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Nineteenth-century geological surveyors were more than just geologists and rock collectors. They were also interested in the natural sciences, and in anthropology and geography. The specimens and information they collected in the field contributed to a growing scientific knowledge of the country.

Photograph of a survey crew carrying supplies on their backs through the bush

Survey crew carrying boxes
through the bush at Peace River

When they were out in the field, the crew took small samples of the rocks they found. These samples were collected throughout the survey. By the end of any fieldwork there were dozens of boxes weighing about 100 kilograms each. Fossils were also collected because they helped to determine the age of the rocks they were found in.

Photograph of a graptolite fossil

A graptolite fossil collected by William Logan
in Point Lévis, Quebec

Back at headquarters (Montréal until 1881 and then in Ottawa) the rock samples were examined, identified, described, arranged and exhibited to the public.

In 1877, under the government's instruction, the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) also began to officially study natural history. They were directed to collect plants and animals (such as pressed flowers and animal skins). They also collected information about the food, tools, clothing, customs and language of Native peoples.

John Macoun became the GSC's first full-time official naturalist in 1882, but many other geologists also took an interest in natural science. Their expeditions to the Arctic were particularly important. They allowed the Canadian government to learn about the northern people and environment for the first time. Information was collected from across Canada on climate, vegetation, tree cover, water sources and the best places for agriculture.

In the early years of the Survey, crew members depended on sketches to show what a place looked like. In the late 19th century they also had cameras to record what they saw. Later GSC leaders, like George Dawson, Joseph Tyrrell and Robert Bell all enjoyed taking photographs. Photographs were used to document dramatic scenery, unusual geological life in the field, Native peoples and industrial activities. Now the GSC not only collected rock, plant and animal specimens, but photographs as well!

In His Own Words

Robert Bell's 1882 "to do" list shows the items and information that he wanted to get at Fort Chipewyan. The fort was a remote trading post in northwestern Alberta. By this time, a geologist had many things to do.

"Wants etc. at Ft. Chipewyan: Visit mission -- 10 skin copper kettle and a cup for Chief -- tracking line [for canoes] -- provisions for 4 men from Ft Chipewyan to Ft McMurray -- Bread baked. Washing -- Distribution of Indian tribes -- Habits on animals. If hunting in. Moose. Bear. Beaver -- Canoe routes side of L. Athabasca -- Rocks of S[outh] side lake -- Localities of petroleum -- N[orthern]. Limits of trees -- Copper of Copper-mine River -- Other minerals. Gold. Graphite -- Climate of Peace R. etc. posts -- Indian relics -- Father Petitot [a previous explorer and ethnographer in the region] -- Migration of birds -- Indian and Eskimo [sic] traditions -- Men to take kettle, axe, cup, shoes -- Lat[itude], Long[itude], var[iation] of compass, level of lake."

(Robert Bell, notes and supplies for August 14 to September 1, 1882)

Photograph of Logan's specimen basket

William Logan's specimen basket