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Original title:  Geologist Alexander Murray

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MURRAY, ALEXANDER, geologist, explorer, and first director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland; b. 2 June 1810 in Dollerie House, Crieff, Scotland, second son of Anthony Murray, the 8th Laird of Dollerie, and Helen Fletcher Bower; d. 18 Dec. 1884 at Crieff.

The two prime virtues justly ascribed to Scotland’s Highlanders are fidelity and courage, and these are indeed manifest in the life of Alexander Murray. His great-grandfather, a Jacobite, was believed to have been killed at Culloden (1746). His father served in the Royal Navy in the 1790s, commanded East Indiamen on voyages to the Far East between 1800 and 1810, and finally retired to the Perthshire countryside as laird of Dollerie. Alex’s ingrained sense of duty was a consequence of the “lang pedigree” of the Murrays of Dollerie, but he was never known to play the patrician.

Alex was educated at home until 1819 when he was enrolled at the Royal High School in Edinburgh. He disliked Auld Reekie, did not get on at school, and was soon into every kind of mischief from rock fights to using vulgar language. His father, who favoured Alexander though the eldest son Anthony was the heir, took him back to Dollerie House and hired a tutor to prepare him for the Royal Navy on which Alex’s heart was set.

Alex was enrolled at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, from 6 May 1824 to 24 Dec. 1825. Seamanship was emphasized at the college but the curriculum included mathematics, history, geography, drawing, fencing, French, and dancing. His first active service was on the Tweed as college midshipman, and his final charge was mate of the Revenge. He served on the Home, Mediterranean, and West Indies stations, and was wounded on the Philomel at the battle of Navarino, 20 Oct. 1827. He had passed his examinations for advancement to lieutenant by 1830 but in the peacetime navy there was little chance of promotion and on 5 March 1835 he was discharged at his own request. His shipboard years were reflected later in his rich late-Georgian naval vocabulary of swear-words, possession of which, it was then held, distinguished “the man of spirit” from “the man of worth.” “Usually good natured and genial, Murray was, nevertheless, quick-tempered,” and could be pugnacious when circumstances demanded action. Home on leave at Crieff in December 1832, during the Reform Bill crisis, he spurred his mare straight at a barricade set up to keep voters from supporting Tory Sir George Murray*, uncle of young Anthony Murray’s wife, and scattered the mob guarding it.

In 1836 Alex purchased farmland a few miles north of Woodstock, Upper Canada, where a number of retired British army and naval officers had settled. The following spring he married Fanny Cooper Judkins in Scotland and the young couple immigrated to Canada intending to support themselves by farming. Unfortunately their arrival coincided with a severe economic depression deepened by the bitter rebellion of 1837. Murray was temporarily attached to the naval brigade of Lieutenant Andrew Drew* which invaded United States territory when the steamer Caroline was intercepted and destroyed on 29 Dec. 1837. He later served in the Oxford County militia and was commissioned as a captain of the 3rd Regiment. After a reasonable trial period in the depression years Alex decided the farm would not provide a living and in 1841 the Murrays with their infant daughter and son returned to England. Murray, using the offices of Sir George Murray, applied unsuccessfully for re-appointment to the Royal Navy.

On 10 Sept. 1841 the Canadian parliament passed a bill to finance a geological survey of the united provinces and a principal aspirant to the directorship was William Edmond Logan* whose brother was associated with Alex’s brother Anthony, now the laird of Dollerie, in a prominent Edinburgh legal firm. Sir George Murray, as master general of the Ordnance, was persuaded by Anthony to recommend Logan to Sir Charles Bagot*, governor general of Canada. Some time during the winter of 1841 Logan had become acquainted with Alex Murray and in January 1842, before his appointment to the directorship (April 1842), he agreed to favour Murray for employment provided he learned sufficient geology to be able to carry out independent mapping. Murray began by using Charles Lyell’s Elements of geology (London, 1838) but soon confessed to Logan in dismay that “some of the nouns in the Chonchological series rather alarm me” and “although I can now form some idea of the Theory of the science, I am still quite ignorant of the manner in which it is turned into practice.” Murray had received a thorough grounding in mathematics, nautical astronomy, and navigation from the Royal Naval College, and in the spring he taught himself surveying on Anthony’s lands. In the summer he practised triangulation in the Grampian Mountains, assisted by Sir William Murray, Anthony’s brother-in-law. Through the sponsorship of Sir George Murray and Logan, Alex was appointed to the Geological Survey of Great Britain as an assistant and by July was receiving practical instruction mostly in Wales from Logan and Henry Thomas De la Beche, director of the survey. The winter months were spent studying chemistry and drafting, as well as working with the survey staff at the Museum of Economic Geology in London.

In early spring 1843 Murray was deputized assistant provincial geologist of the Canadian survey, on 2 May he arrived back in Canada, and on 6 June he commenced geological mapping of the region from Toronto to beyond Lake Couchiching. On this excursion Murray identified the first metamorphosed rocks recognized in Canada, near the falls of the Severn River. His family was settled in Woodstock, but separation was typical of a geologist’s life, and he concluded his annual diary in 1843: “I have been with my wife and . . . children under a month altogether. . . .”

The following two summers Murray assisted Logan in surveying the Gaspé peninsula, and explored the Bonaventure, Matane, Sainte-Anne, and Saint-Jean river valleys. Most of his later mapping was in Canada West, from the Ottawa River to Windsor, and northwest as far as Sault Ste Marie. Field studies in 1847 resulted in the establishment of the classical Huronian system, a belt of Precambrian sedimentary and volcanic rocks later found to extend in an arc sweeping from Sault Ste Marie to Noranda, Que. He discovered nickel and cobalt mineralization in the Wallace Mine – the first credited recognition for Canada – the succeeding summer. In 1856, following up a large magnetic anomaly near present-day Creighton (now part of Walden), Ont., Murray identified nickel and copper mineralization, and gave this first hint of the ore potential of the Sudbury basin in his published report. In June 1851 Murray was directed by Logan to examine asphaltic deposits in Enniskillen Township. In his report he noted their limited extent and, offhandedly, commented on associated seepages of petroleum, which at that time had little commercial value. Some seven years later, at another petroleum seepage located by Murray near Black Creek, James Miller Williams was producing oil.

Geologizing in Canada West ranged from country road rambles to cutting lines by axe through almost impenetrable wilderness forests with attendant hardships of work and travel, shortages of food, and at times unruly crews. Murray was not without unconventional traits when in the field; he was known to chase troublemakers at gunpoint and was addicted to morning dips, even in freezing weather, for “cleanliness was a sort of hobby with him.”

In contrast to Logan, who was an independently wealthy bachelor, Murray depended either on the uncertain future of the survey, in doubt at least five times during his service, or on accepting an allowance, along with cautionary financial advice, from Anthony. Consequently he often suffered from anxiety and a sense of unimportance. On 17 Feb. 1850 he wrote to Logan: “I cannot help feeling strong misgivings . . . of my worthiness . . . but I can at the same time assure you that the fault is more attributable to want of head, than want of heart.” Yet only the previous week, Logan had written to his own brother that “if I were deprived of Mr Murray whose duties are of a nature similar to my own & who is competent to explore separately, the Survey would take nearly twice the time without him than it would with him.”

In midsummer of 1857 Murray was notified that his younger brother Willam had been amongst those massacred in the Indian Mutiny. Upon hearing that his only son was to embark for active service in India, Murray obtained passage for Glasgow, was shipwrecked near the Île de Mingan, but succeeded in reaching the old country in time to say goodbye to his son. The death of his wife on 27 Feb. 1861 as the result of a sleighing accident in Woodstock devastated Murray emotionally. The field season of 1861 saw him afloat in an “exceedingly crank, and anything but safe” boat mapping sedimentary formations and collecting fossils from Owen Sound northwestward to Sault Ste Marie. In St Joseph Channel, off Campement d’Ours Island, a furious squall struck the boat pitching its four occupants into dangerously rough water. Luckily, their plight was seen by a young girl, Margaret Walker, who got a skiff out to their aid.

The years 1862–64 witnessed another of the financial crises so common during Logan’s directorship of the survey. The first definitive report, commonly known as the Geology of Canada, was published in 1863. Politicians now could see no reason to continue supporting a geological survey and by January 1864 its funds were spent. It was not until 8 June that an appropriation was voted for the survey’s continuance but by then Murray, at 54, was commencing a new career as first director of the Geological Survey of Newfoundland. Geological reconnaissances had been made of the island: in the interior by William Eppes Cormack* in 1822, along some coastal areas by Joseph Beete Jukes* in 1839–40, and in the northwest by James Richardson in 1861–62. Murray’s Newfoundland explorations turned out to be even more arduous than those of his Canadian years. In the summer of 1866 while mapping near Cape St George he either broke a fibula or separated an Achilles tendon, but instead of seeking medical attention remained in the field and completed the mapping programme he had set for himself. Although he was crippled for life as a result of the injury he continued to carry out field-work until 1880. In late 1867 Murray’s son, on learning that the “Gov” was courting Elizabeth Cummins, aged about 29, wrote to Logan urging him to lure Murray to Canada until the following spring “when his work in the woods wd keep him away from the fascinating creature” because, if he should marry her, it would “make him miserable for the rest of his life – & probably send him to his grave a good many years before his time.” On 28 Jan. 1868 the marriage took place, proved to be most happy, and added from time to time to the population of Newfoundland a total of six children.

Murray was responsible for the preparation of the first complete geological map of Newfoundland and when in 1873 the Newfoundland government declined to cover the cost of printing it Murray financed its publication out of his own pocket. In 1875 a further activity for him resulted from the ambitious continental transportation plans of Sandford Fleming* which included a railway link in Newfoundland; Murray was assigned the task of overseeing the logistics of a survey of the proposed trans-island route. Two years later Queen Victoria appointed Murray cmg for his scientific services in Canada and Newfoundland, and on 2 June 1877 he was presented with the decoration by Lady Glover, wife of Sir John Hawley Glover, lieutenant governor of Newfoundland.

Geological survey of Newfoundland, a 536-page compilation of reports by Murray and James Patrick Howley (his assistant whom he had trained) went on sale for $2.00 a copy in St John’s in 1881. Except for a paper entitled “Glaciation of Newfoundland” presented the following year at the inaugural assembly of the Royal Society of Canada, this was Murray’s last contribution to science. A special motion passed at the society’s meeting admitted Murray, nominally a Newfoundlander, as an “additional member.” Murray was not in attendance because of the ills of old age – with increased frequency the crippled limb and the anguishing pains of gout led to sleepless nights. By 1883 his health was so poor that his continued employment became impossible and he resigned from the survey to return to Scotland. On 18 Dec. 1884 he died in Belmont Cottage, Crieff.

In Canada, Murray was so overshadowed by Logan that his accomplishment of mapping the geology of Canada West almost single-handedly has never been given the recognition it deserves. In 1864 when Murray first arrived in Newfoundland it was almost terra incognita except for the coast. Within 20 years his survey led to the opening of the interior by showing that mineral, timber, and agricultural resources were present and that Newfoundlanders need no longer depend only on the fisheries.

Richard David Hughes

[Alexander Murray was the author of The economic value of a geological survey, being a popular lecture before the Athenæum of StJohn’s, Newfoundland, delivered the 15th February, 1869 (Montreal, 1869); “Geography and resources of Newfoundland,” Royal Geographical Soc., Journal (London), 47 (1877): 267–78; “Glaciation of Newfoundland,” RSC Trans., 1st ser., 1 (1883), sect.iv: 55–76; “Mineral resources of Newfoundland,” Nature (London and New York), 23 (1880–81): 46–47; “Mining in Newfoundland,” Engineering and Mining Journal (New York), 31 (January–June 1881): 430; and Roads: a popular lecture delivered before the Athenaeum Institute, on March 26th, 1877 (St John’s, 1877). With J. P. Howley he compiled the Geological survey of Newfoundland (London, 1881) and his later reports are included with Howley’s in Reports of Geological Survey of Newfoundland, from 1881 to 1909 (St John’s, 1918). The most complete bibliography of Murray’s writings is Geologic literature on North America, 1785–1918, comp J. M. Nickles (2v., Washington, 1923–24), I: 770–71. Alexander Murray diaries for 1843 and 1882, a Murray family pedigree (n.d., copy), “Reminiscences” of Helen Murray (c. 1891–92, typescript), and a “Personal paper: some memories of Alexander Murray” by Helen Murray (1892) are in the possession of R. D. Hughes (Kamloops, B.C.).  r.d.h.]

McGill Univ. Arch., Sir William Logan papers. PAC, MG 29, B15, 40; D61, 14. Geological Survey of Canada, [Report of progress for the year 1843] (Montreal, 1845), 55–56; Report of progress for the year 1848–49 (Toronto, 1850), 42–45; Report of progress for the years 1853–54–55–56 (Toronto, 1857), 180; Report of progress from its commencement to 1863 . . . (Montreal, 1863). B. J. Harrington, Life of Sir William ELogan, Kt., LL.D., F.R.S., F.G.S., &c., first director of the Geological Survey of Canada . . . (Montreal, 1883). Nfld., Select Committee to Enquire into the Geological Survey of Newfoundland, Report . . . (St John’s, 1869). Morgan, Sketches of celebrated Canadians, 753–54. Zaslow, Reading the rocks, 20–21, 43–44, 53, 68–70, 81, 96–97. Robert Bell, “Alexander Murray, F.G.S., F.R.S.C., C.M.G.,” Canadian Record of Science (Montreal), 5 (1892–93): 77–96.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Richard David Hughes, “MURRAY, ALEXANDER (1810-84),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_alexander_1810_84_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/murray_alexander_1810_84_11E.html
Author of Article:   Richard David Hughes
Title of Article:   MURRAY, ALEXANDER (1810-84)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 17, 2024