Special Collections & Archives
During the winter of 1839/1840 fur trapper Osborne Russell and three companions whiled away the tedium of a mild winter camped in a skin lodge outside Fort Hall in southeastern Idaho by reading. "We had some few books to read, such as Byron, Shakespeare and Scott's works, the Bible and Clark's Commentary on it, and other small works on geology, chemistry and philosophy." The description of their activities during that winter suggests a more placid lifestyle than the rip-roaring, hell-raising, gun-shooting, liquor-guzzling life we have so long associated with the lives of the trappers. That view might be the result of the preponderance of tales of missionaries as opposed to tales of fur trappers.
Russell might not have been your average fur trapper, but he was probably not all that exceptional. He is reported to have had very little schooling and to have run away from home to go to sea at age sixteen. Instead he spent nine years trapping furs before moving on to Oregon and becoming a solid citizen, a judge, and a pioneer. California's gold beckoned him south and he died there after suffering business reverses.
Fur trappers were not always well schooled, even though they might have, like Russell, become readers; but fur traders and factors were managers and businessmen. John Tod, fur trader at Fort McLeod in interior British Columbia, reported that his 1825 summer was spent in "books, music..." (he played both fiddle and flute) "...and hunting." By 1836, the Hudson's Bay Company station at Fort Vancouver had a small circulating library that was filled with books brought from London with other supplies or purchased from American trading vessels.
Archival records show that there were at least twelve volumes at Fort Simpson in 1839: The Spectator, The Athenaeum, Companion to Newspapers, three volumes of Wallace's Life of George VI, five volumes of Blackford's Italy, and three volumes of Life of Galt.
The missionaries to the Northwest also brought books with them, many of a religious nature but also a quantity of secular works useful for life in the wilderness. The Columbia Mission Library kept by Dr. Whitman for the Congregational missionaries in the interior contained many medical books; it was in place in 1838. Whitman's eastern trip in 1842 resulted in another library being formed nearby. Whitman carried with him his neighbor's order for about $100 in books. But it was not until 1845 that HBC Clerk Archibald McKinley received his shipment of books from Boston; books selected by missionary David Greene.
Another fur trader to receive a large batch of books at one time was J. G. King, HBC agent at Fort Umpqua in southern Oregon. Unlike McKinley who just ordered $100 worth of books -- any books; King specified the titles and authors he desired. As a consequence the religious element was not quite as strong. The literary component included a nine volume edition of Sir Walter Scott's works as well as some Dickens, Byron and Thackeray.
It is clear that among the earliest American and Europeans in the Oregon Country we had readers and we had books; and among the books they read were the works of Sir Walter Scott. A hundred years later, in similar circumstances -- isolation, loneliness and fatigue -- a young man sat reading Lockhart's Life of Scott by lantern light in an isolated camp at the summit of one of the Cascades. This was Earl Larrison's introduction to Sir Walter Scott, an introduction he followed by reading and then acquiring everything by or about Scott which was available.
If we can accept the idea that some among the harsh frontier life of the mountain men, fur traders and missionaries found respite from their daily labors or their weather-enforced boredom by reading the novels of the era's most popular writer (although the center of that popularity was half a world away) then it is easier to accept the young scientist whose literary upbringing by-passed Sir Walter Scott and who rediscovered that author under suspiciously similar circumstances? Can we expect the young zoologist to become a Professor at the University of Idaho and, in 1962, donate his large and growing collection of Scottiana to the University Library through the Library Associates. And, can you see what the answer must be when they ask "Why is there a Sir Walter Scott Collection at the University of Idaho?"
Originally published in The Bookmark, 38:2 (Spring 1986) 41-42.