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Prentice Gilbert Downes Fonds (P759)

P759 Prentice Gilbert Downes Fonds. - 1931-1937. - 4.4 cm of textual records. - 878 iconographic documents. - 2 cartographic records.

Biographical Sketch

Prentice Gilbert Downes (1909-1959) was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Nicknamed "Spike," he was a Harvard University graduate and gifted with a rare intellectual curiosity, coupled with a passion for physical activity and sport. He became a teacher at Belmont Hill High School, where he taught Latin, science and history. Following a memorable conversation with explorer William Brooks Cabot, and given his interests, skills and knowledge, he was inspired, at the age of 25, to take his first trip aboard the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Nascopie in 1936. A supply ship for the Hudson's Bay Company's remote outposts, Nascopie often carried a few tourist travellers. The ship left Montreal on July 14 and reached Churchill, Manitoba, on August 17. Downes used the journey to take notes on climate, geography and wildlife, as well as the lifestyle of the inhabitants he encountered and Aboriginal languages. After reaching Churchill, he decided to fly to Pelican Narrows, Saskatchewan. From there, he canoed up to Reindeer Lake and back.

The following year, in the summer of 1937, the New England Museum of Natural History sponsored Prentice G. Downes' trip to study the North. Embarking once more on the RMS Nascopie, this time he went to Baffin Land, where he visited the Inuit of Ellesmere Island and the Boothia Peninsula in the Canadian Arctic before travelling to Brochet, north of Reindeer Lake, to study the history, language and customs of the Eeyou Istchee (Cree) and Denesuline (Chipewyan) peoples. Downes' fascination with Canada's northern Native populations included a special interest in the role of dreams in these cultures. His journals are full of details about his day-to-day activities and his meetings with the inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic. In the years that followed, he continued travelling, writing and publishing. Although Prentice G. Downes may have started out as a passionate amateur, with time he acquired highly specialized knowledge that made him a skilled ethnologist and naturalist. For example, the American army called on his services extensively during the Second World War when he joined the United States National Research Council. Downes thus became a renowned scientist who was a professional and honorary member of several clubs and societies. He devoted the last years of his life to his family, other expeditions in Canada's North -- usually solo -- and his work as a teacher and researcher at the Harvard University Institute of Geographical Exploration.

Downes is now best known for two publications focussed on his earlier voyages: Sleeping Island: The Narrative of a Summer's Travel in Northern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories and Distant Summers: P. G. Downes' Journals of Travels in Northern Canada, 1936-1947.

Scope and Content

The Prentice Gilbert Downes fonds chronicles journeys through Canada's North that were part of the early 20th century wave of polar exploration. The textual, photographic and cartographic records it contains illustrate not only a number of geographical discoveries, but also the daily lives and personal rapport between travellers to and inhabitants of the North.

The fonds contains two travel journals illustrated with topographic sketches, dated 1936 and 1937, recording the travels of Prentice G. Downes in the eastern Arctic. It also includes photographs (with detailed captions) of landscapes, animals (birds, seals and dogs), individuals, objects and ships, taken aboard the RMS Nascopie in 1937. Finally, there is an album containing two cartographic records and several portraits of Aboriginals taken by the explorer between 1931 and 1937 during his travels.

Source of title: Title based on the creator of the fonds.

Physical description: The iconographic documents are composed up of 475 photographs and 403 negatives.

Language: The documents are in English

Availability of other formats: The 1936 travel journal was reproduced in the September 1983 issue of Arctic magazine, while the 1937 journal, illustrated with topographic sketches, remains unpublished.

The fonds is divided into the following series:

  • P759/A Travel Journals
  • P759/B Photographs


Last update: September 19, 2017