O’REILLY, PETER, magistrate, sheriff, gold commissioner, judge, and Indian reserve commissioner; b. 27 March 1827 in Ince, England, son of Patrick O’Reilly and Mary Blundell; m. 15 Dec. 1863 Caroline Agnes Trutch in Victoria, B.C., and they had two sons and two daughters, one of whom died at age seven; d. there 3 Sept. 1905.
Peter O’Reilly was raised by his Irish father and English mother in Ireland, and served several years as a lieutenant in the Irish Revenue Police before being honourably discharged in 1857. After a year of idleness and as he was anxious for employment overseas, he enlisted the aid of an Irish member of parliament, Lord Claud Hamilton, who made enquiries on his behalf at the Colonial Office. Hamilton strongly advised him to go to the colony of British Columbia, established in August 1858, predicting that “great early development of very valuable resources” would occur there and that O’Reilly would be “certain to thrive.” He added that some 30 other Irishmen were considering careers in British Columbia. Half a dozen of them would later become judicial colleagues of O’Reilly, among them Chartres Brew*, Thomas Elwyn*, and Andrew Charles Elliott*.
O’Reilly left Ireland on 5 Feb. 1859 and arrived in Victoria via Panama early in April. Barely 32 years old, tall, vigorous, and strong, he was well suited for life in the new colony. He was a keen outdoorsman, a skilled horseman, an excellent shot, and an experienced commander of men. Upon arrival he was appointed stipendiary magistrate for Langley District, and in November he was transferred to the more important Hope District. Also in November, O’Reilly was made high sheriff of the colony. No mere figurehead, the sheriff was the chief court official; one of his more unpleasant responsibilities was to arrange the orderly hanging of condemned criminals. O’Reilly would hold the office until 1866, when he found its duties incompatible with his other activities and resigned.
In 1860, following a gold strike at Rock Creek in the Similkameen region, O’Reilly was named assistant gold commissioner for that area as well as for Hope District. Gold commissioners exercised civil and, until 1865, criminal jurisdiction under the Gold Fields Act of 1859. In mining litigation they had unlimited jurisdiction, subject only to appeals to the Supreme Court in certain cases. They also administered mining regulations, issuing licences, recording claims and water rights, settling boundaries, and controlling syndicates.
O’Reilly’s resolute nature and authoritative demeanour impressed both those who appeared in his court and the governor, who in March 1862 appointed him chief gold commissioner for the colony. In this capacity he was to go to the Cariboo region, where Williams Creek and others nearby were yielding the richest gold deposits hitherto found in British Columbia. O’Reilly made his headquarters at Richfield, although he passed the harsh winters, when mining was in hibernation, on the coast. His years at Richfield were extraordinarily busy, and he frequently spent 12 to 14 hours a day in his office. He often worked in tandem with judge Matthew Baillie Begbie* of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, and the two men, sharing similar tastes and views, became lifelong friends. During the colonial period O’Reilly visited virtually every settled portion of the British Columbia mainland. Chronic headaches – probably migraine – plagued him all his life but did not deter him from arduous journeys, which indeed he enjoyed.
In 1864 large gold deposits were found in the east Kootenay region at Wild Horse Creek, now the site of Fort Steele. The discovery attracted thousands of American miners, and the following year O’Reilly, as gold commissioner, was dispatched there on the first of a number of visits he would make to the area. In 1866 gold was discovered on the Big Bend of the Columbia River, near present-day Revelstoke, and once again O’Reilly was sent to enforce mining laws.
O’Reilly’s most notable expedition was in 1871 to the remote Omineca region of north-central British Columbia, a wild, mountainous area with torrential rivers where gold had been found the previous year. He departed from Victoria on 29 March and was absent nine months, discharging judicial functions as well as performing the tasks of tax collector and Indian agent. As on his other journeys, he travelled on horseback and by canoe, living off the country as far as possible. Camping in the Omineca tested his fortitude and endurance to the limit. It was abominably cold and he was tormented by mosquitoes; he recorded that one night he had to “smoke out” his tent four times in attempts to get sleep. It is not surprising that he frequently started work at 4:00 a.m. He left the area and set out for the Pacific coast late in October, journeying west and holding court en route. The weather was so atrocious and the heavy snow and rough terrain so treacherous that he and his party were lucky to survive.
O’Reilly’s status underwent a number of changes as a result of the union of Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1866. Until then stipendiary magistrates such as O’Reilly had unofficially exercised what in England would have been considered the powers of a county court judge. As a consequence of union their position was regularized, and in 1867 he and five of the other stipendiary magistrates were officially appointed county court judges. Moreover, since 1864 O’Reilly had served, by virtue of his office as magistrate, on the Legislative Council of British Columbia. The following year his appointment as colonial secretary was mooted, but he firmly discouraged any overtures. At the time of union he joined the enlarged council and he continued as a member until 1870 when, inexplicably, he was not reappointed. In February 1871 he again became a member, but the council was dissolved when British Columbia joined confederation later that year.
O’Reilly’s career in the council was undistinguished. Though present throughout the crucial confederation debate during March and April 1870 [see Sir Anthony Musgrave*], he did not participate in it. His feelings on this matter, like those of Begbie and others from a similar background, were ambivalent. They worried about the loss of the British connection and the possible loss of position and pension. In 1869 O’Reilly told his friend Henry Pering Pellew Crease that he accepted the inevitability of confederation but said the two of them should “battle against it until a satisfactory provision is made for us.” He was in the Omineca on the day British Columbia joined confederation; though making no mention of the historic occasion in his diary, he did write to Crease to complain that he had had no official information about the effect it would have on his position as a judge. He reminded his colleague, “You were troubled about your own position in the service,” and asked, “Do you see your way more clearly now?”
For nearly ten years after confederation, O’Reilly, as county court judge for Yale District, went regularly on circuit. Though no longer obliged always to travel on horseback, he frequently did so when visiting the more remote sections of his territory such as the Nicola valley. When travelling to Kamloops he invariably stayed at the splendid ranch and gracious manor-house of his friends the Cornwalls, at Ashcroft, where the hunting was good and where other members of the British Columbia élite, such as Begbie and John Andrew Mara, could often be found. Frequently he held court outside Yale District as well; in 1875 he made a notable circuit to the Cassiar region in northwestern British Columbia. Ascending the Stikine River by canoe, he held court both as gold commissioner and as county court judge in various mining camps, including Laketon on Dease Lake and McDame Creek.
By the late 1870s it had become obvious that the tenure of lay judges such as O’Reilly could not continue indefinitely (they would, in fact, be replaced by professionals in 1883). When in 1880 O’Reilly learned that an Indian reserve commissioner was to be appointed for British Columbia, he journeyed to Ottawa to seek the position. The difficult negotiations between the federal government and British Columbia over the allocation of lands to be reserved for Indians in the province had resulted in the establishment in 1876 of a three-man commission that was to set boundaries. Two years later the trio was replaced by a single commissioner, Gilbert Malcolm Sproat*. His resignation in 1880 created the vacancy.
In Ottawa, O’Reilly met with federal politicians and officials, chief among them Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald*, who also held the portfolio of minister of the interior and was thus responsible for Indian affairs. It was through the influence his wife’s brother Joseph William Trutch had with Macdonald that the position was offered to O’Reilly, who demanded a guarantee of his judge’s pension (he would necessarily have to resign from the bench) and, in addition, a salary of $3,500 per annum. Both conditions were met. For 18 years he served as reserve commissioner and, as he had so often done while a judge, spent much time visiting remote areas of the province, accompanied by a surveyor – usually Ashdown H. Green. After 1890, when he was over 60 years of age, he increasingly tended to stay in Victoria, leaving the fieldwork to subordinates.
O’Reilly’s decisions on the location and extent of reserves have been criticized by modern scholars. It has been suggested that he made niggardly allocations, and that because he had private investments in ranching operations he was sympathetic to ranchers generally, whose interests might conflict with the land requirements of Indians. Like most influential British Columbians of his time, he refused to accept the concept of aboriginal entitlement as a basis for claims.
The reserves he laid out in 1882 at Metlakatla were disputed by the native people of the area, who were concerned about the loss of hunting and fishing sites. O’Reilly’s allotments were reviewed by a provincial commission in 1884 [see Alexander Edmund Batson Davie*] in terms of the Tsimshian claims, based on aboriginal title. O’Reilly testified that in laying out the reserves he had in every case acceded to the wishes of the Indians, except in instances where lands had already been alienated. The commission approved his allotments.
Judging from his own diaries, O’Reilly was not unresponsive to the needs of the native people in delineating reserve boundaries. He invariably recorded instances in which chiefs of bands disagreed with his allocations as well as instances in which they agreed. If the entries are accurate, the assents outnumber the dissents. More important, when visiting the Skeena region in 1891 he promised the chiefs and their people assembled in various villages on the Skeena and Bulkley rivers and at Babine Lake that the establishment of reserves would not affect their traditional activities such as picking berries or hunting and fishing outside defined reserve boundaries. There were few British Columbia officials in 1891 willing to concede such rights.
In 1898, at the age of 71, O’Reilly retired from government service. He had amply fulfilled the prediction of Lord Claud Hamilton, enjoying a handsome income during four decades of work and becoming a man of substantial property through shrewd investments. From the moment of his arrival in British Columbia he had lent money secured by notes or mortgages. There is evidence in his diaries that, notwithstanding his judicial position as gold commissioner, he was financially interested in mineral claims, such as William (Billy) Barker*’s on Williams Creek. His involvement never became a matter of public concern, though a letter he wrote to Crease in 1865 implies there were private mutterings about conflict of interest. He bought and sold real estate, mostly on the lower mainland, including one valuable parcel at Vancouver which he and some partners sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway for part of its terminus. He joined cattle-ranch syndicates and was active in various commercial enterprises in Victoria. His sons were educated at expensive boarding-schools in England. In 1868 he bought a large home in Victoria, now known as Point Ellice House; his additions and renovations made it one of the finest residences in the city, and he lived there until his death.
During his time in Victoria, O’Reilly led a hectic but agreeable social life, made possible by his wealth and connections. His brother-in-law Trutch, a man of considerable attainments and influence, became the province’s first lieutenant governor, giving O’Reilly and his family entrée to Government House and the glittering social events centred on it. Two of Trutch’s successors, Clement Francis Cornwall and Edgar Dewdney*, were also close friends. As well, O’Reilly had contacts with another centre of activity for the upper stratum of Victoria society, the naval station at Esquimalt. One officer who frequently called, in 1890, was the future Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, with whom O’Reilly’s daughter apparently fell in unrequited love.
O’Reilly spent his declining years puttering around in his beautiful and treasured garden, receiving and visiting friends, and going to church. He was always a staunch member of the Church of England, and if unable to attend church while travelling, he read the service himself. His wife, to whom he was utterly devoted, had died in 1899.
On 20 Aug. 1905 O’Reilly recorded in his diary the first sign of his fatal illness: “Seedy all through the night ‘heartburn.’” The next day, in what proved to be his last entry, he spoke of repairs to the kitchen and remarked that his daughter Kit was also “seedy.” He became ill the following day of heart disease and died at home on 3 September. After a large funeral he was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery among other pioneers of British Columbia. He had been one of the last of the small band of English and Anglo-Irish expatriates who came to the colony immediately after its creation and who, in positions of importance, had laboured mightily and successfully to maintain the rule of British law.
[Peter O’Reilly kept a diary from 1858 to 1905, the only important figure of early British Columbia known to have done so for such a long period. Though sometimes perfunctory and mundane, and containing little political comment, the diaries contain complete descriptions of his many journeys and are also an invaluable record of the social and domestic life of the period; the originals form part of the extensive O’Reilly coll. at the BCARS, where they are found in A/E/Or3.
There is much other relevant manuscript material in the O’Reilly coll., of which the following items are the more important: O’Reilly’s letters to his wife (A/E/Or3/Or3); journal of a trip to Similkameen (A/E/Or3/Or3.2); letterbook, affairs at Kootenay, 1865–66 (.3); office memoranda, jp at Hope (.4); letters to Sir Joseph William Trutch (.5); account-books, including an inventory of Point Ellice House (.5-.6); papers concerning appointments held by O’Reilly (.9); letters to Edgar Dewdney (.15); papers relating to estate (.16), land grants (.17), property in Vancouver (.19), government service in Ireland (.21), and government service and pension (.22); promissory notes (.24); testimonials from Ireland and from Sir James Douglas* and Sir Henry Pering Pellew Crease (.27); and papers concerning investments (.30); Caroline Agnes [Trutch] O’Reilly’s diaries and letters to her husband (A/E/Or3/Or31); assets, debts, and liabilities (A/E/Or3/Or313); letters to O’Reilly from Sir Joseph William Trutch (A/E/Or3/T771) and John Trutch (T772); and miscellaneous letters and family papers in Add. mss 248 and Add. mss 412, respectively.
Other noteworthy manuscript items include 16 letters from O’Reilly to Sir Henry Crease in the Crease coll. (BCARS, A/E/C86/C86/Or3), correspondence and petitions relating to Indian lands in British Columbia (BCARS, GR 504), and Indian reserve commission correspondence in NA, RG 10, 1274.
Relatively little secondary source material exists, since no serious study has been made until now of O’Reilly’s career, but the following items may be consulted: B.C., Legislative Assembly, Sessional papers, 1885: 131–36, “Metlakatlah inquiry, 1884: report of the commissioners, together with the evidence”; R. E. Cail, Land, man and the law: the disposal of crown lands in British Columbia, 1871–1913 (Vancouver, 1974); D. M. L. Farr, “The organization of the judicial system of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, 1849–1871” (ba thesis, Univ. of B.C., Vancouver, 1944); R. [A.] Fisher, Contact and conflict: Indian-European relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890 (Vancouver, 1977); S. W. Jackman, The men at Cary Castle; a series of portrait sketches of the lieutenant-governors of British Columbia from 1871 to 1971 (Victoria, 1972); Journals of colonial legislatures of Vancouver Island and B.C. (Hendrickson); Kerr, Biog. dict. of British Columbians; Peter Murray, The devil and Mr. Duncan (Victoria, 1985); M. A. Ormsby, “Some Irish figures in colonial days,” BCHQ, 14 (1950): 61–82; and the author’s study “. . . The man for a new country”: Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie (Sidney, B.C., 1977). d.r.w.]
© 1994–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
David Ricardo Williams, “O’REILLY, PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/o_reilly_peter_13E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||David Ricardo Williams|
|Title of Article:||O’REILLY, PETER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||May 31, 2023|