Local writer explores life of Milford-born adventurer Peter Pond

Bill McDonald, a Milford resident and local writer, has just completed a book about one of the big names in Milford history, Peter Pond.

Peter Pond (1740-1807) was born and died in Milford, Ct., but gained immortality as an adventurer, explorer and fur trader amidst colorful voyageurs and flimsy birchbark canoes in the wilds of Canada. As early as 1778 he had set up a trading post on the Athabasca River hundreds of miles due north of present day Montana, further west than any white man of his time.

Today in the Province of Saskatchewan a lake is named after him and a monument honors him in the city of Prince Albert. McDonald explained that in neighboring Alberta in the northern oil rich city of Fort McMurray, there is also a monument honoring him as well as a shopping mall and hotel named after him.

In his hometown, Pond was inducted into the Milford Hall of Fame in 2009.

McDonald, a former Connecticut Post reporter, explores the adventures of Pond in his book, “The Rise and Fall of Peter Pond.”

“At age 16 in 1756 Pond left Milford and joined the British Army to fight in the French and Indian War,” McDonald said. “After going through four campaigns by war’s end, he came out a hardened veteran. Instead of hanging around Milford, he was drawn into a wider curiosity and found a profession that suited him, fur trading.

“He started in the Mississippi Valley and found by 1775 he could cash in better with the thicker pelts further north in Canada, where he made a name for himself. This is where the novel concentrates, on his glory years in Canada where his trajectory rose and fell.”

McDonald said Pond was a rough, intimidating hulk of a man with a short temper, held in awe by both Indians and whites, and he never took any backtalk. He made the first crude maps of North America west of Hudson’s Bay. Through his paddling westward into the fur-rich Athabasca Valley, he became a founding partner of the upstart North West Company that almost put the venerable Hudson’s Bay Company out of business, McDonald explained. His goal was to be the first white man to reach the Pacific Ocean overland. But fortunes turned when he was implicated in two murders, both with questionable evidence.

“He was replaced at his Athabasca post by young, ambitious Alexander Mackenzie who, after hearing Pond’s plans to reach the Pacific, tried it himself,” McDonald said. “After several attempts the Scot was successful in 1793, 12 years before Lewis and Clark.”

Mackenzie wrote a best-selling book on his travels for which he was knighted. President Thomas Jefferson read the book, and that drove him to launch the Lewis and Clark Expedition to stake the United States’ own claim on the Pacific Coast. By this time Pond was back in Milford, where he died in obscurity.

“But it can be said that without Pond, there likely would have been no Mackenzie book and therefore no Lewis and Clark Expedition,” McDonald said. “Pond was ahead of them all but fell short. Fate had other plans.”

There is a historical marker for Pond installed by the Milford Preservation Trust on Gulf Street, next to Milford Cemetery. “It’s on record that he’s buried there but no record as to where,” McDonald said.

In addition to being a retired news reporter, McDonald is an avid canoeist and sea kayaker, and that is partly what drew him to write about Pond.

Learning that Pond was born and is buried in Milford and that he used the canoe to shape 18th century North American history, McDonald started a website (peterpondsociety.com) that turned into a historical novel.

As part of his research, the author paddled the Clearwater River from Saskatchewan to Alberta, which Pond was the first white man to descend in 1778.

McDonald spent close to 20 years, off and on, working on the book. He went through two writers’ workshops and several drafts before deciding it was ready.

McDonald has lived in Milford since 1979. His three children all graduated from Jonathan Law High School and are now happily married. He grew up in New York State, graduated from Columbia University in 1972 and came to Connecticut upon landing a job at the Post. He is married to the former Kathleen Falvey, a Fairfield native and retired Fairfield elementary school teacher.

The book is available by emailing the author at bmcdon25@optonline.net. It can also be borrowed from the Milford Library and is for sale at Canvas Patch in downtown Milford. For more background on Pond, go to peterpondsociety.com.