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

The New "Palliser Expedition":  A Modest Proposal

Brandon Sun, July 12, 2007; Part Three of Three - David McConkey

In my two previous columns, I described the explorations of the Palliser Expedition in the Prairies 150 years ago. I also proposed a new Expedition today that would re-trace the original route and report its observations.

A new Expedition would be a great way to celebrate the original excursion. Its report would present an intriguing look at how the Prairies have changed in a century and one-half. Where have we come from, where are we at now, where are we going?

The major question of the Prairies in 1857 was political. Could the region be maintained as a British colony, or would it be absorbed into the United States?

Another concern 150 years ago was environmental. One of the aims of the Palliser Expedition was to study the natural resources and environment of the Prairies and assess the potential for sustainable agricultural settlement.

John Palliser and his company observed the countryside at close hand as they travelled by canoe, foot, horseback, snowshoe, and dog sled. Although they did carry some imported foods such as tea and sugar with them, they mostly ate what they could hunt or gather locally.

They picked berries in season. They hunted bison, deer, moose, and elk; caught fish; and shot ducks and geese. They also ate grizzly bear, skunk, porcupine, lynx, beaver, swan, pelican, and whooping crane. They discovered their favorite food was mountain sheep.

Some of the First Nations people told Palliser that wildlife was not as plentiful as in earlier times. Palliser and his group, for example, did not see any bison in what is now Manitoba.

Sometimes Expedition members went hungry. At one point in the Rockies, they were so famished that they came close to eating one of their own horses. Fortunately they were able to shoot a moose first.

The Palliser Expedition took stock of the land’s natural resources. Accompanying Palliser were scientists who examined the geology and flora and fauna of the region.

They found coal, which they burned in their campfires. They observed a “black unctuous mud” near Fort Edmonton, although they could not have realized the importance that oil would one day have.

Palliser considered the question of whether widespread agriculture was possible. Palliser observed that some farming was already taking place. The agricultural settlement at Red River (Winnipeg) was established. There was some gardening at Hudson’s Bay Company forts, and native grass was being cut for hay. Some of the First Nations people Palliser met were growing crops and keeping cattle.

Palliser concluded, however, that agriculture would be severely limited in the Prairies because of lack of rainfall. He identified a large area as being too dry for growing crops. The three sides of this zone extend from Cartwright, Manitoba to Lloydminster, Saskatchewan to Calgary, Alberta. This area is still called the “Palliser Triangle” today.

What of the environment – today and into the future? The new Expedition can examine the ecology and sustainability of the Prairies, especially as we face global warming.

How have hunting, farming, urban, and industrial activities changed the landscape? What of reduced biological diversity and possible desertification? One case example could be the bison: how a resource so plentiful was depleted so quickly and so completely.

The Palliser Expedition collected samples of plants, flowers, and seeds. The group also learned from the First Nations people about their extensive knowledge of the natural environment.

The new Expedition today can actually examine the vegetation gathered by Palliser and his team 150 years ago. Those samples are still preserved at Kew Gardens in London, England. As well, that collection includes the records of the descriptions of the First Nations people of the plants and how they were used.

The new Expedition can also compare its conclusions with Palliser’s original report that he presented to the British government and the Royal Geographical Society in 1862.

When the new Expedition has completed its travels, it should prepare several reports. The first should be a technical one for government use.

The second report should bring its findings to life for a more general readership. John Palliser, although he did not write a popular version of the Expedition, did so about an earlier trip he made in the US: Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies.

Third, the new Expedition should prepare materials for young people These should start with a blog and other interactive accounts on the Internet as soon as the project got going.

Those of us who grew up on the Prairies often do not adequately know and appreciate our history. We can start to correct this oversight for the next generation.

We should celebrate the sesquicentennial of the “British North America Exploring Expedition” 150 years ago.

We should establish a new “Palliser Expedition” for today. All the better to remember our past, understand our present, and create our future.

* * * *
See also:

"On the Road with Captain Palliser" by Joyce McCart

"The Palliser Expedition" by Irene Spry

Future Change May Be Dramatic

Proud History of Looking Forward

Discovering Historic Downtown Brandon

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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