In the mid-1800s, Andrew Dawson, self-exiled from his home in Scotland, joined the upper Missouri River fur trade and rose through the ranks of the American Fur Company. A headstrong young man, he had come to America at the age of twenty-four after being dismissed from his second job in two years. His poignant sense of isolation is evident throughout his letters home between 1844 and 1861. In This Far-Off Wild Land, Lesley Wischmann and Andrew Erskine Dawson—a relative of this colorful figure—couple an engaging biography of Dawson with thirty-seven of his previously unpublished letters from the American frontier.
Three years after he landed in St. Louis, Dawson went up the Missouri in 1847 to what is now North Dakota and Montana, taking command of Fort Berthold, Fort Clark, and eventually Fort Benton, the premier fur trade post of the day. Fort Berthold and Fort Clark, where Dawson worked until 1854, remain two of the least documented American Fur Company posts. His letters infuse life, and occasional high drama, to the stories of these forgotten outposts. At Fort Benton, his insight in establishing commercial warehouses helped the company keep pace with the changing frontier. By the time Dawson returned to Scotland—after twenty years in what he labeled a far-off, wild land—he had risen to become the last “King of the Upper Missouri.”
Thoughtfully annotated, Dawson’s letters, discovered only recently by his relatives, provide a rare glimpse into the lonely life of a fur trader in the 1840s and 1850s. Unlike the impersonal business correspondence that makes up most fur trade writings, Dawson’s letters are wonderfully human, suffused with raw emotion. Combining careful research with a compelling story, the authors flesh out the forces that shaped Dawson’s personality and the historical events he recorded.