Chemists, Canoes, and New Brunswick’s History of Science

By Richard Yeomans

Science and innovation have a long history in New Brunswick, and in many ways this history has profoundly impacted the province as we know it today. The scuba tank (1839), the steam-powered foghorn (1854), the snow blower (1870), and many other novel inventions of their age are just some of the innovative firsts developed in this province that have had considerable effect on the lives of people here and across the globe. Science and innovation in this province were most often the result of environmental necessity, and motivators were easily found in the extraordinary tides of the Bay of Fundy, the thick fog that covers Saint John, and the sheer amounts of snow to which we have grown accustomed, albeit reluctantly.

Schell and Hogan, Poling and paddling in New Brunswick River [Engraver: W. Miller], Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, P50 Picturesque Canada Series Illustrations, MC80-1063, no. 7.

Other times, science played a critically important role in New Brunswick politics, especially before Canadian Confederation. The province’s western border with the state of Maine was one of the most contested terrains in North America until the line was finally agreed upon in 1842. Issues still arose of course, and jurisdiction was challenged well into the 1850s until the first astronomical observatory in Canada was built on Fredericton’s college hill and could scientifically locate the boundary line.[1] Though this province is not often considered to be among Canada’s historic centres of scientific research, New Brunswick was unmistakably shaped, and reshaped, by a constant atmosphere of science and a spirit of innovation.

Historically, New Brunswick’s innovation is often associated with specific individuals, inventions, or times of political conflict. Abraham Gesner is perhaps the best example of how New Brunswick’s history of science and innovation is too easily associated with one person at a specific moment in their life. Gesner invented kerosene in 1846 using albertite found in Albert County, New Brunswick, and has since been commemorated in the form of a postage stamp as one of Canada’s Fathers of Invention along with Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph-Armand Bombardier. Other New Brunswickers might point to figures like William Brydone Jack, the astronomer who oversaw the observatory in Fredericton and produced the first accurate longitude reading in Canada in 1855. Missing from these individual narratives, however, is the crucial role that Indigenous peoples played in New Brunswick’s settler scientists’ various pursuits for knowledge.

The region that we now call New Brunswick is the ancestral home of several First Nations, and over the course of millennia these peoples developed solutions to environmental challenges and upon which European settlers subsequently depended. The Acadians, New England planters, loyalists, and later waves of British immigrants who make up the fabric of this province all relied on Indigenous knowledge when it came to the many rivers, coasts, and landscapes. This reliance remained true in the mid-nineteenth century, when a young Scottish immigrant turned settler scientist, Dr. James Robb, decided to undertake an impressive expedition throughout New Brunswick to collect plant and mineral specimens.

Appointed as the first lecturer of chemistry and natural science at King’s College, Fredericton, Robb set out on foot in the early summer of 1838 and headed west along the St. John River. After a full day’s hike, Robb had made it to Pokiok (near present day Nackawic) when he realized that walking the length of New Brunswick was probably not a feasible plan. It was here that Robb hired Wolastoqiyik guides and canoed up the river, first to Woodstock, and then to Madawaska. Robb’s Indigenous guides figure little in his written account of his first trek through the province, whose competence left him to observe his surroundings; without them, he likely would have been dispirited by the sweltering heat and carnivorous insects.[2]

Bugs aside, Robb’s goal was to first and foremost acquire plant and mineral specimens from across the province and to become better acquainted with his new home. He would succeed, and over the course of two decades amass a collection of natural specimens that would form the backbone of New Brunswick’s first natural history museum, still housed by the University of New Brunswick.[3] Robb’s knowledge of the province shaped reports on New Brunswick’s agricultural potential, informed promotional materials for perspective British migrants, and introduced countless New Brunswickers to the different types of flora and fauna found in their own backyard. His 1838 expedition took him as far north as Dalhousie, and then on to Bathurst. In his letters home to Scotland, Robb was struck by the devastation around Chatham, still visible on the ground from the great fire of the Miramichi that scorched the interior in 1825.

With the help of Mi’kmaq guides, Robb would continue further south to Sackville and then on to Nova Scotia. He portaged the Stewiacke and Ox Bow River to Shubenacadie Grand Lake, and eventually made it to Halifax. In total, Robb’s 1838 expedition took roughly seven weeks. In his letters to his family across the Atlantic, the young Scot was mesmerized by the natural beauty around him, kept in awe by the depth of the moon during the nights when he camped along the serpent-like rivers. Captivated by New Brunswick’s biodiversity, the pleasantness of its towns and settlements, and many waterfalls that he claimed were “very much better than any of the Swiss water falls which are so much vaunted,” James Robb’s first expedition provided him with a wealth of knowledge that he employed in his teaching at King’s College.[4] He even had a hand in Abraham Gesner’s exploits in later years, including geological surveys sponsored by the provincial legislature.

Early science, scientists, and inventors in New Brunswick depended on Indigenous peoples. Transportation into the interior, through the woods, using the rivers, and even navigating the tides of the Bay of Fundy were all challenges for which Indigenous peoples in this region spent millennia developing solutions. Robb was not the first settler scientist to hire Indigenous guides in New Brunswick, but when his attempted walk throughout the province became an expedition carried out by canoe and portage it became indicative of how Indigenous peoples provided necessary services, contributed to the commercial economy, and allowed for the development of scientific research in New Brunswick. There were no great men of science in New Brunswick who acted alone in their endeavours because to do so without failure was impossible without the knowledge and guidance of Indigenous peoples. Despite this fact, Indigenous people figure very little or not at all in the history of science in this province, but the fact remains that the chemist needed the canoeist to succeed in New Brunswick.


Richard Yeomans is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of New Brunswick. This short blog first appeared as an invited essay published in New Brunswick newspapers the Telegraph-Journal and Daily Gleaner in February 2021 and was taken from an earlier presentation given as part of the York Sunbury Historical Society’s 2021 Speaker Series.



[1] For a brief discussion on the role of science in New Brunswick’s border question see Richard Yeomans “Settler Science in New Brunswick: The Brydone Jack Observatory and the invention of European Sovereignty,” on Borealia (Blog) September 28, 2020, https://earlycanadianhistory.ca/2020/09/28/settler-science-in-new-brunswick-the-brydone-jack-observatory-and-the-invention/. For a longer discussion see Richard Jerrell, The Cold Light of Dawn: A History of Astronomy (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988): 34-35.

[2] Robb’s account of his expedition can be found in A.G. Bailey, ed., The Letters of James and Ellen Robb: Portrait of a Fredericton Family in Early Victorian Times (Fredericton, Acadiensis Press, 1983).

[3] Named the Connell Memorial Herbarium. More information on the history of this natural history museum was done by C. Mary Young as part of a bicentennial project at UNB in 1985 and is available on their website: https://unbherbarium.lib.unb.ca/page/history-connell-memorial-herbarium-unb [accessed 17 February 2021].

[4] James Robb to Elizabeth Robb, 12 August 1838, in Bailey, ed., The Letters of James and Ellen Robb, 16.

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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