Frederick Whymper

Frederick Whymper (20 July 1838[1] – 26 November 1901) was born in London, England. He was a son of Josiah Wood Whymper (24 April 1813 – 7 April 1903), a celebrated wood-engraver and artist, and Elizabeth Whitworth Claridge. His younger brother Edward Whymper (27 April 1840 – 16 September 1911) was a renowned alpinist who made the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.

Frederick Whymper (1860's) Image A-02535, courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.
Frederick Whymper (1860’s)
Image A-02535, courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.

As a young man and already talented artist Frederick worked with his father and brother producing engravings for several publications. From 1859 to 1861 he exhibited his landscapes at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Whymper left England on 6 June 1862 and arrived in Victoria in the autumn of 1862. The following summer he travelled to the Cariboo District of British Columbia on what he described as “a sketching and pedestrian tour.” Many claim holders and mining companies in the upper country commissioned drawings from him and this fact may explain why his drawings seem intent on topographical precision. Whymper also made sketches and sets of drawings for quite a few of Victoria’s leading citizens, including future Chief Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie, Donald Fraser a former member of the Council of Vancouver Island, and also Robert Brown. In March 1864 Whymper set out for Bute Inlet (B.C.) to publicize through his drawings the road Alfred Penderell Waddington was attempting to build to the Cariboo. He gave good reports of the enterprise but attracted more attention to the killing of workers by Indians which had occurred while he was leaving the region (the Bute Inlet Massacre[2]). Despite the sensation, Whymper’s work was not overlooked. The British Colonist noted his drawings of “the windings of the trail and … [its] formidable obstacles” and his renderings of “magnificent glaciers.”

Back in Victoria, Whymper applied for the position of artist on the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition. On 10 May he wrote two letters, one to S. Franklin and to G. Cruickshank of the VIE-Committee in which he offered his services and additionally wrote; “In the matter of remuneration I’m not greedy and should feel honoured with an association with the expedition.” The address signed as; “Office Courtney Street, next door to Mr. Macdonald.”

There were two other candidates competing for the same position; Edward J. Coleman and E.M. Richardson. Whymper did not hear back hence on 19 May he sent in another letter in which he stated the support of his work by Governor Kennedy. He still did not hear back and hesitant to write the committee again he wrote a letter to Brown on 28 May, stating his readiness. This helped and on 1 June, at the age of 25, he was formally appointed “artist” of the VIEE.

Of wiry build, he did fine during the expedition and his sketches were of great value for the perception of the public. An exhibition of 33 drawings, he had made during the expedition, was held in Victoria in November 1864.

In 1865 Whymper joined the Russian-American Western Union Telegraph Expedition, which intended to construct a telegraph line linking the United States and Europe through British Columbia, Alaska, and Siberia. As its artist he went to Norton Sound (Alaska) during the summer and then crossed to Petropavlovsk (Kamchatka, Russia). Following a winter in San Francisco, he again set out for Petropavlovsk and subsequently travelled around the Gulf of Anadyr [Andayrsky Zaliv, Russia]. Near the end of October 1866 he went to Mikhailovski [St. Michael] on Norton Sound and after a winter at Nulato he ascended the Yukon River to Fort Yukon. Here he received news of the successful laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable and witnessed the first American flag being raised over the new territory of Alaska. Returning to Mikhailovski in August 1867 he was told of the abandonment of the Russian-American project.

Whymper went back to England in November 1867 and his narrative “Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska” was published the following year. Four chapters are concerned with his travels in British Columbia and Vancouver Island and the book is illustrated with drawings of these regions. Whymper looked back on the VIEE with nostalgia and satisfaction. In the intro of his book he writes; “Some of the most pleasant days of my life were spent with the two expeditions with which I have been connected.” In the opening of “Chapter 5 – The Interior of Vancouver Island,” (p41) he writes; “Travelling in the interior of Vancouver Island exhibits little beyond an alternation of various shades of monotony, so that the narrative of one month’s experiences is as good, or a good deal better, than the details of five. Notwithstanding the truth of this statement, I count some of the happiest hours of my life in the time spent there. Although no believer in the “dignity” of labour, I can well believe in its pleasures. When a man can enjoy any diet, even one of beans – of a kind at home, only given to horses – when he considers tea the best and most refreshing of drinks, it is a pretty good sign that he is in vigorous health, that he sleeps well, and that life is no burden to him. Such was our experience at times when we carried on our backs loads from 50 to 120 lbs. in weight, through a rugged country where rivers were mountain torrents, the woods almost a jungle, and where we rarely turned into our blankets at night, except in a wet condition.”

In 1869 Whymper returned to North America and chose to live in San Francisco where he worked for the newspaper Alta California. City directories described him as an artist and mining engineer and in 1871 he was a founding member of the San Francisco Art Association.

Nevertheless, he drew attention to British Columbia, most notably through engravings of his drawings. These engravings appeared not only in his own publications but also in Robert Brown’s “The Countries of the World” (6v., London, 1876), Gilbert Malcolm Sproat’s “Scenes and studies of savage life” (London, 1868), and the Illustrated London News.

Whymper’s publications in England from the mid 1870s suggest he had left North America by then. These books were essentially works of popular education as indicated by the titles of two of them: “The Heroes of the Arctic and Their Adventures” (London and New York, 1875) and “The Sea: Its Stirring Story of Adventure, Peril and Heroism” (4v., London, 1877–80).  They are sometimes illustrated by his drawings, however by the time the books appeared Whymper seems to have given up drawing for writing and to have settled down.

Frederick Whymper died in London on 26 November 1901 at the age of 63. The cause of his death was described in an obituary as “failure of the heart, probably due to indigestion, arising from sedentary pursuits.”

Today, Mount Whymper north of Lake Cowichan, is named in honour of the early explorer, artist and writer.


Copyright © July 2014, Bart van den Berk.



[1] In his journal Whymper writes on 20 July; “Spent my natal day in cooking & sleeping.” Source: Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.2, file 9, Frederick Whymper; Journals of the Vancouver Island Exploration Expedition, 7 June 1864 – 18 Oct, 1864, received 21 Oct. 1864; 38 pages.

[2] The “Chilcotin War” or “Bute Inlet Massacre” was a confrontation in 1864 between members of the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) Indians and white road construction workers. Fourteen men employed by Alfred Penderell Waddington in the building of a road from Bute Inlet were killed, as well as a number of men with a pack-train near Anahim Lake and a settler at Puntzi Lake. Sources: Wikipedia -&- British Colonist, 6 and 12 May 1864; p3.


[Annotated and edited from the following main sources, in order of usage.]

John Hayman, “WHYMPER, FREDERICK,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed 14 April 2014,

Whymper, Frederick, Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska, London: John Murray, 1868, 331 pages.

Elms, Lindsay, Frederick Whymper, Beyond Nootka, accessed 14 April 2014,

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.1, file 4, Contract for monthly stipend of members of the expedition for five months, 1 June 1864; 2 pages.

Brown, Robert, MS-0794, Robert Brown Papers, British Columbia Archives, Victoria, Canada. Vol.3, file 4, Vancouver Island Exploration Committee: applications for positions on exploring expedition, 1864; 80 pages.


(Keyword) biography Frederick Whymper