AISANCE (Aisaince, Ascance, Essens), JOHN, Ojibwa chief; b. c. 1790; d. in the summer of 1847 near Penetanguishene, Upper Canada.
In a treaty of 1798 by which Ojibwas ceded the territory around Penetanguishene (Penetang) Harbour to the crown, the name “Aasance” appears beside the mark of a head man of the otter clan. He was probably the father of John Aisance, described as “Young Aisaince” in the account of a council meeting conducted by officials of the Indian Department in 1811. At this ceremony land for a “wider and better path” to the king’s “western children” was requested. John Aisance agreed, but asked that his people be allowed to maintain their gardens at Penetanguishene Harbour until the plots were needed by whites.
Aisance may have served the crown in the War of 1812, for it was noted in later years that he possessed a military medal. He was one of three principal men who in 1815 ratified a treaty ceding a 250,000-acre tract between Kempenfelt and Nottawasaga bays. Thirteen years later he embraced Christianity at a Methodist camp meeting. Upon his conversion he was asked to part with two of his three wives. Aisance complied, but maintained responsibility for all his children. One, John Jr, was conducting official business on behalf of the otter clan as early as 1831.
The conversion of Aisance in 1828 was part of a wave of Methodist enthusiasm which was sweeping through the Indian population of Upper Canada. Also affected were chiefs William Yellowhead [Musquakie*] and William Snake, whose people lived in close association with those of Aisance. Soon all three groups hosted active Methodist missions. These developments attracted the interest of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne*. After 1830 the Upper Canadian government emphasized the settling of native groups on particular plots of land, their instruction in agriculture, and their conversion to Christianity. To help realize this aim of “civilizing” the natives, Colborne established an Indian Department station at Coldwater, around which Aisance’s people developed farms with the help of the government. At the Narrows (Orillia), those who followed chiefs Yellowhead and Snake were engaged in similar activities.
Aisance soon was at odds with Thomas Gummersall Anderson*, superintendent of the Coldwater station. In 1831 the chief accused Anderson of misappropriating the payments owed his people by the crown. Anderson retaliated, characterizing Aisance as a “worthless savage” and a “great rascal.” The animosity was connected with growing hostility between Methodist missionaries at Coldwater and the Narrows and the tory members of the Indian Department. These tensions Aisance partly escaped when he renounced Methodism in 1832 and joined the Roman Catholic Church. His conversion was probably influenced by the concurrent arrival in the area of Jean-Baptiste Assignack*, a devoutly Catholic Ottawa Indian who had won much fame as a warrior and orator.
Aisance served the crown loyally in the Upper Canadian uprising of 1837, leading 21 warriors into the field. He did so notwithstanding his community’s sense of betrayal upon finding itself landless after the surrender of the tract from Coldwater to the Narrows, one of several territorial cessions secured from Indians by Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head* in 1836. Evidence of fraud in the transaction is to be found in an address made six years later to Sir Charles Bagot by Aisance and several other chiefs. They asserted that “when Sir F Bond Head insisted on our selling this Land . . . we were not made sensible of the full purport, so that we knew not the nature of the bargain.”
Aisance’s people remained unsettled until 1842, when land was made available for them on Beausoleil Island, in Georgian Bay. As early as 1844, however, the chief sent a group of Potawatomi Indians who were closely associated with him to hold territory on nearby Christian Island in case it should be needed by his people. This precaution indeed proved sound, since the soil at Beausoleil was not fertile. Aisance’s band thus settled at Christian Island in 1856, where they remain still. By the time of this move, Aisance had been dead for nine years. Methodist sources indicate that he fell from a canoe while intoxicated. Throughout his life, he had seen his authority as a hereditary chief increasingly undermined by government and ecclesiastical officials who sought to direct the lives of Indian people.
Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, M (Macdonell papers), AC14.02 (mfm. at AO). PAC, RG 10, A2, 27; A4, 47, 51, 64, 68, 499. Private arch., A. J. Hall (Sudbury, Ont.), Mathew King papers. Aborigines’ Protection Soc., Report on the Indians of Upper Canada ([London, 1839]), 21. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1844–45, app.EEE, sect.ii, no.1. Canada, Indian treaties and surrenders . . . [1680–1906] (3v., Ottawa, 1891–1912; repr. Toronto, 1971), 1: 15–17, 42–43, 203–5. Muskoka and Haliburton, 1615–1875; a collection of documents, ed. F. B. Murray ([Toronto], 1963), 115–16. J. [S.] Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries . . . (5v., Toronto, 1867–77), 3: 180–81. J. A. Clifton, A place of refuge for all time: migration of the American Potawatomi into Upper Canada, 1830 to 1850 (National Museum of Man, Mercury ser., Canadian Ethnology Service paper no.26, Ottawa, 1975), 51. Elizabeth Graham, Medicine man to missionary: missionaries as agents of change among the Indians of southern Ontario, 1784–1867 (Toronto, 1975). A. J. Hall, “The red man’s burden: land, law, and the Lord in the Indian affairs of Upper Canada, 1791–1858”