Palliser, John

John Palliser (1817-1887)

Canadian Rockies and Arctic Explorer

John Palliser was born in Dublin on 29th June 1817.   Little else is recorded of his early years or schooldays until he entered Trinity College Dublin at about seventeen years of age where he missed four terms, repeated a year, and in the end he left without taking a degree.

John Palliser is commemorated widely in western Canada.   One of the most prodigious hotels in Calgary is the Palliser Fairmount.   In that city there is also Palliser Square, from which rises the iconic Calgary Tower.    A suburb is called, simply, Palliser.   Further west, in the eastern ranges of the Rocky Mountains, a number of topographical features are named in his honour.   A pass, a river, a lake and even a range of the Rocky Mountain cordillera bear the name Palliser.

The Co Waterford man, whose family home was Comeragh House near Mahon Bridge, is remembered in this way because of the pioneering expedition he led to this Canadian region from 1857-1860.   This was the British North American Exploring Expedition, commonly called the Palliser Expedition, the aim of which was to explore the old North West Company canoe route west from Lake Superior and the plains south of the North Saskatchewan River.   With John Palliser as exhibition leader, Dr James Hector was appointed geologist and naturalist, Eugene Bourgeau botanical collector and John W. Sullivan (whose father was from Castletownbere) as secretary and astronomical observer.   The magnetic observer was Lt. Thomas W. Blakiston.   The Royal Geographic Society   supported the expedition (Palliser had been nominated a Fellow of the Society in 1856) as well as the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, John Ball, an Irishman and botanist.

The exhibition finished in 1860.   However, it took three more years to publish the voluminous details they had collected about the plants and animals, the changing seasons, the rainfall, snowfall, temperatures and wind, the customs and languages of the Indian tribes and the geology of the territory they had covered.   It took another two years to complete the official map.   The geological observations and sketches (Hector’s) became the basis of the first complete description and explanation of Canada’s geological structure west of the Great Lakes.   One of the mountain passes they discovered was later used by the Canadian Pacific Railroad as a route through the Rockies (Kicking Horse Pass, named by Hector).   The exhibition members were among the first Europeans to venture into these regions of the Rockies and as such they provided many topographical features with the English names they still bear (e.g. Mounts Ball, Rundle, Bourgeau and Murchison, Cascade and Grotto Mountains; Palliser Fairholme Ranges, along with many others)

John Palliser undertook three other notable ‘adventures’.   In 1847 his hunting trip to regions west of the Mississippi was remarkable for his willingness to live off the land and to survive the harsh prairie winter among the native peoples.   In 1862-3, during the American Civil War he undertook a confidential and semi-official mission to the Caribean and the Confederate States of the US.   In 1869, with his brother Frederick, in his own specially reinforced vessel, Sampson, he made a voyage to Novaya Zemlya and the Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic, exploring and hunting walrus and polar bear.   Few western Europeans had ventured so close (73 degrees north) to the North Pole prior to this.

In 1859 he was awarded the Patron’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographic Society for the valuable results of his explorations in the Rocky Mountains of North America.

In 1877 the Colonial Office appointed him a Companion to the Order of St. Michael and St. George (CMG).

On 18th August 1887 he died at Comeragh House after a walk in his beloved Comeragh Mountains and he is buried in nearby Comeragh Churchyard.


Murphy, S and S. 1999, Waterford Heroes, Poets and Villains.

Palliser, J. 1853. Solitary rambles and adventures of a hunter in the prairies. (Facsimile edition, Edmonton, 1969)

Spry, I.M. 1968, The papers of the Palliser expedition 1857-60.

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