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MHS Smarty Party: 20 October 2022

Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Book Review: Joyce McCart, On the Road with Captain Palliser, 1857-1860

by Simon M. Evans
University of Calgary

Number 71, Winter 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In this book, Joyce McCart sets out two major objectives. First, she wants to provide the growing cadre of “historical tourists” with a guide to the ground covered by the British North American Exploring Expedition, better known as the Palliser Expedition. Second, she seeks to provide a short version of the narrative story of the expedition, which is accessible to the general reader. She achieves these limited objectives with panache.

For the “arm-chair geographers” and travellers among us who want to add a historical dimension to our journeys, the book provides twelve clearly drawn maps covering each section of the expedition. These maps are based on contemporary road maps and show both selected modern settlements and historic forts. They also indicate the drainage pattern of rivers and lakes, and the general locations of mountains and hills. At the outset, I was surprised that the route taken by the expedition was not marked, but I was not far into the account before I realized that this would have been impossible. There were simply too many sub-groups exploring in different directions and taking different trails. However, by reading the text and referring to the map which accompanies it, one can picture the general path taken, and place the graphic descriptions of the land, which are often taken from the original documents. I can imagine taking this book along on any drive across Alberta, and covering much of the terrain explored by Palliser and his colleagues, a little at a time. Although the author makes no claim to be a rugged hiker, she takes us right to the trailhead leading to a mountain pass and points the way forward.

As for the story, this book is based on the exhaustive scholarly work of Irene Spry. In sixteen short chapters and about 250 pages, McCart has encapsulated for us much of the drama, the human interest and the scientific achievements of the expedition. Having read the book, I feel that I know the five main “actors” much better. Captain Palliser is depicted as something of a dilettante, an aristocrat whose constant search for good buffalo hunting frequently dictated the direction taken by the explorers. As the author remarks: “As for Palliser, he hadn’t changed at all. If you watch the stage instead of reading the script, it is evident he was still doing as he pleased, while demonstrating to his watch dogs (in London) he wasn’t. Nowdays, we call it ‘spin’.” (p. 67) Nevertheless, the text makes it clear that Palliser had many of the qualities of the remarkable men of his generation who built the British Empire and penetrated the farthest corners of the globe. He was well connected, and could charm or cajole men in all walks of life, from Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to a Stoney Indian guide like “Nimrod.” Palliser was completely fearless, and it was perhaps this boundless self-confidence that impressed Blackfoot chiefs and gave the expedition safe passage through the heart of their territory. Moreover, although he was indolent and disorganized, Palliser was an experienced and fluent writer, with an eye for pertinent detail. Finally, during three years of intense activity in western Canada, Palliser never lost a man in his charge.

As for the other four main characters, one cannot help being drawn by the tremendous enthusiasm and energy of the young geologist, James Hector. His epic winter journeys by dogsled are the stuff of “Boy’s Own” adventure stories. As Peter Erasmus commented to Palliser: “Your doctor (Hector) is so fanatical in his work that realities do not exist in his mind.” (p. 133) He often compromised the safety of himself and his companions by giving no thought to provisions. The martinet Thomas Blakiston wanted everything handled “by the book,” as it would have been done in his regiment. A confrontation with his laissez-faire superior was inevitable. Eugene Bourgeau proved to be a knowledgeable and single-minded botanical collector, and John Sullivan, the butt of Blakiston’s bullying, did sterling service as secretary.

The author summarizes the achievements of the expedition judiciously. Anyone who has had an opportunity to examine the map derived from the observations of the expedition and produced by cartographers Arrowsmith and Stanford in 1865, will be awed by the level of detail depicted. It was a pity that McCart could not include a detail from that source among her several photographs.

As this is a short book with limited objectives, it is perhaps unfair to cavil about what is left out. But one looks in vain for an appreciation of the intellectual baggage, which the explorers brought to their task. Palliser’s constant laments about the lack of timber—“entirely barren, no trees” (p.104)—conveys his perception of the prairie as being “treeless” rather than “grass full.” He expected to find a northward extension of the Great American Desert, and naturally, he found it. Moreover, contemporary historians might question the degree to which the expedition was really “exploring.” Were they not really scientific tourists being led hither and yon along well-known routes? And what about the Aboriginal inhabitants of the prairies who had developed a spectacular way of life based on the buffalo, and who had adapted both to the re-introduction of the horse and the market forces of the fur trade? McCart’s book is a useful tool to help us follow in the wake of Palliser and his team. At the same time, it will spark interest, which will encourage readers to dig deeper.

Page revised: 6 January 2018

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