PONEKEOSH (Bonekeosh), Mississauga Ojibwa chief; b. c. 1810–20, likely at or near the Mississagi River, Upper Canada; d. 1891.
Nothing is known of Ponekeosh’s family or early life. He was one of the chiefs or “Principal Men” of the clusters of Indian families that hunted, fished, and trapped on the north shores of lakes Huron and Superior and inland. Many Ojibwa headmen knew English and French. They acted as mediators, interpreters, trading captains, and entrepreneurs, and they were often seen by government as “natural” leaders. Ponekeosh, however, seems to have been a man of ability who may not have understood European languages or the world of the white man. Yet by 1850 he had become prominent enough to be recognized as a leader in the negotiations leading up to the treaty between William Benjamin Robinson*, representing the province of Canada, and the Indians who lived on the north shore of Lake Huron.
During the late 1840s a boom in copper mining had developed around lakes Huron and Superior as non-Indians began to take a greater interest in exploiting the economic assets of the area. The result was growing tension between miners and Indians over surveying and use of the lands, which culminated in violence at the Mica Bay site of the Montreal Mining Company in November 1848. The next year a government commission of inquiry into the Indian claims was established, and its report became the basis for the treaty of 1850. Ponekeosh took part in the treaty negotiations of early September 1850 at Sault Ste Marie and signed the treaty on behalf of the Mississagi River band, but he was not one of the prominent Indian speakers. The “Schedule of Reservations” in the treaty stated that the Mississagi band’s reserve would include the land fronting on Lake Huron between the Mississagi and Blind rivers and up the rivers to the “first rapids.”
Although the Indian bands soon received most of the payments in kind promised by the treaty, it took longer to survey the reserves. On 11–12 Sept. 1852 surveyor John Stoughton Dennis*, his crew, and John William Keating of the Indian Department arrived at the Mississagi River to survey the northern boundary of Ponekeosh’s reserve. Ponekeosh was away, and Dennis and Keating waited until he returned before making a decision. In the mean time they reconnoitred the area and made a critical mistake. Dennis recognized that the first large rapids on the Mississagi were 16 to 18 miles from Lake Huron, but he located the Blind River incorrectly and concluded that the reserve would therefore involve an area much larger than the treaty intended. When Ponekeosh arrived he, as it appears, correctly described the treaty area but Dennis concluded that Ponekeosh was uncertain about “the points between which he had intended to include his Reserve” and talked the chief into accepting a smaller area. He reported that Ponekeosh had stated he would be “satisfied.” Had Ponekeosh understood he was agreeing to a much smaller area it is unlikely he would have been content. The northern boundary of the smaller area was then surveyed. Ponekeosh is reputed to have surrendered the entire reserve to the crown in 1865. Much of the land was surveyed, subdivided, and sold in the late 19th century.
Soon after Ponekeosh died in 1891 his successor submitted to government officials on behalf of the Mississaugas an accurate Indian map which depicted the area requested by Ponekeosh in 1850 and 1852, and asked that the boundaries of the reserve be investigated. Although an inquiry took place, bureaucrats contended on the basis of Dennis’s documents and little else that the band was wrong. Nothing further was done. The issue was raised again by the band in the 1970s. A thorough, independent investigation was carried out in the 1980s, and negotiations are currently (1989) under way with a view to fulfilling the crown’s promise of the reserve as initially requested by Ponekeosh.
Ponekeosh was not, in the estimation of white society, a prominent Indian leader like Tecumseh* or Big Bear [Mistahimaskwa*], yet his involvement, like that of other Indian leaders, with the fulfilment of promises of the crown and with the pressure of whites for trade and colonization is illustrative. The later struggle of the band to maintain their land and their traditional community despite the difficulties shows the tenacity with which native customs have been maintained.
AO, MS 4, W. B. Robinson, diary, 19 April–24 Sept. 1850; MU 1464, report of commissioners, A. Vidal and T. G. Anderson, 1849: 11; RG 1, A–I–1, 66, J. W. Keating to R. Bruce, 2 Dec. 1852, with attachment. NA, RG 10, A5, 189, R. Bruce to George Ironside, 22 July 1851; B3, 7751, file 27013-6, pt.l; D10, vol.1844, treaty 61. Ont., Ministry of Natural Resources, Survey Records Office (Toronto), J. S. Dennis, report diaries and field notes, vols.1 (1851)–2 (1853); Instructions for crown surveys, book 5 (1844–61): 101, 140–42, 204–8. Canada, Indian treaties and surrenders . . . [1680–1906] (3v., Ottawa, 1891–1912; repr. Toronto, 1971), 1. E. S. Rogers, “Southeastern Ojibwa,” Handbook of North American Indians (Sturtevant et al.), 15: 760–71. [J.] D. Leighton, “The compact tory as bureaucrat: Samuel Peters Jarvis and the Indian Department, 1837–1845,” OH, 73 (1981): 41–43; “The development of federal Indian policy in Canada, 1840–1890” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1975), 163. L. C. Hansen, “Chiefs and principal men: a question of leadership in treaty negotiations,” Anthropologica (Sudbury, Ont.), forthcoming.