The Palliser Expedition

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If you mention Louis and Clark, people typically know exactly who you are talking about. They know about the legendary expedition sent by the Americans out west, but when you mention the Palliser Expedition, many Canadians don’t know what you are talking about even though it had a massive impact on the history of the settlement of the Canadian west.

Let’s begin our look at this expedition.

The expedition was initiated by John Palliser, an Irish-born geographer and explorer who had led hunting excursions into the North American prairies before submitting his plan to the Royal Geographical Society to travel to and from the Red River Colony to and through the Rocky Mountains, along the American boundary that had yet to be surveyed. The Royal Society greed to this venture but expanded on it to become a scientific expedition. A grant request was also issued to the government for 5,000 Pounds. At the time, the future of the Hudson’s Bay Company territories was in jeopardy and information was needed about the area. Another goal of the expeidtion was to explore new railway routes for any future railway through Canada and to collect new species of plants.

On this expedition, Palliser would be joined by four men and I am going to look at each of those men right now.

James Hector was a Scottish geologist, naturalist and surgeon who served as the expedition’s surgeon and geologist. He was appointed to the Palliser Expedition on the recommendation of Sir Roderick Murchison, who was the director-general of the British Geological Survey.

Eugene Bourgeau was a French naturalist who worked at a botanical garden in France and was a botanical collector in Spain, North Africa and the Canary Islands before he joined the expedition.

Thomas Blakiston was an English explorer and naturalist, who would serve as the magnetic observer on the expedition.

John Sullivan was a mathematician and astronomer who taught at at the Royal Naval College and was recommended by the Palliser Expeiditon by fellow faculty member Edward Purcell.

At the time of the expedition, knowledge of the west was very limited. The area along the American border was known by Indigenous communities and fur traders, as well as missionaries, and some explorers had collected and recorded information but that was not easily accessible to everyone. In order for expansion to happen, promising land out west had to be found.

With the Palliser Expedition, the men were told to explore the land between Lake Superior and Red River, the Red River area to the Rocky Mountains and the land beyond the Rocky Mountains towards the Pacific coast.

The four men would leave for New York on May 16, 1857, and eventually sail to Sault Ste. Marie by steamship. They would continue by canoes and on June 12, reached Isle Royals and continue through to Fort William, the future location of Thunder Bay. This would serve as the starting point of the expedition for the men. The men would leave the area by horse and cart, with supplies provided by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Once they had reached the Red River area, Palliser hired several Métis guides to assist them in the trip west. In all, there were 19 Métis guides who served as scouts, armed escorts and interpreters.

During that month of June, the expedition would explore the White Fish River and determine its river connections through the help of three local Ojibwas.

Moving from Red River, the expedition would meet Charles W. Iddings, an American surveyor along the American border. The expedition would continue through Turtle Mountain, Fort Ellie, along the South Saskatchewan River to Fort Carlton and then along the North Saskatchewan River where the men would winter until 1858.

In the spring as the snow melted, the men continued west to search for a mountain crossing. Palliser and Sullivan would map the North Kananaskis Pass and the North Kootenay Pass before returning to Fort Edmonton for the winter. Hector would explore the Vermilion Pass and would discover the Kicking Horse Pass, which would be a vital pass for the passage of the railway in three decades time. The story of the pass and its name is an interesting one. While near the continental divide, Hector’s packhorse fell in the river. As the horse was being pulled from the water, his own horse began to stray. When he attempted to catch it, the horse kicked him in the chest and knocked him unconscious. In his diary, he would write, “In attempting to recatch my own horse, which had strayed off while we were engaged with the one in the water, he kicked me in the chest.”

While he was unconscious, his companions believed he was dead and dug a grave for him. They were preparing to put him into the grave when he suddenly woke up.

In 1903, Hector would visit Canada again and stated “when I regained consciousness, my grave was dug and they were preparing to put me in it. So that’s how Kicking Horse got its name and how I came to have a grave in this part of the world.”

Now this is a nice story, but Métis guide Peter Erasmus, who was with Hector, wrote his own version of the story that disputes the story that Hector related about his grave. Erasmus’ account is as follows.

“The doctor was knocked unconscious. We all leapt from our horses and rushed up to him but all our attempts to help him recover his senses were of no avail. We then carried him to the shade of some big evergreens while we pitched camp. We were now in serious trouble and unless Nimrod fetched in game our situation looked hopeless. One man stayed and watched the unconscious doctor. The rest of us took turns trying to catch trout that we could see in the clear mountain water of the river. Dr. Hector must have been unconscious for at least two hours when Sutherland yelled for us to come up. He was no conscious and in great pain. He asked for his kit and directed me to prepare some medicine that would ease the pain. I had him sign a document stating the facts of the accident in case his illness might prove serious. He readily agreed that it would be the proper thing to do.”

During the winter, Palliser, Captain Arthur Brisbois and William Roland Mitchell went south to Rocky Mountain House and met with the Blackfoot and Northern Piegan First Nations.

In 1859, the expedition set out in the spring and mapped the confluence of the Red Deer River and South Saskatchewan River, as well as through the Cypress Hills region. Hector at this time would go through the Rockies at the Howse Pass, and did an unsuccessful push to the Pacific. Palliser and Sullivan crossed through the North Kootenay Pass and continued along the Kootenay River. Sullivan would explore the Columbia River and the Okanagan Valley, while Palliser went to what would one day be southern British Columbia. The two men would then reunite with Hector at Fort Colville and then travel 598 miles downstream of the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean, then up to Fort Victoria.

The expedition then returned to the East Coast by ship through San Francisco and Panama, on to Montreal and then Liverpool.

What impact would this expedition have on Canada once it was over?

The expedition would discover a fertile stretch of land along a fertile belt of soil from the Red River, through the South Saskatchewan Valley and to the Rockies. The second expanse of land, known as Palliser’s Triangle, which covered southern Alberta through southern Saskatchewan and into southwest Manitoba, was deemed too arid for farming. This finding was later overruled by officials, but many of the people who moved there to homestead soon found that the area went through boom and bust when it came to rain and drought. Even with Palliser stating the area was not good for farming, the government pushed it and when The Great Depression arrived, many dealt with terrible Dust Bowl conditions.

The expedition, through its surveys, helped to shift the economy of what would be the Canadian west from fur trading to agriculture. In 1863, Palliser would present a long report to the British Parliament about his findings and in 1865, a map was published.

By 1870, agriculture was the main focus of the west and the main resource of the prairies.

With this change in focus of industry, it created more development in western Canada, with a growing population of settlers arriving. This would create conflict with the Indigenous people of the region. The expansion into the west was rapid and it would impact the Métis and Indigenous people as they saw a huge shift in their economic, political and cultural control of the area. As more people came in, the bison began to disappear and the Indigenous were heavily reliant on the animal. With no bison, the Indigenous had to reply on the government and the European settlers coming in to take their land.

What happened to the expedition members afterwards?

Let’s take a look.

The leader of the expedition, John Palliser, would go on to travel through Russia in 1869 following the American Civil War where there were rumours that he was a spy for the Confederate States but these were never proven. He would become a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1877 and would never marry. He would spend the rest of his life in Ireland and pass away in 1887. Today, the Fairmont Palliser Hotel, and the Palliser neighbourhood, in Calgary are named for him. The Palliser Range, Palliser Regional School Division and Palliser Formation in the Rockies are all named for him as well.

John Sullivan would fade back to regular life after the expedition, which saw him describe the Nakoda people and be the first person to record the Sarcee language. Mount Sullivan, a peak in British Columbia, is named for him.

Eugene Bourgeau would later take expeditions through Asia Minor, Spain and Mexico. Mount Bourgeau near Banff is named for him. Despite having a plant named for him, and his skill as a botanist, he never published any botanical literature because of was a terrible speller. He would pass away in 1877.

Thomas Blakiston would travel the Yangtze River in China in 1861, going farther than any westerner before him. He would spend the next two decades in Japan before moving to the United States in 1885, where he passed away in 1891. While in Japan, he was the first person to notice that the animals in Hokkaido were related to northern Asian species. An owl he collected in Japan in 1883 was later named Bakiston’s fish owl. Mount Blakiston, the highest mountain in Watertown Lakes National Park, is named for him.

James Hector would find his way to New Zealand where he founded the Geological Survey of New Zealand and supervised the Colonial Museum construction. He became the chief government-employed scientist in the country and would provide politicians with advice on a wide assortment of topics. He would also manage the New Zealand Institute for 35 years, and also became the Chancellor of the University of New Zealand. In 1875, he was made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George and in 1887, he was knighted.

He would pass away in 1907.

Information comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia,

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