A forgotten use of oil

Peter Pond, YankeeFive hundred miles north of Montana is the Alberta Tar Sands, site of a booming oil economy that is changing the industrial structure of western Canada.

But there had been a previous economic boom in the area.

First Nations Cree used the sticky surface deposits of tar to waterproof their canoe. When Peter Pond arrived in the 1770s, he quickly created a new commodity for traders and boat builders across North America.

“Peter Pond stalked into the hall, a pack of dogs at his heels. The gray-haired giant had not shaved in weeks, his buckskins were stained, and he was badly in need of a bath.

“But his natural dignity was overwhelming. He ate a large venison steak, a platter of bear-bacon, and a moose liver. He insisted his dogs be given fresh meat, too.”

From the Peter Pond Society:
Peter Pond (1740-1807) made the first maps of North America west of Hudson’s Bay. The European frontier was his trading post on the Athabasca River near today’s oil sands projects. [area wiki]

While a co-founder of the Northwest Company, Pond had inspired Alexander Mackenzie to become the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean overland across North America in 1793. Thomas Jefferson’s famous Lewis and Clark Expedition reached the Pacific in 1805.

Incidentally, as well as fur pelts another principal frontier product was making pounded meat called pemmican, longer lasting and more nutritious than today’s jerky. Flattened by pounding with stones and mixed with fat, the dried meat was a food staple for decades, commanding top prices and diverting the use of tallow from the candle market. Trading posts aggressively bartered for pemmican supplies using liquor, tobacco, powder, balls, knives, awls, brass rings, brass wire, blue beads and trinkets. [An insightful story of frontier pemmican here] An odd use of frontier animals was spreading beaver tail fat on a canoe to lubricate its speed in the water.


My great grandfather is honored as a ‘Royal Canadian Gentleman Adventurer of the Hudson Bay’. While giving steps and river journeys across then wilderness from Tennessee, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas and the provinces Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, he looked for lands where folks could settle.

The story I remember from my grandfather is his father’s pride in discovering the waters, land for crops, and ridges of good defense near the land now known as North Battleford, Saskatchewan.

In those mid-1800s, think a moment why a good name for a settlement would be North Battleford. Telling fellow pioneers of a place in the wilderness where its lands will feed you, he also said it will help defend a likely battle and you may escape at a place to cross the river.