John Macoun

Vol. 4 No. 2 - 1980

John Macoun

Botanist and explorer from Maralin

by Mary G. McGeown

John Macoun

John Macoun emigrated to Canada from Maralin, County Down in 1851, a small wiry man, with little formal education and without capital. Twenty-two years later he had become a Professor of Natural History in Albert College, Belleville, Ontario and had earned a widespread reputation as a botanist and explorer. He explored vast tracts of the north-west of Canada and influenced the course of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Almost forgotten in his birthplace, the memory of this distinguished Ulsterman is still fresh in Canada, where his name is commemorated by the town of Macoun in South Saskatchewan, Mount Macoun in Great Glacier Park in the Selkirk Mountains and by Lake Macoun in North Saskatchewan. Forty- eight species of plants he discovered bear his name.

John Macoun's ancestors settled in Maralin, or Magheralin, in the seventeenth century and probably came from Linlithgowshire in Scotland where the name exists in burial and marriage registers up to 1672. His son, William Terrill Macoun, searched the Linlithgowshire records in Edinburgh in 1905. He sent a summary of his records to various members of the Macoun family. He states that James Macoun, born in Linlithgowshire in 1639, married Elizabeth Montgomery and emigrated to Ireland in 1672, and was killed at the Boyne in 1690. This is also stated on the Macoun pedigree constructed by Reginald Blackwood, who was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Linenhall Library, Belfast.

However, the first Macoun may have come to Ireland before 1672. The name of Ens. James McEwne appears in the list of the "Forty-nine" officers, along with that of several members of the McGill family from whom the Macouns later held leases for land in Maralin. In the old graveyard at Maralin there is a tombstone with the inscription:

"Here lyeth the body of James Macoun who was departed this life the 15th of March anno Dom 1706 aged 105 years also his wife departed this life the 6th of March 1706."

This James may have been the father of the James Macoun who was born in Linlithgowshire in 1639, and died at the Boyne in 1690, and had sons Samuel and James. The descent of the John Macoun with whom we are concerned from Samuel Macoun is shown in the accompanying pedigree. John had two sons and three daughters and the sons had issue in Canada.

Born in Maralin

John Macoun was born in Maralin on 17th April, 1831. His father James Macoun, as the younger of two sons, did not expect to succeed to the small family property and joined the Seventh Dragoon Guards about 1796. James admired his commanding officer, the Duke of York, so much that he named his eldest son Frederick after him. He fought in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and was wounded at the battle of New Ross.

On the death of his elder brother James became heir to the family home and its few acres of land. In 1824 he had married Ann Jane Nevin who was a Presbyterian and so the marriage took place first in the home of a Presbyterian minister who was related to her, and a second time in the parish Church of Maralin, in case the first marriage might not be legal. Their first son Frederick was born in 1828, followed by John in 1831. There were probably also two boys who died in early childhood.

The house in Maralin in which John was born and brought up was very old and strongly built, with a stone over the doorway bearing initials M and C and the date 1708. In his autobiography John described the house and the large garden containing many rare and beautiful shrubs. After the death of his father in 1836 his mother sold these shrubs to supplement her tiny income.

The house was sold in 1850 and was demolished some time later but the stone with the date 1708 still exists, and may be seen built into a boundary wall on the site of the old house. Some heavy apparently very old cast iron window frames which may also have belonged to the house have been salvaged from nineteenth century cottages recently demolished. The Lancastrian School which John and his brother attended is now used as a church hall.

Emigration to Canada

Mrs. Ann Jane Macoun and her sons went to Canada in 1850. Frederick the eldest son seems to have settled in Toronto, but little is known about him. John by his own account seems to have been a pugnacious boy who always came out best in fights by using his left hand. He left school at thirteen and little is known about him until after he went, at the age of twenty, to Canada in 1850.

John began his life in Canada as a farm hand. He had already been interested in plants at home in Ireland and in Canada he saw many new to him. He made up his mind to become a teacher in order to have spare time for study of botany. After studying grammar on his own, he gave up his job, and walked the forty-three miles from the farm to see the county school inspector in Toronto, presumably with a view to seeking recognition for teaching. Three weeks later he gained his teacher's certificate.

He obtained a teacher's post in Belleville, and in his spare time read all the textbooks of botany he could find. He collected hundreds of specimens and built himself a herbarium. Although almost entirely self-taught, his reputation as a botanist grew, and just ten years after leaving the farm, in 1869 he was offered the Chair of Natural History in Albert College, Belleville.

In 1862 he had married Ellen Terrill and in November of the same year the first of his two sons, James, was born. James later became the head of the biological division of the Geological Survey of Canada. Their second son, William Terrill, was born in 1869, the year of the appointment to Belleville College. William Terrill also became a distinguished man, a doctor of science and one of the world's greatest authorities on pomology (fruit growing).

Transcontinental expedition

John Macoun's passion for plants led to a chance meeting with Sandford Fleming, engineer-in-chief of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Fleming was setting out in the summer of 1872 on a transcontinental expedition to follow the proposed route of the new railway. The expedition set out across the Great Lakes by steamer. John Macoun, on a plant-collecting holiday, was a fellow-passenger on the steamer and at each stop leaped off the boat to collect specimens. Fleming asked him if he would care to come along with him to the Pacific and Macoun readily accepted, thus embarking on his close association with the development of Canada.

The secretary of Fleming's expedition was a Presbyterian minister named George Monro Grant who became famous for his book "Ocean to Ocean," the account of an earlier journey through British territory to the Pacific Coast. Charles Horetzky joined the party at Winnipeg and became the official photographer.

After crossing the Lakes by steamer they landed at Port Arthur and followed the Dawson route by wagon to Lake Shebondowan. After crossing this and several other lakes by barge or canoes, they came to the prairie which stretches for about eight hundred miles from Portage la Prairie to Edmonton. Macoun was delighted with the prairie where numerous species new to him grew in sheets of brilliant colour.

Forty miles a day

Fleming decided that they should travel at least forty miles a day and actually measured the distance travelled by a milometer attached to one of the carts. They found out as much as possible about the route ahead by studying accounts by earlier travellers. The party split up at Fort Edmonton so that Macoun and Horetzky could follow the Peace River Pass to Fort St. James and on to the Coast, while Fleming and Grant followed the route through the Yellow Head Pass.

The photographer Horetzky and Macoun were completely different in both appearance and temperament: the photographer was a swarthy giant with a vast black beard while Macoun was small, wiry and agile. Horetzky wanted to follow a different route from the one they had agreed with Fleming. He treated Macoun with contempt and appeared to take full charge, ordering luxurious supplies for himself but little for Macoun and giving orders to the Indian guides in French which Macoun did not understand.

After a dangerous and difficult journey they reached Fort St. James, where they parted. Horetzky wanted to get rid of Macoun, perhaps thinking that he was not fit enough to keep up with him in a winter journey through the mountains. Macoun sensed this and agreed to go south through the mountains to the Frazer river while Horetzky continued westwards towards the coast. With two Indian guides, after a terrible journey through barren mountains and snow drifts, and short of food, he eventually reached Victoria on December 12. After this rather prolonged summer vacation he heard there that his wife had been delivered of his fifth child!

Love affair with the wilderness

Despite the privations of this journey, Macoun fell in love with the wilderness, and over the next ten years made a number of long and strenuous journeys into the North-West Territories, the last two on behalf of the Canadian government. He published the observations made on these journeys in ''Manitoba and the Great North-West''' in 1882. He says in his preface "In writing I have had the delight of revisiting in imagination many a cheery camp-fire, and many a scene of vast and lonely beauty, on which memory loves to dwell, and of feeling that I was endeavouring to describe to my fellow-countrymen, with simplicity and truthfulness, a portion of that magnificent heritage of which as yet they know so little." One wonders what his wife thought of his love affair with the wilderness - she cannot have had much of his company during their long married life.

Macoun explored the huge plain of South Saskatchewan and was struck by the fact that some areas bore excellent crops of all kinds, although just over the fence from them was apparent desert. He became convinced that the explanation of this was that before the earth was broken up by cultivation the rain was unable to penetrate the baked crust and was lost by evaporation into the dry atmosphere. He believed that there was adequate rainfall for good crops, and that the rain fell at the time of the year most suitable for the crops.

Husbandry seemed to be all that was needed to make the desert blossom. These views were at variance with reports of earlier explorers. Both John Palliser and Henry Youle Hind had reported that the southern plain of Saskatchewan was a continuation of the Great American Desert and was unsuitable for cultivation. Despite the controversy that his views aroused, Macoun was brought to a meeting with the president and the executive of the railway company in 1881.

Land at two dollars an acre!

By this time the Prime Minister, John MacDonald, was committed to the building of the railway, partly as a political issue to bring British Columbia into Canada. Large amounts of money had already been spent in the preliminary explorations and preparations and huge sums would clearly be needed to complete the railroad. Charles Tupper, the minister of railways, although not altogether convinced by Macoun, proposed to pay for the railway by the appropriation of one hundred million acres of uncultivated land in the southern plain of Saskatchewan and the sale of it at two dollars an acre.

At the time of the momentous meeting of Macoun and the railway executives, the route for the railway was planned from Winnipeg to Fort Edmonton by a route westwards long known as the Chariton Trail and to cross the Rockies by the Yellow Head Pass. Macoun convinced them that the territory of South Saskatchewan was potentially very fertile, to such an extent that they decided to abandon the route already surveyed at much cost in favour of a more southerly route crossing the Rockies by the Kicking Horse Pass.

The new route would shorten the western section of the railway but would have to negotiate a second range of mountains known as the Selkirks beyond the Kicking Horse Pass. This range had not been explored let alone properly surveyed, and there was no knowledge of a suitable pass through them. The decision changed the map of Canada and influenced the lives of millions of Canadians. Towns grew up along the route of the railway across the prairie.

There is little doubt that Macoun was almost obsessed in his admiration of the southern plain of Saskatchewan but nevertheless he was a careful and accurate observer.

Macoun's reputation made

The quite different reports of Palliser and Hinds were quoted against him but the truth appears to have been that the earlier explorers had seen Saskatchewan under its normal or dry conditions, whereas Macoun had visited it several times during an abnormally wet decade. The dry cycle returned in 1883 and many settlers who had eagerly bought land later had to abandon their farms. The government once again sent Macoun to report on the serious conditions there but just as he arrived the rains began again, and apparently another prolonged wet cycle followed.

The prairies filled up again with immigrant farmers and the area produced vast acres of wheat during the early part of the twentieth century. Great cattle ranches produced meat where wheat would not grow. Macoun's reputation was made and continued undiminished until after his death. However, in the 1930's the rains ceased, the hot dry winds returned and the area became a virtual desert once again.

In 1886 Macoun was sent to England as one of the Canadian representatives to the Colonial Exhibition. As he describes the visit in his autobiography, he was entertained at Sion House and at Hatfield and was a vice-regal guest in Dublin. During this trip he made a visit to his relative, John Macoun of Kilmore, Lurgan, no doubt the beginning of family friendship which led to his son William Terrill marrying the Irish John Macoun's daughter, Lily.

Catalogues of Canadian Plants and Birds

John Macoun was given a permanent appointment in the service of the Canadian government and he went to live in Ottawa in 1882. He became a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada, and wrote a Catalogue of Canadian Plants and later a Catalogue of Canadian Birds. In the intervals between his journeys of exploration and collection in the West many honours were bestowed upon him, perhaps the most unusual of which was a resolution of appreciation of his work passed by the Agricultural Committee of the House of Commons in 1903.

He suffered a stroke in 1912, but fortunately recovered and later that year he moved to Vancouver. Over the next seven years he collected plants on Vancouver and surrounding islands and presented a large collection of plants to the Herbarium in Victoria. He was engaged in writing his autobiography when he died of heart failure at Sidney, Vancouver Island, 18 July 1920. The Autobiography was finished by his friends and published by the Ottawa Field Naturalists Club in 1922, and his portrait still hangs in their library.

James Macoun
James Macoun b. 1639,
Married Elizabeth Montgomery of Lainshaw
Killed at Boyne, 1690.
Samuel Macoun
of Drumo and Drumcro,
d. 24 Feb. 1728
James Macoun
m. Ann Erwin
on 18 April 1705
William Macoun Thomas Macoun Robert Macoun James Macoun
of Drumo and Drumcro
m. Charity West on 9 Jan. 1711
John Macoun
b. 1737
James Macoun
m. Ann Jane Nevin in 1824
bur. Maralin 13 Nov. 1836
aged 59 years
Frederick Macoun
bap. Maralin 16 Nov. 1828,
emigrated to Canada
John Macoun
b. 17 April, 1831
emigrated to Canada
m. Ellen Terrill in 1862
d. 18 July, 1920
James Macoun
b. 7 Nov. 1862
d. 8 Jan. 1920
William Terrill
d. 13 Aug. 1933
aged 64 years
Lily Macoun
m. 30 Oct. 1895
d. Nov. 1923
Dr. Wheeler
Mary Helen

  • Berton, P., 1970. The Great Railway, 1871-1881. The National Dream, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto/Montreal.
  • Berton, P., 1971. The Great Railway, 1881-1885. The Last Spike, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto/Montreal.
  • Clarke, R., 1970-75. Personal Communications: Information on Maralin, County Down.
  • Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, Calgary, Alberta.
  • Macoun, J., 1882. Manitoba and the Great North-West, The World Publishing Company, Guelph, Ontario.
  • Macoun, J., 1922. Autobiography, Ottawa Field
  • McEwan, G., 1971. Between the Red and the Rockies, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
  • Maralin Parish Records.
  • Registry of Deeds, Dublin.

Note: Dr. McGeown was researching family history and the family farm, Prospect Hall, Aughagallon, Lurgan, when the information on John Macoun came to light. The name Macoun appears on many of the older deeds related to the farm and this eventually led to Maralin where the family originally settled. There is much evidence that the names Macoun and McGeown are the names of the same family. - FH