DAWSON, George M. (1849-1901)




Author Tags: 1850-1900, Anthropology, Early B.C., Essentials 2010, Haida Gwaii

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Scrupulously private and excessively modest, the hunchbacked bachelor poet and explorer George Mercer Dawson ought to be revered as a Canadian hero.

Born into a Scottish-Presbyterian family in Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1849, Dawson suffered from Pott’s Disease as a child and never grew larger than a ten-year-old. He suffered severe migraine headaches all his life but never complained and rarely made any mention of his spinal deformity. Despite his physical limitations, Dawson was capable of feats of endurance that intimidated larger men. He covered more territory than any other surveyor for the Geological Survey of Canada. He was also a superb geologist, a paleontologist, an ethnographer, a pioneer photographer, a botanist and an excellent descriptive writer.

Dawson discovered much of the coal reserves of B.C.; he was one of the three men primarily responsible for mapping the area that attracted the Klondike Gold Rush; and he published extensively about the Interior Salish, the Haida and the Kwakwaka’wakw of British Columbia. He also undertook the first extensive surveys of the Yukon and Peace River districts, drew attention to the Crow’s Nest Pass region, explored the Shuswap, Kamloops, Okanagan and West Kettle valleys, and spent a year on the Bering Sea to co-author a pelagic sealing industry report with Sir George Baden-Powell that led to an international settlement of a dispute with the Russians. Dawson published vocabularies of the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Yukon and Secwepemc. A linguist, he also pondered the similarities of the Carrier and Chilcotin languages and speculated that the original inhabitants of North America might have come from Asia.

Dawson was first employed in Canada as a geologist and botanist. He undertook the first survey of the Queen Charlotte Islands and took invaluable photographs of Haida totems in the 1870s. Amateur and professional anthropologists who later used cameras to record Aboriginal culture in British Columbia included Harlan I. Smith, Franz Boas, Charles Frederick Newcombe, Samuel Barrett, Albert Parker Niblack, George T. Emmons, Marius Barbeau and Edward Sheriff Curtis—but Dawson led the way.

Comrades were always amazed by George Dawson’s stamina and zest for research. For example, setting out in May of 1887, he ascended the Stikine by canoe to Telegraph Creek, walked over the divide to Dease Lake, travelled down the Dease River to Lower Post, went up the Liard and Frances rivers to Frances Lake in the eastern Yukon, walked 70 miles overland to Pelly River, built a canvas canoe and then a wooden boat, ascended the Lewes River, reached and crossed the Chilkoot Pass, and returned to the coast in September—thereby completing a round-trip that encompassed 63,200 square miles of territory. George Mercer Dawson died in Ottawa, at age 52, in 1901. Dawson Creek, Dawson City and a school in Masset bear his name, but few realize he was a prolific author.


FULL ENTRY:

George Mercer Dawson was a scrupulously private, hunchbacked bachelor poet and explorer who ought to be widely known as a Canadian hero. Comrades were always amazed by his stamina and zest for research. Dawson covered more territory than any other surveyor for the Geological Survey of Canada, he was an excellent descriptive writer, a superb geologist, a paleontologist, an ethnographer, a pioneer photographer and a botanist. He discovered much of the coal reserves of Saskatchewan and British Columbia, he was one of the three men primarily responsible for mapping the area that attracted the Klondike Gold Rush and he published extensively about the Interior Salish, Haida and Kwakiutl of British Columbia.

Born in into a Scottish-Presbyterian family on August 1, 1849 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, he was the son of Sir John William Dawson, an eminent pre-Darwinian naturalist. He suffered from Pott's Disease as a child and never recovered. He never grew larger than a ten-year-old, his back was hunched and he suffered from severe migraine headaches all his life, but he never complained and rarely made any mention of his spinal deformity. He once wrote that, like his father, he "lived behind entrenchments and fortifications...finding expression...chiefly...in written words, guardedly, & hazarding nothing in open speech." Intimidated by his father, George Dawson attended McGill and, between 1869 and 1872, he completed his training at the Royal School of Mines in London, England. He was enormously adventuresome and diligent in his work. He was first employed in Canada as the geologist and botanist for the survey expedition that established the 49th parallel as an international boundary in 1872-1876. In B.C. Dawson undertook the first survey of the Queen Charlotte Islands and took invaluable photographs of Haida totems in the 1870s. Amateur and professional anthropologists who later used cameras to record Aboriginal culture in British Columbia included Harlan I. Smith, Franz Boas, Dr Charles Frederick Newcombe, Samuel Barrett, Albert Parker Niblack, George T. Emmons, Marius Barbeau and Edward Sheriff Curtis--but Dawson led the way.

As one of Canada's first scrupulous anthropologists, Dawson published vocabularies of the Haida, Kwakiutl, Yukon and Shuswap Indians. He pondered the similarities of Carrier and Chilcotin languages and speculated that the original inhabitants of North America might have come from Asia. He also undertook the first extensive surveys of the Yukon and Peace River districts, first drew attention to the Crow's Nest Pass region and its coal reserves, demonstrated the glacial origins of the Missourri Coteau, explored the Shuswap, Kamloops, Okanagan and West Kettle Valleys and spent a year on the Bering Sea to co-author a pelagic sealing industry report with Sir George Baden-Powell that led to an international settlement of a dispute with the Russians.

Despite his physical limitations, Dawson was capable of feats of endurance that intimidated larger men. Setting out in May of 1887, for example, he ascended the Stikine by canoe to Telegraph Creek, walked over the divide to Dease Lake, travelled down the Dease River to Lower Post, went up the Liard and Frances Rivers to Frances Lake in the eastern Yukon, walked 70 miles overland to Pelly River, built a canvas canoe and then a wooden boat, ascended the Lewes River, reached and crossed the Chilkoot Pass and returned to the coast in September--thereby completing a round-trip that encompassed 63,200 square miles of territory.

George Dawson died in Ottawa on March 2, 1901 at age 52 when he was president of the Geological Society of America. Dawson Creek, Dawson City and a school in Masset bear his name. In his accomplishments, George Dawson was a mountain of man--after whom a tiny field mouse of the Prairies has also been named. Phil Jenkins of the Ottawa Citizen has taken excerpts from Dawson's letters and his reports to concoct the (never-intended) memoirs of this towering figure who opened up the west with his geological surveys.

[George Mercer Dawson’s publications pertaining to B.C. include On the Superficial Geology of British Columbia (1878), Report on the Queen Charlotte Islands, 1878 (1880), Report on an Exploration from Port Simpson on the Pacific Coast, to Edmonton on the Saskatchewan, Embracing a Portion of the Northern Part of British Columbia and the Peace River Country, 1879 (1881), Comparative Vocabularies of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia, co-written with William Fraser Tolmie (1884), Report on an Exploration in the Yukon District, N.W.T., and Adjacent Northern Portion of British Columbia (1888), Notes and Observations on the Kwakiool People of Vancouver Island (1888), Glaciations of British Columbia and Adjacent Regions (1889), On the Earlier Cretaceous Rocks of the Northwestern Portion of the Dominion of Canada (1889), On the Later Physiographical Geology of the Rocky Mountain Region in Canada, with Special Reference to Changes in Elevation and the History of the Glacial Period (1890), Notes on the Shuswap People of British Columbia (1891). Douglas Cole and Bradley Lockner have edited his journals.]

BOOKS:

Dawson, George M. On the Superficial Geology of British Columbia (London: 1878). Reprinted in May, 1881.

Dawson, George M. Report on the Queen Charlotte Islands, 1878 (Montreal: Dawson Brothers/GSC., 1880).

Dawson, George M. Report on an Exploration from Port Simpson on the Pacific Coast, to Edmonton on the Saskatchewan, Embracing a Portion of the Northern Part of of British Columbia and the Peace River Country, 1879 (Montreal: Dawson Brothers/GSC., 1881).

Dawson, George M. Comparative Vocabularies of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia, co-written with William Fraser Tolmie (Montreal: Dawson Brothers/GSC., 1884).

Dawson, George M. Report on an Exploration in the Yukon District, N.W.T., and Adjacent Northern Portion of British Columbia (Montreal: Dawson Brothers/GSC., 1884).

Dawson, George M. Notes and Observations on the Kwakiool People of Vancouver Island (Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1888).

Dawson, George M. Glaciations of British Columbia and Adjacent Regions (London: Trubner & Co., 1889).

Dawson, George M. On the Earlier Cretaceous Rocks of the Northwestern portion of the Dominion of Canada (1889).

Dawson, George M. On the Later Physiographical Geology of the Rocky Mountain Region in Canada, with Special Reference to Changes in Elevation and the History of the Glacial Period (Montreal, 1890).

Dawson, George M. Notes on the Shuswap People of British Columbia (Montreal, 1891).

Cole, Douglas & Bradley Lockner. To the Charlottes: George M. Dawson's 1878 Survey of the Queen Charlotte Islands; The Pioneers of British Columbia, Vol 10. (UBC Press, 1993).

Cole, Douglas & Bradley Lockner (editors) The Journals of George M. Dawson: Volume 1, 1875-1876; Volume 2, 1877-1878 (UBC Press, 1989).

ALSO:

Barkhouse, Joyce C. George Dawson: The Little Giant (Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1974).

Jenkins, Phil. Beneath my Feet: The Memoirs of George Mercer Dawson (M&S 2008).

[BCBW 2010]