The theme of CIVILIZING THE WILDERNESS is perhaps best expressed in the quote from Horace with which den Otter introduces his first essay: “They change their clime, not their frame of mind, who rush across the sea.” The nine essays in this work address concepts of wilderness and civilization held by people living in or concerned with British North America and Rupert's Land, the vast territory controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company, especially the settlement of Red River and the Red River valley. The timeline cuts back and forth across the 19th century, a time of political, scientific, and philosophical upheaval at the height of the British Empire.
Den Otter wades into the nature-culture divide, showing the Western conceptions of wilderness and civilization as human constructs. These constructs, implicitly or explicitly stated, shape his subjects' philosophical stances and drive their actions.
Above all, den Otter is concerned with what he terms the “civilizing-the-wilderness theme.” He is at pains to explore “the drive to civilize not only the Natives but also the wilderness in which they lived” (p. xxi). He delves into extensive primary sources to work out how actors perceived wilderness and civilization, and how these perceptions transformed and shaped their actions as missionaries, company functionaries, settlers, traders, writers, and administrators, and as white, Native American, and Métis.
Den Otter contends, “At mid-nineteenth century, most writers perceived the concepts of civilization and wilderness as opposing poles. And, in conflict, they defined each other” (p. xii). The concepts defined not only the landscape, but the people inhabiting it. Wilderness could be perceived as untouched, barren, unredeemed, wasteful, or dark, and its people as heathen and ignorant. Civilization was ordered, settled, productive, and its people Christian, literate, and educated. How each actor defined or resisted these concepts, and to what extent they acted on trying to transform one state to the other, is the meat of den Otter's essays.
The greatest strength of CIVILIZING THE WILDERNESS is its rich and diverse selection of primary sources. Den Otter conducts a chorus of voices, mostly lesser-known figures, that articulate varied perspectives on the “civilizing-the-wilderness mandate.” Chapters often pair subjects: two sisters, two missionaries, two Native American preachers—with contrasting views of civilization and wilderness. Their accounts weave back and forth across decades, intersecting in locations and events.
Subjects include the sisters Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, both writers, who emigrated to Canada with their husbands to wrest a living from backwoods farms; William Mason and Robert Rundle, Methodist missionaries with wildly divergent views of the necessity of civilizing the wilderness and its peoples; preachers Henry Budd, a Cree, and Henry Bird Steinhauer, an Ojibwa, who came to identify with the Christian urge to transform the wilderness through agriculture; David Anderson, the first Anglican bishop of Rupert's Land; Red River Métis who conducted large-scale buffalo hunts as commercial operations; the witnesses who testified before an 1857 British Parliamentary Select Committee to review the record of the Hudson's Bay Company, including the Company's governor in British North America, George Simpson; and Peter Jones, an Ojibwa-Welsh man who worked (usually unsuccessfully) to secure legal title to reserve lands. Lastly, in an intriguing venture into historiography, den Otter reviews the historians of the Red River Métis, showing how they too unconsciously adopted the civilizing-the-wilderness motif.
Den Otter sometimes struggles to press his subjects into the civilizing-the-wilderness mold. He recognizes that a minority opinion that saw nature as a place of beauty could sometimes offset the civilizing impulse, though it could also support it. But he never really explores civilization and wilderness in the romantic tradition, despite some of his subjects' professed romantic ideals. In European sources, at least, romantics evinced a revolt against the concept of civilizing, maintaining that the best part of humanity is natural, and valuing nature—especially sublime wilderness—for invoking the strong emotions of apprehension, awe, even terror that were the most authentic and important part of being human. Den Otter acknowledges Suzanna Moodie, for example, as a romantic and admits she mourned returning to “civilized life” after time on a backwoods farm. He identifies her “gothic fear” of the landscape as a hatred of nature, but from her quotes given, is it possible that it was instead a romantic embrace, the thorn in the hand that proves one is alive? Perhaps not, but the question is left begging.
Den Otter leaves plenty of room for further analysis, particularly in teasing out the views of Hudson's Bay Company officials toward wilderness and civilization more explicitly. Den Otter points out that encroaching settlement spelled the end for the Company's monopoly; further work on their possibly contradictory views would be welcome.
Extensive back matter, including end notes, bibliographies, and an index, is thorough and helpfully constructed.
CIVILIZING THE WILDERNESS is a solid work of original scholarship that deserves to be on the shelf with any collection dealing with Canadian history or the history of North American settlement and the frontier. It is also profitable for those with an interest in environmental, economic, and social history.