Henry Wolsey Bayfield was one of a ‘second generation’ of talented and vitally important British Naval surveyors who contributed greatly to the greater survey of North America. Surveyors of the first generation included Samuel Holland, J. F. W Des Barres, James Cook and Charles Blaskowitz.
Bayfield may be considered to have been Canada’s first chief hydrographer, although this is not a title officially associated with his duties at the time. Certainly, the legacy of his life-work in the mapping of the shorelines of Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers and Lake Huron earn him a special place in Canadian history.
He was born into an old and established family from Norfolk, England, but like many before him had joined the Royal Navy at the early age of 10 and he spent many years working his way up the ranks from and he experienced action against the French and the Spanish and was wounded off Gibraltar. He continued to gain experience of both warfare and seamanship and four years after joining the service he made the rank of midshipman in 1810. He was promoted Lieutenant at the age of 20 in 1815.
Bayfield was seconded to work with the veteran surveyor Captain William FitsWilliam Owens, in order to assist him in the greater survey with a view to strengthening Canadian defenses against future attack by the Americans. He took up his post in January 1816 by which time Owens had already completed initial surveys of large portions of the lower Great Lakes.
On his arrival Bayfield immediately impressed Owens with his intellect and propensity to learn new skills. By the end of the end of the 1816 season Bayfield had mapped the American shore of Lake Ontario at the eastern end of the lake. With this project completed, he had worked on the Canadian shore of the St. Lawrence from the Thousand Islands to the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario. He also did a survey of the harbor of Toronto.
Just when Bayfield was preparing to head back to England in accordance with orders Owens, faced with the prospect of losing his most valuable team member, he appealed to the Admiralty that Bayfield remain in Canada under appointment as an assistant surveyor. Bayfield accepted the employment without hesitation and, as fate would have it, at the beginning of the new season in 1817 just when the whole survey team was due to come together at Fort Erie Captain Owens received orders to return to England immediately, taking all his officers except Lt. Bayfield. Most unexpectedly at the tender age of 22yrs Henry Bayfield was left alone, excepting one assistant, Philip Edward Collins Midshipman, and an occasional volunteer in the form of Lt. Lieutenant Henry Renny of the Royal Engineers to the role of Surveyor-in-Chief of the three Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River and Gulf.
In 1817 Bayfield was appointed to the post of Admiralty Surveyor for North America and he work until 1825 surveying the Great Lakes and Lakes Erie, Superior and Huron in particular. On return to London he completed his work and produced many of the maps and charts now found in the Heritage Charts collection. Bayfield returned to Canada in 1827, newly promoted to the rank of Commander, where he completed several surveys of the St. Lawrence River.
Bayfield is today recognized especially for his meticulous work and many of his surveys formed the basis for charts made into the later part of the 20th century. He was given a base from which to center his activities at the British naval base at Penetanguishene in Georgian Bay off Lake Huron. From here Bayfield and his team surveyed not just the Great Lakes but crucially the many hundreds of islands within.
The life of a surveyor was anything but comfortable and Bayfield and his men were frequently out until the worst of the Northern winters set in November for the winter. They would have to endure the misery of mosquitoes to equal anything found in more obvious climbs, taking shelter at night under the sails of their small boats with only the smoke from their campfire for protection. Crows and gulls occasionally supplemented provisions and scurvy was a constant threat.
Despite all of the hardships Bayfield stuck fast to his “ambition to render this work so correct that it shall not be easy to render it more so..."
In his later career Henry Bayfield was a hugely respected figure and he moved smoothly up through naval ranks making Captain in 1834, Rear Admiral in 1836 and Vice Admiral in 1863. He had married in 1838 and fathered six children.