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CROSBY, THOMAS, Methodist missionary; b. 21 June 1840 in Pickering, England, son of Thomas Crosby and Mary Ward; m. 30 April 1874 Emma Jane Douse in Cobourg, Ont., and they had seven daughters and one son; d. 13 Jan. 1914 in Vancouver.

Thomas Crosby’s family immigrated to Woodstock, Upper Canada, in 1856. He was earning his living as a tanner there in 1861 when he read a call in the Methodist Christian Guardian (Toronto) for missionaries to work on the west coast. Influenced by the evangelical revival that was sweeping eastern North America and by examples of poorly educated, lower class men who had become successful missionaries, he left his job and paid his own way to Vancouver Island, eager to “serve God” in whatever way he could.

European settlement in British Columbia had only recently begun when Crosby arrived in Victoria in 1862. The frontier environment and preponderance of native people attracted individuals like him who had little formal education but abundant religious fervour and desire to impose “God’s order” on what they saw as a savage, heathen country. In 1863 his zeal earned him a job as assistant to Cornelius Bryant at a Methodist mission in Nanaimo. Because of his ability in inspiring and conducting revivals, in 1869 he was moved to the missions on the lower mainland, where Chilliwack was his home base. His success was rewarded in 1871 with ordination to the ministry in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada.

In the winter of 1873–74 Crosby toured Ontario to raise funds for missions. During that tour he married Emma Jane Douse and was informed of his appointment as missionary to the Tsimshian Indians at Fort Simpson (from 1880, Port Simpson), a scant 15 miles from William Duncan’s already famous Anglican establishment at Metlakatla. Fort Simpson, the mission on which Crosby’s reputation would be built, was his home till 1897.

A dynamic, forceful man, he worked quickly to remake the settlement. Like other missionaries of the time, he believed that traditional native ways had to be eradicated in favour of western civilization and of Christianity. With respect to the former, he thought that children were key to success and he set up schools and boarding-homes [see Lavinia Clarke*] to direct them from traditional mores. But training children was not enough. The whole social and cultural fabric had to be altered. Single-family homes were substituted for multi-family housing, totems disappeared, patriarchal succession took over from matrilineal family concepts, and customary subsistence activities had become less important by the end of the 1880s. A village council, with Crosby at its head, was set up in 1880 to replace native forms of government. Brass bands, rifle companies, fire brigades, and industrial fairs were further attempts at transforming Port Simpson into a Victorian village. Dr Albert Edward Bolton worked out of a hospital in the community after 1892.

This attempt at inculcating western civilization was paralleled in religious life. A large frame church, completed in 1876, symbolized Crosby’s efforts. By encouraging lively and spontaneous worship services, he aimed to reproduce among the Tsimshian the revivalistic brand of Christianity to which he had been converted. During his tenure there were major revivals, each lasting several months, in 1874–75, 1877, 1881–82, and 1892–93, but he was disappointed at the long periods between them. Sunday school for both adults and children was central to teaching the Tsimshian “Christian ways,” and church records indicate a hierarchy of membership from “full membership,” to “on trial,” to “baptized.”

In addition to his work at Port Simpson, Crosby established an itinerancy system along the coast from Bella Bella in the south to villages along the Nass and Skeena rivers in the north. It frequently required up to 1,000 miles of travel per year and was initially served by canoe. In November 1884, however, the mission acquired a ship, the Glad Tidings. During the months when Crosby was away from Port Simpson, he left white assistants in charge.

Crosby’s work as a missionary took its toll on his family. The mortality rate among the Tsimshian was high, and four of his daughters died at Port Simpson, three of them from diphtheria in 1885 and 1886. His wife was usually “sick,” “worn out,” or doing “badly,” and the lack of reference to a specific disease may indicate chronic depression. A man of driving convictions, Crosby would have had little sympathy with prolonged loneliness and sadness.

Despite the sweeping nature of change at the settlement, Crosby experienced extreme disappointment as time went on. The Tsimshian, like many other natives in British Columbia, grew increasingly militant over the failure of the federal and provincial governments to address their concerns about land. When Indian reserve commissioner Peter O’Reilly* laid out tiny reserves in the area around Port Simpson after 1881, the Tsimshian began a long process of fruitless negotiation to protect their traditional lands. The imposition of an Indian agent in 1883, the Metlakatla inquiry in 1884 [see Alexander Edmund Batson Davie*], a meeting of northern natives and provincial cabinet ministers in 1887, a joint federal-provincial commission in 1887, and a visit by Crosby to Ottawa in 1889 yielded no resolution of complaints. In the 1890s Ottawa was deluged by letters and petitions from dissatisfied Tsimshian. Crosby was more and more a powerless bystander, a fact which led to a growing distance between the missionary and the community.

But the land issue was symptomatic of a deeper problem. Crosby was also unable to deliver other benefits which the Tsimshian felt should have followed from their abandonment of traditional ways. By the mid 1880s complaints regularly surfaced about the lack of money, jobs, trades and skills, and self-government. The example of Metlakatla next door doubtless fuelled this dissatisfaction. The result was an assertion of religious independence. In 1889 the Tsimshian created the Band of Christian Workers, a native Christian organization which conducted its own worship services and missionary tours. Despite efforts by Crosby and his assistants to control it, it flourished and grew more independent in the 1890s.

Crosby’s despair about the mission was compounded by his increasing frustration with the Methodist Board of Missions, which was chronically short of funds, and with the neighbouring Anglican mission. In 1887 William Duncan and many of his followers left for a new Metlakatla in Alaska. The remaining Anglican missionary, Bishop William Ridley, had little respect for Crosby and competition for souls and government support ensued, with Crosby usually coming up short as far as grants from the senior governments were concerned.

None the less, in the view of the church and of white society generally, Crosby had transformed a village of heathens into good Christians. Recognition followed. In 1894 he was appointed superintendent of Indian missions in British Columbia for the Methodist Church. He left Port Simpson in 1897 for Victoria, where he also assumed the chairmanship of the British Columbia Conference. His health was beginning to decline, and he suffered especially from a growing problem with asthma. From 1899 to 1907 he ran the missions at Sardis and Chilliwack; he then retired to Vancouver. Much of his time after leaving Port Simpson was spent in nostalgic reflection about his work in the northern missions. Because of the changes in the community which accompanied his lengthy tenure, the colourful reports he sent to Methodist periodicals, and the powerful public lectures he gave to sympathetic audiences, there arose a Crosby legend which attributed to him spectacular missionary success along the northwest coast. Indeed, the Port Simpson of 1897 bore little resemblance to the Fort Simpson of 1874.

A significant part of the literature on Crosby evaluates the successes and failures of his mission largely on the basis of whether or not his program worked. Some authors claim that his frustration of the 1890s was due to his inability to adjust his focus from primary Christianity and conversion to a more mature Christianity in which natives would have had more responsibility for their faith. While his methods may seem deficient to advocates of missions, this essentially ethnocentric approach ignores the natives’ reasons for their actions and responses. In Port Simpson the mission had been initiated, not by the church, but by a Tsimshian couple, Kate and Alfred Dudoward, whose conversion to Methodism in Victoria in 1873 had been instrumental in leading the people of Port Simpson to ask for a Methodist missionary. The community saw both in white society and in William Duncan’s efforts at Metlakatla a model for survival. A missionary, they believed, would be useful in assisting them to transform their way of life, and they would thereby be enabled to thrive in the emerging Canadian society of the late 19th century.

Crosby’s so-called failures in later years occurred more because the Tsimshian felt their ambitions blocked by racist government policies and the refusal of white society to accept them as equals than because of his shortcomings. Initial cooperation between missionary and people, based on each party’s simplistic notion of what ought to be done to speed up assimilation, was replaced by growing antagonism because broader social, economic, and political forces made the assimilation process much more complex than either had anticipated.

Thomas Crosby thus left a legacy of tragic heroism. His legendary physical stamina, forceful personality, unsophisticated evangelical beliefs, and heartfelt convictions were no match for the liberal, capitalist forces that were transforming Canada. For people with nostalgic sentiments about simpler times, black-and-white morality, and heroic men, Crosby filled the bill. However, the legend became bigger than the man.

Clarence R. Bolt

Thomas Crosby is the author of David Sallosalton ([1906?]), Among the An-ko-me-nums, or Flathead tribes of Indians of the Pacific coast (1907), and Up and down the North Pacific coast by canoe and mission ship ([1914]), all published in Toronto. A full bibliography of items pertaining to his career can be found in C. [R.] Bolt, Thomas Crosby and the Tsimshian: small shoes for feet too large (Vancouver, 1992).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Clarence R. Bolt, “CROSBY, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 29, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/crosby_thomas_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/crosby_thomas_14E.html
Author of Article: Clarence R. Bolt
Title of Article: CROSBY, THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: July 29, 2014