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

Is It Time For A New “Palliser Expedition”?

Brandon Sun, June 28, 2007; Part One of Three - David McConkey

Much can happen to a region and its people in 150 years. Right now, the people of the Prairies have a unique opportunity to compare life 150 years ago with today.

John Palliser led an Expedition that travelled through the Prairies 150 years ago. To mark this sesquicentennial, a new Expedition today should retrace the original route and report its findings.

The results would be a fascinating look at where we’ve come from, where we are at now, and where we are going. As a bioregion, we could collectively compare notes with then and now – an excellent thing to do every so often.

Between 1857 and 1860, the Palliser Expedition journeyed through and studied the Prairies. The project, officially the “British North America Exploring Expedition,” was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and paid for by the British government.

The main concern 150 years ago was political. Would the region remain British or would it be absorbed into the United States?

When the Palliser Expedition set out, the Prairies were largely under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Canada had not been formed. Treaties with the First Nations had not been signed. Although the border with the United States had recently been agreed to as the 49th parallel, it was not mapped or marked. American settlements were getting closer all the time.  

The objectives of the Palliser Expedition were to assess and report on the state of the Prairies – including the location of the border, feasibility of transportation routes, and potential for sustainable agricultural settlement.

The Expedition travelled from Lake Superior across the Prairies and through the Rocky Mountains. In Westman, the Expedition located the border in the Turtle Mountains, and then journeyed to Fort Ellice (St. Lazare). The group passed near to where the communities of Pilot Mound, Killarney, Boissevain, Deloraine, Hartney, Souris, Sioux Valley, and Miniota are today. (Brandon, of course, was still a quarter of a century away from being on the map as a city.)

John Palliser was an excellent leader of the project. From Ireland, he had served in the British military and loved to explore and hunt in far-off places.

A university drop-out, Palliser had a keen generalist’s interest in learning. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, where he met people like African explorer David Livingstone.  

Palliser had spent a couple of years in the 1840s living on the American plains. He wrote a popular account of his travels: Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies.

As head of the Canadian excursion, Palliser ably performed many tasks: organizing the Expedition, hunting bison, making maps, arranging for extensions to government funding, and writing the final report.

Accompanying Palliser were scientists who conducted investigations in fields like botany, geology and astronomy. Also consulted in England about the project were Charles Darwin and William Hooker – the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew Gardens) in London.

A new Expedition today could be funded by a Prairie province, the federal government (perhaps the Senate?), a university (perhaps Brandon?), or by a private foundation. Although including a host of experts, it should be led by one person, who could give it a sense of direction, purpose, even flair.

Perhaps that one person should be a foreigner, like the Irish Palliser, who could explore the Prairies with an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps the new Expedition could produce a landmark report, like Democracy in America  written by Alexis de Tocqueville from France after his visit to the United Sates in 1835.

Whoever leads the new Expedition, however, should be especially sensitive to the traditions and aspirations of the First Nations and Métis people of the Prairies. Palliser depended on the knowledge and understanding of aboriginal people to complete his trip.

Palliser hired First Nations and Métis people to be part of the Expedition. He also learned from, traded with, and was assisted by the aboriginal people he met on his travels. He journeyed using First Nations technologies, including moccasins, snowshoes, canoes, and dog sleds. In his final report, Palliser included vocabularies of four First Nations tribes.

As well, the Expedition collected First Nations artifacts, including pipes, bows, arrows, storage containers, and dishes made of birch bark decorated with dyed porcupine quills. These items were sent back to England, and they can still be seen and studied today, carefully preserved at Kew Gardens.

In the next two columns, I will continue looking at the original Palliser Expedition – and a new Expedition today – in the context of globalization and the environment.

* * * *
See also:  

Part Two of This Three-Part Series

"On the Road with Captain Palliser" by Joyce McCart

"The Palliser Expedition" by Irene Spry

Future Change May Be Dramatic

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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