— The Queen’s Man
In real life people who know they are “right” can be mightily irritating, but in history, people of strong convictions shape events. Such a man was Peter O’Reilly, gold commissioner of Fisherville, British Columbia, in 1865.
The discovery of gold in the Kootenays launched a rush of hopeful miners, many American, up every river and creek of the colony. (British Columbia was still “British” at that time. It joined Canadian Confederation in 1871) These men brought an anti-British attitude and a rowdy, lawless life-style from the American mining camps. Saloons, gambling, fist-fights and shootings accompanied the flood of fortune-seekers, who rejected any curb on their actions, legal or otherwise. They particularly objected to paying government licence fees for their claims and for goods brought across the line.
Into this atmosphere waded Peter O’Reilly, a feisty Irishman and former member of the Irish Revenue Police. Backed up by Governor James Douglas, O’Reilly was determined to impose British rule over all of British Columbia, especially the gold camp of Fisherville. On a Sunday morning he called his first meeting with the miners, jumped onto a bench under a flagpole carrying the Union Jack and declared, “Boys, I’m here to keep order and to administer the law. Those that don’t want law and order can get out, but those who stay with the camp, remember what side of the line the camp is on. If there is a shooting in Kootenay, there will be a hanging in Kootenay!”*
His oratory didn’t bring about immediate civility in the gold camp, there were still grumblings about fees and duties, but there were no shootings.
In later years, roads, railroads and the NorthWest Mounted Police ensured the rule of law in British Columbia, but in the early days, it took men like Peter O’Reilly, men of courage and conviction, to face down a rowdy mob and impose order in the wilderness.
O’Reilly went on to serve as a county court judge, in the Legislative Council of BC and as Indian Reserve Commissioner. His home in Victoria, Point Ellice House, is now a heritage site.
* pg. 16 Fort Steele – Gold Rush to Boom Town, by Naomi Miller, Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd. 2002.
Federal and Provincial Collections of Minutes of Decision, Correspondence and Sketches