Palliser, John (1817–87), explorer, was born 29 January 1817 in Dublin, eldest son of Wray Palliser (1788–1863) of Derryluskan, Co. Tipperary, and Comeragh, Co. Waterford, JP and lieutenant-colonel of the Waterford Artillery Militia, and his wife Anne (1796–1851), daughter and heir of John Jacob Gledstanes of Annesgift, Co. Tipperary. The family was descended from William Palliser (qv), archbishop of Cashel (1694–1727). While John was still young, the family travelled extensively and he received much of his early education abroad. By his early teens he could speak French, German, and Italian, and in July 1834 he entered TCD. His attendance at lectures and tutorials was infrequent, however, and he left (1838) without a degree. Commissioned lieutenant in the Waterford Artillery Militia (20 September 1839), he was appointed high sheriff of Waterford in 1844.
In early 1847 he went to America on a hunting expedition and, travelling through the west and north-west, keenly observed the lives of Native Americans and fur-trapping communities that existed on the frontier. Visiting New Orleans and Panama, he returned to London in 1849 and worked his travel journals into a book, Solitary rambles and adventures of a hunter in the prairies (London, 1853), which soon ran through several editions.
When the Waterford Artillery Militia was embodied in January 1855 because of the Crimean war, he joined his regiment and, after artillery training at Woolwich, commanded a battery in Duncannon barracks, Co. Wexford. Elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (November 1856), he submitted a plan to the society for the exploration of the southern prairies of Canada and the passes of the Rocky Mountains. The scheme was supported by Henry Labouchere (qv), then secretary of state for the colonies, and a grant of £5,000 (later increased to £13,000) was made available by the treasury. In March 1857 he was appointed as leader of the expedition, and during the next two years Palliser's party carried out an extensive programme of exploration, surveying and determining the border between Canada and the USA, and travelling from Lake Superior across the Rocky Mountains to the western seaboard. He also searched for a route from Canada to the western plains of America, travelling the North West Company canoe route, and finally decided that this route, while practical for small parties, could only be developed as a major route at great expense. His group surveyed a large fertile belt in southern Canada, suitable for cultivation and stock-raising, which became known as ‘Palliser's triangle’. They also noted that it would be extremely difficult to develop a rail route from British territory through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. Sensitive to the needs of Native Americans, he recommended that steps be taken to protect their way of life before the buffalo were hunted to extinction and the country flooded by new settlers. In May 1859 he was awarded the Patron's Gold Medal of the RGS and, after his return to England (June 1860), gave several papers on the expedition's findings to the society. Reports on the expedition were published in parliamentary papers (1859, 1860, 1863). In 1865 a revised map of the surveyed area was published.
In 1862 Palliser travelled to the West Indies and, from Nassau, eluded the federal blockade to visit the confederate states. He undertook another notable voyage in 1869, travelling to Novaya Zemlya (Russian territory) in the Kara Sea with his brother, Frederick Hugh Palliser. In May 1877 he was awarded the CMG. Due to his extensive travels the Palliser family estates, which he had inherited in 1863 on the death of his father, were badly run and heavily mortgaged. In his later years he had to rely on financial assistance from his brother-in-law, William Fairholme. He died 18 August 1887 at Comeragh House, Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford, and was buried in Kilrossanty churchyard. He never married. His younger brother was Sir William Palliser (1830–82), ballistics expert and inventor of Palliser shot.