By Sam McBride

A while ago I inherited an interesting, but cumbersome, family history artifact. It features studio portraits of five men, under glass, in a heavy wood frame.  There is no information on the artifact, except for the signatures below photos of four of the men, one of whom noted the date Dec. 17, 1896.  

As family historian, I knew the man on the left was my great-grandfather, the Hon. Frederick Peters (1852-1919), who was a lawyer and premier of Prince Edward Island from 1891 until 1897, when he resigned and moved his family from Charlottetown to Victoria, BC where he set up a law partnership with another man in the photo group, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper (second from the right) from Nova Scotia, whose service earlier in the Bering Sea seal-harvesting international dispute while he was federal minister of marine and fisheries earned him a knighthood.  Both Peters and Tupper (1855-1927) were elected as vice presidents at the initial meeting of the Canadian Bar Association in September 1896. 

Bering Sea Claims Commission 1896

With some searching I learned that the 5 men in the frame were members of the Bering Sea Claims Commission which had hearings and other meetings in Victoria during the winter of 1896-1897.  Others in the display are Victoria lawyer Ernest Victor Bodwell (far right) and U.S. representatives Charles Beecher Warren (second from left) and Robert Lansing (middle).  Lansing (1864-1928) would serve as U.S. Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson in WW1.  Warren (1870-1936) would serve as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and later Ambassador to Japan. 

Bodwell (1856-1918) represented the government of British Columbia in the Claims Commission.  He had been a founding member and president of the Victoria Board of Trade, and as an immigration lawyer.  Fred Peters was the only one of the group not to sign his photo in this display, probably because it was his copy and he saw no need to sign it.  He did the Bering Sea work on the side, supplementing the modest salary of $1,400 a year he received as PEI premier.

Hon. Frederick Peters

To get good scans of the photos I took them out of the frame, and was pleased to find them in excellent shape. After checking online, I found the same photo group and frame is in the archives of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.  The sealing dispute was important historically because it examined issues that would become part of international fishing disputes.  The British/Canadian side came out victorious in the sealing dispute, which left a sour taste with the Americans.  They got the last laugh in 1903, when they won the Alaska Panhandle in the Alaska Boundary Dispute. 

Peters and Tupper were excited by the prospects of an economic boom on the West Coast, particularly with the oncoming Klondike Gold Rush.  They were also impressed by the mild Victoria winter weather compared to their home provinces in the Maritimes.

Charles Warren
Robert Lansing
Sir Charles Hibbert Tuppeer
Ernest Bodwell

Tupper and Peters stayed at the Mount Baker Hotel while their adjacent homes designed by architect J.G. Tiarks were built in Oak Bay, known as Annandale and Garrison House.   Their families, including my maternal grandmother Mary Helen Peters (1887-1976, known to all as “Helen”), joined them in the summer of 1898.  The men parted ways in about 1902, with Peters continuing in Victoria and Tupper in Vancouver.  The move west never panned out financially for Peters as he hoped.  The family moved to Esquimalt in about 1909, and then in 1911 to Prince Rupert, where Fred once again hoped to get in early on a boomtown, and again found disappointment.  Helen, who was the eldest child, remained in Victoria, where she married E.E.L. “Ted” Dewdney in 1912, and they moved to Vernon where he had been transferred by his employer, the Bank of Montreal.   Fred Peters worked as city solicitor for Prince Rupert and later also as city clerk, helping the city through difficult financial times.  Grief-stricken after the death of sons Jack and Gerald Peters in WW1, Fred died in 1919 and was buried at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria, next to daughter Violet Avis Peters, who died at age six in 1905 when her nightdress caught fire due to her being too close to one of the fireplaces at Garrision House.  A third son, Capt. Frederic Thornton Peters, would die in WW2 in 1942 after winning the Victoria Cross in the Allied invasion of North Africa.  Another son, Noel Quintan Peters (1894-1964) had a moderate, but noticeable, mental disability that led to him being bullied and rejected for military service in the First World War, which resulted in more extensive bullying for not serving in the war.  In 1917, Noel was finally accepted into the Canadian Forestry Corps.  Helen Dewdney was the only one of six Peters children to have children. 

Violet Avis Peters (1899-1905)

Fred’s widow, Bertha Hamilton Gray (1862-1946) was the youngest daughter of the PEI Father of Confederation Colonel John Hamilton Gray and Susan Bartley Pennefather.  In 1915 she travelled to England to be close to her sons who were there for war service.  She was devastated by the deaths of sons Jack and Gerald, particularly Gerald who was her favourite child.  Desperate to contact Gerald in the afterlife, she became keen on spiritualism and seances with mediums, which her son Fritz and daughter Helen strongly disapproved.  After returning to Canada in December 1916 she said she could not bear to return to Prince Rupert with so many memories of Jack and Gerald, so she moved in with Helen’s family in New Denver in the West Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia, where Ted Dewdney was posted as branch manager.  She would continue living with the Dewdney family in Rossland after Ted was transferred there by the bank in 1920, then in nearby Trail 1927-29, and then in Nelson in 1929 where Ted retired in 1940.  Bertha stayed with them and their children in Nelson until her death in 1946 at age 84.  Through each of these moves, Bertha took the framed group of photos of the Bering Sea Claims Commission.  Daughter Helen looked after it for some time, and then for many years it was in her son Peter Dewdney’s basement in Trail, B.C.  Knowing my interest in the family history, it was passed on to me a couple of years ago, and I have enjoyed investigating its origins and content.