Canadian Aboriginal Artefacts

The Economic Botany Collections at Kew Gardens house approximately 85 Canadian Aboriginal artefacts dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection is mainly a result of the work of three people: Eugene Bourgeau, Professor William Saunders and Dr. Charles F. Newcombe. Their work has left Kew with many plant-based objects that provide an insight into the materials and techniques historically used by Canada 's Aboriginal peoples. This collection is open to academic and Aboriginal communities who wish to research, and perhaps discover, the botanical diversity, the fine craftsmanship, and the colonial evolution of materials and techniques used by generations of Canadian First Nations peoples.

The Collection of Eugene Bourgeau

The French botanist did much of his collecting for Kew Gardens while on the British North American Exploration Expedition, or ‘Palliser Expedition', in the years between 1857 and 1860. He collected primarily in the prairie region from present-day Winnipeg to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southern Alberta. Bourgeau collected both botanical specimens and ethnographic objects of Aboriginal manufacture, including a pipe, bow and arrows, playing cards made of white spruce (Picea glauca), and several storage containers and dishes made of birch bark (Betula papyrifera) and decorated with dyed porcupine quills.

His collection also includes examples of his own handiwork, made from materials native to the regions he visited. In botanist fashion, Bourgeau collected samples of plants used for various purposes by the Aboriginal peoples, helping to illustrate the vast botanical knowledge of these groups who made use of the surrounding plant resources for food and materials.

The Collection of Professor William Saunders

As an employee of the Canadian government in Ottowa, Professor Saunders was requested to locate materials displayed at the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London for expansion of the Collections at Kew. In 1888, he gathered and posted four boxes of artefacts described as “Indian Curiosities,” primarily originating in central and eastern Canada. Unfortunately no documentation accompanied these items. Around 15 Canadian Aboriginal artefacts from the Colonial and Indian Exhibition arrived at the Gardens, including several quill-worked objects and other items made of poplar (Populus), American ash (Fraxinus americana), maple (Acer) and elm (Ulmus). Many of these artefacts reflect a meshing of traditional materials like bark and porcupine quills with European goods like glass beads, cotton thread, synthetic fabric and aniline dyes. These objects probably were intended for the souvenir market, demonstrating the way traditional styles were applied to new forms in order to appeal to the European market.

The Collection of Dr. Charles F. Newcombe

Charles Newcombe, doctor, natural historian and anthropologist, was commissioned by Kew to collect Aboriginal artefacts from British Colombia. The objects, including fish nets and hooks, ropes, garments, baskets, woodworking tools and gambling sticks, reflect the daily life and industries of the Aboriginal peoples and hint at their extensive knowledge of the natural environment and its resources.

Dr. Newcombe often included the raw material along with the item, or simply the raw material itself accompanied by notes on its use by the people. His collection also contains multiple examples of objects, allowing a comparison of the different materials used by various Aboriginal groups. Some examples of the many plant species represented in his collection are the mountain maple (Acer glabrum), the red cedar (Thuja plicata), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), the crabapple wood (Malus fusca) and the red alder (Alnus rubra).

Other Collectors

The Collections also house a small but fascinating range of objects from Canada donated by other individuals. These include arrows for hunting game, moss for wrapping babies, berry cakes for food, and bark for medicinal purposes. The collection in its entirety offers an excellent range of ethnographic objects and botanical specimens that illustrate life in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


EBC 42454


  • Description: Picture frame made of bark
  • Donor: Professor William Saunders
  • Geographic Area: Canada
EBC 42447


  • Description: Model of an Indian cradle
  • Donor: Professor William Saunders
  • Geographic Area: Canada
EBC 42417


  • Description: Box of dominoes
  • Donor: Eugene Bourgeau
  • Geographic Area: Canada
EBC 42467


  • Description: Water vessel made of bark
  • Donor: Eugene Bourgeau
  • Geographic Area: Canada
EBC 55000


  • Description: Model Canoe made of paper birch
  • Donor: Dr. McGilvray
  • Geographic Area: Canada
EBC 28575


  • Description: Halibut hook
  • Donor: Dr. Charles Newcombe
  • Geographic Area: Canada
EBC 57155


  • Description: Gambling sticks and case
  • Donor: Dr. Charles Newcombe
  • Geographic Area: Canada