Ojibway trailblazer beat the law
Catherine Sutton, a First Nations woman, fought the law and the law lost.
Nahneebahweequa — also known as Catherine Sutton — was an Ojibway woman. She was born in Port Credit in 1824 and, in 1826, was converted to Christianity with the rest of her immediate family during a visit to Grand River.
When they returned to the Credit River area, her family and other converts created a small village of 20 homes and a church with the help of government money (partial payment the government owed after the ceding of the Ojibway land).
At the age of 15, she married an Englishman named William Sutton.
By the summer of 1846, her band was exploring the possibility of moving to the Owen Sound area. Some members were skeptical of the farming potential of the stonier land, but the Suttons and two other families decided to give it a try. Permitted 200 acres to set up a farm, the Suttons built a “commodious house, barn and stable,” and improved almost 50 acres, putting in crops.
About six years later, the Suttons moved to Garden River Reserve near Sault Ste. Marie, overseeing a “model farm . . . for the benefit of the Indians.” They then went to Michigan where William assisted with the local Methodist mission.
By 1857 the Suttons came back to the Owen Sound area. But their property had been surveyed and chopped up into town lots and offered for sale. While the Suttons had been away, working to improve the lives of others, the Indian Department had negotiated the surrender of the Bruce
Peninsula, called the Indian Peninsula up until this point, because that’s who owned it.
The Indian Department would not accept the Suttons’ plea to buy their property back, despite representations from the local Methodist church leaders who argued the government had managed the takeover of the peninsula by negotiating with unofficial and unrepresentative members of the Newash. The government responded by saying if that were the case, the Suttons could not be given the land back by the same sort of representatives.
Catherine Sutton was also told she no longer had any claim on the band’s annual treaty payments because she’d married a white man.
Catherine and two other First Nations people (David Sawyer and Abner Elliott) attempted to buy their land at public sale, but were denied. They petitioned the federal government for restitution. The feds refused.
So in 1859 Catherine headed for a higher authority in England. A group of Quakers paid for her passage and connected her with Quaker contacts in England. On arrival in London, England, she met with the colonial secretary and Queen Victoria, who remembered the meeting in her diary, “She speaks English quite well, and is come on behalf of her Tribe to petition against some grievance as regards their land.”
The British government backed the Suttons and they got their land back. Elliott and Sawyer, who had not travelled with Sutton to England, did not.
Sutton didn’t stop with the return of her own land. She assailed the land-hungry government for pushing First Nations out of their native land as more and more European settlers flooded into the country. She described the 1861 attempt to snatch up Manitoulin Island as “wholesale robbery and treachery.”
She died in 1865, at the age of 41.
— Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@historylab.ca