PEERS, HENRY NEWSHAM, HBC officer and British Columbia pioneer; b. 17 March 1821 at Lymington, Hampshire, England, son of Captain H. Peers; d. 27 March 1864 at Saanich, near Victoria, Vancouver Island.
Henry Newsham Peers attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich from which he was dismissed after 18 months. On 5 Jan. 1841 he was appointed to the Montreal Department of the Hudson’s Bay Company as an apprentice clerk at a progressive salary of £20, £25, £30, £40, and £50 per annum. Peers sailed from England in March 1841 for Montreal. During 1841–42 and 1842–43 he served at Lachine, Canada East, where he “gave great satisfaction” but was “dying to get away . . . to the North.”
Peers was transferred to the Columbia District as an apprentice clerk in 1843 and was attached to Fort Vancouver (Vancouver, Wash.) as a clerk under Richard Lane* and Thomas Lowe until March 1848. In the fall of 1844, when a forest fire nearly engulfed Fort Vancouver, Peers was temporarily in charge of the fort’s sawmill. His map of the fort showing the conflagration remains a prime source of information about structures and land use there. In June 1846 the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between the United States and British territories from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. The HBC was anxious to hold its Columbia trade, but because of the treaty it decided to abandon Fort George (now Astoria, Oreg.) at the mouth of that river. On 1 Aug. 1846, Peers left for Fort George to succeed Alexander Lattie and to superintend the erection of a house and store at Baker’s Bay on the north side of the river. There he acted as port agent of the HBC.
That autumn Peers was elected to represent Vancouver County in the second regular session of the assembly established by the provisional government of Oregon. Peers’ chief contribution was to prepare the Oregon petition of 19 Dec. 1846, which urged the United States Congress to confirm land titles, adopt measures for education, and establish navigational facilities on the Columbia River. The petition was tabled in the Senate a year later. Peers was re-elected in 1847, but did not attend the legislature. In its attempt to secure its claims to Fort Vancouver and surrounding lands after the Oregon treaty, the HBC assigned 640-acre holdings to individual employees who could be considered bona fide settlers by the Oregon government. Peers had claimed the square mile on which the flour mill west of the fort was located.
The 1846 treaty also caused the HBC to seek a route for its New Caledonia (now British Columbia) brigades which would use the Fraser River rather than the Columbia. In 1846 and 1847, Alexander Caulfield Anderson* explored routes from Kamloops to the lower Fraser, but elevation, deep snow lasting well into summer, risky river crossings, and excessive travelling time caused James Douglas* and Peter Skene Ogden* to reject his findings. During the summer of 1848, accordingly, Peers was detached from the New Caledonia brigade, to which he had been assigned for outfit 1848–49, and ordered to re-locate Anderson’s 1846 route to the Fraser. Peers found a more practical route from Kamloops to the mouth of the Coquihalla River on which elevation and lingering snow were not so formidable. A new route was increasingly urgent because of American customs duties on goods landed at Fort Vancouver and the disruption of the Columbia River route by the massacre at the Whitman mission (near Walla Walla, Wash.) and the resulting Cayuse War. In October 1848, James Douglas instructed Peers to establish Fort Hope (Hope) on the Fraser River at the mouth of the Coquihalla. Peers was then to open a new road up the Coquihalla, thence up the valleys of Peers Creek and the Sowaqua River into the Similkameen valley. From there with the help of a son (or son-in-law) of Anderson’s Indian guide in 1846, he would establish the route to Kamloops, via the Tulameen River and Otter Lake where they would rejoin Anderson’s track of 1846. Peers’ new route had just five encampments between Fort Hope and Otter Lake, and was faster than Anderson’s 1847 route. He worked on the new road, which provided a viable all-British route from the interior, during the winter of 1848–49, and for outfit 1849–50 he was in charge of Fort Kamloops owing to the illness of John Tod*. Peers’ route was ready for use by both outbound and inbound brigades in the summer of 1850 when more work was done, and by 1851–52 the route was finally settled and made passable for loaded horses.
In June 1850, Governor Sir George Simpson* informed Peers’ father-in-law, James Murray Yale*, that Peers was to be stationed at the coal mines “where he will have a fair field for rendering conspicuous and valuable services to the Company,” but Peers spent outfit 1850–51 as a clerk at Fort Langley where his “fur trade marriage” to Eliza Yale was solemnized on 13 July 1851. (Four daughters and a son survived their parents.) The Peers left Fort Langley in September 1851 for Cowlitz Farm, in what was to become Washington Territory in 1853, where Peers was in charge until 1857, when he went on furlough. At Cowlitz, he “turned all the rascals off” who had given the previous manager so much trouble and achieved a better balance sheet. Peers was commissioned a chief trader on 30 March 1853, and during the Indian wars of 1855–56, at the request of Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory, assisted in raising a company of 39 mounted men to serve for three months as the 1st Regiment of the Cowlitz Rangers, of which he was captain. He never received compensation from the United States government for these services.
In September 1858, after his furlough, Peers and James H. Ray (whom Governor James Douglas described as “an American citizen . . . [of] very bad character”) attempted to claim two square miles along the Fraser River at Fort Langley, which, it appeared, would become the capital of the mainland colony of British Columbia, then being created. They proposed to colonize the land with British subjects, but Douglas considered their claim an “attempt at squatting” which must “be put down by the strong hand, being a flagrant violation of the rights of the Crown.” Later that month Douglas issued a proclamation that no lands had been sold and that, as title still rested with the crown, all squatters would be ejected and those attempting to sell land would be prosecuted. Peers, who had tried to sell his Vancouver Island farm during the summer of 1858, thereupon departed for England.
He retired from the HBC on 1 June 1859, and by November he was back at his Colquitz Farm just north of Victoria. He had purchased the 205 acres from the HBC in January 1852. During the winter of 1859–60, Peers had a saw and grist mill constructed, evidently with funds provided by Yale who bought adjacent property at that time. He spent the remaining four years of his life farming at Colquitz (to which he introduced California quail with the intention of stocking the island with game birds) and managing his various rural and city properties.
Bancroft Library, University of California (Berkeley), A. C. Anderson, “History of the northwest coast” (1878) (typescript at PABC). PABC, B.C. law courts (Victoria), Probate records, papers no.539, H. N. Peers; Fort Vancouver, Correspondence outward to 1849; Thomas Lowe journal, 1843–50; Henry Newsham Peers journal, 1848; Yale family papers, Correspondence, James Murray Yale. Daily British Colonist and Victoria Chronicle, 3, 22, 27 Dec. 1859; 3 Jan., 21 Feb. 1860; 29 March 1864; 8, 9 June 1886. Dorothy Blakey Smith, “The first capital of British Columbia: Langley or New Westminster?” BCHQ, XXI (1957–58), 15–50. E. P. Creech, “Similkameen trails, 1846–61,” BCHQ, V (1941), 255–67.