Biography of John Macoun, M. A., F. L. S.
Should Samuel Smiles ever enlarge his entertaining and instructive volume on. Self Help,” he will find rich material in the life of John Macoun, who has educated himself, become the best botanist in the Dominion of Canada, and is a member of the Linnaean Society of London. He is a native of the County of Down, Ireland, the son of James Macoun, a British soldier, and Ann Jane Nevin, a descendant of the Scotch Covenanters, and was born on the 17th of April, 1832. The Macouns are a very old family in the County of Down, and have held lands there for hundreds of years.
John lost his father when he was only five years old. In the year 1850, at the age of eighteen years, accompanied his mother and three other children to the New World, and the family settled on a farm in the Township of Seymour, County of Northumberland, forty miles from Cobourg. There he farmed for six years, studying every leisure moment. He had a passion for botany; was early smitten with admiration of the novel and beautiful flora of this new country, and gave his spare time to the study of different branches, with botany as his specialty. He supplied his intellectual wants with the eagerness that half starved herds plunge into a clover field. In order to raise funds that he might pursue his studies to better advantage, he fitted himself to teach a public school, which he found near Brighton, and taught between two and three years. With his exchequer moderately replenished, in 1859, he spent six months at the Normal School, at Toronto, thus getting a better insight into the art of teaching, as well as being better fitted for the calling by his own mental drill. On leaving Toronto, Mr. Macoun taught a short time in another locality; then came to Belleville, and has since been a steady educator, never for a moment forgetting himself, and giving special attention to botany and geology. Here he rose, step by step, until he became Head Master of the Public Schools; resigning that position in 1874, to take the Chair of Botany and Geology in Albert University, and Rector of the College Grammar School, the duties of which position he is discharging with enthusiasm, and to the complete satisfaction of the friends and patrons of the institution.
Pursuing his botanical studies for more than a quarter of a century without assistance, he has become almost a complete master of that branch of knowledge, having no peer in industry or in the extent of practical knowledge in this direction, in Ontario.
In 1868 the Genesee College, New York, conferred on Professor Macoun the honorary degree of Master of Arts. He is a member of the Canadian Institute, Toronto, and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, Eng., the only man in Ontario receiving the latter honor. He has an introductory book on botany in press, which will be out before this book makes its appearance, and is also engaged on a manual of the botany of the St. Lawrence valley, to be published in 1880. He has already published a catalogue of the plants of the Dominion, 3,081 in all, of which 2,900 were his own collecting.
He has lectured all over Ontario about the North West Territories, and has done more to enlighten the public regarding their value than any man in the Dominion. For over twenty years he has taken an active part in Teachers’ Institutes; has long been recognized as a leader in Ontario, in educational matters, and is as well known among botanists and other scientific men in the United States, and in several countries in Europe, as in Canada. At the World’s Exposition, and Centennial of the United States, held at Philadelphia in 1876, he obtained the bronze medal for a Herbarium, and in 1878, at Paris, at a similar exhibition, a silver medal for Herbarium and Canadian medicinal plants.
Professor Macoun has had, in his busy life, two episodes of which we must not fail to speak episodes which he turned to the richest account in the investigation of natural science. In 1872 he accompanied the railway expedition, under Sandford Fleming, going from Lake Superior to Edmonton, on the Saskatchewan, with the main party, but was sent from this point by Mr. Fleming to examine the Peace River Pass, which, in that day, was known to only a few Hudson Bay officers. He and another gentleman and two Hudson Bay officers forced their way through a very difficult country, and reached Dunvegan, on the Peace River, about the beginning of October. Here, owing to the lateness of the season, they were strongly advised to return. But being determined to push through at all hazards, they pursued their way, although the Hudson Bay officers returned down the river, not daring to face the winter in the Rocky Mountains. With great effort they reached the mountains by the 24th of October, and at once commenced a march of one hundred and fifty miles up a stream, whose waters were gradually drawing to the freezing point. Three days after they started the ground was covered with snow, and the river margin was frozen, but by the greatest exertions they reached Fort McLeod, in latitude 55°, by the 5th November. On the next night the river froze up, and in three days they were again on the march, accompanied by one man and three dogs, carrying their own provisions and bedding. They traveled for ninety miles over frozen lakes and rivers, with the thermometer most of the time 20° below zero, and reached Fort St. James on the 14th. Here the two men separated, and Mr. Macoun, in company with two Indians, started for Quesnelle, on the Fraser, which they reached in safety, after a walk of one hundred and eighty miles through the snow. Each night they lay under the canopy of heaven without inconvenience, although the thermometer often went 30° below zero. A stage ride of four hundred miles brought him to Yale, where he took a canoe and floated down the Fraser to New Westminster, and took steamboat there for Victoria, which he reached on the 12th of December. Of his scientific researches during that wild trip Mr. Fleming, in his report, speaks in strong terms of praise. In that report is embodied about fifty pages of Professor Macoun’s individual report.
In 1875 he was appointed Botanist to the Geological Survey, which went out under A. R. C. Selwyn, F.R.S. Mr. Macoun went by rail to California, and by water to Victoria. After botanizing in the vicinity of Victoria, and examining the country round that city, he proceeded to the mainland, and went up the country by the wagon road, reaching Quesnelle in the latter part of May. A walk of two hundred and seventy miles brought him to Fort McLeod, where he with the other members of the party embarked on board a few frail boats, his being a canvas one, which was safe enough as long as it struck nothing. In this frail boat he floated down the Peace for one hundred and fifty miles, and had many escapes in running rapids and passing eddies, but whatever came in his way he never forgot his work. The party climbed Mount Selwyn, in the Peace River Pass, and other mountains, and their leader was almost drowned by the upsetting of his boat. Mr. Macoun was sent down the river for a couple of hundred miles, and himself and companion, instead of going only a short distance, after nineteen days’ hard work, reached Lake Athabasca, seven hundred miles from where they started. Their passage down the river reads like a romance, as the following extract from Mr. Macoun’s report will show:
“August 21st. Poor food and hard work now began to tell on me. My stomach loathed raw pemmican, and all other food was gone our gun was useless and it became painfully evident that from some unaccountable cause, the boats had not yet left Fort Chipweyan, Sixty miles lay between us and safety, and we must either hurry on or starve. We toiled on until after midday, when I became so ill that we had to put ashore. I lay down on the sand utterly exhausted and very sick. A review of the situation brought me to myself, and I rose, determined to struggle on as long as I could hold the paddle. Without a word we worked on and on, and reached Quatre Fourche River long after dark. Tying the canoe to the bushes we crawled up the bank and were soon asleep.
“August 22nd. When morning broke we found the current flowing steadily into Peace River, and we knew that twenty-five miles up stream lay between us and food. We discovered that our united strength would not propel the canoe against the current, so fastening a line to the bow, I went on shore and hauled the canoe for more than sixteen miles, floundering through mud and water, knowing that the goal was drawing nearer every step. The last eight miles I had to take to the canoe, the mud along shore being so soft it would not bear my weight. Every half hour a fainting spell would come over me, but by persistent effort I would overcome it, and at length, wearied and exhausted, we reached the fishery just as it was getting dark.”
A two months’ journey, full of adventure, brought Mr. Macoun to Winnipeg, and a few days more found him in the bosom of his family, nothing the worse for his long and toilsome journeyings.
His report of that expedition occupies one hundred and forty pages in Mr. Selwyn’s full report.
Professor Macoun was married to Miss Ellen Tyrrell of Brighton, January 1, 1862, and they have five children. The oldest son, James, is a student in Albert University, and at the head of his class. The Professor has a pleasant home on a high point of land, near the University, with delightful grounds of his own taming and improving.