Moses Henry Perley

Moses Henry PerleyPhoto: New Brunswick Museum
Moses Henry Perley
Photo: New Brunswick Museum

Moses Henry Perley (1804–1862) was a New Brunswick lawyer, businessman, naturalist, author, newspaper owner, and public servant who left an indelible mark on nineteenth-century New Brunswick. Most of Perley’s output took the form of letters, articles, and government reports, and reflect his intense interest in New Brunswick’s government policy, natural history, and economic development.

Perley was born in Maugerville, Sunbury County (near Fredericton), in 1804, the son of Moses and Mary Perley. Perley’s family had pre-Loyalist roots in Maugerville, but following the death of his father (shortly before he was born), the family moved to Saint John, where he spent most of his life. Despite his urban upbringing, the young Perley became an avid outdoorsman, in the process acquiring a lifelong interest in New Brunswick’s flora and fauna and the welfare of its Native Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples, who served as guides on his outdoor expeditions. In 1829 Perley married Jane Ketchum, a marriage that produced eight children (three surviving), and that lasted until his death.

Perley studied law and was called to the bar in 1830. He spent much of the 1830s working at his legal practice as well as several small, mostly unsuccessful, business ventures in Saint John. Those ventures often involved attracting American investment in New Brunswick lumber and mining development (a harbinger of his future government work promoting the economic potential of the province’s natural resources), but, as the 1830s was a decade of depression in the United States, these efforts floundered. However, while his business career was moribund, he found himself drawn into politics.

By the late 1830s the New Brunswick government was being inundated with complaints from Native bands about white encroachment and squatting on their reserved lands. Because of his knowledge of and connections with the Native peoples, Perley was seen as the best man to investigate the problem, and was named New Brunswick’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs around 1841. He visited most of the colony's Maliseet and Mi'kmaq settlements, collected their testimony, and submitted his Report on Indian Settlements in 1842. The report protested the illegal encroachment of white squatters on reserves, but spoke favourably of "lawful settlers" who had made arrangements with the bands to rent or purchase reserved land. Perley recommended that the government prosecute and evict “lawless” squatters, and use profits from lawful sales of reserved land to support Aboriginal agriculture and education. To this the government agreed, as did the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet, who, for his efforts, named Perley an honorary chief.

Perley played a major role in crafting the Indian Act of 1844 but was critical of the final result, arguing that it was inadequate to remove squatters, and that it siphoned the profits from the sale of reserved land to the government rather than the Natives. While the government dismissed his critiques, Perley remained involved in Native affairs as Indian Commissioner for Saint John County. Much to the government’s chagrin, this position gave him a platform to continue condemning the government’s handling of reserved land. These activities made him an unpopular man in Fredericton, and in 1848 he was dismissed from his position.

This, however, was not the end of Perley’s career as a public servant. In 1843, even while busy with the Native file, the government appointed Perley an emigration agent, charging him with supervising the arrival and settlement of new immigrants. Given his knowledge of the province’s natural resource potential Perley seemed well-suited for the job, and he saw the position as an excellent opportunity to further New Brunswick’s economic development.

The job soon proved more trying than he may have expected, as by the late 1840s boatloads of sick and destitute migrants from famine-ravaged Ireland began arriving in New Brunswick ports. Tending to so many strained the human and financial resources of Perley’s department. The government was reticent to provide adequate funds to tend to the migrants’ needs, and their facilities for housing ill immigrants, such as the infamous Partridge Island quarantine station, did not meet Perley’s approval. After the famine migration crisis had passed, Perley set to work encouraging voluntary, mainly British, migration to New Brunswick, penning a Handbook of Information for Emigrants to New Brunswick (1854) to further the cause.

During all this time Perley was still actively involved in promoting the development of New Brunswick’s natural resources, and it is from this activity that comes the bulk of his published output. During the early 1850s he spent a great deal of time examining New Brunswick’s fishery. Between 1849 and 1852 he wrote several studies on the prospects for the further development of the province’s ocean and river fisheries, a task which saw him travel some 900 miles throughout New Brunswick (500 of them by canoe) collecting information and statistics. Perley’s findings on these trips were detailed in his Report on the Fisheries of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (1849), Report on the Sea and River Fisheries of New Brunswick, Within the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Bay of Chaleur (1850), and Report Upon the Fisheries of the Bay of Fundy (1851), all of which were compiled in a one-volume omnibus entitled Reports on the Sea and River Fisheries of New Brunswick (1852). His knowledge of the fishery also meant that he had a commanding influence on the fishery legislation drafted between 1849 and 1852.

Perley’s work on the fishery brought him into negotiations with the United States over the proposed Reciprocity Treaty. This proposed free trade agreement on raw materials between the British North American colonies and the United States was much sought after in the colonial capitals, but the extent of America’s fishing rights off the Maritime colonies proved a sore point in the negotiations. Perley’s intimate knowledge on the subject meant that he was deeply involved in negotiations held between 1852 and 1854, which saw him travel to New York, Washington, and Quebec. The resultant treaty, in effect from 1854 to 1866, saw American fishers gain rights to British North American waters, but with the elimination of a 21% tariff on British North American raw materials. Following these negotiations Perley was appointed New Brunswick’s fishery commissioner.

Perley’s activities were not limited to the fishery. The mid-nineteenth century was a heyday for railway promotion, and Perley was no less an enthusiast for rail development than any other man of the age. In 1846, he was asked by the province to investigate the potential impact of agricultural, mining, lumber, and fishery development on a proposed railway running between Nova Scotia and Quebec along its New Brunswick route. His 1846 report gushed at the railway’s potential to foster prosperity and wholeheartedly endorsed the proposed line, but nothing came of the idea, and there would not be a rail link along these lines until the 1870s. Also around this time Perley compiled a report on the potential of New Brunswick’s forestry resources. It was published in 1847 as “Report on the Forest Trees of New Brunswick” in the London-based Simmonds Colonial Magazine and Foreign Miscellany.

Not all Perley’s writings were commissioned by the New Brunswick government. In the early 1840s he wrote a series of articles for the magazine The London Sporting Review promoting New Brunswick as a paradise for British sportsmen, giving Perley an opportunity to wax poetically about his native land’s natural beauty and bounty. For example, speaking of British sportsmen who had adapted themselves to New Brunswick’s clime he wrote, certainly inspired by personal experience, that

They have learned during the long and brilliant days of summer to navigate the broad lake and rapid river in a light canoe with perfect safety and the most thorough feeling of independence. They have in their excursions skimmed over the many sparkling rivers in which New Brunswick delights...surmounting obstacles of all kinds until fairly at the sources of the stream, and then ...‘portaged,’ with canoe and all other equipments, to some other river flowing in an opposite direction...carried into a new region, and an entirely different set of wild sports and adventures. (“Sporting Sketches/The Lawyer”)

Perley reveals as much of his own character in these articles as he reveals his politics in his government writings.

In 1858 Perley was stripped of his post as emigration agent. Though the official reason given was that the position interfered with his performance as fishery commissioner, Perley suspected the real reason was because the new administration of Charles Fisher wanted to fill several posts with its backers and allies. Perley got his revenge in 1861 when a newspaper he owned a stake in, the Saint John Colonial Empire, helped expose a patronage scandal over the leasing of crown lands which led to Fisher’s resignation as premier.

Perley stayed on as fishery commissioner and continued to travel extensively, compiling statistics on the industry, work that often took him to other provinces. In this capacity he travelled to the coast of Labrador in the summer of 1862 on the ship Desperate to inspect the region’s fishery. While on that trip Perley fell ill and died, aboard ship, on 17 August and was buried at Forteau, Labrador.

Perley was not a “popular” writer in the sense that his work was intended for entertaining a mass audience, but his works were certainly intended to raise public awareness of, and spark debate around, New Brunswick’s natural resources and government policy. He was regarded as an energetic and knowledgeable man by his peers and the public, and a foremost expert on New Brunswick’s natural resources, rivers and coasts, and Native peoples. When he spoke or wrote on these matters, people listened. While the legislation his writing helped create did not always meet his approval, and the economic policies he promoted did not deliver their promised prosperity, Perley’s writings left their mark on how New Brunswick’s government and people viewed their province and the vast potential their natural resources seemed to offer them.

David L. Bent, Winter 2012
University of New Brunswick

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Perley, Moses. Camp of the Owls: Sporting Sketches and Tales of Indians. Illus. and Ed. Peter Mitcham. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot, 1990.

---. Correspondence with Mr. Perley Respecting British North American Fisheries. London: Great Britain Foreign Office, 1873.

---. Descriptive Catalogue (in Part) of the Fishes of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1852.

---. “Emigrants.” New Brunswick House of Assembly Journals, 1853. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1853. xcvi–cv.

---. “Emigration.” New Brunswick House of Assembly Journals, 1854. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1854. cclix–cclxiii.

---. “Emigration.” New Brunswick House of Assembly Journals, 185758. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1857–58. dxxxvii-dxxxix, 88–94.

---. “Halifax and Quebec Railway.” New Brunswick House of Assembly Journals, 1846. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1846. civ-cvi.

---. Handbook of Information for Emigrants to New Brunswick. Saint John, NB: H. Chubb and Co.,1854.

---. Indian Affairs in New Brunswick: Supplemental Report From MH. Perley, Commissioner for Indian Affairs, to His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor. Saint John, NB: n.p., 1848.

---. Memorandum of Information Relative to the French Fisheries at Newfoundland. London: Great Britain Colonial Office, 1857.

---. Observations on the Geology and Physical Characteristics of Newfoundland. Montréal, PQ: n.p., 1862.

---. On the Early History of New Brunswick. Saint John, NB: n.p., 1891.

---. “The Progress of New Brunswick, With a Brief View of Its Resources, Natural and Industrial.” Eighty Years’ Progress of British North America: Showing the Wonderful Development of Its Natural Resources, by the Unbounded Energy and Enterprise of Its Inhabitants; Giving, in a Historical Form, the Vast Improvements Made in Agriculture, Commerce and Trade, Modes of Travel and Transportation, Mining, and Educational Interests, etc., etc., With a Large Amount of Statistical Information, From the Best and Latest Authorities. Ed. H.Y. Hind, et al. Toronto: L. Nichols, 1863. 542–653.

---. “Quarantine Buildings.” New Brunswick House of Assembly Journals, 1848. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1848. xciii–xcv.

---. Railway Meeting. Halifax, NS: n.p., 1849.

---. Report on the Fisheries of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1849.

---. “Report on the Forest Trees of New Brunswick.” Simmonds Colonial Magazine and Foreign Miscellany (London) XI (May-Aug. 1847): 129–55, 314–24, 412–29.

---. Report on Indian Settlements. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson,1842.

---. Reports on the Sea and River Fisheries of New Brunswick. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1852.

---. Report on the Sea and River Fisheries of New Brunswick, Within the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Bay of Chaleur. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1850.

---. Report Upon the Fisheries of the Bay of Fundy. Fredericton, NB: J. Simpson, 1851.

---. “Sporting Sketches of New Brunswick: The Bear and the Lumberman.” The London Sporting Review. Rpt. The Amaranth I.7 (July 1841): 215-221.

---. “Sporting Sketches of New Brunswick: Le Belle Tolatah.” The London Sporting Review. Rpt. The Amaranth I.10 (Oct. 1841): 289-296.

---. “Sporting Sketches of New Brunswick: The Indian Regatta.” The London Sporting Review. Rpt. The Amaranth I.6 (June 1841): 185-89.

---. “Sporting Sketches of New Brunswick: The Lawyer and the Black Ducks.” The London Sporting Review. Rpt. The Amaranth I.3 (Mar. 1841): 81-85.

---. “Sporting Sketches of New Brunswick: The White Spectre of Weepeman.” The London Sporting Review. Rpt. The Amaranth I.5 (May 1841): 129-134.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cox, Philip. “Life of Moses Henry Perley, Writer and Scientist.” Proceedings of the Miramichi Natural History Association IV, 1905. 33-40.

Morgan, Henry J. Bibliotheca Canadensis or A Manual of Canadian Literature. Ottawa: G.E. Desbarats, 1867. 305-306.

Perley, Martin Van Buren. History and Genealogy of the Perley Family. Salem, Mass: Higginson Book Co., 1906. 410-415.

Spray, W.A. “Perley, Moses Henry.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 9 (1976). 13 Dec. 2012

Upton, L.F.S. “Indian Affairs in Colonial New Brunswick.” Acadiensis III.2 (Spring 1974): 3–26.