William Pearce Fonds Finding Aid
William Pearce
William Pearce Fonds, ID number: 353
15.66 m of multimedia records

Biography of William Pearce

William Pearce

Surveyor, Statistician, Administrator -- A son of United Empire Loyalists, William Pearce was born on February 1, 1848 near Port Talbot, Dunwich Township, Elgin County, Ontario. Following a semester of study, in 1869 he abandoned his studies in engineering at the University of Toronto to take a three-year surveying apprenticeship with Wadsworth and Unwing, a Toronto land surveying firm. During his apprenticeship Pearce worked on surveying assignments in the woods of northern Ontario. His apprenticeship inspired his life-long interest in natural resource and wilderness development and confirmed his professional surveyor's career.

Pearce's professional life divides into three phases: federal surveyor and administrator (1874-1884); federal advisor for western development policy (1884-1904); and western consultant for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (1904-1928). He received his certification as a Province of Ontario Land Surveyor in October 1872. His professional career began as a transit man for H.D. Lumsden, a railway engineer for the Muskoka Junction Railway. He moved back to Wadsworth and Unwin in January 1873. The company immediately assigned him to the challenging Thousand Island survey project running surveys across open water and ice on the shores of the St. Lawrence River. During his Thousand Island surveying project, Colonel J.S. Denis, Canada's Surveyor General, approached Pearce with an offer to join his staff in the newly-created Dominion Department of the Interior as it began to absorb the vast North American regions of Rupert's Land and the North-West Territories.

The Rupert's Land Act of 1868 began the legislative process to transfer from The Hudsons' Bay Company to the Dominion of Canada Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory; after two years of geopolitical negotiation the Rupert's Land and North-Western Territory Order admitted the territories into Canada in July 1870. In the following years, strategies to assert Canadian sovereignty and control over this vast region were foundation stones of federal policy. Pearce's professional career was intimately connected to these strategies. Ottawa began to manage the region with the Dominion Lands Act (35 Vic., c. 23, 1872) primarily directed at the parsing of resources and settlement of the Canadian Prairies. The next year Ottawa created the Department of the Interior (36 Vic., c. 4, 1873) thereby assigning a single department administrative jurisdiction over all public and Indian lands west of Ontario.

Following his recruitment, Pearce began his surveying position in the Department of the Interior in Winnipeg, in May 1874. He was responsible to progress with surveys addressing what what commonly known as the "Outer Two-Mile" claims. Under the Manitoba Act (33 Victoria, c.3, Canada, 1870) Metis land grants along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers included undetermined and pre-survey settlement claims. The Manitoba Act gave Metis settlers access to hay two miles beyond their defined holdings to feed their livestock. In the shifting settlements, squatting, and rampant land speculation, Pearce attempted to stake out these claims. The "outer two miles" question was not settled until 1877, and claims were not staked until 1881 (Dept. of the Interior Annual Report, Canada Sessional Papers, 1882). Following the "outer two miles" assignment, in 1878 Pearce moved on to locating township grids, surveying meridians in Manitoba, and determining the International Boundary in the Turtle Mountain area.

In 1881 Prime Minister MacDonald responded to the accelerating settlement of the western frontier with a reorganization of the Lands Branch of the Department of the Interior. Macdonald created a new federal authority, the Dominion Lands Board, to administer all Crown lands across the Dominion (Order in Council, October 31, 1881; for administrative responsibilities see: Department of the Interior Annual Report, 1881, Canada Sessional Papers). The Lands Board would direct local lands offices, write regulations, formulate land and resource policy, and send Macdonald, in his dual role as Minister of the Interior, observations on land settlement. The Lands Board consisted of a Commissioner for Dominion Lands who would administer the Board and an Inspector of Lands Agencies who would supervise field operations. Reporting to the Commissioner, as Inspector Pearce directed the Lands Agencies multiplying across the West and enforced local compliance to federal land policies. Sir John A. Macdonald viewed Pearce as the local face for federal land policy. Pearce's various reports on western development, formal and informal, served to shape the federal government's western settlement and resource policies. From 1880 to 1884 Pearce travelled across the West visiting Lands offices, addressing specific claims, and formulating and recommending land policy. He grew increasingly involved in countering land speculation. To attenuate speculation Pearce inspired an Order-in-Council proclaiming townsite and minebelt reserves. Ottawa passed this legislation on July 5, 1883 with good results. In another move to end speculation, in the Fall of 1883, Pearce recommended a Homestead Inspection Service to annually review all homesteads and inventory their development.

Widespread speculation accompanied the 1880's western land boom. Dominion sovereignty, indigenous customs, and local settlers' interests collided. In 1883 Macdonald struck a special Lands Board Investigation Commission to resolve the growing discontent in Prairie settlements. Macdonald recommended Pearce to chair this commission. He started in early 1884 with subpeana powers under the Dominion Lands Act (46 Victoria, cap. 17, S. 83) and responsibilities to report directly to Minister of the Interior, Thomas White. By then, land claims protest had reached such a level that he was charged to address all outstanding land claims disputes across the Prairies south of the North Saskatchewan River. While he was directing the Lands Board Investigation Commission, in June 1884 Surveyor General Lindsay Russell offered Pearce the position of Superintendent of Mines. The position was situated in Calgary. Pearce immediately accepted this offer to settle in the West and for the rest of his life his home would remain Calgary. As both Superintendent of Mines and Inspector of Lands Agencies Pearce held the daunting responsibility to assert and shape Ottawa's policies for development of land, mineral, water, and timber resources in the North-West Territories.

In early 1884 Pearce worked through the Lands Board Investigation Commission on claims disputes in the region of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Metis land patent claims in this area included St. Laurent, St. Louis de Langevin, and other local Metis settlements which became centres of discontent in the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Sir Wilfred Laurier's Liberal Party later argued in the House of Commons that the poor administration of Metis land claims was an inspiration for the 1885 Rebellion. During the Session of Parliament of 1885-86, Pearce was brought to Ottawa to advise the government concerning opposition Liberal Party questions concerning land claims and the Rebellion. Pearce strongly resented all charges that the Rebellion resulted from an improper resoluiton of land dipsutes. As a federal Government representative he attended but did not openly participate in the trial of Louis Riel ("Pearce to G.B. Coutts," 74-169-442-35) . In December 1885, on the request of the Minister of the Interior, Thomas White, Pearce wrote a "Detailed Report Upon All Claims to Land and Right to Participate in the North-West Half-Breed Grant by Settlers Along the South Saskatchewan and Vicinity" (Ottawa: Maclean, Roger and Co., 1886). Available in both official languages, the Conservative Party used the report extensively during the 1887 federal election to counter the Liberal Party's criticism that Ottawa mishandled western settlement. In his retirement Pearce returned to this theme in presenations and newspapers artilces expressing his mea non-culpa for the Rebellion.

With or without Metis and Aboriginal support, Prairie settlement advanced and the federal government continued to assert its control over Western land and resources through a network of administrative offices. As Superintendent of Mines Pearce's new administrative office was a promotion: he directly reported to the Deputy Minister instead of the Commissioner for Dominion Lands. Following his land claims investigations in Prince Albert, Fort Saskatchewan and Edmonton, he returned to Calgary on September 15, 1884 to assume his Superintendent of Mines duties. In the absence of an anticipated mining boom -- including an anxiously anticipated re-enactment of the British Columbia gold rush -- Pearce focussed on planning long-term programs for the North-West Territories. He focussed much of his time on developing the natural resources of the West. He was belatedly acknowledged, with other Department of the Interior mandarines, as preserving a series of parkland reserves, including Banff (Order-in-Council, November 25, 1885) which formed the basis for Canada's National Parks system. He participated in the ruling on the Canadian Pacific Railway's land grant and worked for several years on developing stock water reserves in the southern Prairies.

Recognizing the crucial need for irrigation on the prairies, Pearce focussed on water management almost exclusively from 1890 until 1904. He attempted to administer several irrigation projects including guiding his own; however, they failed for lack of financial support. He played an important role in initiating and shaping the Northwest Irrigation Act of 1894. He subsequently represented Canada, with his colleague J.S. Dennis, at two international Irrigation Congresses.

In 1904 Pearce left public service to work as a statistician for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1905 Pearce advocated for the formation of a provincial surveyors association for the province of Alberta. Following much personal lobbying the Alberta Land Surveyors’ Act passed on March 9, 1910; Pearce was elected the Association's first president in January 1911. Pearce's work for the C.P.R. consisted mainly of keeping statistics on rail shipments and supplies. By then his knowledge of western resources was so highly regarded Ottawa requested him to work in the national capital as an advisor on western resources during Canada's involvement in the First World War. On February 14, 1916, he was appointed to the advisory staff of the Royal Commission on Economics and Development; it was his last work as a civil servant. In the House of Commons Prime Minister Borden praised the 800 page report Pearce submitted to the Royal Commission.

Pearce remained concerned for the destiny of the West and the legacy of his role in its development. During his tenure with the C.P.R. he spent time delivering lectures, researching and writing papers concerning the Prairies' early evolution into a region of Canada. This includes a two-hundred page study, with historical photographs, describing the early history of western settlement. Although he worked on this project for almost twenty years it remained unpublished. Pearce passed away in Calgary in 1930 under the employ of the C.P.R until his final day.

Scope and Content

The William Pearce Fonds consists of records documenting the three phases of his professional life: federal surveyor and administrator (1874-1884); federal advisor for western development policy (1884-1904); and western consultant for the Canadian Pacific Railway (post-1904). Most of the records in the Pearce fonds were created in the region that was the focus of his career: the territory fomerly known as Rupert's Land and the North-West Territory, later to become the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. A small portion of the records document Pearce's activites during his retirment


The William Pearce Fonds is arranged and described in three unique organizational plans: the William Pearce plan, the Wallace Sterling Plan, and the University of Alberta Archives Plan. Since researchers have referred to all three during the archival life of the materials this arrangement will offer a concordance of all three. The Pearce family commissioned Wallace Sterling to compose a file arrangement shortly after William Pearce's death in 1930. Sterling's arrangement and description incorporated some of the file plan Pearce used during his tenure as Dominion Lands agent and therefore reflects the records indexing and registry practices of the contemporary Canadian Department of the Interior. Sterling created a set of 28 subject file categories to arrange Pearce's papers from 1880 to 1923. Some of the categories originated from Pearce's file management and others were Sterling's creation. Within each series each file was listed with a title, outside dates and the original file number from Pearce's file management. Sterling also added a new file number to each file. In addition he added to each file an appraisal note for final disposition: "H," "D," and "O" (Hold, Destroy, and Ottawa). The post 1923 papers he placed into a "miscellaneous" category without further organization. Beginning in 1975 the University of Alberta Archives amended the the Pearce/Sterling arrangement adding series level descriptions to the files. Along with the additional desrcription, the subject categories were shortened to 16 and most of the records in Sterling's miscellaneous category were assigned to a relevent series.

The fonds consists of the following 16 series:

1. Agriculture and Forestry
2. Calgary
3. Commissions
4. Department of the Interior
5. Historical Manuscript
6. Irrigation
7. Letterbooks
8. Miscellaneous
9. Mountain Parks
10. Natural Resources and Industrial Development
11. Personal and Family
12. Personal Correspondence
13. Settlement
14. Statistics
15. Surveys
16. Transportation


Restrictions on Access

There are no access restrictions on these records.

Restrictions on Use

There are no use restrictions on these records.

Administrative Information

Custodial History

William Pearce took residence in Calgary in 1884 after accepting the federal position of Superintendent of MInes. In 1904 Mr. Pearce quit federal government service to join the Canadian Pacific Railway's Irrigation Department. During most of this time, Pearce resided in his Calgary home, Bow Bend Shack. It was built in 1889 and located at 2014 - 17th Ave S.E. Throughout his career in the West, Pearce's records migrated to this home when no no longer in active use. Bow Bend Shack was the informal repository for the William Pearce Fonds for 65 years. In 1954, acknowledging Bow Bend Shack's scheduled demolition in 1957, Pearce's son Seabury offered the material to the only contemporary manuscript repository in the province, the University of Alberta. The Pearce fonds was originally safeguarded in the Rare Book and Archives Department of Cameron Library. The material was moved to its current location at the University Book and Records Depository after its construction in 1968.

Preferred Citation

Please note the following example for citation purposes:

Acquisition Information

Searbury K. Pearce, eldest son of William Pearce, donated the William Pearce records to the University of Alberta in December 1954.