Preconfederation Ornithology

A compilation of transcriptions relating to Canadian preconfederation ornithology, 1534-1867

Archibald Menzies


Archibald Menzies was well travelled surgeon in the British Navy who collected plant and zoological specimens in Nova Scotia and British Columbia in the late 18^th^ century.

He is best known in Canada for his participation in two around the world voyages which visited Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island in 1787 and again in 1792 and 1794 where he collected ornithological specimens. For details of Menzies collections from Nootka see Menzies in British Columbia.

Prior to his voyages to the west coast Menzies spent two years posted at Halifax in Nova Scotia between 1784-1786.

Archibald Menzies was born at Aberfeldy, in the lower Highlands of Scotland, northwest of Dundee. He grew up in a large family. Two of his brothers worked as gardeners at the Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh. Menzies, following in their footsteps in the early 1770s, became the third. Encouraged by his employer Professor John Hope, Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Edinburgh, Menzies perused medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated as a Surgeon in 1781. During his period of study he devoted himself to collect plant specimens for important collectors in London and Wales. Menzies was able to use his experience and connections to forge a career as a botanical collector for Sir Joseph Banks, President of the royal Society from 1780-1820.

Archibald Menzies

Image of Menzies in old age from a Wikipedia biography.

In 1782 Menzies joined the Royal Navy as an Assistant Surgeon serving in the West Indies in the Nonsuch. Between May, 1784 and the summer of 1786 he served on the Assistance which was posted to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Assistance returned to England, arriving at Chatham in August, 1786.

According to Keir Sterling's biography in his Biographical Dictionary:

[Menzies] collected specimens and seeds there, some of them for Sir Joseph Banks, at the Royal Botanical Garden, Kew. On his return to England in 1786 Menzies spent some time studying in Banks' library and herbarium.

In his biography of Menzies in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography 7: 1836-1850, William T. Stearn noted:

His Nova Scotian collections included lichens and seaweeds, one of which was to be illustrated in Dawson Turner's botanical history, *Fuci*(1809), and he saw plants raised from his Nova Scotian seeds at Kew.

The most complete information on Menzies' posting to Nova Scotia is provided in an article on Menzies by Galloway and Groves in the Archives of Natural History. The authors refer to five letters written by Menzies to Sir Joseph Banks and three to Professor John Hope during that time. Unfortunately the contents of these letters provided in the article only refer to the collection of seeds.

An examination of the complete contents of these eight letters may provide information on whether Menzies mentioned or collected zoological specimens. It is evident however that at this stage of Menzies's collecting career, his interest and that of his patrons, was heavily botanical.

The letters do provide some additional details of specimens collected and the timing and locations of his Nova Scotian posting. In his first letter he comments:

I arrived here from the W Indies in the Assistance of 50 guns a few days ago, and I am charmed with the general appearance of the country which seems to offer a most delightful prospect for Botanical researches, as well as other branches of Natural History. I already had two excursions into the woods and I cannot describe to you the pleasure I felt when surrounded with the Kalmia angustifolia, Andromeda calycantha, Ledum palustre, Gaultheria procumbens, Arbutus uva-ursi, Pinus strobus, P canadense and several other beautiful evergreens which I could not ascertain, besides a vast number of Cryptogamia plants of which you know I am passionately fond.

Menzies' first letter alludes to "other branches of natural history" but at this time no zooloogical specimens are known to have been collected. In the late summer-early fall Menzies spent five weeks touring the western part of Nova Scotia in the sloop Bonetta with Lieutenant Boys. In 1785 Menzies notes that he sailed extensively about Nova Scotia looking for plant material. These excursions took him as far as St. Johns Island, now known as Prince Edward Island.

The only other ornithologists to visit Nova Scotia in the second half of the 18^th^ century were Davies and Vieillot. Hopefully, with additional research, references to ornithological specimens collected by Menzies in Nova Scotia will be found.


  • Galloway, D. J. and E. W. Groves. 1987. "Archibald Menzies MD., FLS (1752-1842) Aspects of his life, travels and collections" Archives of Natural History 14: 3-43. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Sterling, Keir B. 1997."Menzies, Archibald" Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press
  • Stern, William T. "Menzies, Archibald". Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press