James Peck was born near Manchester, England on April 15, 1850, the
first of four children. The family moved to Dublin in 1854 where his mother
died three years later and his father, a linen worker, died when Peck was
13. With few other options to support his family, Peck entered the navy,
where he remained until May of 1875. During his navel career several incidents,
including nearly dying of fever two years into his service, impelled him towards
a dedicated religious lifestyle. Upon leaving the navy Peck worked as a scripture
reader for the Anglican Church and was later accepted as a missionary. He
was assigned to teach the Gospel to the ‘Eskimo’ and arrived in
Moose Factory (Moosonee) on September 1876 on his way to the northernmost
Hudson’s Bay Company station, Little Whale River, which he
reached in late October of the same year. He was the first missionary to
the Inuit since a failed attempt in 1853.
He began immediately to learn Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit, and began to teach using a Morovian New Testament written in the Labrador dialect. He continued the efforts begun by John Hordon, a missionary at Moose Factory, and E.A.Watkins. The two had earlier started to adapt James Evans’ syllabic writing system to Inuktitut.
the time that Little Whale River was his base of operations Peck converted
over 100 Inuit (although the numbers constantly changed as some joined
and then either died or returned to traditional ways), baptised dozens,
built an iron church, and had almost all of the station’s Inuit population
literate by 1880. His work usually consisted of spending 6 hours a day,
for the next seven years, working on translation and grammar and then visiting
the Inuit at night after their day of trading. As well, he journeyed not
only to other parts of the North Eastern Arctic, including three attempts
to reach Ungava, but also to Moose Factory where he stayed a year to become
ordained in 1878, and to England in 1884 where he married the sister of
his friend Rev. W. Coleman.
Immediately after their marriage the Pecks returned to Northern Canada and spent the winter in Moose Factory teaching until Peck was ordered to change his base of operations from Little Whale River to Fort George. Peck continued to visit Little Whale during the winter months until his wife fell very ill after the birth of their third child, in August of 1891, and Peck and his family were forced to return to England.
Although his wife and family could not return to North America, Peck felt there was a need to push further north and he was offered a passage and residence on Blacklead Island, a whaling station in Cumberland Sound near Pangnirtung. He was joined by a medical student, J.C. Parker, and in August 1884 they arrived on the small bleak lump of rock they were to call home for the next two years. These were to be very trying years in several ways. There was a great deal of starvation the first winter, resulting in incidences such as sled dogs attacking the church, which was made of whalebone and seal hide, and Peck’s own disheartening at the fact that many of the Inuit returned to their ‘heathen’ ways. The final straw was the drowning of several men on a fishing trip in August of 1885, including Parker, who had been working on an Inuit dictionary. Ten days later a new missionary arrived and Peck returned to England in order to see his wife, follow the Inuit Bibles through the press, and seek medical attention for his worsening throat problem.
He returned to Blacklead Island in 1897, bringing the new bibles and and a new residence which was converted into a church because of its large size (more than 100 could attend). Again starvation proved a problem and often Inuit families were supplied out of the missionaries’ own stores. In 1898 a new missionary and more wood arrived so a new church was constructed around the old residence and the missionaries finally moved into their proper residence. Peck returned to England in 1899 and came back to Blacklead in 1900 to find over 60 Inuit attending school daily. He remained there until 1902. He later became the senior clergyman of the diocese of Moosonee Synod. He died on September 10, 1924 in Ottawa, having just finished an Eskimo-English dictionary.
Edmund Peck, 1815-1924: Bibliography
The Life and Work of E.J. Peck Among the Eskimos
(London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1904)
Horden and Watkins had produced syllabic materials for Inuktitut
by 1856, as well as making some critical adaptations to the orthography,
such as the addition of ‘final’ forms to represent isolated consonants.
Their role in the adaptation of the Evans syllabic system to Inuktitut is
overlooked partly due to the fact they were missionaries to the Cree and
did not spend much time amongst the Inuit. The lack of accuracy amongst
the literature does not help much either.
Example of early printing at Moosonee (the Moose Mission Press). This is the second or third item printed at the Moose Mission Press c. 1855—being a translation of Wm. Pinnock’s Bible and Gospel History (trans. J. Horden into Cree)
Mission at Blacklead
Church at Blacklead
For more samples of Edmund Peck related materials, visit
* Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives, Toronto : M56-1 EJ Peck Papers