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Mapping the New World: The Palliser Expedition of 1857-60

For the week of Monday November 20, 2006

On November 24, 1856, John Palliser was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Palliser, an avid traveller, visited North America as early as 1847, spending 11 months hunting buffalo, elk and other large game for sport. Upon becoming a member of the Society, Palliser proposed to lead an exploration of British territory in the “New World.”

John Palliser
John Palliser
© Library and Archives Canada / 1972-26-657
The Society accepted Palliser’s proposal, but transformed it into a scientific exploration of previously uncharted British lands. This decision came on the heels of avid American interest in land north of the 49th parallel. Britain realized it needed to know its territory in order to protect its North American interests. Palliser’s scientific team consisted of Dr. James Hector (geologist, naturalist, and physician), Eugène Bourgeau (botanist), Lieutenant Thomas Wright Blakiston (magnetical observer), and John W. Sullivan (astronomer and secretary). Their mission was to determine the possibility of accessing the Pacific Ocean by travelling exclusively through British lands and to assess the farming potential of the land in the western interior. Given the limited knowledge about this region and the abundance of HBC posts, the assistance from HBC officials, including Sir George Simpson, was essential.

Palliser, Hector, Bourgeau and Sullivan, funded by an Imperial Grant of £5,000, left England for New York on May 16, 1857. From there, they went to Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, to meet their voyageur crews, and proceeded by steamship to Isle Royale, Michigan. On June 12, they headed to Lower Fort Garry, Manitoba, by canoe along the Red River, where Simpson gave them HBC supplies. The men met up with Blakiston at Carlton House, along the Saskatchewan River and then journeyed across the western interior and British Columbia, as far as the Okanagan Valley.

The Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains
© Parks Canada / J.F. Bergeron / 1999
Upon the completion of their expedition, the men published reports in 1859, 1860, and 1863 that highlighted their scientific findings. Also, the expedition produced the first comprehensive map of the region. Ultimately, the reports concluded that while a route across British territory to the Pacific Ocean was possible, it would be too costly to be economically feasible. They also found there was an infertile triangle of land just north of the 49th parallel – thereafter called the Palliser triangle.

As leader of the 1857-60 expedition, the Society presented Palliser with its gold medal in 1859. The Palliser Expedition was designated a National Historic Event in 1957 to honour this first scientific exploration from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains.

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