Series 6 - George Mercer Dawson

Lake of the Woods, 1874 Boundary Commission, 1875 Sketch and notes on Indigenous groups Juvenalia, 1860-1861 Western Exploration, 1873-1874 Grasshoppers, 1875 International Exhibition of Philadelphia planning documents, 1875 Supplies, 1873-1875 Port Hood Coal Mines, 1872 Sketches, clippings, and notes on geological surveys
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George Mercer Dawson

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CA MUA MG 1022-6

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155 cm of textual records

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Biographical history

The geologist and explorer George Mercer Dawson was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia, and moved to Montréal in 1855 when his father, John William Dawson, became Principal of McGill. At the age of eleven, he contracted an illness which resulted in permanent spinal deformity and the stunting of his growth, but he vigorously resisted the role of invalid and completed his education under private tuition.

After a year as a partial student at McGill, he enrolled in the Royal School of Mines, London, whence he graduated in 1872 with highest honours and the title of Associate. After a brief period surveying mines in Nova Scotia and teaching chemistry at Morrin College, Québec, he was appointed geologist and botanist to the British North American Boundary Commission, and made his first surveying trip to the Canadian West.

His travels were even more extensive after 1875, when he became geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada; they resulted in numerous published reports and articles, primarily on the mineral resources of the Prairies, northern British Columbia and the Yukon, but also on the botany, geography, and ethnography of this region.

In 1883, he became assistant-director and, in 1895, Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, which he headed until his death in 1901. He assisted in negotiating treaties affecting natural resources, notably as Commissioner in the Bering Sea seal inquiry of 1891-92, for which work he was awarded the C.M.G. A member of numerous scientific associations, Dawson was President of the Royal Society of Canada in 1893.

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George Mercer Dawson's papers comprise professional, scientific and family correspondence, some scientific manuscripts, drawings and photographs of Western exploration, juvenalia, student materials, and poetry. His scientific correspondence (boxes 54-55) commences in 1872, but drops off sharply after the early 1880s. The letters, and his occasional draft replies, document the political and administrative fortunes of the Geological Survey, the North American Boundary Commission, and various learned societies. As well, they report on field research, particularly on mineral deposits, arrangements for equipment and assistants for expeditions, and the exchange of specimens. The correspondents include other members of the Survey, government officials, and business concerns, especially railways and mines. Dawson's scientific manuscripts fall into two groups: notes and reports on Western exploration, geology, mining, and Indigenous communities, 1870-1875, and 5 cm of general lectures on physical geography delivered to the Montreal Ladies' Educational Association, 1880. Closely allied to his scientific and exploratory work are an album of photographs taken in western Canada in 1894-95 (box 70), and about 10 cm of pencil sketches, sepias and watercolors of landscapes, many produced during exploratory trips in 1873-1874, and 1881 (box 59). Materials of a more personal nature include juvenalia (short essays, drawings, and two diaries from 1861 and 1865) and 16 lecture and laboratory notebooks from his student years at the Royal School of Mines, 1869-1872, together with pocket diaries, memorandum books, and notes of geological field trips during the same period (boxes 57-59). Dawson also wrote poetry, of which 10 cm of manuscript is extant (box 56), mostly reflections on states of mind, the Canadian landscape and seasons, and the vanity of human society, endeavour and love. There is also a small notebook of poems and reflections during an European trip in 1882 (box 58). Family correspondence includes 22 letters from his grandfather James Dawson, 1856-1857; 5 cm of letters from J.W. Dawson, 1856-1899; 15 cm from Margaret Mercer Dawson, 1865-1901; 3 cm from Anna Dawson Harrington, 1869-1901; 3 cm from William Bell Dawson, 1865-1899; 2 cm from Rankine Dawson, 1870-1900; and a handful of items from other members of the family.

Other papers primarily concern Dawson's geological interests, and consist of a diaries and general notebooks, 1873-1899; miscellaneous articles on geological subjects, 1887-1894; papers connected with explorations in the Yukon and with the Boundary Question between Alaska and British Territory and with sealing regulations in the Bering Sea, 1887-1897; correspondence, 1883-1898; and poems.

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  • Box: M-1022-54
  • Box: M-1022-55
  • Box: M-1022-58
  • Box: M-1022-59
  • Box: M-1022-56
  • Box: M-1022-81
  • Box: M-1022-82
  • Box: M-1022-83
  • Box: M-1022-57