Royal B.C. Museum search sparked by 155-year-old photo album

A leather-bound album from B.C.'s Gold Rush era purchased by the Royal B.C. Museum has revealed some of the earliest known photographs of B.C.'s First Nations, but the hunt is on to figure out exactly who they were.

Museum purchased the album containing 5 pictures from B.C.'s gold rush era

One image from 1859 shows Colonel Moody and a First Nations man, whom the museum is hoping to identify. (Royal B.C. Museum)

A leather-bound album from B.C.'s Gold Rush era has revealed some of the earliest known photographs of B.C.'s First Nations, but the hunt is on to figure out exactly who they were.

The album of about 90 photographs and pictures from the work and travels of Col. Richard Moody, a prominent figure in colonial B.C., was purchased in December by the Royal B.C. Museum at an online auction, but just unveiled to the public this week.

Four of the photographs are believed to have been taken in 1859 in B.C., just 20 years after the invention of photography. The album also includes a pencil sketch of Moody’s home in what is now New Westminster.

Moody was a career soldier and civil servant, who commanded the Columbia detachment of the British Royal Engineers in the colony of British Columbia and was chief commissioner of lands and works from 1858 to 1863.

“The album’s historical value is unquestionable, as these five images expand our knowledge of what life looked like in colonial British Columbia,” says Don Bourdon, the Royal B.C. Museum's curator of images and paintings.

“But even as it answers some questions, the album also poses others.”

One picture in the album shows Colonel Moody and a man believed to be Lieutenant Luard. (Royal B.C. Museum )

Two of the photos feature a First Nations man, whose identity is unknown. Another shows a royal engineer seated beside Moody whose identity also unknown.

Museum chief executive Jack Lohman says the museum paid 12,000 British pounds for the photo album with the help of donors.              

"This has to be the most exciting find, and probably among the most exciting finds that Canada has acquired this year," said Lohman.

“Acquiring the album was 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 says in the 1970s, descendants of the Moody family donated the letters to the B.C. Archives.

"The recently-acquired picture album forms an important part of a family archive, as it documents the places and people referred to in letters home by Mary Moody, as well as family travels and Col. Moody’s career," said a statement issued by the museum.

But Lohman expects it will take a fair bit of detective work involving the whole community to identify all the people in the album.

"We'll try and get scholars, university departments, and actually take it to local museums because there's a lot of knowledge stored there across the province," he said.

The album will be put on display at the Royal B.C. Museum until Monday. Then the museum plans to put the photo album on display as part of its Gold Rush exhibit sometime next year.