David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Book Brings Captain Palliser’s Expedition to Life

Brandon Sun, January 30, 2012 - David McConkey

Retracing history can be enlightening and entertaining. So, it is an informative pleasure to note a new book about the Palliser Expedition that explored the Prairies a century and a half ago.

On the Road with Captain Palliser by Joyce McCart chronicles the 1857-1860 Expedition and relates it to the land as it is today.

Captain John Palliser was an aristocratic Irishman with wanderlust but a shortage of cash. He lived a rather carefree life (he had inherited the "Captain" part). A jaunt hunting bison on the plains of the U S. in the 1840s led to his writing a bestselling book and a desire to return for another adventure in North America.

The 1850s was an era of uncertainty for what would become western Canada. It was before Confederation, the Hudson’s Bay Company had nominal ownership of the region, and treaties had yet to be signed with the First Nations. Settlements were limited to Hudson’s Bay Company forts and a small agricultural village at Red River (today’s Winnipeg).

Adding to this uncertainty was an expanding United States – could western British North America remain under the Crown?

Palliser married his thirst for adventure with British political and scientific interests. Palliser went to London and enlisted the help of friends connected with the government's colonial office. He became a member of the Royal Geographical Society. He also linked up with the botanical centre at Kew Gardens, which was collecting natural specimens from around the world.

Palliser proposed an expedition to western British North America to accomplish three goals. The objectives were: to inventory the natural resources of the region, to assess the potential for agriculture, and to locate a pass appropriate for a railway through the Rocky Mountains.

Accompanying Palliser were “scientific gentlemen” who would provide observations in botany, geology, meteorology, and the Earth’s magnetic field.

The Expedition was successful, and Palliser was also able to fit in quite a bit of hunting, from bison to grizzly bear. (He even found time to take off to visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras.)  

The Expedition has had a lasting impact on western Canada, including the names it gave to numerous geographical features. The most striking is “Kicking Horse.” This was named after the Expedition’s geologist was almost killed by a blow from the hoof of his horse. That location in the Rockies became the pass through the mountains used by the CPR.

Palliser is most remembered today for labelling a large three-sided area of the Prairies (including a corner of southwestern Manitoba) as being too arid for agriculture. The question is still with us and could become even more important in the future, considering climate change. Is it too dry to farm sustainably in the Palliser Triangle?

In her book On the Road with Captain Palliser, author McCart does a great job of comparing the Expedition of 150 years ago with the current landscape. She brings to life – for today’s armchair or actual traveller – the experiences of the Expedition as its members journeyed on foot and by horseback, canoe, snowshoe, and dogsled.

Written for the modern “historical tourist,” McCart carefully records where the original Expedition went and compares that to present day highways, parks, and other landmarks.

“Today,” writes McCart, “you can drive most of the routes they travelled, and where no roads go, you can run the same rivers, hike the same trails, and climb the same mountains.” 

(In Westman, Palliser travelled overland from the Turtle Mountains to Fort Ellice, which is today’s St. Lazare.)

McCart is a retired Alberta businessperson and college English instructor. She and her husband took on the Palliser Expedition as amateur historians, travelling the routes over several years while poring over the original journals.

The author also wrote a similar “On the Road” book about the travels of 19th century explorer David Thompson. (The same Thompson of Brandon's 18th Street bridge fame.) 

On the Road with Captain Palliser is self-published, and the professional-looking result shows the advances that have taken place in this method of book production. 

In addition, an online search reveals a number of other new publications available about Palliser. These include the papers of the Expedition as well as his 1840’s book about his bison hunting trip, Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies.

Want to learn more about our history and how it relates to the present? Technological developments in both the printed and electronic book formats promise to provide an increasing bounty of resources for anyone interested.

* * * *
See also:  

On the Road with Captain Palliser

Is It Time For A New “Palliser Expedition”?   (Three-part series)

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Other Reviews



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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