, which meant you had a whole network of trading settlements across Canada," he said.

A flintlock pistol: the ramrod, below the barrel, is used to push the projectile up against the propellant. In April, Buxton, who has been researching Pond's life, learned from a post on the Peter Pond Society's website that an 18th-century pistol engraved with Pond's name was up for sale on an American auction site, listed at $3,495 U.S. He contacted several Canadian museums in hopes of bringing the artifact back to Canada for public display, but has met with total indifference.

The Montreal Gazette also contacted four history museums with extensive Canadiana collections but officials at the McCord Museum, Stewart Museum (which merged with the McCord in 2013), Canadian Museum of History and Manitoba Museum all said they were not interested and declined interviews on the topic.

"I think it's disappointing and surprising. I thought there'd be more interest in this. They don't really know the significance of it as far as I'm concerned," Buxton said.

Gough said the pistol is of national importance and should be accessible to the public, preferably at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, or the McCord Museum.

"Nothing like this exists elsewhere, so it is unique," Gough said.

But in an era when museums compete for blockbuster exhibitions to get crowds through the turnstiles, objects from Canada's past don't seem to arouse a flicker of interest, Gough said.

"Eighteenth century Canadian history is sadly out of fashion nowadays. But for Canada that century was a defining epoch in so many ways," he said.

By organizing independent traders in the northwest to pool resources instead of competing, Pond laid the foundations for the fur trading partnership that built the fortunes of famous Montrealers like Simon McTavish, after whom McTavish St. and the McTavish Reservoir are named, and James McGill, the benefactor of McGill University.

"He was the lead hand — indeed became the chosen leader — of a cluster of Montreal-based fur traders in setting up the famed North West Company of Canada," Gough said.

A former soldier from Connecticut who was present at the surrender of Montreal in 1760, his experience in outfitting troops with supplies was invaluable in planning fur-trading expeditions.

Voyageurs paddle across Lake Superior. With a reputation for a violent temper, Pond was suspected of murdering two other traders on the western frontier but never convicted. The aura of suspicion contributed to his status as an outsider in Montreal's clannish, Scottish-dominated business establishment.

"He was the Nor'Wester par excellence, respected but unloved," Gough writes in his biography.

Pond mentored explorer Sir Alexander Mackenzie, considered Canada's greatest explorer.

"Pond taught Mackenzie the tricks of the trade and opened to him the prospects of the wealth of Athabasca and the greater Northwest. Sadly, and to Mackenzie's discredit, he never gave Peter Pond the recognition or the thanks that he deserved," said Gough, who also wrote a biography of Mackenzie, First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie (McClelland & Stewart, 1997).

The pistol offered for sale by Old World Guns in Camp Verde, Ariz., is a flintlock from approximately 1760-1790 that was later converted to percussion cap, said owner David Jonas.

The words "Peter Pond his pistol" are engraved on the barrel and the gun is decorated with silver beavers, snakes and turtles and bears the initials "NWC," for North West Company.

The markings appear authentic and original, said Jonas, who is selling the gun on consignment.

"Fakes are common but fakes usually have a purpose," he said in a telephone interview.

"Nobody would fake a pistol that says Peter Pond. You would put Kit Carson (a famous American frontiersman). He's not a famous character around here," he said.

"I've never seen anything like that before," Jonas said of the engraving and decoration.

"It shows extreme use," he added. "You'd have to carry it for 50 years to get this kind of wear pattern."

The wearing of ceremonial pistols by partners of the North West Company, who socialized in the legendary Beaver Club, is well documented.

The words "Peter Pond his pistol" are engraved on the barrel and the gun is decorated with silver beavers, snakes and turtles and bears the initials "NWC," for North West Company. The words "Peter Pond his pistol" are engraved on the barrel and the gun is decorated with silver beavers, snakes and turtles and bears the initials "NWC," for North West Company. "From the picturesque departure from La Chine to the ceremonious arrival at Fort William, the journey of the partners was a pageant of pride and power," writes Charles Bert Reed in Masters of the Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 1914).

"Voyageurs and hunters are dressed in buckskin with the gayest of silk bands around hair and neck, while pompous partners parade back and forth in ruffles and gold braid, with brass-handled pistols and daggers at belt," Reed writes.

Buxton said it makes no sense that the Canadian Museum of History (formerly called the Canadian Museum of Civilization) is spurning Pond's pistol when it spent $250,000 in 1989 to acquire "Champlain's astrolabe" — a mariner's navigational instrument that is highly unlikely ever to have belonged to the famous explorer.

"There's much better evidence this pistol belonged to Peter Pond. I at least thought they would look into it and take it seriously but they didn't even do that," he said.

In a more recent museum controversy, the Quebec government announced in April it was classifying a painting by French artist Jacques-Louis David as provincial heritage to prevent it leaving Quebec after the National Gallery of Canada announced it was selling a masterpiece by Russian-French artist Marc Chagall to acquire the David work for $6.5 million.

Khan Rooney, a historical weapons specialist in Montreal, said that while he has not seen the actual pistol, photographs he has examined support its authenticity.

"I would definitely suggest it be kept in Canada," he said.

"If it's a fake, it's a very, very good fake and an absolute waste of time (since there is no lucrative market for a gun owned by Peter Pond)," Rooney said.

The gun is emblematic of Canada's early history and reveals much about the intriguing man who owned it, he said.

"To have a gun like that would certainly make it much more possible to tell the story of someone who is almost unknown and yet very important to Canadian history," he said, noting that the possibility Pond killed two men only adds to its interest.

"That's the thing about these objects. They are the bridge between modern-day people and the history. And when you have an object like this in your hands, and when you're able to look at it and breathe it in, all of a sudden, history becomes much more real."

Khan Rooney, an expert on historic firearms, shows the flint, held in the dog, in the ignition mechanism.

Gun talk

Through the years, weapons terminology has seeped into our lexicon. Here are a few examples.

Lock, stock and barrel, meaning "the whole thing." The lock is the firing mechanism, the stock is the wooden part of the gun, the barrel is cylinder. Loaded for bear, meaning being prepared for a fight. "This term, dating from the mid-1880s, alludes to the heavy charge of powder or lead that hunters use for large animals like a bear," according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Flash in the pan, meaning something that seems spectacular at first but fizzles out. When a musket misfires, the gunpowder flares, but no bullet is fired. The gunpowder was held on a pan attached to the musket. Half-cocked, or going off half-cocked, meaning not well prepared. The firearm should be safe if it's in the half-cock position, rather than fully cocked. It would only fire in that position by mistake. Keep it under your hat, meaning to keep a secret. Academics speculate it's because a hat or helmet made a good hiding place for a weapon. Keep your powder dry, meaning to be cautious. Gunpowder must be dry or it's not going to work.

Sources: Merriam-Webster Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, The Phrase Finder

Peter Pond's Pistol Unwanted by Canadian Museums???

The above image shows details of a flintlock pistol (subsequently converted to a percussion cap weapon) that is associated with Peter Pond, a somewhat notorious 18th century fur trader in the Canadian northwest. The words "€śPeter Pond his pistol"€ť are engraved on the barrel and the gun is decorated with silver beavers, snakes and turtles and bears the initials "€śNWC"€ť for North West Company.

An article titled "This fur trader's pistol is up for sale, but Canadian museums don't want it" appeared in the Montreal Gazette of 11 August 2018 (Scott 2018).

This news story piqued your blogger's interest because the attributed original owner of the pistol, Peter Pond (1739/40 to 1807) (possibly armed with the above pistol), played a role in one of the most illuminating episodes in the competitive fur trade era. It hinged in part at least on the strategic ‘weight' of European firearms—not to say fire power—in the lower Saskatchewan River region in 1775 (Thistle 1986: 52-53).

Fur trader Peter Pond may well have been carrying the flintlock pistol in question when, on 8 October 1775, he and a large party of 130 Nor'Westers including other experienced traders Alexander Henry, Étienne Cadotte, Joseph & Thomas Frobisher, attempted to pass Basquiau (located at present-day The Pas, MB, Canada) as they made their way westward along the Saskatchewan River.

Basquiau was an important traditional Aboriginal aggregation centre & annual rendezvous site for a ‘regional band' of Western Woods Cree (Meyer & Thistle 1995: 406-8 passim; Thistle 1986: 10 n. 28, 22, 26, 27 passim).

When Pond and his canoe brigade associates arrived, Chatique (the Pelican) who was head man of 30 families occupying this site at the time waylaid the trading party by inviting them to his tent. During the course of this interaction, Chatique demanded stiff tribute in return for safe passage though this Western Woods Cree regional band territory. Alexander Henry reported on the discussions with Chatique as follows:

. . . that we must be well aware of his power to prevent our going further; that if we passed now, he could put us all to death on our return; and that under these circumstances he expected us to be exceedingly liberal in our presents; . . . that with the number of men which he had, he could take the whole of our property, without our consent; and that therefore his demands ought to be regarded as very reasonable; that he was a peaceable man, and in order to avoid quarrels,— finally that he desired us to signify our assent to his proposition, before we quitted our places (Henry 1969: 260).

The upshot of this event was the Europeans' agreement to the ultimatum presented to Peter Pond & the other presumably well-armed North West Company traders. One might well imagine that Pond may have squeezed his pistol rather more tightly as Chatique's parlay intent became clearer. An ironic postscript to this incident saw Chatique, in a single canoe, follow the departed 130-strong trade brigade as they made their way upriver. The Cree leader demanded & obtained one additional keg of trade goods as right of passage. Pond's firearm & the weapons possessed by his canoe brigade confreres turned out to be useless in this power struggle.

This incident in fur trade relations at Basquau in 1775 is only one of the many examples adduced in this blog's anchor publication Indian-European trade Relations in the Lower Saskatchewan River Region to 1840 (Thistle 1986) to support my thesis that Indigenous partners during the fur trade in the territory & era in question were able to demonstrate their control over the commercial and strategic relationship—this in opposition to the interpretation of ‘quick decline of Cree power into dependence on Europeans' propounded by both liberal and Marxist historians.

Given your blogger's 26+ years of experience in museum work & my interest in the irreplaceable noumenal[i] qualities of material culture, I have the following questions for the museum staff members who apparently are uninterested in this fur trade-related object:

QUESTION ONE: Is it because Mr. Pond was born & died in the United States? If so museum folks, please attend to Gough (1983) for the details on the extensive & significant career Peter Pond spent in Canada. Inter alia, Pond is recognised for his invaluable mapping of the Canadian northwest, his participation in the founding of the North West Company, and his role as "a pioneer in the last great fur-bearing area of North America" (Gough 1983). Surely there are many significant & celebrated figures in the Canadian fur trade history represented in museum collections who also were not born in Canada, but rather in England, Scotland, or France.

QUESTION 2: Is it because of there is some doubt about the provenance of this piece? Scott (2018) presents the arguement in counterpoint that the Canadian Museum of History (formerly called the Canadian Museum of Civilization) purchased what was rumoured to be "Champlain's astrolabe — a mariner's navigational instrument that is highly unlikely ever to have belonged to the famous explorer." Scott continues: William Buxton, professor emeritus of communication studies at Concordia University, states that "There's much better evidence this pistol belonged to Peter Pond" than for the dubious Champlain fable.

QUESTION 3: Is it because of the reserve bid at an American auction house is all of $3,495 US [ca. $4,599 CDN]? Scott (1983) reports that the Canadian Museum of History "is spurning Pond's pistol when it spent $250,000 in 1989 to acquire Champlain's [dubious] astrolabe."

Finally, QUESTION 4: Have any museum folk who have made it known that they do not want to acquire the pistol attributed to Peter Pond read the recent May/June 2018 article in the American Alliance of Museums journal Museum titled "When You're Under Fire: A step-by-step guide for creating a comprehensive crisis communications plan"? In cases such as this, a museum's reputation with the public is in jeopardy.

Author Tim Hallman (2018), director of communications and business development at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, CA, urges museum folk to attend to potential "communication problems."

Remember, the public believes that transparent organizations don't run from a problem. When you commit to your convictions, you remind your stakeholders why your organization is worth supporting. . . After all, most audiences only remember the last headline (or tweet).

Museum staff involved in rejecting the pistol, need to consider how museum audiences, financial supporters, & other stakeholders will react to collecting decisions such as the one in question. Museum folk need to "maintain or rebuild stakeholders' confidence and faith in your essential daily work" (Scott 2018)—like acquiring objects of significance. We need to avoid ending up "on the wrong side of a hashtag revolution" that social media can foment surrounding an institution's reputation. A concise, transparent, & understandable justification for decisions such as not to acquire an apparently important heritage object such as the pistol of Peter Pond are absolutely required!

So, to maintain your museum's credibility with the public, what are the actual specific reasons why you are not interested in Peter Pond's pistol? Our audiences need to be more extensively educated on behind-the-scenes decision-making in our heritage institutions.

Come on museum folks in Canada; get with the programme of preserving & interpreting Canadian fur trade history! Isn't this a no brainer—& a bargain to boot—especially when compared to the astrolabe boondoggle?

If nothing else, couldn't we crowdfund $4,600 CDN?

References Cited:

Gough, Barry M. 1983. "POND, PETER." in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 5. University of Toronto/Université Laval (accessed 14 August 2018).

Hallman, Tim. 2018. "When You're Under Fire: A step-by-step guide for creating a comprehensive crisis communications plan." Museum 97 (3): 27-30.

Henry, Alexander. 1969. Travels and Adventures in Canada and the Indian Territories Between the Years 1760 and 1776. Rutland, UT: Charles E. Tuttle.

Meyer, David & Thistle, Paul C. 1995. "Saskatchewan River Rendezvous Centers and Trading Posts: Continuity in a Cree Social Geography. Ethnohistory 42(3):403-44 [the full article is available ].

Scott, Marian . 2018. "This fur trader's pistol is up for sale, but Canadian museums don't want it." Montreal Gazette Updated: August 11 (accessed 14 August 2018).

Thistle, Paul C. 1986. Indian-European Trade Relations in the Lower Saskatchewan River Region to 1840. Manitoba Studies in Native History II. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press [the entire published version of this out-of-print national, provincial, & academic award-winning book is freely available.


[i] Noumena is a theoretical concept that is known by the mind because it cannot be known through the senses, only evidence for it can be so known [such as the 3-dimensional object]. This can often be an emotional understanding of the object's associations, such as an historical connection with a relative or other historical figure.

And that is the long and the short of the story of this pistol.

Au revoir,

Peter Pond Society editor Bill McDonald