New Brunswick

William Francis Ganong: recognizing a contribution to N.B. history

William Francis Ganong is not famous for chocolate, but rather his contribution to New Brunswick geography

Posted: August 08, 2017
Last Updated: August 08, 2017

Ganong sporting a beard after several weeks of field work in the woods in 1901. (Mauran I. Furbish. New Brunswick Museum. 1987.17.1218.169)

Ganong may be a household name in New Brunswick, but one lesser-known member of the chocolatier family is getting some overdue recognition.

A statue of William Francis Ganong, who eschewed the family chocolate business to pursue his passion for botany, cartographry, and history, will be erected on the banks of the St. Croix River in the coming months.

In many ways, his work helped New Brunswickers define the physical and cultural contours of the province.


David Ganong was surprised to find out about the history of his great-uncle's contribution to the New Brunswick landscape. (Brian Chisholm/CBC )

His field work established that the province's highest mountain is Mount Carleton, which Ganong named after Thomas Carleton, the province's first lieutenant-governor.

He also mapped rivers, catalogued plant and animal life, measured the depths of lakes, and familiarized himself with the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet languages so he could study the history of their place names.

He also wrote histories of St. Croix Island, the New Brunswick-Maine border, and several communities in the province from Charlotte County to the Acadian Peninsula.

"It was an incredible amount of writing, exploring, and measuring that had never been done in New Brunswick before W.F.," said David Ganong, chairman of Ganong Bros. 

Ronald Rees, a retired Mount Allison University professor who wrote a biography of W.F. Ganong, says the honour is long overdue.

"His output was enormous, absolutely enormous. I'm still in awe of it."


David Ganong says even he wasn't aware of his great-uncle's accomplishments until he read Rees' book and another by Fredericton writer Nicholas Guitard.

"I didn't understand anything about what this man had accomplished in his lifetime," Ganong said. "It was only after reading both of those books, and a suggestion by one of the authors that there should be a statue, that I thought, that's right, he needs to be honoured."

Inspired reading

Ganong was inspired after attending a reading Rees gave from his book, "New Brunswick Was His Country: The Life of William Francis Ganong." Rees casually mentioned to him that he thought W.F. Ganong deserved some recognition.

"I woke up at 3 a.m. in the middle of the night and said, 'Ron's right, so what are we going to do about that?'" Ganong said.

"There's not been hardly any visibility until these two books were written in the last 18 months, and I think he accomplished so much in terms of this province that it's time he got recognized."

W.F. Ganong was a brother of A.D. Ganong, the president of Ganong Bros. and the grandfather of David Ganong.

Rees said the only honours for Ganong that he knows of are Ganong Hall, a building at the University of New Brunswick Saint John, and "one mountain, which is really a hill," named for him near Mount Carleton.

The statue will be based on a photograph of Ganong standing on a rock in Holmes Lake, near the Little Southwest Miramichi River. He's using a surveying instrument and taking notes.

The statue will be based on this photo of Ganong on Holmes Lake in 1901. (Mauran I. Furbish. New Brunswick Museum, 1987.17.1218.145)

"What that does is it captures both the explorer, William Francis, and the academic, the scientist," David Ganong said.

Ganong was born in 1864 and died in 1941. He taught botany at Smith College in Massachusetts for decades, but returned to New Brunswick every summer over 50 years to hike and canoe the province.

Studying the shape of the province

Rees said there were elements of W.F. Ganong's work that probably no one else would have pursued, such as his physiographic work--the study of the physical shape of the province.

Ganong studied river courses to understand how they had shifted.  "He was very interested in the way a river changes over eons of geological time," Rees said.  "I don't think anything has been done subsequently."

One of Ganong's maps became controversial long after his death. It shows what he considered a dividing line between Mi'kmaq and Maliseet territories. The so-called "Ganong line" has been used in legal battles over Indigenous hunting and fishing rights.

"I'm not going to say I'm a fan of the Ganong Line because it can be used for or against us," said Hugh Akagi, the traditional chief of the Passamaquoddy nation in southwest New Brunswick, who sits on the advisory committee working on the statue.

"It's caused problems for us, but I wouldn't use that to define the work the man did."

In fact, Akagi said some of Ganong's other research on the Passamaquoddy has helped the band's effort to be recognized by Ottawa as a First Nation.

Passamaquoddy oral history holds that the nation had settlements on both sides of the present-day Canada-U.S. border, but only the U.S. has fully recognized them as a band.

But the band is making progress with Ottawa thanks in part to Ganong's research, he said.

Three sculptors have been asked to submit proposals for the statue. The province plans to designate its location as a provincial heritage place.