Over sixty years after Purcell’s Range was first labeled on a map it had unexpectedly transformed into one of the major mountain ranges in British Columbia. Unfortunately, by the time this change occurred, it had become very difficult to determine where its name had come from.
From 1857 until 1860, the British North American Exploring Expedition, often now referred to as the Palliser Expedition, travelled through western Canada between Lake Superior and over the Rocky Mountains to provide scientific research and information on the landscape, and to report on its potential for settlement and transportation. This is the fifth and final (for now) post in a series about the geographic features named during the Expedition’s travels through the Windermere Valley.
A Tale of Two Purcells
There is a lot of ambiguity about the namesake of the Purcell Mountains. Although it is agreed that the range was given its name by members of the Palliser Expedition (1857-1860), there is disagreement about who named it and who it was named after. Researching this post alone took me the better part of a month, and its length reflects this, so best read this one when you have a bit of time.
Current sources claim that the Purcells are named after Goodwin Purcell, “The O’Leary.” This seemed reasonable, so I began my research by taking these sources at their word and digging into the life of Goodwin Purcell. I quickly learned that “The O’Leary” is not a quaint throwaway title but a surname, and that Goodwin Purcell is in fact Goodwin Ricardus (or Richard) Purcell O’Leary. As I looked harder, I could not find a single connection between Purcell O’Leary and members of the Palliser Expedition.
Meanwhile, when reading up about James Hector, I had made an excited note upon coming across the name Purcell. The problem is that this was a different Purcell: Edward Purcell. Not knowing quite what to do I started to research this other Purcell as well.
I have come to my own conclusions about which Purcell is the “correct” Purcell and the source of the range’s name. In the interest of allowing others to draw their own conclusions, however, here is what I’ve been able to find about Goodwin and Edward. But first, let’s start with some context.
What are the Purcells?
The location of the Purcell Mountain Range has long been the source of some confusion. Growing up near Invermere I was taught that the Rocky Mountains were to the east, the Purcells to the west, and if I had heard some vague rumour about the Selkirk Mountains those were further south or perhaps further north. This confusion (I’m relieved to say) is not new.
“Purcell’s Range” first appears on a sketch map documenting the 1858 travels of members of the Palliser Expedition. The range is quite small on this map, located roughly south of Findlay Creek near Canal Flats and north of St Mary’s Creek by Fort Steele (although these boundaries are not actually drawn on the original map). As drawn Purcell’s Range appears as something of an island: there is little else around it, and absolutely nothing to the west. It is a small front range alongside a great deal of unmapped blank space.
The maps produced by the Palliser Expedition were influential and “Purcell’s Range” soon became a feature. There wasn’t much agreement as to its geographic boundaries, however, or how exactly the Purcell range differed from the previously named Selkirk range. In some cases, the Purcell range was even left off the map entirely, as was the case in this 1872 map of British Columbia.
In cases where both the Purcell and Selkirk ranges were included in the descriptions of geography in the area, there was often little differentiation between the two. For example, in an 1885 report about the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia, influential surveyor and geologist George M. Dawson tended to discuss the “the Selkirk and Purcell ranges” in tandem as if the two were parts of the same whole.1
Dawson’s map accompanying this survey illustrates this understanding. The Purcell Range is labelled to the south, near Kimberley, while the Selkirk Range is labelled further north near Spillimacheen. As the exact boundary between the two is unclear, it makes sense for Dawson to include both names when generally discussing the mountains west of the Columbia River.
Dawson’s struggle with the Purcells and the Selkirks was not over, and in 1889 he was again forced to address the two ranges in a survey of the Kootenay Lake side of the mountains. These West Kootenay mountain systems were, “not… so definite or regular in trend to admit of precise separation.”2
In an attempt to make some sense of the complicated geography, Dawson suggested, “as a matter of convenience” that the mountains between the Arrow and Kootenay Lakes be the Selkirk Range proper, and those to the east of Kootenay Lake be seen as, “the Purcell division of the Selkirk system.”3 This still failed to describe exactly where this Purcell subsection began and ended, and maintained the Purcells as a sub-range of the Selkirks, but it was a herald of things to come.
Dawson’s revised division was not widely circulated on a map and, in popular usage, the Purcell Range continued to be understood as something closer to what was drawn on the original Palliser Expedition map. The general consensus was that the Purcell Range separated the East and West Kootenays in some way. If one was mining up the St Mary’s River near Fort Steele,4 or travelled east up Moyie River to Moyie Lake,5 one was definitely in the Purcell Range. The northern boundary might extend north as far as Findlay Creek, and south into the United States, but consensus was lacking. Those going up Toby, Horsethief, or Spillimacheen Creeks would still say that they were in the Selkirks.
Such was the situation until 1906, when Reginald A Daly published an article in The Geographical Journal that aimed to provide firm definitions for the confusing array of mountain ranges in southeastern B.C. Arguing that the “Purcell Range” name was “practically useless” if confined to the original Palliser usage, Daly agreed with Dawson’s suggestion that the Purcell name should be extended to encompass the mountains west of the Rocky Mountain Trench and east of Kootenay Lake.6 Daly also defined the northern boundary of the range by the confluence of the Rocky Mountain trench and what he called the Purcell Trench, and the southern boundary iby the Kootenay River valley from Jennings, Montana to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho.7
A definition for this Purcell Trench became more clear with further exploration. It was decided that the Purcell Trench extended south from the Beaver River near Donald, through the Beaver Duncan divide, then down Duncan River, Howser Lake, and Kootenay Lakes before flowing into the Kootenay River.
At long last the Purcell Range had a definition, complete with “natural boundaries [that] are unusually obvious.”8 A person in the Windermere Valley will look west to the Purcells (as I did growing up), while those living across the mountains in Kaslo will look east at the same Purcell Range and west to the Selkirks proper. When you drive up from Donald towards Rogers Pass, you actually drive through the Purcell Trench along Beaver River until you cross the river and head up the hill towards the snow sheds into the Selkirk Mountains and up to the pass itself.
As my experience has shown, however, even with a definition and somewhat obvious geographic boundaries, the popular understanding of the Purcell and the Selkirk ranges remains incredibly vague. The long delay in accepting the definition of the Purcells did not help. It wasn’t until 1918 that the Purcell Range was formally adopted by the Geographic Board of Canada (changed to the Purcell Mountains in 1954),9 and even into the 1930s they continued to be referred to as a sub-range of the Selkirks (both the Selkirks and the Purcells are today understood as being sub-ranges of the Columbia Mountains).10
The delay in defining the Purcell Range had other impacts as well. It was almost fifty years between when Purcell’s Range was first labeled on a map and when Daly laid out a firm definition for it. A further decade passed before the name was formally adopted, and even more time before it was widely accepted. When it was first labeled on a map, Purcell’s Range was a small, reasonably unimportant sub-range. There was no reason to suspect that it would be any more significant than, for example, the Mitchell or Brisco ranges. Over sixty years later, however, and the Purcells had unexpectedly transformed into one of the major mountain ranges in British Columbia, a vast area of around 24,000 square kilometres.
Unfortunately, by the time this change occurred, it had become very difficult to determine where its name had come from. Invermere journalist and historian, Basil G Hamilton, spent years investigating possible sources of the Purcell name. At one point, Hamilton even considered John Baptist Purcell, Archbishop of Cincinnati as a candidate, identified through some obscure connection between the archbishop’s diocese and Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, who had travelled through the Windermere Valley area in the fall of 1845.11 The Purcell name was known, but its origin remained a mystery.
Goodwin Purcell O’Leary
Which brings us back to where we began, with two possible candidates as namesakes for the Purcell Range.
The first candidate is the one who currently gets the credit. Typically referred to now as just Goodwin Purcell, Goodwin Richard (or Ricardus) Purcell O’Leary was born in Mourneabbey County Cork in 1817 as the son of barrister Cornelius O’Leary12 and Mary Purcell.13
Purcell O’Leary’s grandfather was Arthur O’Leary (or Art Ó Laoghaire, 1747-1773), the son of a prosperous Catholic family who was allegedly shot to death for refusing to sell his horse to the local magistrate for a pittance.14 A poem commemorating his death, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, is one of the key texts in Irish literature and has been described as one of the greatest laments ever written.
Goodwin Purcell O’Leary was educated in Paris from age five, returning to Ireland c.1830 where he attended Trinity College Dublin and graduated with a BA and MA in 1833.15 From there he returned to Paris to attend the University of Paris and gain the degree “Bachelor of Letters.”16 He then studied at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in medicine in 184117 with high distinction.18
It is unclear what Purcell O’Leary did in the years immediately following his graduation from Edinburgh. He was married in February 1849 to Helena Sugrue in Cove (now Queenstown) near Cork, Ireland.19 In June 1857 Purcell O’Leary wrote that he had spent “many years” in medical schools in Europe, but it’s not clear when this was.20
Purcell O’Leary appears again in records in 1857 with his appointment to the chair of Materia Medica (pharmacology) at Queen’s College, Cork.21 He remained in that position for the rest of his professional career, resigning in 1875.22
Purcell O’Leary was, to put it charitably, a bit of a character. He was extremely proud of his O’Leary heritage, particularly that of his grandfather, the man immortalized in that famous Irish lament. Throughout his professional life, Purcell O’Leary was referred to in medical literature as Doctor or Professor Purcell O’Leary,23 shortened in some newspaper coverage as just “Professor O’Leary” or “The O’Leary.”24 The latter likely came about as a result of his effusive pride over his O’Leary ancestry: ‘O’Leary’ was not just a name to him: it was a central part to his identity.
Purcell O’Leary also had some interesting ideas. When Denmark was threatened with invasion in 1864, he offered to raise a force of a hundred Irishmen to help. The offer was met with ridicule in Irish and British newspapers and a ‘polite’ rejection by the Danish army. His efforts were nonetheless noticed in Copenhagen, with Danish newspapers publishing extensively about O’Leary and his famous grandfather. Later, in 1864, when O’Leary travelled to both Copenhagen and Stockholm, he was able to present himself as something of a hero.25
Reports that remain about “The O’Leary” get a bit darker in the years following. In May 1865 he was charged with assaulting a printer in an incident in which he, “seized [the printer] by the throat, dashed him again the wall, and waving a horsewhip over his head threatened to ‘flake’ him with it.” In his defense, Professor O’Leary insisted that the threat was “in ‘jest’” and that the resulting court case was an attempt to extort money from him. O’Leary was given a fine or week’s imprisonment (it’s likely he took the fine).26
Purcell O’Leary made the newspapers again in 1869 over a strange altercation involving a firearm,27 before being arrested in 1873 after a more serious incident. He was accused of grabbing his wife by the throat and “presenting a revolver at one of his servants, and [pointing it] at her head.”28 “His violence,” recorded the newspapers with respect to the latter incident, “was so great they [his wife and her servant] were obliged to fly from the house.”29
Following the attack, Purcell O’Leary “reduced some of his house furniture to splinters with a sword,” then “went like a maniac through the streets… dressed to represent the shah of Persia, in a yellow suit and chamois knee-breeches, armed with a sword, bow, arrow, and large club.”30 There were no great consequences for O’Leary resulting from the incident: neither his wife or her servant appeared before the court to press charges, so he was let go on bail.31
Purcell O’Leary passed away 9 July 1876 at his cousin’s residence at the Rectory of Chatsworth, near Manchester (his cousin was Rev. Goodwin Purcell).32 He was remembered as, “One of the last of the Irish chieftains,” with “all the best qualities of his splendid line.”33 A newspaper article about his death recalled “his critical and extensive knowledge of pharmacy… his gentle demeanour towards the students, and attractive and impressive mode of lecturing” as well as his knowledge of most of the European languages.34 This same newspaper articles, however, give equal or greater weight to his grandfather’s accomplishment and fame in comparison to his own. Purcell O’Leary’s body was returned to Ireland and interred next to his grandfather’s at the Abbey of Kilcrea near Cork.
Purcell O’Leary as the Namesake for the Purcells
It’s unclear when Goodwin Purcell O’Leary was first attributed as being the man for whom the Purcell Range was named. The first mention I have found is in James Monroe Thorington’s 1946 book The Purcell Range in British Columbia, in which Thorington states that “Purcell’s Range” was named in the summer of 1859 by James Hector, “in honor of Goodwin Purcell, “The O’Leary”, M.D…. who served with Sir Roderick Murchison and others on the committee for the selection of officers for the expedition. Dr Purcell was a noted teacher in his day, holding the Chair of Therapeutics and Medical Jurisprudence in Queen’s University, Cork.”35
Thorington’s claim is repeated almost verbatim in a more recent book by Glen Boles summarizing the origins of Canadian Mountain place names, with the addition that Purcell O’Leary had taught James Hector at the University of Edinburgh.36 Some variation appears in other sources, including in a note on the BC Place Names Website that Purcell first appears on a map recording the 1858 journeys of the Palliser Expedition and was, “evidently named by Captain Palliser himself.”37
There are a few of inconsistencies with Thorington’s summary of events. First, although there was a committee organized under the Royal Society to direct the scientific goals of the Expedition and recommend possible scientific assistants, I could find no evidence that either a Dr Purcell or a Dr Purcell O’Leary sat on that committee. The selection of officers did not include a formal application process, with selection based primarily on personal acquaintances and word of mouth. A Doctor Purcell was involved in the process by making a recommendation directly to John Palliser for a candidate for the role of astronomer and secretary.38
The second inconsistency in Thorington’s summation of events comes with the name Goodwin Purcell “The O’Leary.” The latter part, ‘The O’Leary’, comes across in Thorington’s writing as a quaint title, not as part of the man’s legal name. This separation between ‘Goodwin Purcell’ and ‘The O’Leary’ permits Thorington to refer to the man as simply Dr Purcell, which is extremely odd as that name is never used in primary source material. Goodwin is always referred to Purcell O’Leary, and never as Dr Purcell or even Goodwin Purcell as Thorington seems to do.
The final inconsistency in Thorington’s mistaken assertion is that it was James Hector who named the Purcell Range in the summer of 1859. That summer (1859) Hector did indeed travel south down the Columbia and Kootenay river valleys from Howse Pass into the United States, right past the appropriate range. Unfortunately, Thorington misidentified the name’s origin to the Expedition’s map of its 1859 travels. Purcell’s Range instead first appears on a map documenting travels from the year before: Hector was busy getting kicked in the chest by a horse in the summer of 1858, and it was a separate branch of the expedition entirely that explored past “Purcell’s Range” in the year that it was named.
Still, there is a certain amount of symmetry to Hector having named the Purcells after Goodwin Purcell O’Leary, and subsequent authors have picked up on this.39 Hector trained as a medical doctor at the University of Edinburgh, just as Purcell O’Leary had, and Hector was quite willing to name geographic features after his university professors (Mounts Goodsir, Balfour, and Forbes all commemorate Hector’s lecturers). It is not an unreasonable assumption that if Hector named the range then it must have been after yet another of his respected University professors.
Again, there is no evidence to support this. Hector’s official record of study from the University does not include Purcell O’Leary’s name, even in O’Leary’s specialized field of study (Materia Medica). I haven’t been able to determine where Goodwin Purcell O’Leary was during Hector’s years of study at the University of Edinburgh (1852 to 1856), but he did not spend them as one of Hector’s teachers.
Faced with doubts that it was Hector who named Purcell’s Range after Goodwin Purcell O’Leary, it is worth considering if John Palliser gave the name instead. This conclusion has been raised, including in a brief biography of O’Leary claiming that the range was named after him by his “friend, John Palliser.”40 The note on the BC Place Names website that the range was “evidently named by Captain Palliser himself,” seems to support this.
As Palliser travelled by the range in the summer of 1858, when the name first appeared, it is quite reasonable to assume that he had a part in naming it. It is also extremely likely that Palliser and Purcell O’Leary knew each other. Both were born to wealthy Irish families in the same year (Palliser in Dublin and O’Leary in Cork), and the two would have been in attendance at Trinity College at the same time. As educated and well travelled men in the same social circles, a connection seems inevitable.
The one inconsistency with this scenario, however, is again with the name. If Palliser knew Goodwin Purcell O’Leary and wanted to commemorate him with a mountain range, it does not make sense to acknowledge that friendship by using his friend’s mother’s maiden name. Any acquaintance of Dr Purcell O’Leary would have been aware of the man’s pride in his O’Leary heritage. If one really wanted to honour Dr Purcell O’Leary with a mountain range, one would do far better by calling it O’Leary’s Range.
In conclusion, Goodwin Purcell O’Leary is the often cited namesake for Purcell’s Range, but he is not exactly the strongest candidate. His connection with members of the Palliser Expedition is tenuous at best: I have been unable to find any link between James Hector and Goodwin Purcell O’Leary, and was able to disprove the claim that Purcell O’Leary taught Hector at the University of Edinburgh. Although it is very likely that John Palliser and Purcell O’Leary at least knew of each other, it is confusing that Palliser would choose to honour his friend by using that friend’s secondary and least preferred last name.
Which brings us to our second candidate, Edward Purcell. I have not been able find a great deal about Edward. He was born in Cork in about 1822, and his father’s name was also Edward Purcell.41 The younger Purcell studied at Trinity College, Dublin (the same as Palliser and Purcell O’Leary)42 and at some point gained his degree as a Doctor of Laws (LL D).
In January 1845, Purcell became second master at the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich.43 This was a school for the sons of British navy personnel and focused on providing a maritime based education. It was physically separated into two parts with an upper school, teaching the sons of officers, and a lower school, for the sons of “ratings” (everyone else).44 Purcell taught and became master in the lower school.
In one of the only reports I found relating to Purcell as a teacher, the inspector of the school notes that the students in Dr Purcell’s lower school class, “attained an efficiency second… to that of no other in the institution.” The Inspector also reports that the writing skills of the lower school had seen “great improvement,” particularly in Dr Purcell’s class.45 This report, issued in August 1848, came just a few years after Dr Purcell began teaching at the school.
Dr Purcell continued to teach at the Royal Hospital School for some time, becoming Headmaster of what was then Section “B” (the new name for the lower school) in 1861 and staying in that position until 1870.46
A newsletter from the Old Boys’ Association at the Royal Hospital School offers a fascinating glimpse into Dr Purcell as a teacher. Former student Henry George Brice recalls in 1934, “Looking back now seventy years, how lovable all the masters were with whom I came in contact. I think Dr Purcell, LL.D. (Oxon.), was the only one of whom I had a most holy dread. In appearance he was upright and rigid; the perfect gentleman and quite an aristocrat. He was Head Master of Section B. If he was seen to approach a door leading from one class room to another, the boy at the end of a form was expected to jump up, and open the door for him.”47
There is some comment to be made about this recollection. I could not find Purcell’s name included in the alumni database for Oxford (Oxon), so I could not confirm that he studied there. It is also interesting that Brice recalls Purcell as “quite an aristocrat.” He may very well have been, but I was able to find so little that I could confirm related to this Edward Purcell that I really can’t say (there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Edward Purcells in general, even when one limits the search to Edward Purcells from Cork).
Edward Purcell LL D passed away on 26 July 1882 at Glenview in Whitchurch, Hereford at the age of sixty.48 With no wife or children, his passing went largely unnoticed in official publications.
Edward Purcell as the Namesake for the Purcell Range
As far as I was able to find, no other source has directly identified Edward Purcell as the source of the name for the Purcell Range. The only one to come close is Irene Spry, who remarks in a footnote relating to Edward Purcell that, “The Expedition named the Purcell Mountains in southern B.C.”49 This roundabout implication that the Expedition’s naming of the Purcell Mountains was connected to Edward Purcell’s contribution to the venture is certainly worth closer examination than it has been given. It is worth noting that Spry, the preeminent researcher of the Palliser Expedition, never mentions Goodwin Purcell O’Leary.
Edward Purcell’s contribution to the Palliser Expedition proved to be influential. In spring 1857, Edward Purcell (of the Royal Hospital School) made a recommendation to John Palliser that he appoint John William Sullivan to the Expedition as secretary.
The son of a “caulker’s mate” in the Royal Navy, Sullivan had arrived at the Royal Hospital School as a pupil in the lower school in 1847, just two years after Purcell arrived as a teacher.50 The above 1848 report about Dr Purcell’s lower school class may well have included Sullivan as a pupil.
John Sullivan became a pupil teacher at the school in 1850, and in 1856 was appointed as acting assistant master in the nautical school (the highest branch of the Greenwich schools, higher than the Upper School). By the time Purcell recommended Sullivan for a role in the expedition, the two had been coworkers. Sullivan was particularly skilled at mathematics, and was recommended to Palliser, “as an efficient Mathematician and Sextant Observer.”51
The fact that Dr Purcell made his recommendation for the appointment of Sullivan directly to Palliser certainly implies that the two knew each other in some way. Their exact relationship, however, remains unclear. Again, both men were Irish, and although Dr Purcell was a few years younger than Palliser, if Dr Purcell was indeed “quite an aristocrat” it is very likely that he and Palliser would have been acquainted. The two also both went to Trinity College, although it is unknown if they attended at the same time.
Many of the inconsistencies that emerge when assuming the Purcell range was named after Goodwin Purcell O’Leary clear up when one assumes that it was named after Edward Purcell instead. For one, there are resources from the time (including records from the Palliser Expedition itself) that refer to Edward Purcell as Dr Purcell. The naming inconsistency from Goodwin Purcell O’Leary is not there: if one wanted to commemorate Edward, using the name “Purcell’s Range” makes sense.
There are other circumstantial reasons that Purcell’s Range was named after Edward Purcell. A number of the names given by members of the Palliser Expdition to geographic features commemorated those who provided patronage or support of the expedition’s members. The expedition’s geologist, James Hector, was recommended for the expedition by Sir Roderick Murchison, and a mountain in the Rockies was given the name Mt Murchison. John Ball both supported Palliser on the expedition, and with Sir William Hooker recommended that Eugene Bourgeau be recruited as a botanist: Mt Ball was named during the expedition (Hooker already had his name attached to a prominent peak in the Rockies). Lieutenant Blakiston, the magnetic observer, was nominated by John Henry Lefroy and supported by Edward Sabine, and both Lefroy and Sabine had mountains named after them. In this context, it would be extremely odd if Edward Purcell, who recommended the last of the five main members of the expedition (John Sullivan), were not commemorated in some way.
The circumstantial case for Dr Edward Purcell gets even stronger when considering his influence on the life of John Sullivan. Sullivan would have known Dr Purcell for about ten years, since 1847, when Dr Purcell was one of his teachers and Sullivan a new pupil.52 It is impossible to know the details of how Dr Purcell’s teaching influenced Sullivan, or how their relationship changed as Sullivan went from pupil to teacher to acting assistant master. What is clear is that John Sullivan would not have been recruited to the Palliser Expedition if not for Dr Purcell.
Edward’s influence on the Expedition seems to have been recognized in another way as well. The Royal Geographical Society of London, the society that first accepted and promoted the Expedition under Palliser, elected Edward Purcell LL.D. as a fellow on 27 April 1857, just weeks before Palliser and Sullivan set sail for North America.53
Edward Purcell was, in short, not a particularly important or influential figure in the grand scheme of history, but he was key to the proceedings of the Expedition. It is thanks to Purcell’s recommendation that Sullivan was even involved in the trip – an amazing and likely unexpected opportunity for the young teacher. In accepting that recommendation, Palliser gained a competent officer who seemed to be (mostly) well liked by other members of the expedition.54
It is impossible to say whether it was Sullivan or Palliser who was directly responsible for labelling “Purcell’s Range” in 1858. The two were travelling together at the time, and in a way it doesn’t matter. Both would have had good reasons to name something after Edward Purcell.
Laying the two options out side-by-side it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the widely shared story that the Purcell Mountains were named by members of the Palliser Expedition after Dr Goodwin Purcell “The O’Leary” (1817-1876) of Queen’s College, Cork. Not only did this Goodwin Purcell not really exist – his name was Goodwin Purcell O’Leary – but there is no evidence that he was associated with the Palliser Expedition and only a suggestion that he was associated with one of the Expedition’s members.
While the connection between Goodwin Purcell O’Leary and the Purcell Range seems painfully forced, Edward Purcell has strong connections to both the Expedition and two of its members. It seems strange that Goodwin has been given preference over Edward, so how is it that such a conclusion was made?
It could have been very easy. Recall that the Purcell Range was not identified as a major mountain range for a half century after the name was first used, and that it was even longer before it gained official or popular recognition. By the time anyone thought to look after the origins of the name “Purcell”, information would have been extraordinarily hard to track down. Even the fact that the range was named by members of the Palliser Expedition was not widely known for a time: an obituary notice in the 1925 Nelson Daily News identified long-time Rossland mining engineer Michael E Purcell (1857-1925) as the namesake for the range.55
Those who did identify the name as originating with the Palliser Expedition would have come up against other problems. When writing his 1946 about the Purcell Range, James Thorington did not have access to the wealth of information available today about the Expedition and its various contributors. Before the age of digitization, primary source documentation about the Palliser Expedition was notoriously difficult to get a hold of. The author of the first major biographical work on Expedition member James Hector, written in 1936, was unable to get access to more than a handful of pages of the official reports.56
Thorington would have been faced with a similar problem. He couldn’t ask one of the Expedition’s members where the name Purcell came from: Hector was the last to pass away in 1907. Instead it is likely that he sought out what was, at the time, the most thorough record of the Expedition: the rare 1863 report made to the British Houses of Parliament that compiled the journals, detailed reports, and observations from the Expedition. This report is extensive, but it contains only one vague reference to Purcell. In introducing the project, Palliser writes: “Her Majesty’s Government attached to the Expedition Lieut. Blakiston, R.A., Dr Hector, Mr Sullivan, and M Bourgeau, at the several recommendations of General Sabine, Sir Roderick Murchison, Doctor Purcell, and Sir William Hooker.”57
Thorington clearly knew that the name “Purcell” came from the Palliser Expedition, and would have probably even agreed that the range was named after the Doctor Purcell mentioned by Palliser in his 1863 report. This is supported by Thorington’s continued use of the name “Dr Purcell”, the name that appears in expedition reports, instead of Goodwin’s legal and professional name of Dr Purcell O’Leary. Thorington identified Dr Purcell as important: he simply did not know who this Dr Purcell was.
Faced with such scanty evidence, it is not surprising that Thorington landed upon Goodwin Purcell O’Leary as a promising candidate. It is reasonable that a desperate query for “who was Dr Purcell” would have turned up the flamboyant Dr Purcell O’Leary. He was the grandson of the man commemorated by a famous piece of Irish literature, and even memorialized alongside that famous man in Kilcrea Abbey. Dr Purcell O’Leary left a clear historic record to follow.
A closer look at Dr Purcell O’Leary may have made him seem to be an even more likely candidate. His life paralled Palliser’s: they were both born the same year in the same country to wealthy families, and attended the same school at the same time. O’Leary’s life also echoed that of James Hector: both attended the University of Edinburgh medical school and graduated as medical doctors. With no further information and no better options, it is not unreasonable to assume that there must be some connection. Purcell O’Leary was like a puzzle piece with all the right colours that seemed so close to fitting. So, to better correspond with the Expedition’s records of Dr Purcell, Goodwin’s legal last name “O’Leary” was dropped as a quaint title and Goodwin Purcell, M.D. from Queen’s College, became accepted as the origin of the name for Purcell’s Range. It was a reasonable conclusion to make with limited information.
Unfortunately, it seems that this conclusion in associating O’Leary with the range went unchallenged even in the face of new evidence. In the late fifties and early sixties, historian Irene M Spry spent years chasing down original papers associated with the Expedition, using them to write a number of meticulously annotated articles and books about the Palliser Expedition.
During her research, Spry uncovered the identity of the mysterious Doctor Purcell. In June 1858 Palliser wrote a letter to the Colonial Office identifying Doctor Purcell as being from the “Naval College Greenwich”. The rest of this letter was published in an 1859 collection of papers relating to the Expedition, but the portion relating to Dr Purcell was omitted.58 It is only when Spry uncovered this original letter, and investigated it to identify Edward Purcell, that the identity of Dr Purcell became widely available.
Even with these new details, and Spry’s own roundabout suggestion that the Purcell Range was named after this Edward Purcell, the accepted eponym for the range seems not to have been revisited. Ironically, O’Leary’s claim to the mountain range was likely bolstered by the lack of information for how his name became associated with it in the first place. The Purcell Mountains are such an important mountain system that it seems impossible for an identification to have been made without very good evidence.
Authors reading Thorington’s work seem to have either assumed that he had reliable information that we do not know about, or that he had access to the same resources as we do and that he still landed upon Goodwin Purcell O’Leary as the appropriate candidate. Instead of recognizing the addition of new evidence and re-examining Thorington’s conclusion based on these new facts, it seems that Thorington has been given the benefit of the doubt. His assertion has since been repeated so many times that it has become extremely hard to dismiss or question it (there’s a reason this post is so long).
As I said at the outset, I’ve come to my own conclusion as to who the Purcell Mountains owe their name to. At this point, that conclusion seems pretty obvious but I’ll say it anyways: the Purcell Range (later the Purcell Mountains) were named after Edward Purcell, LL D (c.1822-1882). I open the floor to criticism.
Other Resources and References
I really enjoyed reading this – excellent to discover so many details about O’Leary (I wrote a brief article on his exploits (or not…) in Denmark in 1864.
Great stuff. I was halfway down the rabbit hole before I discovered your research, thanks! posting my work on bigwallgear.com relating to early climbing tools and techniques.
Wheeler’s report also good (1908) https://ia600500.us.archive.org/25/items/selkirkmountains00whee/selkirkmountains00whee.pdf
Thanks for the link, John! My sympathies – I recall that being halfway down this rabbit hole involved a whole bunch of swearing and hair pulling. Hopefully you didn’t have too much of that! There is also a (shorter and more eloquent) version of this article in last year’s Canadian Alpine Club journal (2021).