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Manitoba History: Review: Sydney Augustus Keighley, Trader, Tripper, Trapper: The Life of a Bay Man

by Michael Payne

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Sydney Augustus Keighley, Trader, Tripper, Trapper: the Life of a Bay Man in collaboration with Renee Fossett Jones and David Kirkby Riddle, Winnipeg: Rupert’s Land Research Centre in co-operation with Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1989, 219 pp. illus. ISBN 0-920486-36-3.

Autobiography has been described as the most difficult of literary forms to master since most authors have but one chance to get it right. It is small wonder that so few writers attempt it, and why so many prefer instead to write semi-autobiographical fiction or biographies of others. After all, what could be more devastating than to have your life and insights declared banal by reviewers or, perhaps worse still, to have them ignored by a public more interested in the aphorisms of Sonny Crockett and the life and times of Roseanne Barr? It is a credit then to the courage of Sydney Augustus Keighley that not only has he set his life down on paper, but that he also persevered in trying to find a suitable publisher for his manuscript. The result is Trader, Tripper, Trapper: The Life of a Bay Man—an autobiography which manages to be both an interesting account of life in the North and a detailed and historically valuable portrait of the fur trade, especially in the period between the First and Second World Wars.

As generations of Canadian history students have discovered the fur trade can scarcely be described as one of the overlooked facets of our collective past, but with few exceptions it has been consigned to the colonial and pre-Confederation sections of our text books. Although the fur trade by no means vanished in 1870, it may as well have as far as mainstream Canadian history is concerned. If nothing else Trader, Tripper, Trapper reminds us that the fur trade remains a vital part of the economy in the North in the twentieth century and that as a way of life the fur trade survived the difficulties of the mid-nineteenth century. On the contrary Keighley’s book gives clear evidence of the strength and persistence of fur trade mores long after the purported collapse of fur trade society. His autobiography also offers some tantalizing evidence of an amazing demographic persistence in the North. For example, during his stay at the company’s post at Caribou, north of Churchill, in the 1930s one of his employees was David Oman, a Churchill “Indian” apparently descended from William Oman, who in turn had begun his service with the company at Churchill in the 1820s.

Other historians may well find equally intriguing resonances in Keighley’s autobiography, not to mention a wealth of detail about the day-to-day operations of a fur trade post, trapping and trading techniques, and how to wrest a living from a seemingly hostile environment. There can be little doubt that future works on the history of the North and the later fur trade will make extensive use of this book as both a primary source for research and as a mine of illustrative anecdotes to enliven otherwise leaden scholarly prose.

However, this autobiography is not simply intended as another form of primary source material to be used as a supplement to archival records. Nor will all the readers of this book be attracted to it by the light it casts on the history of the North. Despite Sydney Keighley’s urge to set down what he clearly sees as a life of adventure—and this book certainly reveals enough misadventures with thin ice, storms and treacherous waters to underline the fact that the North can be a dangerous place even for the experienced—it is in some respects the commonplace that dominated his life. His years as a trader, tripper and trapper were marked more by the drudgery of account books and routine tasks than the sort of romance and adventure popular histories of the fur trade serve up and readers of northern adventure books in the R. M. Ballantyne vein expect. Indeed, many readers may find daunting the sheer weight of mundane detail about the lives of unfamiliar individuals. Father Egenolf’s habit of wearing a parka with his cassock and the reasons for Harold Kemp’s retirement from Revillon Freres may seem less than fascinating, even trivial, to most readers. Ironically, it is this mass of detail and Mr. Keighley’s honesty and forthright opinions which make this such a valuable historical document. Perhaps the editing of autobiographies should be recognized as a task as difficult to get right the first time as writing them is.

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