The Palliser Expedition, led by Captain John Palliser between 1857 and 1860, was a scientific exploring mission of British North America.
John Palliser, a young Irish sportsman and adventurer, had his first hunting expedition in North America in 1847 during which, he wrote Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies, published in 1853. Nominated as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in November of 1856, he looked to them for help financing further travels. In the months following his nomination, he submitted a proposal to explore a large part of North America and was summoned to London for an interview.
Palliser’s proposed route was to lead him from Red River Colony (now Winnipeg), through the Rocky Mountains along the unsurveyed American boundary. No such voyage had been undertaken in the area and the opportunity to gather scientific information appealed to the society. Scientific explorations had led to new discoveries and studies in many parts of the world and they were eager to compare results.
The Royal Geographical Society applied for a grant from the imperial government, who, at the time, was uncertain of the future of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territories and needed them surveyed for land claims and the future railroad. Prior to this request, the American government sponsored surveying expeditions that crossed the border into British territory. Eager to solidify their hold on the west, the government granted the expedition £5000.
The Society put together an expedition team of scientific experts to capture all aspects of the voyage. Palliser, skilled in wilderness living and travel, would lead the expedition. Dr. James Hector was appointed geologist and naturalist, Eugène Bourgeau botanical collector, John W. Sullivan secretary and astronomical observer and Lt. Thomas W. Blakiston magnetic observer.
Travelling hundreds of kilometres through rugged terrain, the group ascended 6 passes in the southern Rockies and collected astronomical, meteorological, geological and magnetic data, and described the country’s landscape, fauna and flora, inhabitants and potential for settlement and transportation. The group studied three distinct regions of the North West: Lake Superior to Red River, Red River to the Rockies and the mountains of the Pacific coast.
While the men were members of the same expedition, they rarely travelled together. By August of 1858, they had divided into four distinct groups. James Hector traveled in advance of the others to inspect the land and gather guides. Later, he and Bourgeau led separate missions to survey the geological and botanical aspects of the Rockies. During his travels, Hector discovered two new passes, Kicking Horse Pass and Vermillion Pass. Palliser and Sullivan explored the prairies stretching from the Rockies to Cypress Hills to establish the potential for agriculture in the area and searched for an easily accessible southern pass. Blakiston surveyed the two known Kootenae Passes (Kootenay and Boundary passes) for the potential railway, journeying via river as much as possible, capturing magnetic observations. Upon completing his task in 1858, he left the expedition due to disagreements with the rest of the team.
The expedition's findings were published in 1859, 1860 and the final voluminous report emerged in1863. This report contained all of the information they had amassed about the plants and animals, the weather, the customs and languages of native tribes and the geology of the territory they had covered. The geological findings were further detailed by Edward Sanford in a comprehensive map, published in 1865. These reports were a major source of information about the land from Lake Superior to B.C.'s Okanagan Valley for many years.
One of the major contributions of the Palliser expedition was its identification of the northern extension of the Great American Desert into southern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. They recognized this triangular piece of land for its dry climate, sandy soil and extensive grass cover. It was named ‘Palliser's Triangle’ and was highlighted by the team as a poor area for agriculture, surrounded by a fertile belt ideal for raising cattle. The federal government ignored this warning and advertised the area in the early-twentieth century as fertile ground to establish farm operations. The extreme drought that swept the Prairies in the 1930s eventually proved Palliser’s team correct.
Dissention amongst the members of the expedition, particularly between Blakiston and Sullivan, caused Palliser no end of problems. Blakiston eventually disassociated himself from the Expedition and, upon his return to England, submitted his own report of his explorations.
Many years after the Expedition, Hector returned to the Rockies from New Zealand with one of his sons, Douglas. Sadly, Hector’s son fell ill and was rushed by train to Revelstoke where he died. Hector, heartbroken, returned immediately to New Zealand and never visited Canada again.
James Hector named many geographic features while travelling with the Palliser Expedition. The Goodsir Pass as well as the highest mountain in Yoho National Park, were named in honour of his professor, John Goodsir. Kicking Horse pass and river were named after Hector’s horse kicked him while travelling through the area. Mount Rundle was named after the missionary, Reverend Robert Rundle.
The men involved in the Palliser Expedition went on to explore and document many aspects of the world. At the time of final report’s publication from the expedition, Palliser was in the West Indies preparing for a mission into the embattled American southern states, Blakiston was in China exploring the Yangtze Kiang River, Bourgeau was studying plants in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, Hector was working as a geologist in New Zealand and Sullivan was in New Zealand working as a reporter for the Otago Times.
Captain John Palliser was able to carry out his project of making a scientific exploration of western British North America in 1857, when the Royal Geographical Society induced the British government to commission the venture. Assisted by Dr. James Hector, geologist, Eugene Bourgeau, botanist, Lieut. Thomas W. Blakiston, R.A., magnetical observer, and J.W. Sullivan, secretary and astronomical observer, he made the first detailed and scientific survey of the region from Lake Superior to the southern passes of the Rocky Mountains.
“Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site of Canada Commemorative Integrity Statement,” Parks Canada, 2002