By Sam McBride
The reunion of descendants of Prince Edward Island`s seven Fathers of Confederation was a memorable part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the historic Charlottetown Conference of September 1864 which set the stage for the creation of Canada as a self-governing, transcontinental nation in 1867.
Many thanks to the Prince Edward Island Genealogical Society (PEIGS), as well as the wider PEI heritage community, for bringing descendants together from many parts of Canada and the U.S. to share in a special experience honouring their renowned ancestors.
The reunion began with a welcome reception in Charlottetown where descendants met their PEIGS hosts, as well as PEI historians, researchers, archivists and representatives of the provincial government, including the Hon. Robert Henderson, Minister of Tourism and Culture. It was also a chance to meet descendents of other PEI Fathers of Confederation. For me and other British Columbia descendants of John Hamilton Gray through his daughter Bertha Peters, it was the first time we met our third cousins in PEI descended from Bertha’s sister Margaret Lord.
The three-day schedule of the reunion also included tours of locations, buildings, sculptures and cemeteries associated with our ancestor, a presentation on the PEI Fathers of Confederation by University of PEI history professor Edward MacDonald, and a fun evening at the Red Shores Race Track where the Fathers of Confederation Descendants Race was run, and reunion participants presented a cooler to the winning horse and driver in the winners circle. We also enjoyed a tour of the PEI Brewing Co. to see how their beers honouring the Fathers of Confederation were made, and taste the results. In the months leading up to the reunion, the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper presented a series of feature stories by writer Louise Campbell on each PEI Father of Confederation and their descendants.
The largest contingent in the gathering were descendants of William Henry Pope, who was Colonial Secretary of PEI at the time and is probably best-remembered in Canadian history for the painting of him in a rowboat greeting John A. Macdonald and other delegates from Upper and Lower Canada as they arrived in Charlottetown harbour to meet with Maritime colony delegates for the first time. Descendants of Col. John Hamilton Gray – who had large role in the conference as chairman of the conference and host of a major social event — made up the second-largest delegation of descendants. Pope and Gray were enthusiastic supporters of Confederation early on, while most of the other PEI delegates were against joining the Canadian union. PEI eventually joined Confederation in 1873 – six years after the founding of Canada in 1867 – when the island faced a financial crisis involving railway debt, and the deal to join Canada resolved that problem, along with land issues.
My mother Dee Dee Dewdney McBride and grandmother Helen Peters Dewdney often talked of their ancestor Col. John Hamilton Gray who was premier of PEI at the time of the Charlottetown Conference and rated as a Father of Confederation. In the family, Gray was viewed as one of three ancestors who were PEI premiers. His son-in-law Frederick Peters (father of Helen) was premier in the 1890s, and his brother Arthur Peters was premier in the early 1900s. Helen never knew her famous grandfather John Hamilton Gray, as he died 18 days before she was born in Charlottetown in August 1887, but she often heard stories of him told by her mother Bertha, who lived with the Dewdney family as a widow when her grandchildren were growing up in B.C. Bertha brought with her a dining room table from Inkerman House that her father bequeathed to her in his will, and continues to be a treasured heirloom of her descendants. She regularly commented to visitors that “the Fathers of Confederation sat around that table“. Bertha was at Inkerman House on Sept. 3, 1864 when her father hosted the Charlottetown Conference delegates for an after-dinner party, but had no memory of it as she was just two years old. Years later her father and older sisters told her of the memorable night when the family home was filled with distinguished-looking men, most of them in various stages of inebriation. The group came to Inkerman House directly from a jovial dinner party on HMS Queen Victoria in Charlottetown harbour where an ample supply of drinks were served, and a spirit of friendship and unity developed.
As he also attended the Quebec Conference of October 1864, Col. Gray qualifies as a Father of Confederation. (As a historical standard, individuals rate as Fathers of Confederation if they attended at least two of three conferences: the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, the Quebec Conference of 1864 and the London Conference of 1866. They are included as Fathers of Confederation even if they were adamantly against the union of the British colonies at the time).
Identifying and locating the descendants was a big challenge for the PEIGS, as they normally research backwards in time to identify the names and stories of ancestors. It is more difficult to identify the descendants of today, because the census and vital statistics data genealogists usually rely on are not available because of government regulations protecting the privacy of living persons. Fortunately, the electronic media of today was a big help in determining and contacting descendants.
The descendants reunion was one of 150 events held in PEI in 2014 commemorating the 150th anniversary, including leadership conferences, heritage conservation conferences, historic costume-making classes, garden exhibitions, theatrical presentations, and music events highlighted by a Shania Twain concert. See http://pei2014.ca/home.php?page=month_activities&subtype=%®ion=%&pagegroup=5
There was something about John Hamilton Gray that led people to name things or children in his honour. Charlottetown has a park, high school and numerous commemorative plaques named after him. In the years before the Confederation Bridge was built, one of the car ferries was named MV John Hamilton Gray, which conveniently referred to both the PEI and New Brunswick Fathers of Confederation with the same name. Likewise, the new sculpture on Georges Street commemorates both John Hamilton Grays. Dozens of the PEI Gray`s descendants have the word Hamilton in their full name. It was originally a tribute by Gray`s father Robert Gray`s business colleagues, but for generations after Premier Gray it became a tribute to him, beginning with his children Mary Stukeley Hamilton Gray, Bertha Hamilton Susan Gray, Arthur Cavendish Bentinck Hamilton Gray and Hamilton Edward Jarvis Gray. One of the Gray descendants participating in the reunion in Charlottetown was my B.C. cousin Richard Hamilton Dewdney, whose father Frederic Hamilton Peter Dewdney also hearkened back to the Father of Confederation who was greatly admired by his family, partly for his role in the formation of Canada and partly for his distinguished career as a cavalry officer in the British Army.