George Mercer Dawson – What’s in a name?

(By Ingrid Birker, Science Outreach Coordinator)

Painting of Kootenai [sic] Pass

"View in mts 10 m. N. of Kootenai Pass". Painting by George Mercer Dawson, 1862-1863.

The other day I was attending a meeting in the Dean of Science’s office, located on the second floor of Dawson Hall. I peered out, and the first thing I saw was a dell of trees—some exotic and some local, some wizened with age and some youthful and upright—where preschoolers love to play. From the Dean of Arts window, just across the hall, I can view the new outdoor skating rink created on the field in front of the Redpath Museum. About 150 years ago the view from this window would have shown a pasture with a few grazing Holstein cows on either side of a muddy track leading up to the Arts Building. At that time, Dawson Hall, located to the east of the Arts Building, would have been the home of the Dawson family, headed by McGill’s fourth Principal, Sir John William Dawson; today, Dawson Hall houses administrative offices of the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts. The Dean of Science office occupies the Dawson family’s Drawing Room, a place where they would have withdrawn from daily life and academics. The historical photo showing Principal Dawson and his wife poised for their 50th Anniversary was taken in the Dean of Arts’ office which was Principal Dawson’s study. Beside them to the left, on the mantle above the granite fireplace, rests a small carved Haida totem, made from green- tinted ‘BC Jade’ or serpentine from the northern Rockies. It was collected by their son, George Mercer Dawson, when he explored and worked in western Canada in the 1880s, meeting First Nations people and studying their languages and customs. While studying the coal deposits of the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1878, he studied, photographed, and prepared a comprehensive report on the Haida people. He also published papers about the First Nations of the Yukon, northern British Columbia, and Vancouver Island, and the Shuswap people of central British Columbia.

John William and Margaret Dawson in study.

John William and Margaret Dawson in study with two insets at younger ages, circa 1897. McGill University Archives, PR027210.

For a few years in the late 1800s, much of what happened in science in Canada, and often the world, ended up in these rooms and in this building. Sir John William Dawson was the first Canadian-born scientist of worldwide renown and by the time he died in office in 1899 he had transformed McGill into one of the greatest academic institutions in the world. His son, George, also has deep roots in Canada’s scientific heritage.

Born in 1849 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, George was homeschooled by his family after age 11 when he fell into a creek near Burnside Hall and was afflicted with tuberculosis of the spine that resulted in a deformed back and stunted growth. He probably wrote his school notes in this Drawing Room. Later, he attended McGill University part-time, and then continued his studies at the Royal School of Mines in London (now part of Imperial College London), where he graduated with honours after 3 years.

His physical limitations did not deter George and according to Morris Zaslow, Canada’s premiere geological historian, “his superior mental and observational powers became widely known and his brilliance in systematic mapping provided a sound basis for understanding the geology and mineral resources of much of northern and western Canada.” It seems as if most of western Canada’s mining, ranching, agricultural and lumbering industries relied on George’s comprehensive research and survey of the country’s physiography. Indeed, two major western towns are named in his honour: Dawson Creek at Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway, now a major terminus for rail, road and tourism; and Dawson City, the capital of the Yukon on the Klondike River that Dawson explored and mapped in 1887. He republished these maps a decade later and inspired the public’s interest in the region as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush.

George’s career started in 1873 with his appointment at age 24 as Geologist and Botanist to Her Majesty’s British North America Boundary Commission. He spent the next five years surveying the 49th parallel between Canada and the United States. Despite his physical challenges, he traveled from Lake of the Woods in western Ontario to the Rocky Mountains. His mapping skills were phenomenally accurate, and his subsequent 387-page report called “Geology and Resources of the Region in the Vicinity of the 49th parallel from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, with Lists of Plants and Animals Collected, and Notes on the Fossils” established him as a respected scientist on the natural resources of the Prairies and stimulated the colonization and development of western Canada. The thousands of natural history materials he collected such as fossils, rocks, birds and herbarium plants, formed the basis of the collections now held at the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) in Ottawa, and the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). A few of his hundreds of photos from these travels are reproduced in this blog. They are an incredible visual record of invaluable historical moments in Canada: First Nations’ village life, wagon trains heading west, men building bridges, steamboats in the Yukon and frontier villages.

On his 1883-1884 survey through the Canadian Rockies he mapped out major mountains and mountain passes as well as significant rivers. Some of the many peaks he discovered were Mount Assiniboine (elevation 3,618 metres) and Mount Temple (3,543 metres). As a result of his field research, a map of his work was published in 1886 covering the Canadian Rockies from the American border to Red Deer Valley and Kicking Horse Pass. In this expedition he was assisted by three other GSC geologists and named peaks in their honour located in an area known as Scotch Camp near the headwaters of the Red Deer Valley: J.B. Tyrell (Mount Tyrrell) in 1883 and J. White (Mount White) in 1884 and R.G. McConnell (Mount McConnell) in 1885.

By 1895 he was appointed Director of the GSC and continued most of his professional life in Ottawa until his unexpected death in 1901 after a one day bout with acute bronchitis. He was interred in the family plot in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.

His other awards include a designation as Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1891) and in 1892 he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. In 1896 he was elected President of the Geological Society of America. George received an LL.D. from Queen’s University in 1890 and then from McGill University in 1891.

According to the 1974 book George Dawson – The Little Giant by Joyce Barkhouse, what George may have lacked in physical prowess, he made up for in determination and spirit. He painstakingly covered thousands of miles of uncharted wilderness by canoe, steamboat, horseback, wagon train, railway and on foot. He conducted studies in topography, geology and forestry and drew attention to the potential mineral and forestry wealth hidden in the northern and western regions of Canada.

He is remembered as a witty raconteur who wrote long loving letters home to his family in Dawson Hall and even his field notes include poetic musings about geological terrain. Here is an example:

Contorted bed, of unknown age,
My weary limbs shall bear,
Perhaps a neat synclinal fold
At night shall be by lair.
Dips I shall take in unnamed streams,
Or where the rocks strike, follow
Along the crested mountain ridge
Or anticlinal hollow…
Where long neglected mountains stand
Just crumbling into shreds
And laying bare on every hand
The treasures of their beds.

Fast forward to the year 2009.

Hans Larsson, one of Canada’s foremost paleontologists and a professor of Biology at McGill, spent the summer of 2009 retracing a portion of the route that George Mercer Dawson took in the early 1870s while surveying the Canada-US border. On that trip, George collected Canada’s first dinosaur fossil in what is now part of Grasslands National Park. Larsson and the student paleontology team returned to the region and collected a part of the skull of a very young Tyrannosaurus rex, about 500 pounds of well preserved plants (more rare than dinosaurs in these rocks), and about a ton of sediment filled with microfossils: small teeth, fish scales, and bones from a wide range of animals. These fossils are now being prepared, processed and described at the Redpath Museum in a room where George probably sat in the 1860s and learned about fossils and minerals from his father’s extensive collection.

G.M. Dawson and others, Hudson's Bay Company Fort Misery, 1879.

George Mercer Dawson and other members of his party outside the Hudson's Bay Company Fort Misery, 1879. McGill University Archives, PR027272.

Yukon River

Yukon River, taken by George Mercer Dawson, circa 1887. McGill University Archives, PR027273.

Haida Village.

Skidegate Indian Village of the Haida tribe in the Queen Charlotte Islands, July 1878. George M. Dawson/Library and Archives Canada/PA-037756.

G.M. Dawson childhood drawing

Drawing by George Mercer Dawson during his childhood. McGill University Archives, PR000345.

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