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Royal B.C. Museum unveils ‘oldest’ First Nations photos

This portrait of a First Nations man is undated, although experts at the Royal B.C. Museum believe it may have been taken in 1859, making it one of the oldest photographs of First Nations in B.C. - Royal B.C. Museum submission
This portrait of a First Nations man is undated, although experts at the Royal B.C. Museum believe it may have been taken in 1859, making it one of the oldest photographs of First Nations in B.C.
— image credit: Royal B.C. Museum submission

Some of the oldest known photographs of B.C. are safely in the hands of Royal B.C. Museum experts this week after the museum purchased the rare items at auction.

The 52-page family photo album, containing more than 90 photographs from the collection of British Royal Engineer Col. Richard Clement Moody, was purchased for about $26,000 at English auction house Bonhams on Dec. 4.

“There was big competition for this collection,” said Don Bourdon, the museum’s curator of images and paintings. “(The album) reveals some stunning images that were unknown up to now.”

Moody’s career in the Colony of British Columbia spanned from 1858 to 1863, when he made a lasting mark on the geography of the Lower Mainland by building his family home on the shores of Burrard Inlet. The site would temporarily become the mainland colony’s first Government House in New Westminster.

“One of the gems of the album is a pencil drawing of the Moody’s home,” Bourdon said at the album’s unveiling Tuesday. “This is pretty much when New Westminster was hacked out of the landscape.”

Moody also led construction of the North Road from New Westminster to a secondary port at what is now Port Moody, named in his honour.

Most of Moody’s collection contains landscape portraits and what Bourdon called “19th Century selfies” from England and elsewhere. But four key images were taken in B.C. as early as 1859, making them highly significant to provincial history, said Jack Lohman, Royal B.C. Museum CEO.

Two of the photographs feature a First Nations man, but his identity and nation remain a mystery, he said.

“These are the earliest known portraits we have of First Nations,” Lohman said.

In another photograph, an unknown Royal Engineer with a haunting gaze sits beside Moody. Curators are already digging into the archives to discover more about the strangers.

“We really need to put these items on display to tell the story of British Columbia,” Lohman said. “It’s a strategic and thematic priority for the museum and archives, as a collection of letters by Mary Moody, Col. Moody’s wife, is already a part of our archival collection.”

The museum will eventually digitize the photographs for online viewing, but Moody’s album will be available for public viewing until March 10 at the Clifford Carl Hall.

Once conserved, the photos will be available for viewing by appointment at the B.C. Archives.

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