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d. 15 April 1906 in Central Falls, R.I.


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TURNOR, PHILIP, HBC inland surveyor; b. c. 1751; d. 1799 or 1800.

When first engaged by the Hudson’s Bay Company on 30 April 1778, Philip Turnor was described as a resident “of Laleham Middx. 27 yrs. age not marry’d brot up in farming business.” Recommended to the London committee by William Wales, who had spent the winter of 1768–69 at Prince of Wales’s Fort (Churchill, Man.), Turnor signed on with the company to serve as an inland surveyor for three years at £50 per annum, and sailed for York Factory (Man.), arriving there on 24 Aug. 1778.

Although the company had previously encouraged such servants as Joseph Robson* and Anthony Henday* to survey and explore its holdings in Rupert’s Land, Turnor was the first to be engaged specifically as a surveyor to map “the Lattitudes and Longitudes of all their settlements . . . also their respective distances from each regularly adjusted.” After surveying the grounds of York he was ordered by Humphrey Marten, chief at York, to map the route to Cumberland House (Sask.) and the newly established post of Upper Hudson House (near Wandsworth, Sask.), and then, if possible, to make his way to Fort Albany and Moose Factory (Ont.) “thro the Lakes inland.” He reached Cumberland on 11 Oct. 1778 and the following March he, William Walker, and others set out with a dog-team on the 280-mile journey over ice to Upper Hudson House, arriving there on the 19th. He was prevented from attempting to survey the Canadians’ upper settlement, in the Eagle Hills (to the south of Battleford, Sask.), by the news that a band of Indians had killed two of the Canadians and plundered the post. Turnor returned to York on 15 July by canoe with the information he later incorporated into his “Chart of the rivers and lakes falling into Hudsons Bay according to a survey taken in the years 1778 & 9.”

Turnor was next involved in surveying the route from Albany to its two outposts, Henley House (at the junction of the Albany and Kenogami rivers, Ont.) and Gloucester House (Washi Lake, Ont.). After spending the early winter of 1779 at Albany with Thomas Hutchins, Turnor set out in February 1780 to walk to Henley with five others. Eleven days later he arrived, snow-blind and exhausted. He rested until mid-March, but was prevented from continuing to Gloucester by lack of provisions, and returned to Albany. In June 1780 he set out for Gloucester once more, by canoe, and reached it on 8 July. Returning to Albany on 11 August, he sailed to Moose in September, and that December he walked back to Albany “to take a sketch of the coast as it appears in Winter.” On 22 Jan. 1781 he set out to visit Rupert River (Que.) and Eastmain House (at the mouth of Rivière Eastmain, Que.). After failing in his attempt to walk to Mesagamy Lake (Kesagami Lake, Ont.) in April, Turnor travelled in May to Wapiscogamy (later Brunswick) House (near the junction of the Opasatika and Missinaibi rivers, Ont.), Moose’s new outpost. He spent June surveying the route from there to Michipicoten House, a Canadian post at the mouth of the Michipicoten River on Lake Superior. He then tried to reach the Canadian post on Lake Abitibi (Ont.) but found the rivers too difficult. He was back at Moose on 13 July. A second attempt to get to Abitibi in August failed, but Turnor agreed when he renewed his contract in September 1781 to trade at Abitibi. While at Moose he drew plans in March 1782 for a new post at Henley. That May he left for Abitibi, returning on 2 August.

Although employed as a surveyor, Turnor took charge of Brunswick House on 14 Oct. 1782. During the winter he suffered so badly from rheumatism that he was unable to go down to Moose in March 1783 to consider company policy after the capture of York and Prince of Wales’s Fort by the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup]. Turnor served as master at Brunswick until the spring of 1784, when he was ordered to establish a new post “towards Abitibi.” He left Moose in June with two large and four small canoes and two new bateaux. All his craft proved defective, however, and he was forced to stop 80 miles short of Lake Abitibi. After wintering at the junction of the Abitibi and Frederick House rivers, he moved south the following spring and built a post on the shores of Frederick House Lake (Ont.). He served there as master until July 1787, when he was sent out to survey the Canadian posts in the Lake Abitibi-Lake Timiskaming region. He then returned to Moose and sailed for England in command of the Beaver sloop on 9 September.

In London Turnor worked on his maps and in November 1788 was paid 20 guineas by the HBC for his “Draught of several inland settlements belonging to the company.” He was also probably consulted about the notion of establishing a trade route from the Saskatchewan River to Lake Athabasca (Alta) and from there to the Pacific. Peter Pond*, a Montreal-based trader, had traded at Lake Athabasca in 1778–79, making an enormous profit and producing a map which made a route to the Pacific seem feasible. The possibility of a trade route through Rupert’s Land, in an age still hoping for a northwest passage to China, concerned Alexander Dalrymple, Samuel Hearne, William Wales, and the London committee. Turnor, who had recovered his health, was engaged on 16 May 1789 primarily to establish the position of Lake Athabasca and to find a route to it from the Saskatchewan River. He reached York Factory on 27 August and left for Cumberland, arriving there on 7 October.

During the winter of 1789–90 at Cumberland Turnor taught surveying to Peter Fidler* and David Thompson*, who was recovering from a broken leg. In June 1790, while awaiting the arrival of supplies, Turnor met Alexander Mackenzie*, who told him of his trip down the Mackenzie River (N.W.T.) to the sea. Turnor wrote that Mackenzie “thinks it the Hyperborean Sea but he does not seem acquainted with Observations which makes me think he is not well convinced where he has been.”

The party that set out for Lake Athabasca on 13 September consisted of Malchom Ross and his Indian wife and two children, Turnor, Fidler, and four Orkney servants, all in two canoes. Badly provisioned, the party was constantly helped by Canadian traders. At Île-à-la-Crosse (Sask.) its members wintered in two houses lent to them by Patrick Small, a Canadian, who also provisioned them when they set out the following May. Turnor arrived at Fort Chipewyan (Alta), on Lake Athabasca, on 28 June 1791. From there he canoed down Slave River to Great Slave Lake (N.W.T.). Deciding it was too late to explore farther to the northwards, he returned to Lake Athabasca and spent most of August trying to find a way from the east end of the lake into Churchill River. He then returned to a house which Ross was building near the Canadian fort. Turnor, who kept a careful record of the trade at Fort Chipewyan, considered the post to be “the Grand Magazine of the Athapiscow Country,” and concluded that the Canadians could afford to compete at a loss elsewhere as long as they kept their monopoly of the rich Athabascan trade. Convinced that the Indians would patronize a HBC post if one were built there, he began preparations for his return journey in April, before the ice was clear from the Athabasca River, in the hope of getting to York in time to persuade the council there to send supplies and establish a post. Although he reached York on 17 July, he did not carry his point, since, as he believed, William Tomison*, chief inland, “had set his face against any undertaking to the Northward.” Turnor returned to England in October 1792.

In London the apathy of the York council was overruled. In 1793 Ross was ordered to organize an expedition to the Athabasca country and to establish a post there. Though the project proved endlessly difficult it ultimately proved crucial to the company’s fortunes. In the mean time Turnor worked on his maps and in 1795 was given by the London committee the watch he had used on his trips as well as £100 “in consideration of his services in having surveyed the Company’s several Settlements & explored several New Tracts & laid down the same in a large and accurate Map.”

In retirement Turnor lived at Rotherhithe (London), and taught navigation. Apart from his formal relations with the HBC little is known of him. Obviously a courageous and conscientious man and a competent traveller and surveyor, he left no intimate or personal records. He must have died shortly after 4 Dec. 1799, when he last wrote to the company, for on 26 March 1800 the London committee read “a Petition from Elizabeth Turnor Wife of Philip Turnor Geographer to this Company, lately deceased, praying for some pecuniary assistance.”

The importance of Turnor’s work lies within the general context of the surveying effort launched by the HBC in 1778. Seeking to establish the positions of its inland posts and the river routes that linked them, the company amassed a wealth of information concerning the interior of North America that was published as a map in 1795 by Aaron Arrowsmith, the London cartographer. Entitled “A map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America,” the Arrowsmith map was often reissued and became the basis of many subsequent maps of Canada. Indeed, as Arrowsmith wrote in 1794, the work of the company’s servants, Turnor among them, “had laid the permanent Foundation for the Geography of that part of the Globe.”

E. E. Rich

HBRS, XIV (Rich and Johnson), XV (Rich and Johnson). Journals of Hearne and Turnor (Tyrrell), [Alexander Mackenzie], The journals and letters of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, ed. and intro. W. K. Lamb (Cambridge, Eng., 1970). Moose Fort journals, 1783–85, ed. E. E. Rich and A. M. Johnson, intro. G. P. de T. Glazebrook (London, 1954). [David Thompson], David Thompsons narrative, 1784–1812, ed. R. [G.] Glover (new ed., Toronto, 1962). Rich, History of HBC, II.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

E. E. Rich, “TURNOR, PHILIP,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/turnor_philip_4E.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/turnor_philip_4E.html
Author of Article:   E. E. Rich
Title of Article:   TURNOR, PHILIP
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   April 15, 2024