In 1858, a tiny settlement known as Red River, now Winnipeg, was all there was of civilization except for strings of fur trading posts along the major rivers. Settlements in the east were cut off by the granite and swamp of the Canadian Shield and to the west by a mountain barrier. For two centuries British North America had been controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company which had harvested the rich furs.
Civilization was beginning to close in on the Hudson's Bay Company empire. American settlers following the Oregon Trail had wrested away the valuable Columbia River territory when the international boundary was settled in 1846. Vancouver Island had remained, as yet, in British hands and soon the Crown colony of British Columbia would demand a rail route across British territory as a link with the east.
The Hudson's Bay Company's long trading monopoly would soon be up for review. While Sir Ceorge Simpson, governor-in-chief, argued in London for his company's right to retain its special privileges a young Irish sportsman and adventurer, John Palliser, had decided that he would, even if he failed to get the support of the British government, carry out a one-man expedition to explore the British prairies and find out if there was any practical rail through the Rocky Mountains.
Palliser's interest had been whetted by a hunting trip to the Upper Missouri in the 1840s. The Dublin-born Palliser was a handsome, sociable bachelor who enjoyed world travel and hunting. He was one of many mid-Victorian men and women of rank and wealth who preferred the risk and adventure of world exploration to the tedious social life of upper-class England. Palliser's imagination had first been sparked by reading William Fairholme's account of a hunting trip he had made in 1840 while on leave from military duties in the east.
In 1847 Palliser spent two years on the American prairies. He later recounted his experiences in a book, "Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies," which was published in 1853 to great acclaim.
From 1853 to 1856, the United States government financed a series of expeditions to look for possible routes for railways from the central states to the Pacific. Some of these groups had, on occasion, crossed the border into British territory and by 1856, John Palliser had come to feel that the British had better learn something about their terrain. Those who were in the know were all members of the Hudson's Bay Company who had a vested interest in preserving their domain as it was. Surely, it was about time the government found out for itself what was going on and what the possibilities were for the future. As more Americans moved into the Oregon Territory and the call for a democratic vote had ended British control in the present states of Washington and Oregon, might this happen again?
Then there was the mountain barrier. What were the possible routes a railroad might take in British territory? Fur traders such as David Thompson had pioneered the northern mountain route, the Athabasca Pass, which was still in use, but how many others were there?
Passes were known to exist further south by following either the North or South Saskatchewan Rivers towards their source. Indians were known to use a number of these passes and occasionally they were used by others when speed was of great importance. The colorful Sir George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company had, while scurrying around the world in 1841-2, followed the South Saskatchewan to its headwaters on the Bow River. Then by way of a pass that still bears his name, Simpson Pass, he had continued his westward journey.
In 1848 Palliser met James Sinclair from Red River who had crossed the Rockies at least once with a party of emigrants travelling to the Columbia River. Sinclair described another pass which he hoped to try one day although he was not sure if it was in British territory.
Palliser decided to go and see for himself. He would travel across the British prairies close to the border from the Red River to the Rocky Mountains. He remembered how to make observations for latitude and longitude from earlier studies of astronomy and now he would be able to settle, once and for all, whether Sinclair's Pass lay in British or United States territory. Then, of course, there were probably other passes to discover.
Although Palliser originally planned on paying his own way, times, even for wealthy Irish landowners, were not good. Palliser's father had even found it necessary to sell some of his estates.
The Royal Geographical Society had organized a number of expeditions and possibly it would be interested in helping to finance his explorations. Palliser was nominated as a Fellow of the Society in November, 1856. Soon after his election he submitted his proposal to explore a large part of North America. One month later he was summoned to London to be interviewed by the Society's expedition committee.
Although it took some time for them to reach a decision, it turned out the members liked the plan. The suggestion was made that, although Palliser should remain in charge, two scientific assistants should go along with him. Palliser was thoroughly skilled in wilderness living and interested in every branch of science but he was not a scientist. It was also suggested that two Royal Engineers accompany the group. The Society President also contacted the Colonial Office in an effort to get the government to contribute £5,000 towards the expedition.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time was another Irishman, John Ball. A friend of the Palliser family he was greatly interested in science and could see how such an expedition would not only lead to more knowledge of the country but would add to scientific knowledge in general. He was an amateur botanist himself and was interested in the work of those who were systematically recording the species the world over and studying the conditions under which plants lived. The famous Kew Gardens in London was anxious that the expedition should make a careful collection of plants and record the conditions, both summer and winter, under which they lived.
Scientists throughout the Empire were involved in studies regarding the earth's magnetic field. Noted physicist and astronomer General Sir Edward Sabine requested that the expedition obtain records from this new part of the world.
The President of the Royal Geographical Society and Director General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, was leader of a pioneer band of geologists who were classifying the earth's rocks, clays, sand and gravels according to their character and age. The Society appreciated how valuable an accurate record of the western part of British North America would be to its study and endorsed Palliser's proposal.
In 1856, an American climatologist, Lorin Blodget, had published a report on the climatic conditions in the central plains of North America. Palliser's expedition would provide a chance to compare results. In short, those involved in almost all areas of science could see advantages to such an expedition.
Under-Secretary Ball, strongly recommended that the government help finance the project. Even while the British Treasury was considering the proposal, top scientists of the nation, including the naturalist Charles Darwin, were consulted to investigate the possibility of undertaking other research projects.
In due course, it was decided that Palliser should be accompanied by a botanical collector, a magnetic observer, a geological-naturalist-medical man and an astronomical observer who would also be the secretary of the expedition.
Considered the finest collector in the Empire, botanist Eugene Bourgeau was invited to join the Palliser team.
Sir John Henry Lefroy, soldier and scientist, who had himself made a number of valuable magnetic observations in the far northwest, recommended Thomas Blakiston, a 25-year-old lieutenant from his own regiment, the Royal Artillery, for the job of magnetic observer.
Murchison himself recommended a 23 year-old medical doctor from the University of Edinburgh, James Hector, who was also a geologist and naturalist. He enjoyed leading students on geological field trips and had trained himself to endure whatever hardships the outdoors might offer.
The final member of the team was John W. Sullivan, a mathematician and sextant observer. He was recommended by Dr. Edward Purcell of the Greenwich Naval School where Sullivan had been teaching, and he would take charge of the expedition's astronomical observations and secretarial work.
And so a distinguished group was assembled; while it waited for government approval to proceed Palliser researched the territory he would explore.
Sir George Simpson, the Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson's Bay Company offered considerable advice and even went to the trouble of arranging for canoes, horses, supplies and equipment to be available as required.
The distinguished naturalist Sir John Richardson was consulted and the scientist Sir John Henry Lefroy was especially helpful working out the most intricate details of transportation, routes, equipment and supplies.
Official approval finally came and the expeditionary party led by John Palliser, then 39 years old, and accompanied by James Hector, Eugene Bourgeau and John Sullivan sailed from Liverpool to New York on May 16, 1857 aboard the steamship "Arabia."
Thomas Blakiston left England six weeks later with the expedition's many delicate scientific instruments. He travelled aboard the Hudson's Bay Company's ship "Prince of Wales" to York Factory on Hudson's Bay. Continuing his journey by boat rather than overland because it was easier on his equipment, Blakiston eventually reached Fort Carlton on the North Saskatchewan River near present day Saskatoon and met up with the other members of the Expedition.
Three years later, in 1860, the various excursions of the Palliser parties were complete. It took three more years to publish the voluminous details they had collected about the plants and animals, the changing seasons, the rainfall, snowfall, temperatures and wind, the customs and languages of Indian tribes and the geology of the territory they had covered and another two years to complete the official map.
Specifically, Hector's geological observations and sketches became the basis of the first complete description and explanation of Canada's geological structure west of the Great Lakes. They also threw new light on the various stages of the earth's development and examined the comparative ages of rock and soil formations.
Captain Palliser's report was presented to the British Parliament in 1863. Perhaps it was too detailed, too difficult to follow and too full of scientific observations because it seems the report was largely ignored.
By the time the report came out the United States was involved in the American Civil War which distracted from the development of the North American west; also warring Sioux Indians, in 1862, had stopped the expansion of American settlement west of Red River.
At the time of the report's publication Palliser was in the West Indies preparing for a confidential mission into the embattled American southern states. Blakiston was in China exploring the Yangtze Kiang River and Bourgeau was studying plants in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. Hector went to New Zealand to work as a geologist. Sullivan eventually went to New Zealand and as a reporter for the Otago Times he accompanied Hector on several mountain journeys.
Canadian landmarks named by the Palliser Expedition (under construction)
Canadian landmarks honouring the Palliser Expedition (under construction)
New Zealand Landmarks and other Honours for James Hector
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Background Information on James Hector
Other Historic Journals by Explorers of the West
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