Graeme Wynn reviews Ronald Rees, New Brunswick Was His Country: The Life of William Francis Ganong

Ronald Rees. New Brunswick Was His Country: The Life of William Francis Ganong (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2016).

 By Graeme Wynn

 W.F. Ganong, scion of the St. Stephen family of candy manufacturers, was a prodigious polymath, a professor of botany at Smith College in Massachusetts, an ardent outdoorsman, physiographer, ethnohistorian, translator, student of natural history, and expert on the early cartography of eastern Canada. Author of over 600 published writings, the majority of them on New Brunswick, he was a virtual battalion of erudition. A year after his death in 1941, a eulogy in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada described him as one of the country’s “greatest scholars.” Then he slipped into obscurity for almost forty years. Between 1978 and 1981 his contributions to regional history were marked, seemingly coincidentally, in two journal articles and two Masters theses (completed in Maine and Kansas).  Thirty-five years later, two books from local publishers have again resurrected Ganong from his inconspicuous place in the regional pantheon: Nicholas Guitard’s Lost Wilderness, 2015 (which was reviewed by Alan MacEachern on this blog) and Rees’s piece on Ganong which adds to our understanding of the man without pretending to offer a complete biography or endeavouring to account for the curious cycles of interest in and neglect of his work.

ganong

Ronald Rees. New Brunswick Was His Country: The Life of William Francis Ganong (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2016).

I have something of a history with Ganong. Much of my early research was conducted in the reading room that bears his name in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. Moreover, Ganong’s work on the salt marshes of the Bay of Fundy, on the natural history and historical geography of the province, and on the Miramichi Fire (not mentioned in this book) was important to my own scholarship on agriculture and forests, and I contributed my mite to the “first resurrection” by characterizing Ganong as a “geographer by avocation” in an article in Acadiensis in 1981.   I also have a history with Rees. We corresponded briefly about our mutual interests in Loyalist New Brunswick in the early 1970s, and in the years since I have admired from afar his compelling studies of Prairie and other landscapes, and appreciated his growing shelf of books on New Brunswick. This, his latest contribution, stirred in me a strange sense that I was “re-acquainting” myself with two friends I had never met.

Although this book focuses upon Ganong’s attachment to New Brunswick, and his contributions to the province, it offers a deft and valuable sketch of its subject’s early years and his Smith College career.  Here we see Ganong as a bright but somewhat obsessive schoolboy, collecting and cataloguing natural history specimens, recording the household chores assigned to him and his siblings, documenting simple swaps of childhood toys, and winning prizes and accolades. We also learn something of the intellectual influences that shaped his life: at King’s College, Fredericton (later UNB) where he was mentored by Loring Woart Bailey and George Frederic Matthew (whose academic genealogies included Asa Gray, Louis Agassiz, and William Logan); at Harvard where he specialized in plant physiology; and at Munich, where he spent 1893-4, studying plant morphology and writing a dissertation, in German, on cacti under the supervision of Karl Ritter von Goebel, a pioneer of biogeography. Rees hints that this homesick year may have been pivotal in Ganong’s development, cementing his love for New Brunswick; inducing a certain scepticism about the then much-vaunted “German method” of experimental science; persuading him of the value of education in the round; accentuating his inclination toward inductive, empirical work; and convincing him that “a man’s ideal relationship to his community is not to make his living from it, but to do it the greatest possible service” (24).

Smith College provided a fine base from which to realize some of these commitments. Although Ganong published a pioneering study of the evolution of desert plants in 1898, his main work (beyond New Brunswick) through more than three decades at this distinguished liberal arts college for women, lay in the development of a botanical garden, the writing of textbooks (The Teaching Botanist was the first, in 1899) and striving to ensure that the minds and lives of Smith students were shaped by what they learned in the study of plants. Smith College was also conveniently close to New Brunswick, which allowed Ganong to return to the province each summer.

Almost every year of his adult life, Ganong spent months exploring New Brunswick, alone or with a companion, “on foot, by canoe, wagon, bicycle, and finally by car and caravan” (95). Seemingly indefatigable, single-minded, and meticulous in mapping and describing the backwoods and byways of the province,  Ganong reported many of the results of these journeys in the 150 or so articles that he published in the Bulletin  of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick (available at : https://archive.org ).  These trips are the focus of Guitard’s book, and account for a quarter of Rees’s treatise. Rees’s retelling of them – rich in striking quotations from manuscript notebooks and illuminated by Ganong’s delightful line drawings – rests heavily on the accounts of those involved; the stories are fascinating, but absent the contextualization and analytical touch evident in other parts of the book, they titillate rather than satisfy.

In the end, Ganong’s major contributions to advancing our knowledge of New Brunswick came from his more bookish endeavours: his translations of Lescarbot, Denys, Le Clerq, and Champlain; his studies of toponymy and the origins of settlements, of historic sites and of Indigenous peoples and Acadians; and above all his work on the evolution of provincial boundaries and his investigation of the early cartography of the Atlantic Coast, assembled posthumously “in more compact form” as a 500-page volume. Rees limns all of these efforts, albeit more succinctly than Ganong limned “his country,” and gives us welcome cause to marvel at the accomplishments of his subject. Rees fairly styles his book an appreciation of Ganong’s work rather than an exhaustive critical assessment of it. New Brunswick Was His Country is slightly marred by small errors, perhaps most egregiously on page 125 where the New Brunswick poet and author of animal stories is re-christened Charles Goodridge (and a few lines down CDG) Roberts rather than Charles George Douglas Roberts, otherwise known as Sir Charles God Damn!  Still, this book is a welcome enticement to further analysis of Ganong’s scholarship, and an alluring pointer toward a fuller biographical treatment of the man and his circle.


Graeme Wynn’s first contribution to Acadiensis was a review essay in the 1970s; his Timber Colony appeared in 1981; and his research on the Maritime provinces continues. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Geography at UBC, and President of the American Society for Environmental History.

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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2 Responses to Graeme Wynn reviews Ronald Rees, New Brunswick Was His Country: The Life of William Francis Ganong

  1. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — September 16, 2017 | Genealogy à la carte

  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of September 10, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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