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December 11, 2006
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v2.1 Reference

Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill 1864-1893

Son of Catharine Parr Traill and nephew of Susanna Moodie, William Edward Traill, better known as Willie, came by his literary talent naturally. He found employment with the Hudson's Bay Company in what was to become the Canadian West. His letters home are a rich and detailed portrait of domestic life in the fur trade of the Northwest between 1864 and 1893. At turns gritty then deeply touching but always fascinating and informative, the Willie Traill letters throw open a window on the joys and heartbreaking challenges of family life in the service of the fur trade.

About the Authors

(1844-1917) K. Douglas Munro, editor of this collection, was the great-grandson of Willie Traill. Encouraged by family to publish the Willie Traill letters, he spent a decade pursuing this task. He lived in Victoria, BC.


"The Willie Traill letters shine a unique light on the daily activities of the fur-trade posts during a significant transitional time for them, and for the newly acquired Northwest Territories. He casts a more penetrating eye in the direction of the social scene than most observers, and his accounts are an irreplaceable resource. The young Willie wrote great accounts of travel that are very detailed and exciting, especially the incredible treks undertaken by dogsled. Clouds of grasshoppers over Fort Garry in 1864, and Willie's first buffalo hunt near Fort Ellice in the summer of 1865, provide wonderful set-pieces that add to those glimpses of a time long gone. These letters were a long time coming to the public, but their appearance is a welcome addition to a finite source of such first-hand information available on the fur trade that played such a vital role in the early history of Western Canada." Ken Tingley, The Edmonton Journal, April 15, 2007

"Of all the documents scoured by researchers, historians, and biographers, nothing reveals the intimate details of character or the fundamental pains and pleasures of daily life more than personal correspondence....[F]or those looking to embrace a character and know them on a level fiction or traditional biographies do not allow, [Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill] will prove a satisfying investment of time and contemplation." Richard F.J. Wood, The Beaver, June/July 2007

"This book, replete with historic photos, is a must..." Ronald F. MacIsaac,The Verdict, June 2007

As Michael Peterman writes in the Foreword, Willie Traill went west in 1864 and devoted his entire working life to the Hudson's Bay Company. His career took him westward from the Manitoba territory to Fort Ellice and many other posts before he completed his tenure at Fort St. James in British Columbia. He and Harriet, daughter of Chief Factor William MacKay, had twelve children, nine of whom survived....There are more than 250 of William Traill's personal letters extant, and 177 are represented in Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill. These letters, written to family and close friends, trace Willie Traill's entire twenty-nine-year career with the Hudson's Bay company, from his days as a raw recruit to his retirement from the Company as a seasoned veteran. These letters invite readers into Willie's life as it unfolds-giving them an intimate view of the daily challenges faced by an HBC trader and his family....Willie would see Mother Nature at her worst: frosts, droughts, floods, hailstorms, famines, fires, and hordes of grasshoppers that totally destroyed crops and gardens. He would witness the dreadful smallpox, scarlet fever, and whooping cough epidemics that decimated the Plains Indians and white populations alike. He would be affected by the Red River and Noth West Rebellions, Confederation, the completion of the Trans Canada Railroad, and the virtual annihilation of the buffalo-which irreversibly destroyed the way of life of the Plains Indians.,

"Traill indeed witnessed much in his career of almost thirty years, beginning in 1864 with his posting to Fort Ellice. He recorded the last of the buffalo hunt, the uncertainty of the transfer of Rupert's Land, the news of the Red River resistance and later Riel Rebellion, and the coming of the railway. Many of his letters to his mother and later to his niece followed from postings to Touchwood Hills (1867-69), the Saskatchewan River posts (1869-74), Lac La Biche (1874-81), Lesser Slave Lake (1881-85), Vermilion (1869-89), and finally Fort St. James (1889-93), where Traill served as Chief Factor. His falling in love with and 'choosing a native for a partner for life,' Harriet (daughter of the well-known HBC man, William McKay), however, provides the most interesting reading..." George Colpitts, H-Canada, H-Net Reviews, August 2007. (Full review at

"The letters are well written, newsy, chatty, and informative. Traill tells of unrest during the Red River Rebellion, the tragic smallpox epidemic, starvation and other events, as well as personal family matters....The information in this book will be useful for historians, but also is an interesting story to read about western life in the fur trade." Alberta History, Autumn 2007

"This book was interesting to me since three of my partners bore the names Sinclair and Traill..Further, my father's best friend was Hudson Bay Factor Angus MacKay who looked like a full-blooded native but had blue eyes..This book, replete with historic photos, is a must for historically minded lawyers who seek to learn about the earlier founding fathers who opened up the West to the promise of becoming one country instead of half a dozen." Ron MacIsaac, Apr, 2008.

"[Traill] was assigned to various posts, further and further west, from Fort Ellice on the Prairies (1864-67) to Fort St. James in the Rockies (1889-93). His postings usually lasted less than four years, with the exception of Lac la Biche (1874-81). He left the company in 1893 having achieved the level of chief trader for New Caledonia (B.C.). He lived on his homestead in Meskanaw, near Prince Albert (Saskatchewan), until his death in 1917. Willie Traill had strong connections within the company. He married Harriett McKay, the eldest daughter of Chief Factor William McKay, in 1869. They had 12 children.. The 177 letters selected by Munro carried news to his mother, his sister, his niece, and other family members. They centred on the man, his family, and their life in the posts: births, deaths, health, wealth, family business, travels, home improvements, postings, promotions, and so forth." Gratien Allaire, Canadian Book Review Annual 2007

"During a 29-year career as a clerk and then a trader for the Hudson's Bay Company, William "Willie" Traill witnessed, among other seminal events in Canada's history, the killing off of buffalo, periods of intense discord between white traders and Indian groups (including the Red River and North West rebellions), and a series of epidemic diseases that took a heavy toll on Indian groups and settlers alike, including Trail's own family. ... Writing from the largely unsettled territories west of the origional four provinces just prior to and in the immediate aftermath of confederation, Traill paints vivid pictures of the difficulties of family and company life at his remote post that are sure to interest historians and students of cultural contact as well as non-specialist readers. ... By selecting the letters carefully and then editing them intelligently, Munro has succeeded in crafting a volume that is pleasing and engaging to the modern reader. No mean feat considering that it is composed of messages addressed to no fewer than 13 of Traill's friends and family members over the course of nearly 30 years. Although such a diverse collection of personal letters could easily have been tedious, disjointed and repetitive, it is not, thanks to Munro's editorial efforts. ... In short, Munro's edition of Traill's letters is an interesting, enjoyable, and well-crafted contrbution to the study of early Canadian history." The American review of Canadian studies, summer 2008

"For the past decade, the literature of the North American fur trade has burgeoned with new and insightful interpretations of that globe-spanning business. Key to these new works is the continued discovery (and rediscovery) of primary sources. This collection of correspondence of the fur trader William ("Willie") Traill represents another important installment in fur trade historiography. ... The book is organized around the various Husdon's Bay Company posts at which Traill served during his 30-year career. ... Trail started out as a clerk, but his duties encompassed virtually all aspects of managing the fur trade, especially at smaller and more remote posts. His letters are richly detailed...and laden with a robust sense of humour. ... Fur Trade Letters of Willie Traill features much to interest general readers or undergraduate students, particularly in courses about the history of the Canadian West." Brian Schefke, University of Washington, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Summer 2008

"Traill's letters to his mother (the writer Catherine Parr Traill), his siblings and his friends available in the Glenbow Archives and the National Archives of Canada, and 177 of which have been brought together in this volume are ... a tremendous resource for better understanding many aspects of nineteenth century western Canadian history, most especially that of Native-newcomer relationships and the changing economic, political and environmental landscape as viewed from the perspective of an officer of the 'honourable company.' ... The letters are arranged chronologically, and it is easy to forget, when reading them one after the other, how difficult it was at this time to send or receive mail on a regular basis, and how much it must have meant to Traill's relatives to hear from him. ... Traill's letters provide a fascinating glimpse of the challenges and hardships, as well as the freedoms and pleasures, of life in the fur trade for men of the officer class." Alison K. Brown, University of Aberdeen, British Journal of Canadian Studies, 21.1

"Willie, as he was known, clearly inherited his mother's ability as a writer. This collection of letters, spanning a 30 year career with Hbc, was lovingly preserved, first by his mother, and then by generations of his family, with a view to its eventual publication. The letters are very personal, and focus on the domestic side of life. Traill takes great pains to explain to his mother and sisters back in Ontario what his life is like....This delightful book is a welcome addition to the fur trade memoir genre. From 1864-1894 the West saw great changes, e.g. the arrival of the railway, settlement and disappearance of the buffalo. Willie's letters provide a useful perspective on these events while opening an important window on the daily lives the men and women who spent their lives in the service of Hbc." Suggested Reading 2008 HBC
University of Alberta Press

9780888644602 : fur-trade-letters-of-willie-traill-1864-1893-traill-munro-peterman
Paperback / softback
320 Pages
$38.99 USD

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