Hon. Peter Mitchell

by Edith MacAllister

The Miramichi is one of the few areas in Canada of comparable size and population which can boast of two Fathers of Confederation. Of these one, Peter Mitchell, was born in Newcastle. Mitchell, who was Premier of the Province of New Brunswick at the time of the union of his province, Nova Scotia, Upper Canada and Lower Canada in 1867, was a leading force in bringing New Brunswick into Confederation. In fact it was Mitchell's oratory and perseverance which brought the province into the union and set the example for the other provinces to follow.

Mitchell was an abler man than Leonard Tilley, but historians have never given Mitchell the credit he deserves in luring New Brunswick into union. Tilley's gentle manners and his reputation as a teetotaller endeared him to the electorate of that day. However, his pro-union government was defeated in 1865 and he would not risk another such set-back, afraid of what such a blow would do to him personally. Thus Mitchell was forced to take over as head of the party and persuade the voters that union would be a good thing.

In this Mitchell was ably assisted by John M. Johnson, Northumberland County's other Father of Confederation and these two eloquent speakers became known as ''The Northumberland County Smashers." The result was the return of the Confederation party and Mitchell became Premier.

Born of the same sturdy stock as those Scots brought to the Miramichi Valley by William Davidson, the original grantee of the region, Mitchell was a typical product of his time and his environment. His ancestry, as well as the times, bred in him qualities of stubbornness, verve and a certain "dash" and directness unhampered by servile deference for the "higher classes." Naturally his appeal to the common people was immense. He was a strong and resolute character and a force in any place he happened to be.

Mitchell never hesitated to speak his mind to Sir John A. MacDonald and the two quarrelled more than once. He was a delegate from New Brunswick to the Quebec and London Conferences and supported Cartier against MacDonald in securing a federal rather than a legislative union. It was with reluctance that Sir John called him to the Senate when the first federal cabinet was formed. Only two portfolios were left, neither very important, and Mitchell chose that of Marine and Fisheries.

To his great credit, he organized and administered the new department on bold lines, established lighthouses and other navigation aids and set up the first fisheries protection fleet. The encroachments of both the United States and Great Britain on the east coast fisheries of Canada were curbed by the new minister and the department quickly won a prestige which it has never lost.

Mitchell was not a party man but his leanings were Liberal, tending always, towards reform. He classed himself as an Independent Liberal. He was never admitted to the inner councils of the MacDonald cabinet and thus escaped the odium of the Pacific Scandal.

MacDonald treated Mitchell in a shoddy and hostile manner that showed the pettiness in MacDonald's character. He saw that Mitchell never got the chance to become a serious rival for the Prime Ministership. There was no man in the 1867 cabinet whom MacDonald had to fear except Mitchell.

Native of Newcastle

Peter Mitchell was born in Newcastle on January 4th, 1824, the son of Peter Mitchell and Barbara Grant, who came to the Miramichi from Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1818. Peter Sr. was a hotel and tavern keeper. Peter Jr. attended the local Grammar School, studied law and was called to the Bar in 1848. He and John M. Johnson formed a legal partnership and both became active in the politics of the province.

Mitchell who made his first political speech at the age of seventeen, was popular and friendly, with a ready tongue and a quick wit. Elected first to the New Brunswick Legislature in 1856 (after an unsuccessful bid for election in 1852) he soon stood out as a leader. He became a member of the government in 1858 and was an early advocate of the union of the British North American colonies, speaking in favor as early as 1862, when the suggestion was rare.

In 1861 Mitchell was appointed to the Legislative Council and held this office until Confederation. The proposed union scheme was first tested at the polls in New Brunswick in 1865 and Tilley's government went down to defeat. After a massive effort to inform and educate the electorate, the Confederation party under Mitchell was successful 14 months after the defeat. He and Johnson were said to have turned the tide.

The Intercolonial

One of the conditions of union was the building of the Intercolonial Railway and its route was a matter of prime concern to all the Maritime Provinces. Mitchell favored the route along the east coast and the Bay of Chaleur, which would pass through Newcastle. Tilley wanted the railroad to follow the St. John River route. Sanford Fleming, railway engineer in charge recommended the east coast route and the people of Northumberland County have always felt his decision was due, at least in part, to Mitchell's forceful representations. The proximity of the St. John route to the United States was also a factor as the line along the coast was not so vulnerable to attack.

In 1874 Mitchell left the Senate and was elected to the House of Commons. He was defeated in 1878 by J. B. Snowball, then sat again in the House, from 1882 to 1891. He last ran for election in 1896 and met his final defeat. This time James Robinson was the victor.

This catalogue of dates gives a poor idea of the stormy career of this restless, fighting Father of Confederation. He was impatient and stubborn and at one time held up the I.C.R. estimates for days until the Government paid a widow in Barnaby River for her cow, which had been killed by a train. A good debater, and an aggressive one, the House of Commons quickly filled when the word got around the corridors that Mitchell was on his feet with "fire in his eve."

Many Interests

Besides the practice of law, Peter Mitchell engaged in shipbuilding, in partnership with John Haws and later by himself. His shipyard was located about where the road leads to the present federal government wharf in Newcastle. Mitchell Street has been named for him. His father's home on the site of the present United Church Centre burned about 1893 and there is now standing no house which Mitchell occupied while living here.

Although he was a creator and organizer Mitchell was a poor business man and his business ventures usually lost money. He sometimes had trouble launching his ships and later, when he bought The Montreal Herald it lost money too. He established a steamship line between Montreal and the Maritimes in the 1870's.

Mitchell was not in government after 1891 and lived from then on at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal. He asked for a number of appointments within the gift of the Government, but it was not until 1897 that his services were recognized and he was appointed inspector of fisheries for Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.

Mitchell was then 73 years old and living alone in the Windsor Hotel. It was there he was found dead in his room on the morning of October 25, 1899, after suffering a seizure the previous evening. Two months before he had suffered a stroke on the steps of the Russell House in Ottawa. His body was brought to Newcastle and buried in the Mitchell family plot in St. James Churchyard. He had outlived almost all his political contemporaries.

During his years in Ottawa Mitchell was a frequent visitor to Newcastle and a room was kept for him in the home of his brother, James Mitchell. This home was removed from the site in 1955 to make way for the new St. Mary's Church on Prince William Street and was dismantled.

Mitchell's wife, whom he married in 1853, was the former Isabella Carvell, a descendant of New Jersey Loyalists and a widow of James Gough, a Saint John policeman, who died from injuries inflicted by an unknown assailant in that city in 1847. She died in Toronto in 1889 where her son, Jacob Carvell Gough was living. The only child of Peter and Isabella Mitchell was a daughter Blanche, who was a patient in the Provincial Hospital in Saint John for many years before her death in 1944.

Mrs. Michael Chandler of Chatham (the former Catherine Janette Tweedie) is a great-grand niece of Hon. Mr. Mitchell. She is a granddaughter of George Watt, whose mother was Agnes Mitchell, a sister of the Father of Confederation.

Mitchell was honored at banquets, picnics and social gatherings by his constituents on numerous occasions and many presentations were made to him. One of them was the ornate silver epergne now in the Newcastle Town Hall.

In the 68 years since his death neither the Town of Newcastle nor the County of Northumberland has seen fit to erect a monument to him. His simple epitaph is a few lines on the Mitchell family monument. In 1941 a plaque was placed on the Post Office by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and after Lord Beaverbrook became owner of The Square a fine stone monument was erected there to his memory by the Historic Monuments Board.

Peter Mitchell's services to his country, particularly in the Department of Fisheries, cannot be too highly spoken of. It was in his political career that his genius came to flower and his influence on the tide of affairs in Canada's early years was of the greatest importance. The service of this valiant but stormy statesman, which becomes more significant with every passing year, deserves a lasting remembrance in the hearts and minds of the people of his native county.

In the words of the Miramichi poet, Michael Whelan:

Gigantic work had Mitchell done, But others reaped the rich reward. And wore the laurels he had won.

(Information for this article was taken from "Reminiscences of Hon. Peter Mitchell," Toronto News, 1894; Canadian Parliamentary Guide, and from notes and a paper on Peter Mitchell by Dr. Louise Manny and an article by David B. McKeen).

(Written in 1967 for North Shore Leader. Reprinted in Northumberland News, February 11, 1981.)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.