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Naturalist, Gentleman, and Explorer: John Goldie (21st March 1793 – 23rd July 1886)

In her book East Gwillimbury in the 19th Century, Gladys Rolling notes that a naturalist named John Goldie visited this area and recorded the visit in his diary. Intrigued by this reference, we wanted to search his name to learn more about him from the Internet. This is what we found out!

John Goldie was born in Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire, Scotland, to a middle class family. As a teenager he worked at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens and studied under Sir Joseph Banks. He also was fluent in several languages, including Greek, French and Hebrew, but never registered for a degree, presumably due to financial difficulties. He also spent time with another botanist named James Smith at his home in Ayrshire; Goldie fell in love with his daughter, Margaret Smith. They married in 1815 and he would go on to have nine (9) children with her.

After getting married, he travelled to London to apply for the post of a botanist for an expedition to the coast of Africa to explore the Congo river. He was initially chosen for the position but was swapped out at the last minute for someone else. This proved to be fortunate, as the expedition was a disaster since everyone involved with the expedition died of coast fever. Instead of going to Africa, he raised enough money to go to America to collect botanical samples. He would hunt for plants whenever he had a spare moment from other jobs that he was working to pay the bills.

In 1819, after having obtained enough money from teaching and odd jobs, he went on an extensive plant hunting expedition, travelling all the way from Montreal to Pittsburgh on foot. One of the places he visited that summer was the landing place in Holland Landing. Goldie arose at 6am on June 27th and proceeded to walk thirty-six miles from Toronto to the landing site at Holland Landing. He rented out a room in a nearby house for a week; Gladys Rolling tells us that it was the house of Amos West, located between Soldier’s Bay and lot 111 on the 1811 plan of Holland Landing. During his visit, Goldie spends some time describing the area in search of plants, and enthusiastically reports, “Since I came here, I have seen a number of rare plants, and some of them are non-descripts. There is a species of Asclepius with orange flowers very handsome, a species of Euphorbium with white flowers, a Ranunculus, together with some other plants in flower that I had never before seen.” (Goldie, 1897, 17).

Figure 1: Undated photo of John Goldie, botanist. Photo from the Waterloo Historical Society.

With the help of his friend Sir William Hooker, he published A “Description of some new and rare plants discovered in Canada in 1819,” and brought several Canadian plants back with him to Scotland which were previously unknown to science. He also travelled to St. Petersburg in 1824 and was there for several years establishing a new botanical garden for the Czars of Russia.

In 1844, he decided to move his entire family to Canada. There, he purchased property in Ayr, Ontario, and built a farmhouse there. His sons eventually became successful by constructing and operating several mills throughout the Waterloo region. Despite being in Canada, he kept in contact with many of his friends who were also botanists in Europe by mail. He died in his sleep at the age of 93.

Reading John Goldie’s diary is fascinating, because he keeps careful notation of the weather and the temperature during his expedition and makes observations about a sparsely settled Upper Canada that gives special insight to the historian. You can read his digitized diary here: Share with us what you think is the most interesting part of his diary!

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