UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The Palliser survey: 1857-1860 Denholm, James J.


The pages of history are dotted with the names of men who have made only a small contribution to the sum of human knowledge. Often only a name, linked with a brief mention of some achievement, are all that remain to remind us that a man did exist. This thesis is an attempt to save one such man from near-obscurity. Much of Captain John Palliser has already been forgotten - his early life, his background, his character, are at least veiled if not completely obscured. All that remains is the record of his achievement; the report of the surveying expedition which, between 1857 and 1860, he led across the plains and mountains of what is now western Canada. Many historians and agriculturalists have consulted this report, but in my opinion only a few demonstrate more than a superficial knowledge of the document, and most have misinterpreted the conclusions there set down. This thesis is an attempt to reassess the Palliser survey. The report prepared by Captain John Palliser is well-written, very detailed, and comprehensive; in short, a perfect hunting ground for the research student. On the surface the study of this report is an integral unit falling within easily definable limits, but in reality, a complete reappraisal of its contents would require the combined skills of scholars in many fields, from anthropology through to astronomy. The problems of the scientist have been largely dropped in this study; a criticism of the geological, botanical, meteorological, and other similar observations has been left to the specialists in those particluar fields. Except where it has been necessary to draw upon the knowledge of the agronomist or economist, this thesis is an attempt to study the Palliser survey from the point of view of the historian. It has already been noted that the Palliser surveying expedition was in the field from 1857 to 1860. Between 1860 and the opening decades of the twentieth century, many other surveying parties traversed the plains and mountains of western Canada. This thesis is not an attempt to compare the Palliser survey with surveys conducted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is an attempt to evaluate Palliser's observations in the light of present-day knowledge. Finally, I would like to thank the members of the Faculty without whose assistance this thesis would not have been completed. The advice of Dr. M.Y. Williams and Dr. J.L., Robinson of the Department of Geology and Geography was invaluable in the preparation of the final chapter. Nevertheless, the opinions expressed in this thesis are my own.

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