Edgar Dewdney was born on 5 November 1835 in East Budleigh in Devon. His parents were John Dewdney, a boatman and Elizabeth Parsons, a lacemaker. Not long after Dewdney’s birth, his father moved the family to Exmouth. Dewdney grew up in a South Street tenement. The family’s neighbours were agricultural labourers, sailors, lacemakers and chimney sweeps.
At the age of six, Dewdney and his sisters were sent to Tiverton. They lived in the home of schoolmistress, Eliza Turner. She taught the Dewdney children in exchange for household labour plus a modest fee. At fifteen, Dewdney was living in Exeter at the school of James and Emma Templeton. Enrolment included boys and girls of all ages. The entire number of students fitted into a small classroom. It was an education but a very meagre one.
‘Dewdney’s earliest memories would consist of the sights and sounds of this city slum and it was in this slum, like some apocryphal Artful Dodger, that Dewdney developed his talent for sleight of hand.’C. J. Cooney, Journal of the British Columbia Historical Federation
Stories of the fortunes being made in the gold-fields of the Pacific Northwest began to appear in the newspapers. On March 5th 1859, with only a few dollars in his pocket, Dewdney boarded the Borussia at Southampton. The ship’s manifest records Dewdney as being a 23 year old civil engineer sailing in the company of farmers, servants, clerks and merchants. He paid £8 and 8 shillings for a ticket in third-class steerage.
Across the pond: a secret
On 13 May 1859, a very different Edgar Dewdney disembarked in Victoria, British Columbia. He was now an English gentleman of private means who had been born in Bideford. His parents were Charles Dewdney and Fanny Hollingshead. His education had been in the very best public schools of Tiverton and Exeter. He had boarded ship with a nest-egg of £150. He had blown this nest-egg having two weeks of fun in New York.
Governor Douglas and Colonel Moody, the first Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, invited Dewdney to an interview. His performance that day won him entry into British Columbia’s insular English society.
Dewdney joined a contingent of Royal Engineers surveying the site of New Westminster, the future capital of mainland British Columbia. In 1865, he oversaw the construction of a trail to the East Kootenay region. Parts of it are still popular for recreational hiking today.
The Native American population
By 1879, buffalo had virtually disappeared from the Northwest Territories. The large Native American population faced starvation. The Prime Minister, John Macdonald, offered Dewdney the post of Indian Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. Dewdney’s orders were to prevent starvation by the distribution of relief, including food and blankets. Those who had not already done so were to settle on reserves and take up agriculture. To avoid further civil unrest, he was instructed to persuade the refugees to leave Canada.
Dewdney taught himself Chinook Jargon, a patois of native and European languages. This enabled him to better communicate with the First Nations people of British Columbia. It was something very few of his adopted, very superior, class could claim.
Rations were a weapon that Dewdney did not hesitate to use. In 1881, Big Bear, the Cree chief, was encouraging First Nation bands to gather in the Cypress Hills. The chief hoped to negotiate better terms and establish contiguous reserves. These would have amounted to a semi-autonomous Indian territory. Dewdney closed Fort Walsh. He demanded that they take their reserves in alternative areas or have their rations removed. Faced with starvation, the Indians submitted. Big Bear signed Treaty No.6 in 1882, but still hoped to negotiate better terms. His continued agitation remained a cause of concern to Dewdney.
A particularly harsh winter followed. By February 1885, Dewdney urged that Métis grievances be settled, treaty promises to them be fulfilled, and rations increased to avert violence. But he also wanted the authority to arrest their chiefs who were provoking unrest.
Before any of these measures could be taken, a clash between the Métis and the police took place. This precipitated the Northwest Resistance. Many months of fighting followed. Dewdney made tours, distributed gifts of tobacco and ordered rations to be increased. The strategy paid off, at least in Dewdney’s own estimation, and most Native peoples remained loyal.
In the spring of 1888, Dewdney was appointed Minister of the Interior and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. On 2 November 1892, 33 years after his arrival in Victoria, the son of the Devonshire boatman accepted the role of Lieutenant Governor of British Colombia.
Dewdney wielded near dictatorial powers. These powers helped to shape the fate of the First Nations, Metis, settlers, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the democratic development of the Northwest.
‘It is a remarkable thing to consider that the fulcrum of Western Canadian History had, if ever so briefly, rested upon the ideas and actions of the son of a Devon boatman’.C. J. Cooney, Journal of the British Columbia Historical Federation
Dewdney and RAMM
Dewdney, a highly respected and wealthy man, retired in December 1897. In January 1906 his wife, Jane, died. In 1909, during a visit to England, he married Blanche Elizabeth Plantagenet Kemeys-Tynte. It was during this visit that the couple visited RAMM. They saw the ceremonial regalia of Chief Crowfoot on display. This sight persuaded Dewdney to donate his own collection to the Museum.
The couple returned to Victoria. Dewdney died on 8 August 1916. His widow bequeathed her late husband’s collection to RAMM after her return to England in the same year. She died in 1936.
Dewdney’s background secret remained undiscovered for 150 years.