PETERS, WILLIAM BIRDSEYE, office holder, army officer, lawyer, and journalist; b. 5 June 1774 in Hebron (Marlborough), Conn., only child of the Reverend Samuel Andrew Peters and his third wife, Mary Birdseye; m. 4 May 1796 Polly (Patty) Marvin Jarvis of Stamford, Conn., and they had nine children, seven surviving infancy; d. 4 June 1822 in Mobile, Ala.
William Birdseye Peters was descended on both sides from Puritans who settled in New England in the 1630s. His mother died a few days after his birth; his father was the Church of England minister in Hebron. In September 1774 Samuel Peters’s strong tory views forced him to flee, first to Boston and then to England, leaving his baby son with the boy’s maternal grandparents in Stratford, Conn. William lived with the Birdseyes until he was 14, studying under nearby Congregational and Episcopal ministers. He then joined his father in London, and in 1789 went to school in Arras, France, where he remained for three terms. He matriculated into Trinity College, Oxford, on 12 Oct. 1792; in that year also he was a law student at the Inner Temple. Growing concern was felt for his health, and in the summer of 1793 he was sent to North America to recuperate.
Although his half-sister, Hannah Peters*, had married William Jarvis*, secretary and registrar of Upper Canada, and was living in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Peters’s first visit to the province was a brief one in 1794. Instead of returning to England to complete his education, he stayed in the United States, mainly in Connecticut, renewing acquaintance with relatives and friends. Hannah urged him to settle in Upper Canada, and in 1796 he married an American niece of William Jarvis, and moved to Newark.
In the beginning Peters had many advantages. Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe*, who had tried unsuccessfully to have Peters’s father become the first bishop of Upper Canada, appointed him assistant secretary and registrar of the province on 3 May 1796, and on 26 May licensed him to practise law. A grant of 1,200 acres was recommended on 25 July, and on 26 December he was commissioned an ensign in the Queen’s Rangers. In addition, both he and his father were on the United Empire Loyalist list, and the Jarvises believed that other government appointments would be forthcoming.
Peters thus began his career in Upper Canada with a sound footing in three professions – the civil service, the law, and the army. Although multiple appointments were not uncommon in 18th-century Upper Canada, Peters encountered problems after Simcoe’s departure. Chief Justice John Elmsley* refused to permit him to practise law because he was an army officer, and Major David Shank of the Queen’s Rangers thought that he could not hold his government position while on active service, despite the precedent of David William Smith*. Peters, however, was not ordered to join his regiment until the secretary’s office was moved to York (Toronto) in 1798. In Newark he worked under Jarvis, who complained that he was lazy and uncooperative; Peters wrote that the Jarvises expected him to be “their Slave” and that he was paid too little and too irregularly. Peters was unsuccessful in obtaining other government appointments, in his opinion because the Jarvises had no political influence, and also because he himself was a “Yankee.” In 1799 Peters and his father were struck off the United Empire Loyalist list, because Samuel Peters had never come to Upper Canada.
While in Newark, Peters spent much time with the American officers at Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.). From them he learned of opportunities for advancement in the American army, and in 1798 he applied for a commission to the American secretary of war. Shortly afterwards he moved to York and reported for duty to Lieutenant-Colonel Shank, who told him that promotion was likely within the British army. Peters therefore cancelled his American application, but Jarvis discovered it and sent a copy to Shank, according to Peters because he thought he had to sacrifice Peters to save himself. To the loyalist Jarvis, Peters was guilty of treason, but Peters claimed that he had merely breached military etiquette in not informing his commanding officer of his intentions. His explanation satisfied Shank, who did nothing further.
After this episode, Peters’s relations with the Jarvises were strained. In York he served with the rangers until the regiment was disbanded on 25 Oct. 1802, when he retired on half pay. No longer an active army officer, he applied for admission to the Law Society of Upper Canada in Easter Term, 1803, and was called to the bar. On 16 June 1803, however, he moved to New York, where he established a dry goods store under the name William B. Peters and Company, with money borrowed from relatives and $2,000 won by his wife in a lottery. In two years he had lost everything and was $11,000 in debt. By 1808 he was a discharged bankrupt in Connecticut, living on the Birdseye estate with no means of support.
In 1807 Hannah Jarvis had advised against his return to Upper Canada, since “he is supposed to be in the opposition, he becoming a subject to the United States.” In 1810, however, Peters settled in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) to practise law. Hannah hoped that he would “have the discretion to be Nutral,” but he had no discretion and was soon writing for Joseph Willcocks*’s radical newspaper, the Upper Canada Guardian; or, Freeman’s Journal. Through his friend the Reverend Robert Addison, he applied for the position of clerk in the projected Gore District in February 1812, but the new district was not established until after the War of 1812.
When war was declared, Peters immediately moved his law office to York and his household to John Mills Jackson*’s home three miles up Yonge Street. From the beginning his loyalty was suspect. After the capture of York by the Americans in April 1813, the acting attorney general, John Beverley Robinson*, was instructed to lay charges against him for providing information to the enemy, but sufficient evidence could not be found.
Peters was in serious trouble again after the second occupation of York. When the Americans marched in on 31 July 1813 “he met them with Expressions of Joy and shook hands with a number of the enemys officers and men.” According to a second witness, Peters often said that the Americans would conquer the country, and was pleased at the prospect. The committee of information, consisting of five prominent York citizens, believed that suspicions of Peters were justified, and that “from his Information and talents he is capable of doing much mischief.” Although he was possibly guilty of sedition, there was no evidence of actual aid to the enemy, and so no charges were laid. Preparations were being made for a great show trial of traitors – the “Bloody Assize” held at Ancaster in May–June 1814. Peters was defence lawyer for at least five of those accused of high treason; of these, two were acquitted, the sentence of one was commuted, and two were executed.
After the war Peters returned to Niagara to practise law. In 1816 he moved to Thorold and then to Hamilton, where he was the first lawyer in the new Gore District. By November 1819 he was back in Niagara, where he maintained a legal practice and succeeded Bartemas Ferguson as publisher of the Niagara Spectator. Ferguson, a critic of the government, had been convicted of libel the previous August; Peters changed the newspaper’s name to the Canadian Argus, and Niagara Spectator and published it until some time in 1820 when Ferguson, having been released, resumed his connection with the paper. That autumn Peters went to New York and briefly practised law. On 27 December he sailed for Mobile, Ala, where he died of yellow fever. His son, Samuel Jarvis Peters, became a prominent merchant, developer, banker, and politician in New Orleans.
Peters was one of the few gentlemen in Upper Canada popularly accused of treason. He never understood that Upper Canada was not part of the United States, and obviously felt no particular allegiance to either government. Basically an unsuccessful opportunist, he moved back and forth across a border he did not perceive. Despite his advantages, he was a failure in both countries.
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