Field work was the backbone of Canadian natural history research in the late 19th century. The 1870 expansion of the young dominion to the Pacific and Arctic coasts created an immense field of scientific inquiry.
Much of the credit for rolling back Canada’s natural history frontier belongs to John Macoun, who served as naturalist for the Geological Survey of Canada for three decades. Macoun was known as “the field naturalist” for his collecting prowess and had a town named after him (between Estevan and Weyburn) on the CPR Soo Line in southeastern Saskatchewan.
But even the indefatigable Macoun could not do all the work himself; he relied on the collecting activities of other Survey field parties. He was also ably assisted by his son James (Jim) and long-time field worker William Spreadborough.
Spreadborough’s life was one of great accomplishment — and great tragedy.
A quiet, unassuming backwoodsman from Muskoka, Ontario, Spreadborough lost his wife in childbirth and signed on shortly thereafter as cook for a Survey expedition to northern Manitoba in 1888. There, his natural history skills impressed fellow expedition member James Macoun, who convinced his father to hire him the following season.
Spreadborough quickly became a fixture on the Macoun field parties to western Canada. Usually the advance person in the field, he collected a wide assortment of animals, but tended to concentrate on birds, often working with arsenic to preserve the specimen skins (at the expense of temporarily losing the feeling in his fingers). He also knew how to make the most unpromising campsite comfortable and was renowned for his cooking and campfire stories.
But tragedy continued to mar Spreadborough’s life.
While riding in the back of a wagon in the Indian Head area in 1892, his specimen gun accidentally discharged and killed the driver. For many years thereafter, he looked after the man’s widow and eventually married her.
Spreadborough spent his entire Survey career as a temporary summer employee. Despite persistent lobbying by the Macouns to have him taken on the permanent staff, he had to work at odd jobs every winter to tide him over until the spring and the start of another field season.
But Spreadborough did not seem to mind. He willingly dropped everything to join the Macouns, especially in time for the spring bird migration in western Canada.
By day, the trio would cast their net over the surrounding countryside, gathering all forms of flora and fauna they happened upon. At night, their catch was put up. Plants were dried and pressed in felt blotters leaned against stakes around the campfire. Birds and mammals were skinned. Fish and reptiles were plunked in alcohol-filled jars. And insects were meticulously placed in gauze cases. For anyone who might have stumbled upon their camp, the scene could easily have been mistaken for a kind of devil’s workshop.
Over time, the bond between the naturalists grew quite strong. One night in the foothills, Jim left camp to go into the nearest town to get supplies. The next morning, William told Jim that he “had a companion on your way back last night.”
Jim asked, “What do you mean?”
“Nothing, but a cougar followed you most of the way.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, I was following the cougar.”
Spreadborough left no papers — just field notes. And any surviving correspondence consists of letters sent to him. But it is quite clear from the scientific record that this tireless field worker, largely unknown outside Survey circles, was one of the foremost bird men of his generation. He had few equals in the field.
Spreadborough and James Macoun worked their last field season together in 1919, when Jim fell seriously ill and died only a few months later from cancer. Spreadborough’s heart for field work died with Jim, and he found a job working for the city of Esquimault, British Columbia.
What became of Spreadborough — the day he retired in 1931 — was found in ornithologist Percy Taverner’s correspondence at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.
“The feeling of uselessness was too much for him,” Taverner wrote a friend, “and he hanged himself in his little workshop leaving a note for his wife that they had not saved enough for two; rather than live on in poverty, it was better that he should pass out. Too bad, poor old Spreadborough.”
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo courtesy the Spreadborough family
Photo caption: A creased studio portrait of William Spreadborough, probably on his wedding day.
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