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Sir James Hector
The Hero Scot of Kicking Horse Pass

Ranald McIntyre got in touch to say he'd just read an account of Sir James Hector and wondered why I didn't have something about him on the site.  I didn't have an answer for him so he scanned in the article and sent it over to me and so here it is for you to read here and thanks to the Daily Mail for providing the article :-)

Click here to read the .pdf file

James Hector: The Intrepid Explorer

On 28th May, 1857, Captain John Palliser disembarked from the steamship Arabia at New York. Accompanying him were Eugène Bourgeau (botanist), John W. Sullivan (secretary) and Dr. James Hector (physician and naturalist). Captain Thomas Blakiston (magnetical observer) would join them later. Together they would comprise the storied Palliser Expedition.

They were on a three-year mission to explore the territory between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains. Their mandate was to map the region, appraise its capabilities for agriculture and settlement, report on natural resources, gather scientific data, and to assess the possibility of transport routes across the mountain barrier.

On 7th August, 1858, the Expedition arrived at “Old Bow Fort,” at the foot of the Rocky Mountains near present-day Morley. Here, amid the ruins of the old fort, three branch expeditions would embark: Blakiston to explore the North and South Kootenay Passes; Palliser to search for the legendary Kananaskis Pass; and Hector to explore the upper reaches of the Bow Valley.

Dr. James Hector was only twenty-three years old when he was appointed to the Expedition. Born in Edinburgh Scotland in 1834, the young Hector was a recent graduate from medical school at the University of Edinburgh. However, it soon became evident that Hector’s main interest was not in medicine. His broad scientific training, zeal for adventure, and unbounded energy focused his interests on the natural sciences, especially geology, which would become his life-long passion.

Young James Hector would only spend two years (1858-59) exploring in the Rocky Mountains, but he would leave a lasting legacy. His explorations in the Canadian Rockies are a tale of adventure and perseverance that would become part of its endearing history and folklore. In the company of his trusted Stoney guide Nimrod, Hector would follow rudimentary trails, brave swollen streams, endure bitterly cold winters, overcome starvation, and prevail over every hardship Mother Nature would thrust in his path.

Hector began his memorable journey on 11th August, 1858, accompanied by Nimrod; his trusted assistant Peter Erasmus; two Métis trail hands; and Bourgeau, the “Prince of Botanical Collectors.” Little did the young doctor know that the routes he would pioneer would become major routes of transport in the twentieth century.

A hard day’s work through a labyrinth of dense forest, tangled dead fall, and loose shale brought them to an encampment beside a beautiful lake in the contracted valley just west of Exshaw. The scenery was magnificent! They were surrounded by bold and grotesque peaks, which Bourgeau named Pic des Pigeons (Pigeon Mtn.), Pic de la Grotte (Grotto Mtn.), and Pic du Vent (Wind Mtn., present-day Mt. Lougheed). The lakes he christened Lac des Arcs.
Bourgeau would remain in the valley to collect alpine plants, but not before the two companions indulged in an icy shower beneath a trickling waterfall on the lower slopes of Grotto Mountain. Hector pushed on, and using Mini-ha-pa, the thread-like stream tumbling down the face of Cascade Mountain as a landmark, encamped in the little prairie at the base of the “Mountain where the water falls.” Banff’s first official tourist occupied his time scrambling to an alpine tarn high on the slopes of Cascade Mountain, enjoying the wildlife, sketching,and visiting Bow Falls.

Hector continued up the valley fighting his way through bogs and across slopes choked with dead fall. The prominent mountain to the west he named in honor of Bourgeau, while the serrated wall of peaks on the eastern side of the valley he named the Sawback Range. Near present-day Moose Meadows, one particular mountain standing in the centre of the valley captured his attention, “a very remarkable mountain, which looks exactly like a gigantic castle.” On 18th August they camped beneath the slopes of this castellated mountain.

On the 20th of August, using a sketch on a piece of bark prepared by an “Old Stoney,” Hector began the first recorded ascent of Vermilion Pass, visited the yellow ochre beds of the “Paint Pots,” and continued following the Vermilion River to its junction with the Kootenay River. Six days later, he reached the source of the Kootenay River and began a descent of the Beaverfoot River where fate was about to intervene!

Just before noon on the 29th August, 1858, near Wapta Falls, one of the pack horses plunged into the river and was in danger of being swept away. The men rushed to save the animal. In the process of attempting to catch his own mount, Hector was kicked in the chest. The force of the blow knocked him senseless.

Erasmus had a compelling account of the event. Not only was Hector unconscious, he recalled, but “all attempts to help him recover his senses were of no avail”. Panic ensued as they placed their stricken leader beneath a shady tree. More than an hour later, Erasmus put an ear to Hector’s chest but still could not detect a heart beat or any sign of breathing. All hope was given up for the young doctor; he was dead! Stricken with grief, the men began to dig Hector’s grave. They would perform a last respectful act and put him under the sod.

And then all of a sudden, one of the men began to yell that Hector had regained consciousness but was in great pain. Legend has it that as he was being laid to rest, Hector looked skyward and winked, thereby saving himself from an untimely interment. No, “I did not use that grave,” he wrote. “Instead, they named the river the Kicking Horse, and gave the Pass, which we made our way through a few days later, the same name.”

The young doctor was down, but not out. Four days later and in great pain that was somewhat eased by the powerful narcotic laudanum, Hector and his starving men stumbled across the pass that would later bear his name. When they reached the Bow River near Lake Louise, a band of Stoneys came to their aid and rejuvenated their spirits. They told Hector that if he continued to follow the river he would encounter magnificent peaks and valleys filled with ice. That’s all he had to hear! On 8th September he was off again.

His Stoney friends were right. Mile after mile magnificent peaks reared their heads in the clouds. When he reached Bow Lake he was awestruck. The talons of the Crowfoot Glacier clung to precipitous slopes, while at its western edge glistening Bow Glacier descended from the Wapta Icefield. A short jaunt across marshy meadows carpeted with wildflowers led to Bow Summit where they lunched and dallied in the pristine mountain air.

From Bow Summit, they plunged down into the Mistaya Valley on a breakneck trail. Great rock buttresses, the backbone of the continent, formed an unbroken line on the western side, while bold craggy encamped at the junction of the Howse and North Saskatchewan Rivers and were dazzled by Donati’s Comet.

The next day, Hector trekked to Glacier Lake, which is fed by melt water from the Lyell Glacier. Here he began a risky, foolish, dangerous adventure; with one of his companions, he ventured onto the glacier. “It was very cold work for our feet,” he wrote, “as we merely wore mocassins, without socks of any kind.” Somehow they avoided plunging to their death in many of the numerous crevasses they encountered and eventually worked their way off the north side of the glacier, “to ascend a peak that looked more accessible than others.”

Hector named this Sullivan’s Peak and late that afternoon, crawling along a narrow ridge, stood on the summit. The view was stupendous with “peaks and ridges standing out like islands through the icy mantle,” of what he christened the Lyell Icefield. It didn’t get any better than this! They began their precarious descent down the icy slopes in a snowstorm, and at one precarious precipice only escaped foolhardy feat had taken the better part of twenty hours!

Buy Ernie’s book...

James Hector’s excursions in the Rocky Mountains fueled his passion for exploration and discovery. In 1862, Hector accepted the position of Director of the Geological Survey in New Zealand where, under his leadership, much of the geological structure of that country was mapped. In 1876, the “Intrepid Explorer” was knighted by Queen Victoria. Sir James Hector passed away on 6 November 1907, but his legacy in the Canadian Rockies lives on.

~By Ernie Lakusta
A retired teacher, and an avid hiker, Ernie Lakusta’s passion for the outdoors has led him to explore, photograph, and write about many of the areas James Hector mapped for the Palliser Expedition.

James Hector was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 16 March 1834,
The son of Alexander Hector, conveyancer and Writer to the Signet, and his wife, Margaret Macrosty. He married Maria Georgiana Monro, daughter of David Monro, speaker of the House of Representatives, in Nelson, New Zealand, on 30 December 1868; they had three sons and three daughters.

Hector was educated in Edinburgh, graduating in medicine from the University of Edinburgh in 1856, having taken lectures in botany and zoology, and apparently having gained some training in geology. His potential was recognised by leading Scottish biologists and geologists, and in 1857 he was recommended by Sir Roderick Murchison for the position of surgeon and geologist on John Palliser's expedition to western Canada. On this expedition Hector established himself as a field geologist, natural historian and explorer, working in rugged conditions and relying on his own resources. For his work in Canada he was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Then, again on the recommendation of Murchison, he was appointed director of the Geological Survey of Otago, New Zealand, in 1861. In Canada Hector had acquired the belief that in carrying out a geological survey in a largely unknown country the other natural resources should not be neglected. To this end he assembled the nucleus of a staff. W. Skey was engaged to analyse the rocks and minerals, J. Buchanan as a draughtsman and R. B. Gore as clerk. Hector had the ability to use and develop all the talents of people who worked with him. Thus Buchanan was given scope for botanical work and for using his artistic abilities, and Gore carried out meteorological observations and recording.

By September 1862 Hector had explored the eastern districts of Otago, visited Central Otago, and accumulated a collection of 500 specimens of rocks, fossils and minerals. During 1863 he extended his investigations to the West Coast, carrying out a double crossing between Milford Sound and Dunedin, a pioneering effort in exploration and geological reconnaissance. He organised displays of his maps and collections at the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865.

His work in Otago brought his name and talents to the attention of the central government, which was considering the establishment of a colonial geological survey. In negotiations with ministers over his possible appointment as director of such an institution, Hector detailed his ideas on the scope of the survey and the functions of an associated scientific museum and laboratory. His concept was largely accepted and in 1865 he was appointed director of the Geological Survey and Colonial Museum in Wellington. The institutions were established and developed along the lines Hector had suggested, and reveal his abilities as a planner and organiser.

The work of the survey and museum, which Hector saw as a single unit, soon fell into a pattern. Hector worked strenuously in the field during the summer with such of his staff as could be spared, together with temporary assistants. For the rest of the year they were all involved writing up reports, classifying specimens and arranging them in the museum. Three of his staff who had come with him from Otago continued to work loyally for many years. Buchanan retired in 1885, Skey was transferred to the Mines Department in 1892, and Gore retired in 1901. Other scientists who worked for the survey and museum under Hector were A. McKay, T. W. Kirk, S. H. Cox, J. Park and F. W. Hutton.

On 10 October 1867 the New Zealand Institute Act established an institute to encourage the spread of scientific knowledge. Under the act the museum and laboratory became the property of the institute, the director of these institutions becoming manager. Hector managed the institute under a board of governors until 1903. The survival and expansion of the institute – known after 1933 as the Royal Society of New Zealand – and its continued production of an annual volume of scientific publications is one of Hector's major accomplishments.

Hector was the only scientist of standing in government service, so it was not surprising that other small scientific and quasi-scientific bodies, established in response to the needs of a developing country reliant on its natural resources, were placed under his control. He was responsible at various periods for the Meteorological Department, the Colonial Observatory, the Wellington Time-ball Observatory and the Botanic Garden of Wellington, and for the custody of the standard weights and measures and the Patent Office library.

The functions of many of these subsidiary services were of great interest to Hector. In Otago his staff had carried out meteorological observations, and he was personally interested in building up meteorological statistics. He was always concerned with the introduction of plants which could be used for timber, shelter, food or as the basis for an industry. His view of the function of the botanic garden centred around the acclimatisation of useful plants, their display to the public and their propagation; hence his introductions of species of pines, and of the mulberry as a possible source of a silk industry.

Hector was often asked for official advice on a wide range of scientific, technological, medical and commercial problems. In his prime he had the ability to write clear, concise, balanced reports, many of which are remarkably well based, particularly in light of the limited literature and other resources available.

He wrote 45 scientific papers, which were published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, on geology, botany and zoology; produced a Catalogue of the Colonial Museum (1870) and a Catalogue of the Colonial Museum library (1890). He prepared a Handbook of New Zealand (1879, revised in 1880, 1883 and 1886); in format and content it foreshadowed the New Zealand official yearbook more closely than the earlier 1875 handbook (edited by Julius Vogel). He oversaw the publication of the annual reports of the Colonial Museum and Laboratory, and the annual Reports of geological explorations. In 1886 he published his Outline of New Zealand geology, a summary of the first 20 years' work of the Geological Survey.

Besides providing an avenue for publication in the Transactions, Hector stimulated the preparation and publication of a series of catalogues, manuals and handbooks by the Colonial Museum. Between 1871 and 1881 these covered birds, fishes, echinoderms, mollusca, crustacea, beetles, flies, wasps, grasses and flax. These were pioneer works and in many cases were not replaced by more authoritative guides for many years. In addition educational material on species readily obtainable was given in the four Studies in biology for New Zealand students, dealing with shepherd's purse, the bean plant, mussels, and the skeleton of the crayfish.

Hector was more than once involved in controversy. In 1874 he quarrelled with Julius Haast over his public revelation of the results of Haast's 1872 excavation at Sumner; Hector was vindicated in 1875 by Joseph Dalton Hooker, president of the Royal Society. More serious were the criticisms which, in the 1880s, scientists such as John Turnbull Thomson, George Thomson and Frederick Hutton began to make of the management of the New Zealand Institute and of the inadequacies of its annual volume, the Transactions.

As a result the management of the institute was separated from that of the government departments under Hector's control. The Geological Survey was handed over to the Mines Department in 1886 and removed from Hector's control in 1892. Other subsidiary units were dispersed. These reforms probably owed more to the Liberal government's desire for economy than to a supposed personal vendetta between Hector and Richard Seddon. The result was to leave Hector as director of the Colonial Museum and manager of the New Zealand Institute, with a greatly reduced staff and budget. The constitution of the institute was reviewed in 1903, leading to its control by a more representative group, but nothing was done to effect urgently needed repairs to the museum.

Hector was due to retire in October 1903, somewhat embittered and in poor health. He secured leave of absence and travelled to Canada in July, when official appreciation of his work on the Palliser expedition was blighted by the sudden death of his son Douglas, who had accompanied him. He returned to New Zealand in 1904.

The new constitution of the New Zealand Institute allowed for the annual election of a president. In recognition of his long service to the institute, Hector was elected the second president (in succession to Hutton) in 1906. He died at Lower Hutt on 6 November the following year.

During his career Hector received many honours, including FRS (1866), Order of the Golden Cross (1874), CMG (1875), the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society (1876) and KCMG (1887). In 1891 he was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Founder's Medal. He was appointed to the council of the University of New Zealand and to the university senate in 1871, and was chancellor of the university from 1885 to 1903. The New Zealand Institute honoured him in 1911 by establishing the Hector Medal and Prize as their major award for excellence in research.

R. K. Dell. 'Hector, James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,


DEATH has removed the last of the four distinguished geologists, F. von Hochstetter, Sir Julius von Haast, F. W. Hutton and Sir James Hector, who together laid the main foundations of the geology of the Dominion of New Zealand.

Sir James Hector was born in Edinburgh on March 16. 1834, and was the son of Alexander Hector, a Writer to the Signet. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and University, where he matriculated in 1852, took his degree of M.D. in 1856, and served as assistant to Edward Forbes and to Sir James Simpson. His knowledge of natural history and medicine, and the influence of Murchison, gained him the post of surgeon and naturalist to Captain Palisser’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains of British North America. The expedition was in the field from 1857 to i860, and its best known result was the discovery of the pass by which the Canadian Pacific Railway now crosses from the Great Plains of Canada to the Pacific coast. At the close of the expedition Hector visited the gold-fields of California and northern Mexico, and he reported upon the coal mines of Vancouver Island. On his return to Scotland he wrote a series of papers on the botany, ethnography and physical geography of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and a paper, of modest length, “ On the Geology of the Country between Lake Superior and the Pacific Ocean (between 48° and 56°

In the year of his return from America he was appointed geologist to the Government of Otago, and there began the main work of his life. He made extensive and arduous journeys through the province of Otago, which still contains the least known and most difficult country in New Zealand. Some of his results were given in 1863 in a New Zealand Parliamentary Paper on “An Expedition to the North-west Coast of Otago,” in which he described the discovery of the pass from Martin’s Bay to Lake Wakatipu. His success in Otago soon gained Hector promotion from a provincial to a federal appointment. He was made one of the Commissioners for the New Zealand exhibition at Dunedin in 1863, in preparation for which he made a tour through the colony to report on its economic resources; and in the same year he was appointed director of the Geological Survey of New Zealand and of the New Zealand Colonial Museum at Wellington. There, or in his cottage on the Hutt,, a few miles away, he lived for more than forty years. During the first half of this time he issued a long series of important contributions to the natural science of New Zealand; their range was wide, for he was director of the zoological museum, the botanical gardens, the meteorological observatory, and the colonial laboratory, as well as of the Geological Survey. He was also for many years Chancellor of the New Zealand University. He nevertheless found time for extensive original researches. He wrote papers on glacial geology, the origin of the rock basins and the volcanic history of New Zealand; his zoological researches were mainlv on the Cetacea, seals, and fish, and he wrote on many groups of New Zealand fossils, notably the moas, and on the discovery of the oldest known penguin, Palaeeudyptes. He superintended and edited those valuable series of annual reports issued by the Colonial Museum and by the Geological Survey, beginning in 1867. which are the great storehouse of information on New Zealand geology. In 1868 he married the eldest daughter of the late Sir David Monro, who was then Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament. In 1873 he issued a sketch-map of New Zealand geology, of which the edition issued in 1886, with his “Outlines of New Zealand Geology,” is still the best available. In 1879 he compiled an official “ Handbook of New Zealand,” a work of reference of permanent value, of which a fourth edition was issued in 1886. In that year he also wrote his well-known report on the eruption of Tarawera; he maintained that it was not a normal volcanic, but a hydro-thermal eruption, due to a vast explosion of the superheated steam with which the ground around Lake Rotomahana was saturated. This view has not been confirmed for the eruption of Tarawera as a whole, but it is probably correct for the particular exnlosion which blew up Lake Rotomahana and its famous pink and white terraces.

Hector’s work had meanwhile gained world-wide recognition. He had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1866; he received the Order of the Golden Cross from the Emperor of Germany in 1874, the decoration of C.M.G. in 1875, and promotion to K.C.M.G. in 1887. He was awarded the Lyell medal of the Geological Society in 1875, and a founder’s medal from the Royal Geographical Society in 1891. In the same year Hector was elected the third president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and delivered his address on the history of scientific work in New Zealand. But after this period his work became less important. He continued to write short papers; the last which we remember is that on the distribution of the moa in New Zealand, in 1901. But he no longer showed his old energy or success, and the staff of the Geological Survey was transferred to the Mines Department. Hector retained his nominal position as director of the Geological Survey until 1903, but for many years he had no control over the Geological Survey work that was being done in New Zealand. He remained director of the Wellington Museum, the condition of which was often made the subject of severe reproach. Hutton publicly complained in 1899 that the plates that had been prepared years before for the monograph of the fossil Cainozoic mollusca and echinoids of New Zealand were never published, and that the valuable collections of fossils that had been made during the geological survev of the colony were “useless as they now exist in the museum of Wellington.” In 1903 Hector resigned his appointments; he had for several years previously exercised little influence on scientific work in New Zealand, but the high value and wide range of his own scientific work, and the inspiring example of the energy and administrative capacity, which for so many years he devoted to the service of his adopted land, will secure him one of the foremost places in the roll of distinguished New Zealand pioneers.

J. W. G.

Expedition to the West Coast of Otago, New Zealand; With an Account of the Discovery of a Low Pass from Martin's Bay to Lake Wakatipu by James Hector

After this went out I got an email in...


I read with interest the article in the newsletter about Sir James Hector this week. He certainly left a great contribution to New Zealand. His biography is on the DNZB site and his papers on the Royal Society of New Zealand webpages of our National Library.

In recognition of his work the RSNZ gave an annual prize for science called The Hector Medal

We also have a dolphin named after him called Hector's Dolphin.

The gentleman James Stewart C.E. ( which I sent you a brief biography about and you put up on your website) had a lot to do with Sir James Hector - both as fellow RSNZ members and later Trustees on the Board of Governors. They were also in the party which went straight after the Tarawera Eruption to assess the damage. (I have attached the chapter that I have included on Tarawera Eruption in the biography I am writing on James Stewart C.E. At the end of the chapter you will see the references which go into extensive detail on the aftermath explorations which include that of Stewart, Hector and Smith. The photographs belong to us - a family collection and were left to my grandmother and father by James.- I have given New Zealand National Library - Alexander Turnbull a copy of the chapter for historical records.)

It was Sir James Hector who closed Te Wairoa Road because of the fragility of the area after the eruption. Both men saw an incredible devastation and this was extensively reported in the New Zealand newspapers at the time. These can be accessed on our National Library Papers Past website.

I think that many countries of the world were so fortunate to have the Scots settle as they were the explorers, geologists, engineers, railway builders and inventors.

Hectors papers and writings are awesome and one can learn so much and were left so much by this gentleman.

Anne Stewart Ball

PS The biography is progressing well. The research has been a mammoth task and now the pages are coming together. I hope to complete it by March of 2008 - which I think would be an appropriate time - 140 years since the beginning of the Auckland Institute RSNZ.

Manual of New Zealand geography, by T.A. Bowden, assisted by J. Hector (pdf)

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