Peter O’Reilly: The Rise of a Reluctant Immigrant
November 4, 2013
Review By Cole Harris
Peter O’Reilly, third son of a landed Anglo-Irish family with estates in County Meath (Ireland) and Lancashire (England), immigrated to Vancouver Island early in 1859. He was thirty-two years of age and had served for six years in the Irish Revenue Police, from which, when it merged with the Royal Irish Constabulary, he had been honourably discharged. A lover of horses, he then became a stable hand responsible for the health of pedigreed horses in a prestigious stable, but he resigned when his father considered the position socially unacceptable – it diminished his daughters’ marital prospects. The family estates were not prospering, and, in these circumstances, a grandfather recommended emigration. India after the mutiny seemed dangerous, and career prospects in the British Caribbean seemed limited. No one in the family knew much about British Columbia, but a son (Chartres Brew) of a family friend was known to be forming a constabulary there. With no more information than that, but armed with letters of recommendation from important people, O’Reilly immigrated to British Columbia. Governor Douglas, then struggling to find minimally qualified colonial officials, appointed him a stipendiary magistrate and provisional gold commissioner.
O’Reilly flourished in British Columbia. He became a county court judge; a member of the Legislative Council; briefly the commissioner of BC Land and Works; and, for eighteen years from the summer of 1880, the province’s Indian reserve commissioner. In December 1863, he married Caroline Trutch, sister of Joseph Trutch, who, when Douglas retired a few months later, became the colony’s chief commissioner of lands and works. He lived in a fashionable house – Point Ellis House – on the outskirts of Victoria, entertained lavishly, and moved comfortably in the highest social circles. He had become a prominent figure among the small group of men who dominated the social hierarchy and political agenda of early modern British Columbia.
Such a man deserves a biography, and Lynne Stonier-Newman has provided a lively, readable one intended for a general readership. It situates O’Reilly within the main political events of his day – the Chilcotin War, the amalgamation of the colonies, Confederation, arguments over the railway, the Indian land question –but particularly within his family life and social relations. He emerges most clearly in this account as husband, father, and friend.
For those less interested in this domestic O’Reilly than in his fit with the larger events of his day, this book may be frustrating. For one thing, it is barely footnoted. Lynne Stonier-Newman has worked hard in many archives, but, with next to no footnotes, the status of most of her information is unclear. Governor Douglas, she says, granted Native fishing reserves near Yale in the summer of 1858. If so, this is important information, previously unknown, but what is the evidence? He certainly granted a reserve at Yale in the summer of 1858, the first reserve on the mainland, but one reserve is not fishing reserves. Her claim deserves to be tracked down, yet the tracking is not simple. Similarly, she suggests at several points that O’Reilly held a more generous view of Native land allocation than his brother-in-law, Joseph Trutch, a claim that, without accompanying evidence, cannot be evaluated. There are similar uncertainties on virtually every page.
Nor is Stonier-Newman much aware of O’Reilly’s official doings or of their implications. She has, for example, very little sense of O’Reilly’s work in the Nicola Valley in the summer of 1858 as, on his brother-in-law’s instructions, he laid out reserves of ten acres (4.05 hectares) per family, or of the effect of these allocations on the Nicola. Similarly, she ignores the on-the-ground results of O’Reilly’s eighteen years as Indian reserve commissioner, when, more than anyone else, he created the reserve map of British Columbia, the principal work and legacy of his life.
On the other hand, hers is an intriguing glimpse of elite society in early-modern British Columbia. It reveals the opportunity the province offered a small group of men to achieve a social and political prominence that could not possibly have been theirs in Britain. It reveals the close web of social relations that bound this group together as well as the Britishness of their outlook and aspirations. It shows how effortlessly they assumed their right to live in and govern a part of the world that, a few years before, few of them knew anything about. As for Peter O’Reilly himself, it reveals a considerate husband and father, and a trustworthy official who did his superiors’ bidding, thought within the values of his class, and would never espouse a cause that risked his social standing or the well-being of his family.