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Manitoba History: Review: Debra Lindsay (editor), The Modern Beginnings of Subarctic Ornithology, Northern Correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution, 1856-68

by Greg Thomas
Canadian Parks Service, Winnipeg

Number 25, Spring 1993

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Debra Lindsay (ed.), The Modern Beginnings of Subarctic Ornithology, Northern Correspondence with the Smithsonian Institution, 1856-68, Winnipeg, Manitoba Record Society, 1991, xxx, 226 pp., illus. ISBN 0-9692101-3-2.

Vivid images come to mind when one imagines what life was like in Rupert’s Land in the mid-19th century: Hudson’s Bay Company boat brigades traversing northern lakes laden with furs and supplies, and Métis hunters setting out across the prairies on the annual buffalo hunt. What probably does not leap forward is the picture of a Hudson’s Bay Company officer accompanying local natives in the pursuit of a Ross gull egg for an ornithological collection. However, in the pursuit of science and international recognition, the Hudson’s Bay Company and its officers became major contributors to the Smithsonian Institution from the 1860s to the turn of the century.

The latest publication of the Manitoba Record Society offers a scholarly and informative document which explores this little known area of Canadian history. Historian Debra Lindsay, who recently completed her doctoral dissertation on this topic, has done an outstanding job setting the stage for this body of correspondence. In her lively introduction, she explains the historic context for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s interest in the collection of natural and ethnological specimens. As Lindsay points out, scientists and collectors had been permitted to collect specimens and data in the HBC territories prior to the arrival of Smithsonian Institution representative Robert Kennicott in 1859, but science and exploration were typically subordinated to political and commercial interests. Between 1859 and 1868 the Smithsonian Institution received more than 12,000 natural history specimens, several volumes of field notes, and some ethnographic accounts from Rupert’s Land which provided “unsurpassed and much needed data for the natural and the social sciences.”

Donald Gunn, an early inhabitant of Red River, who sent ornithological specimens to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

While this publication provides a valuable perspective on the 19th century fascination with science, and contains insights into this period of transition for the Hudson’s Bay Company, these letters also offer the reader a revealing glimpse into life in Canada’s north in the mid-19th century. As the published letters were private communication rather than official business, they are forthright and chatty in tone. Lindsay emphasized that these letters represent a fresh perspective on daily life in northern company posts, as well as insights into the interpersonal relationships of fur traders, missionaries, native peoples and outsiders such as Smithsonian Institution officials.

The majority of the correspondence focuses upon the communication between HBC officers posted in the Mackenzie River district and Smithsonian officials. One of the less well-known personalities who emerges in these letters is clerk Robert Ross MacFarlane. Rupert’s Land’s most prestigious collector, MacFarlane submitted more than 5,700 specimens, or almost half of the northern specimens received by the Smithsonian during the 1860s. MacFarlane’s exploration and collecting in the Anderson River area illustrates the complexity of the Hudson’s Bay Company post network and transportation system. These collectors arranged to transport delicate animal skeletons and rare ethnological specimens literally thousands of miles.

This correspondence contains considerable information of interest to historians interested in labour and social history and perhaps most importantly, aboriginal history. The Modern Beginnings of Subarctic Ornithology is a first rate piece of scholarship by Debra Lindsay and one which might lead to a major evaluation of the scientific expeditions sent to northern Canada between the first Smithsonian sponsored exploration in 1859, and 1909, when Peary fixed the location of the magnetic pole. As Lindsay concludes, Kennicott’s explorations are important not only because they mark the beginning of a very productive period in the history of science in the north, but because they exemplify the continentalist orientation of northern exploration in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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