Henry Bayfield (1795-1885)
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By Doctor Hugh Whiteley, P.Eng.

An innovative scientist/surveyor committed to accurate observations, he labored to reduce the hazards of navigation.

Henry Bayfield, or to give him more formal recognition, Admiral Henry Wolsey Bayfield, devoted his adult life to the work of surveying coastal areas of Canada. He was in practice, but not title, Canada’s first chief hydrographer. His important role in the mapping of the shorelines of Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers, and Lake Huron earn him a place in this volume.

Bayfield is commemorated in Ontario through the naming of the Bayfield River and the Village of Bayfield. The Dutch nobleman who founded and named Bayfield, Ontario, met Bayfield in Quebec City in the 1830s. Following Bayfield’s advice, he purchased 3000 acres of the Huron tract at the mouth of the Bayfield River; Bayfield had identified the locale as a potential port.

For forty years, from 1816 to 1856, Bayfield surveyed previously uncharted shorelines of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence from the western extremity of Lake Superior to the Straits of Belle Isle. He also produced the first accurate charts for much of the coasts of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Prior to the assumption of responsibility for hydrographic surveying by the Canadian government in 1884, the British Admiralty issued 215 charts of Canadian waters; Bayfield was author of more than half of these–114 charts.

Pioneer surveyors such as Bayfield possessed an extraordinary capacity for hard work and persistence while enduring prolonged isolation, difficult terrain, bad weather, poor food and makeshift accommodation. Bayfield had two other defining characteristics. He had a near-fanatical commitment to accuracy in observations and in the charts he created, and he had an abiding fascination with science as a source of improved capacity to achieve accurate results. These characteristics are important in engineering practice and it is appropriate to acknowledge Bayfield as a precursor of the practice of engineering in southwestern Ontario

A Childhood in Her Majesty’s Navy

Henry Bayfield was born in the seaport of Hull on the north east coast of England, on January 21, 1795. The few facts known about his father include his three years of service in the British army and his death in 1839 at the age of 73. Both of Henry’s parents had ties to Norfolk. His maternal grandfather was the Anglican Vicar of Wymondham, Norfolk, and his father may have been related to the Bayfield family that occupied Bayfield Hall in Holt, Norfolk. Henry’s only sister, Helen Eliza, married Sir Gregory Page-Turner, which suggests Henry’s family was relatively well-to-do.

A family move from Hull to Norfolk in 1803 is indicated by Henry’s record of baptism, at age 8, in the parish of St. Edmunds, Fishergate, Norfolk. No record of school attendance has been found for Henry. Whatever formal education he received was of short duration. In January 1806, two weeks before his 11th birthday, Henry was enrolled in the Royal Navy as a young gentleman volunteer.

Within nine months, at the age of only 11, Henry had served on three warships, been slightly wounded in a engagement with Spanish gun boats in the Gut of Gibraltar, and been promoted from supernumerary to volunteer first class. He so impressed his superior officer, Lieutenant Spilsbury, that 10 years later Spilsbury recalled in a letter in support of a promotion for Bayfield that “tho’ a youth he displayed presence of mind that would become the greatest Warrior.”

During the turbulent decade from 1806 to 1816 the Royal Navy was heavily engaged in conflicts in both Europe and North America. Bayfield saw action off the coast of Spain and France, spent two years in the West Indies and, at the ages of 15 and 16, a year in Halifax and Quebec City. He passed his lieutenant’s examination in Portsmouth, England, in February 1814. Returning to Canada, he was serving on a ship on Lake Champlain when the hostilities of the war of 1812 ceased in the autumn of 1814.

Charting the Wilderness

The naval maneuvres on the Great Lakes during the war of 1812 had alerted the British Admiralty to the lack of accurate mapping of the Great Lakes. In 1815, as part of the effort to strengthen Canadian defences against the continuing threat of American incursions, the Admiralty ordered Captain William Owen to undertake a systematic survey of the Great Lakes. Captain Owen was a veteran officer who had returned to England in 1813 after service in Southeast Asia, where he participated in the destruction of the Dutch fleet in Java and explored the Maldive Islands.

Captain Owen set up a headquarters in Kingston, Ontario, in the summer of 1815, after a meeting in Quebec City with his elder brother, Sir Edward Owen, Commander-in-Chief of British forces on the Great Lakes. During the summer and fall, Owen and three assistants made excellent progress, completing initial reconnaissance surveys of large portions of the lower Great Lakes. They visited much of the eastern portion of Lake Ontario, the north shore of Lake Erie, the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, and ventured up the Thames River. A September trip along Lake Huron from the St. Clair River to Penetanguishine included a viewing of the eastern shore of Lake Huron and both coasts of the Bruce peninsula, with quick surveys of Owen Bay (now Owen Sound, named after Captain Owen’s brother) and of the harbour at Penetanguishine.

By the end of the summer, Owen recognized that the task of charting the Great Lakes required a larger staff and a longer time than he had first expected. He asked for and received from his brother new instructions and permission to add to his staff. In January 1816, Henry Bayfield’s war service on the H.M.S. Champlain formally ended with his transfer to the British naval headquarters in Kingston. Bayfield’s long career as a hydrographer began in Kingston shortly after his arrival, when he was recruited by Owen to join the lake survey.

Henry Bayfield had a lively intellect and a lifelong propensity for reading and study. He quickly gained skills as a surveyor under the tutelage of Owen and other experienced members of the survey group. One member of the group, John Harris, became a close friend. Harris left the hydrographic service after two years to settle in Port Ryerse on Lake Erie, but Bayfield kept up correspondence with John and his wife Amelia for three decades. These letters are a valuable source of information on Bayfield’s early years, since Bayfield’s journals for this period have been lost.

In 1816, Bayfield was responsible for the mapping of the American shore of Lake Ontario at the eastern end of the lake. With this project completed, he worked on the Canadian shore of the St. Lawrence from the Thousand Islands to the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario. He also did a survey of the harbour of Toronto.

Owen was immediately impressed by his recruit. By the end of the summer, Owen had acted somewhat beyond his authority in appointing Bayfield as a Lieutenant of the Star Sloop (Bayfield had the technical qualifications for the appointment, but the Lords of the Admiralty thought Owen should have obtained their permission). In support of his actions, Owen drew special attention to Bayfield’s assiduity and ability in the hydrographic service.

At the end of the survey season, Bayfield prepared to leave for England in accordance with his assignment. Faced with the prospect of losing his most valuable team member, Captain Owen strongly recommended to the Admiralty’s representative in Canada that Bayfield remain in Canada under appointment as an assistant surveyor. Bayfield accepted the employment without hesitation when the offer was approved.

The assistant surveyors spent a pleasant winter in Kingston in a dwelling nicknamed Hydrographers’ House. John Harris and his young wife provided a home environment. At the start of the 1817 season, Captain Owen was temporarily diverted from his lake surveys to do a quick exploration up the Trent River in search of a possible “inland” route from Kingston to Lake Huron. The assistant surveyors were assigned the task of surveying the south side of Lake Ontario and both sides of the Niagara River. Captain Owen was to join the group at Fort Erie the first week of June to begin surveys of Lake Erie. Then there was a sudden change of plans.

Just as Captain Owen reached Fort Erie, he received orders to return to England immediately, taking all his officers except Lt. Bayfield. Ruth McKenzie writes in her introduction to her publication on Bayfield’s survey journals: “And so, on 24 June 1817, twenty-two-year-old Henry Bayfield, without fanfare, and probably with a sense of shock and certainly unaware of the significance of the occasion, embarked on what was to become a forty-year career as surveyor-in-chief of three Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River and Gulf.”

In characteristic fashion, Bayfield set to work immediately to satisfy his new responsibilities. Working with a loyal assistant, Midshipman Collins, and with the voluntary assistance of another navy officer, Lt. Renny, Bayfield completed the survey of the north and south shore of Lake Erie and of the shoreline of Lake St. Clair and the St Clair River in 1817. Malaria was a major problem for people working among the clouds of “moschettoes” at the west end of Lake Erie and along the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. Bayfield had to spend two weeks off work in Amherstburg to recover from an attack of “ague.”

Residents of Southern Ontario are generally unaware of the former presence of malaria in the region, or the extent of its effects on activities. Two years after Bayfield’s difficulties in the marshes of lakes Erie and St. Clair, David Thompson, Canadian explorer and now principal British surveyor on the Joint U.S.-British Commission, covered the same area to establish the Canadian-U.S. border. Despite a dramatic warning from the chief U.S. Commissioner to avoid the marshes or risk death, the two surveyors, Thompson and his American counterpart Douglass, went ahead.

Within days, members of both survey parties contracted “swamp fever.” Thompson and two others in the Canadian party were so weakened, they had to be evacuated to a tavern in Amherstburg, perhaps the same convalescent location as Bayfield used. Thompson recovered after 10 days in bed, but two assistants died. Although not directly engaged in the surveying activity, the Canadian Commissioner, John Ogilvy, also contracted malaria and died in Amherstburg. Malaria persisted in the Detroit area into the 20th century and was not eradicated until the 1940s.

After his recovery from the ague, Bayfield spent the remainder of the 1817 season surveying the west coast of Lake Huron to the entrance to Lake Michigan. In November the surveyors walked from Penetanguishine to Lake Simcoe and then along Yonge Street to York. They spent the winter in Kingston working up their survey data into charts.

Lake Huron, and especially Georgian Bay with its multiplicity of islands, was much more challenging to map than any previous area Bayfield had worked in. As a result of the difficulty, it was not until the fall of 1822 that surveying of Lake Huron was completed. The crew had spent four winters at the recently established naval station at Penetanguishine to avoid the trips to and from Kingston each year.

From Lake Superior to the Gulf of St Lawrence

Ten years after the Huron survey ended, Bayfield described the extremely trying conditions of this work in a letter to Francis Beaufort who had been appointed Chief Hydrographer of the Admiralty in 1829. Beaufort’s name is most remembered for the scale for winds that he developed. During his long tenure as Chief Hydrographer, he had many interesting responsibilities, including coordinating the long search for the Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic and recruiting Charles Darwin as accompanying scientist on the second voyage of the survey ship Beagle. Bayfield greatly respected Beaufort, and Beaufort in turn had high regard for Bayfield and his work.

Bayfield wrote: “Two boats, not larger than ships Cutters, carried our whole stock of conveniences, of which we had fewer than the native Indians. [We] slept, in all weathers, in the boat, or on shore upon a Buffaloe robe under the Boat’s mainsail thrown over a few branches …[cold weather] ... was not so wearing as trying to sleep in vain, in the warm nights of summer (when the Thermometer was at 80 degrees) in the smoke of a Fire to keep off the clouds of Moschettoes which literally darkened the air, fatigued as we generally were from sitting in the sun from sun rise to sun set in our open boats ….and when this occurred the Ague, or some other sickness was sure to make it’s appearance among us.”

In 1820, the International Boundary Survey parties were on Lake Huron, and Bayfield met David Thompson and provided some assistance to him. The newly appointed Canadian Commissioner, David Barclay, confirmed the difficult conditions surveyors met. He described conditions as “very rough and wild, still being in its pristine state: consequently it presents every obstacle which can be encountered with little means of subduing any.” During Bayfield’s surveys, except for a handful of fur traders and the small establishment at the Penetanguishine naval station, all the inhabitants of the upper Great Lakes were aboriginal people.

Bayfield’s survey of Lake Huron had taken longer and involved higher expenses than the British Admiralty expected. Bayfield was unsure of any extension of his contract, but early in 1823 the Admiralty gave him orders to proceed to Lake Superior. He and his assistant Collins spent three years on the Lake Superior survey, with winters spent at the Hudson Bay Company post in Fort William.

In 1824, Bayfield renewed acquaintance with David Thompson, who was still engaged in the boundary survey. David Thompson’s celebrated Map of the NORTH-WEST TERRITORY of the PROVINCE of CANADA hung in the Great Hall of the Fort William post when the post was taken over by the Hudson Bay Company in 1821. The map may have been sent to the Arrowsmith Company in England prior to Bayfield’s first visit to Fort William. If the map had still been available, Bayfield would have greatly admired this first accurate representation of previously unmapped wilderness and congratulated his colleague Thompson on his pioneering work.

Another visitor of note to Fort William was Sir John Franklin, who passed through Fort William in April 1825 on his second Arctic expedition. He brought Bayfield a draftsman from Penetanguishine and left in Bayfield’s charge a defective chronometer and barometer for return to the Admiralty.

After six years in the remote wilderness, Bayfield sailed for England in October 1825. He spent two years at the Admiralty in London preparing the charts for the Great Lakes. Upon completion of the work in May 1827, Bayfield was keen to return to Canada “for I love the country and feel interested in its welfare.” He proposed to the Admiralty a complete survey of the St. Lawrence River and the Gulf. This proposal was approved with great speed, and Bayfield arrived in Quebec City on September 1, 1827.

The survey of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf took 15 years, from 1827 to 1841. Much of the area was extremely difficult to survey, with traitorous currents and frequent storms and fogs. The survey was badly needed as evidenced by the large number of shipwrecks along this coast.

One notable contact Bayfield made during the survey was with the naturalist J.J. Audubon, who was visiting the Labrador coast in 1833 in the schooner Ripley. The two shared several social evenings. Canadian author Catherine Govier used these encounters as the basis for her novel Creation (2003).

Winters in Quebec City provided Bayfield with a lively social life–a strong contrast to the many lonely winters in Penetanguishine and Fort William. In April 1838, after a five-year courtship, Henry married Fanny Amelia Wright, daughter of a Captain in the Royal Engineers stationed in Quebec. Fanny was an accomplished artist, and her paintings are included in the collection of the Public Archives of Canada and in several galleries in Prince Edward Island.

The winter periods also gave Bayfield time for writing. He contributed several scientific papers on the topic of locational geomatics. In addition, he wrote two papers on geology, one dealing with Lake Superior and one with the Labrador coast. His major published work was a sailing guide for the St. Lawrence that had its first edition in 1837 and was finally completed four years after his retirement in 1860.

The Atlantic Seaboard

At the close of the 1840 season, the surveying of the St. Lawrence was completed. The areas for new work were on the Atlantic coast. In May 1841, Bayfield moved with his family to establish a new headquarters in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. This became his permanent Canadian home for 44 years, and he died there in 1885.

Prior to Bayfield’s retirement in 1856, he completed charts for much of the coastline of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia (including Halifax harbour) and Prince Edward Island. He had earlier been called in as a consultant for the proposed dredging of Lake St. Peter between Quebec City and Montreal. During his stay in Charlottetown he made several consultative visits to provide advice on suitable locations for lighthouses on Sable Island and in Newfoundland.

Bayfield was pleased to renew his acquaintance with his old mentor Captain W.F.W. Owen in 1843. After leaving Canada in 1817, Captain Owen became famous for his epic seven-year voyage from 1821 to 1828 mapping the east coast of Africa, a voyage during which more than half of his staff died of malaria. He had taken up residence on a family estate at Campobello near the border with Maine in 1835. In 1842 he was commissioned to chart the Bay of Fundy.

Owen and Bayfield conducted pioneering work to connect their two surveys on opposite sides of the narrow isthmus between Cumberland Basin off the Bay of Fundy and Baie Verte on the Northumberland Straits. Their joint operation involved a technique developed by Owen that required synchronized celestial observations achieved using rocket flashes and sets of carefully compared chronometers.

The observations with Owen aided Bayfield in his continuing interest, bordering on an obsession, to establish the “true” longitude of St. Johns, Halifax and Quebec City.

He spent many weeks, in several different years, making elaborate calculations to connect surveys. He was delighted when improved chronometers became available. When telegraphic linkages became available in the 1850s, he eagerly examined this opportunity for synchronous observations with scientists at the Cambridge Observatory in Massachusetts.

Appraisal of Bayfield’s Work

The core motivation for all of Henry Bayfield’s work was improving public welfare through a reduction in the hazards of navigation. He employed up-to-date science in all his endeavors and had a lively interest in a wide variety of fields not directly involved with his geomatics work, including geology and scientific appraisal of fish stocks. His dedication to accuracy, his comprehensive approach to knowledge, and his dedication to the public good all are attributes that engineering practitioners strive to emulate.

Bayfield took good care of his crews. He added a doctor as a staff member when work on the St. Lawrence began in 1828. The only noted fatality was the sudden death from an attack of “apoplexy” of Lieutenant Philip Collins in 1835. While the surveyors were fortunate to be away from Quebec City during several severe outbreaks of cholera, some deaths occurred among crew members during the winter layoff.

When Bayfield arrived in Quebec City, Trinity House, the official body responsible for shipping on the St. Lawrence, treated him with suspicion. When he left for Charlottetown 14 years later, the Master of Trinity House personally delivered a testimonial from the board expressing their appreciation for his advice and assistance and extolling the “talents and scientific achievements of Captain Bayfield.”

Bayfield’s successor on Lake Huron was Captain John Boulton, appointed by the government of Canada in 1883 to extend Bayfield’s surveys in Georgian Bay. As a mark of his respect for Bayfield, Boulton named his survey vessel “The Bayfield.” In doing so, he established a tradition still maintained by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. Boulton summarized his debt to Bayfield as follows: “I had a good opportunity of witnessing the marvelous quantity and excellence of Admiral Bayfield’s work.” These words of high praise would have pleased Bayfield, who himself gave a similarly glowing assessment of his predecessor on the Labrador coast, Captain James Cook, whose charts he found to be “extremely correct.”

In 1891, the then-longest underwater tunnel in the world was completed under the St. Clair River. Surely Bayfield would have delighted in this engineering marvel both as a sign of the positive changes 74 years had brought to a locale he experienced as a fever-ridden wasteland, and on account of the highly accurate surveying that was required. Two digging crews starting from opposite sides of the river met at the midpoint under the river with only a few centimetres difference in level and location of their centerlines. One can imagine Bayfield giving a hearty bravo – and then asking for permission to examine the theodolites that made this possible!


The quotations from Bayfield and the factual record of his activities are taken from the excellent biography written by Ruth McKenzie as her introduction to the two-volume publication The St. Lawrence Survey Journals of Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield, 1829-1853. The quotation from Barclay and the information on David Thompson are taken from D’Arcy Jenish’s biography of David Thompson, entitled Epic Wanderer.

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