In 1837, as the Cherokee people of Georgia and the Carolinas were being rounded up for their “Trail of Tears” relocation west of the Mississippi, similar plans were underway for the Ojibway tribes of Canada. But one man took the case of the Great Lakes Indians all the way to Queen Victoria to secure deeds to Ojibway ancestral lands along Lake Ontario. That man was Peter Jones, a Welsh-Ojibway missionary, known as Kahkewaquonaby – “Sacred Feathers” – to the Mississauga Ojibway.
Throughout the 19th century, as the European population of Canada expanded, aboriginal peoples were forced to surrender more and more land to the Crown. Methodist missionary Peter Jones became one of the strongest advocates for Indian rights in Canada. Jones was born on January 1, 1802, near the western tip of Lake Ontario to Augustus Jones, an American-born surveyor of Welsh descent, and Mississauga (Ojibway) mother Tuhbenahneequay. Until age 14, Peter lived in his mother’s community on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, where he learned the language and traditional religion of the Mississauga. Augustus Jones, as a colonial surveyor among Indian tribes, had accepted the Mississauga and Mohawk practice of polygamy, taking both Ojibway and Mohawk wives. As the region became more populated with European Christians, Augustus found that he had to conform to the prevailing mores. He separated from Peter’s mother and went to live with his legal wife, the Mohawk Sarah Tekarihogan. At age 14 Peter moved to Paris, Ontario, on the banks of the Grand River to live with his father and stepmother. There he learned the Whiteman’s language and culture and became proficient in farming. He made such a powerful impression on the Mohawks that they inducted him into the tribe and gave him the name Desagondensta, meaning, “he stands people on their feet.”
Peter Jones’s life took on new meaning and direction when he was twenty-one. He had been baptized earlier as an Anglican, but the conduct of the white Anglicans – their drunkenness, "quarreling, fighting and cheating the poor Indians, and acting as if there was no God" (Wikipedia) – belied their profession of faith, and Jones submitted to baptism only for the societal benefits it provided.
The Methodists, however, were different. Jones was attracted to their holy mode of life, particularly their teetotalism. At a Methodist revival meeting, he converted to Christianity and gained a vision for the evangelization and betterment of the Indians of Upper Canada (as the Great Lakes region was known).
The brilliance and talents of Peter Jones were quickly recognized by both Methodist and tribal leaders. The Methodists saw Jones as someone who could bridge the cultural gap between European Christians and the Indians of the region. Tribal leaders looked to him as an able advocate for aboriginal lands and rights.
Soon after his conversion, Peter “began a career devoted to spreading Christianity among the Ojibway and other tribal groups, serving as interpreter, translator, and missionary.” (Hirschfelder and Molin) After the death of John Cameron, chief of the Credit River Mississauga, Peter was appointed chief of that band.
Peter Jones made three trips to Britain to raise funds for the mission and to advocate for Indian rights. On one of those trips he met Eliza Field, whom he married in 1833. In 1837, he gained an audience with Queen Victoria as an official representative of the Credit River Mississauga Ojibway. He returned to Britain in 1845 to raise funds for a boarding school and model farm.
Jones translated the Gospel of Matthew into Ojibway and assisted his brother John in the translation of the Gospel of John. He also translated hymns and other Christian literature. Peter’s linguistic work laid the groundwork for other missionaries’ translation efforts. Yet despite his obvious ability, a turn of events threatened to sideline this outstanding and dedicated missionary.
In 1833, the very year in which Peter Jones was ordained a Methodist minister, the Canadian Methodists united with the British Wesleyans, and British ministers and missionaries were favored for all posts of leadership. Supervision of translation work was handed over to missionaries who knew little or no Ojibway. The Rev. William Case, whom Jones had considered a mentor, now removed all translation work from Jones and assigned it to James Evans, a missionary of inferior linguistic ability. Stripped of nearly all his responsibilities, it seemed Jones’s ministry was finished. But he would be called upon again as Canada’s aboriginal peoples faced the threat of major upheaval.
Lieutenant Governor Francis Bond Head proposed to London that all the Indians of Upper Canada be relocated to Manitoulin Island. Some tribal leaders favored the proposal since they wished to be insulated from all White culture. Jones, however, opposed it. He feared that the removal of his people to the poor farmland of Manitoulin Island would permanently alter their lifestyle and threaten their livelihood. So in 1837 he and his wife set out for Britain to persuade Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg to issue permanent deeds to the tracts occupied by the Mississauga Ojibway community. In spite of a libelous letter of opposition from Francis Bond Head, Glenelg granted Jones’s request and even arranged an audience with Queen Victoria.
Jones appeared before the queen dressed in Ojibway regalia and presented the petition, which was written in decorative Latin script and signed with pictographs by the tribal chiefs. Upon returning to Canada, however, Jones found himself anything but a hero. Opposition from provincial politicians, dissention among tribal leaders, and divisions between the British and Canadian Methodists combined to make life difficult for Jones. The new Lieutenant governor, George Arthur, failed to produce the deeds that were promised and Indian agent Samuel Jarvis failed to provide reports on Indian trust funds or answer the Indians’ letters.
The strain of these conflicts, along with the birth of his first son after two miscarriages and two stillbirths, curtailed Jones’s missionary activities. In 1845, Peter Jones made a third fundraising tour of Britain. Dressed in traditional Ojibway garb, Jones drew huge crowds who gathered to hear this North American Indian Christian. The tour raised £1,000, two-thirds of which came from Scotland. On August 4, 1845 Jones was photographed in Scotland as Kahkewaquonaby, the first Native American Indian to be photographed in Great Britain.
Jones returned to his missionary work in the Credit River Mississauga community, but his health had been failing for some time. The Credit River Mississauga were forced to relocate to land along the Grand River, where they founded the community of New Credit. Jones resigned from the mission but, defying his doctor’s advice, continued his itinerant ministry. In December 1855 Jones contracted an illness from which he never recovered. He died in his home near Brantford, Ontario, and was buried in the Greenwood Cemetery. His wife Eliza supervised the posthumous publication of Peter’s Life and Journals and History of the Ojibway.
Thanks to Peter Jones – Sacred Feathers – there would be no Ojibway or Mohawk “Trail of Tears.”
Hirschfelder, Arlene and Paulette Molin. Encyclopedia of Native American Religions. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.
First published in Ninnau and Y Drych Welsh-American newspaper, Nov-Dec 2017.