1907 The legacy of a shipwright
Called by the North: Extraordinary Adventures of the Fur Trade, Shipbuilders, Navigators and Traders in Northwestern Canada and Alaska
by George H.S. Duddy
Maryland: Heritage Books, 2022
$44.95 / 97807884240097
Reviewed by Ken Favrholdt
This book is an extraordinary feat of research and writing. It is especially significant as the Arctic has become the focus of attention about climate change, Canadian sovereignty, and relations with Indigenous peoples living in this vast region. Written by George H.S. Duddy, this book traces several themes – the work of George F. H. Askew, a shipwright who was responsible for the construction of forty ships, the stories of those ships and their fates, and many profiles of the people who made the Arctic their temporary or permanent home.
Duddy’s own family has a maritime connection. He is a retired professional engineer of electric construction with BC Hydro. Born in Fort St. John, BC, his connection to the North was through his father who was a Hudson’s Bay Company apprentice at Oxford House, Manitoba, then manager of the HBC store in Fort St. John in 1923 until he retired in 1944.
The author states his “endeavour to consolidate story fragments into lucid accounts, and meld histories and personalities into a single captivating work, has been a progressive journey for me.” This is Duddy’s first book but, I suspect, will not be his last.
Duddy begins by acknowledging the many people who helped him including David D. Bruhn, an American naval historian, and Lynn J. Salmon, a BC marine writer, who among many others helped Duddy immensely. Two forewords give praise to Duddy. Salmon, pre-empting my review, states that Duddy “brings us a glimpse of their life in the Arctic, to see how fur trade operations were conducted, to learn who the personalities involved were, and to appreciate the stamina required to whether make a big splash or sink without remark.”
Duddy summarizes the content of his book in his preface (actually an introduction): “Enterprise, entrepreneurial endeavour, and plain old-fashioned curiosity drew many to the seemingly limitless opportunities of the north in Western Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. Those who took a gamble to embark on the adventure of a lifetime led extraordinary lives; some accomplished remarkable feats; but some just found a new home and a satisfying life.”
The book is divided into twenty-six chapters beginning with the life of master boatbuilder George Askew recounted in the first 13 chapters. Born in 1872, Askew apprenticed in Victoria with J.J. Robinson. There he became interested in competitive yacht racing. In 1897 he left to join the Klondike gold rush. He found work with the British Yukon Navigation Company and worked on many of the vessels and scows, becoming a foreman shipwright. George later moved to Prince Rupert where he built Ardrie, a B class sloop in 1908. She was named for Jennifer Ardrie Askew’s Irish paternal grandmother whose maiden name was “Ardery”. When he divorced his first wife Jennie Ardrie Askew in 1915, he renamed the sloop Snookie. Askew moved to Vancouver in 1913 and by 1921 was building boats for the HBC. In 1944, George ended his long career. As the “dean of river boat builders in the north country, he is probably the oldest boat builder in the Northwest.” His last boat built at Waterways along the Clearwater River near Fort McMurray, was a sternwheeler named after him.
There is wonderful detail throughout the book. The second half, Chapters 14 to 26 profiles many boats not built by Askew beginning with the racing yacht El Sueno, reported lost at Tree Island in 1922, but resurfacing, and the Lady Kindersley, lost in 1924. The Anna Olga, built in Poulsbo, Washington, a Norwegian-American base for Alaskan cod fishing, sailed for forty years.
Chapter 18 describes the “nautical highway” to Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, a settlement by American bowhead whale hunters before 1913 where whaling had already made an impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples, before it became the Hudson’s Bay Company’s most westerly outpost in 1915.
Roald Amundsen’s schooner Gjoa met the U.S. whaler Charles Hanson in 1905 in the gulf that would take Amundsen’s name. After 1913, the Hudson’s Bay Company would reorganize its northern fur trade and enter the Arctic fur trade. Their foray was led by the Fort McPherson. The attractive cover illustration by John Horton, “Meeting at Gjoa Haven,” depicts the contact of the two HBC vessels, Fort McPherson and Fort James, which travelled the Northwest Passage from two directions.
The only serious criticism I have is that many of the 193 photographs and other images are very small and would have benefitted if the format of the book was larger – at some expense though. Some images, such as several maps which are hard to read, could have been eliminated. And some are unnecessary such as map 9-1 of downtown Vancouver, photo 9-4 of Burrard Street Bridge, map 14-1 of northern California, and map 18-2 of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. The caption to map 21-2 mentions Herschel Island incorrectly 470 km NE of Banks Island (it should be NW) and is not shown on the map.
All in all, the book is an amazing resource – encyclopedic in scope, well-written, and authoritative. Duddy has created short chapters which has the good effect of moving the book along although he is then compelled to include more than one image in each chapter.
Ignoring the problems with the illustrations, Duddy’s narrative is excellent – informative, well-written, and extremely well-researched. I only wish there were fewer and larger images. Maybe a coffee-table book is a future possibility.
Iain Grant Cameron is grateful for George’s research on his great uncle Ernest James “Scotty” Gall, who appears in the final chapter. In 1937 Gall was the first navigator to transit Bellot Strait, the key link of the Northwest Passage.
Duddy ends the profiles with a biography of John Norberg, “one of the few Europeans who understood and communicated with the Inuit people of the central Arctic, who up to the early part of the twentieth century, had only limited contact with the outside world.”
The last photograph in the book is significant – a picture of Parry’s Rock on Melville Island, a marker of the Northwest Passage, engraved by the crews of the Gripper and Helca in 1813 decades before the Franklin Expedition. It became “a claim marker for Canadian sovereignty after being affixed with a plaque in 1909…”
The 281-page book includes four appendices – “Vessels designed or built by George F. Askew” (an incredible 57 in number); “Vancouver loaded fur trade cargos”; “Arctic fur trading posts established before 1934”; and “The 1928-1930 Voyage of the Fort James, and conquest of the Northwest Passage, including Cecil Bradbury’s heroic contribution.” That contribution was a dog-sled journey with supplies from Cambridge Bay to Gjoa Haven. Bradbury’s daughter stated, “…when the supply ship didn’t come and food ran low, Dad decided to go on dog team to get supplies but … the dogs all died on the way, and Dad had to pull the sled himself. The story ended well with supplies and no one was lost.”
It is hard to think of the need for further research on this entire subject but Duddy has provided an important list of resources in the bibliography which includes archival sources consulted such as Hudson’s Bay Company records, magazines and journals such as the invaluable The Beaver magazine, newspapers, and online resources, followed by an index which includes a list of ships and other craft.
Ken Favrholdt is a freelance writer, historical geographer and museologist with a BA and MA (Geography, UBC), a teaching certificate (SFU), and certificates as a museum curator. He spent ten years at the Kamloops Museum & Archives, five at the Secwépemc Museum and Heritage Park, four at the Osoyoos Museum, and he is now Archivist of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc. He has written extensively on local history in Kamloops This Week, the former Kamloops Daily News, the Claresholm Local Press, and other community papers. Ken has also written book reviews for BC Studies and articles for BC History, Canadian Cowboy Country Magazine, Cartographica, Cartouche, and MUSE (magazine of the Canadian Museums Association). He taught geography courses at Thompson Rivers University and edited the Canadian Encyclopedia, geography textbooks, and a commemorative history for the Town of Oliver and Osoyoos Indian Band. Ken has undertaken research for several Interior First Nations and is now working on books on the fur trade of Kamloops and the gold rush journal of John Clapperton, a Nicola Valley pioneer and Caribooite. He lives in Kamloops. Editor’s note: Ken Favrholdt has recently reviewed books by Terrance N. James, Mali Bain, Liz Bryan, Erín Moure & Anne Callison, Jeannette Armstrong, Lally Grauer, & Janet MacArthur for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster