NAHNEBAHWEQUAY (Nahneebahweequa, meaning upright woman; known as Catherine Sutton, née Catherine Bunch Sonego), Ojibwa spokeswoman; b. 1824 on the Credit River flats (Port Credit, Ont.); m. William Sutton, and they had seven children; d. 26 Sept. 1865 in Sarawak Township, Canada West.
Nahnebahwequay was the daughter of Tyatiquob (Bunch Sonego), of the Eagle totem, and Myarwikishigoqua (Mary Crane), of the Otter. Shortly after her birth her family visited the Grand River, where her uncle, Kahkewaquonaby* (Peter Jones), had recently converted many of his relatives to the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Sonegos accepted Christianity, and moved in the spring of 1826 with other Ojibwa converts to the Credit River to begin a Methodist settlement. The government erected 20 houses for them, paid for out of funds given the tribe for ceding their lands on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The Ojibwas (called “Mississaugas” by the Europeans) built a chapel, which also served as the school, and began to clear land.
Catherine attended the mission school until 1837, at which time she accompanied her aunt Elizabeth, the English wife of Peter Jones, on a year long trip to Great Britain. In January 1839 Catherine married an Englishman, William Sutton, who had immigrated to Canada in 1830. At the Credit mission, in addition to raising a family, she acted as a Methodist class leader.
In the summer of 1846 the Credit band considered moving to Owen Sound, but the poor quality of the land for farming convinced many of them that they should stay at the Credit. Three families, including the Suttons, did move. The Newash band at Owen Sound allowed the Suttons 200 acres on which they erected “a commodious house, barn and stable,” and brought “40 to 50 acres into a good state of Cultivation.”
From 1852 to 1854 they lived at the Garden River Reserve near Sault Ste Marie, where they superintended “the working of a Model farm [presumably under Methodist auspices] for the Benefit of the Indians.” The Suttons went to a reserve in Michigan in 1854, where William was engaged in improving the Methodist mission. In 1857 they returned to Owen Sound and found that their property had been surveyed, laid out in town lots, and offered for sale by the government. In their absence, the Indian Department had secured the surrender of the Bruce Peninsula by treaty and refused to recognize the validity of the Suttons’ land title. The local Methodist minister, Conrad Vandusen*, claimed that the crown had conducted its negotiations with an unofficial and unrepresentative group of Newash band members, but the superintendent of Indian affairs, Richard Theodore Pennefather, maintained that: “The chiefs having no power to dispose to private parties of land belonging to the tribe, could not give a title, and [the Suttons’] written grant was therefore valueless.” He also turned down Mrs Sutton’s request for her share of the Newash band’s annuities, “on the ground of her having married a white man, and having been absent from the country during the time for which she claimed payment.”
In September 1857 Mrs Sutton was not allowed to buy back her land at public sale because, she was told, Indians could not purchase their ceded land. Kezhegowinninne* (David Sawyer) and Abner Elliott, a Newash Indian, were also denied the right to purchase the farms they had established. The three Indians in April 1858 unsuccessfully petitioned the Canadian legislature for title to their land or a fair remuneration for their loss. No redress was made by the government and in 1859 Catherine Sutton decided to journey to England to present their case to the colonial secretary and the queen.
Mrs Sutton travelled by way of New York, where a group of Quakers paid her passage to Britain and supplied her with a letter of introduction to Mr and Mrs Robert Alsop in England. Through the influence of the Alsops and their friend, the English reformer John Bright, Mrs Sutton met the colonial secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, in London. On 19 June 1860 she was presented to Queen Victoria, who noted in her private journal: “She speaks English quite well, and is come on behalf of her Tribe to petition against some grievance as regards their land.” As a result of the direct intervention of the British government, the Suttons were allowed to buy back their land, but nothing was done for the other Indians.
Upon her return to Canada, Mrs Sutton, one of the few Indian women of her time to understand the “white man’s ways,” continued to argue for the native people’s rights against the Europeans, who acted “as though their ideas of justice are that ‘might is right.’” She severely criticized as “wholesale robbery and treachery” the government’s attempt in 1861 to purchase Manitoulin Island – promised forever to the Indians in 1836 – for land-hungry white settlers.
During the last two and a half years of her life she suffered from poor health and died in 1865. Her husband survived her and continued to serve as a Methodist lay preacher until his death several years later. Through her mission school training, her first visit to Britain, and her marriage to an Englishman, Catherine Sutton had gained enough knowledge of the white man and sufficient confidence in his world to fight for her family’s rights and for those of her people.
Grey County and Owen Sound Museum (Owen Sound, Ont.), Journal of William Sutton. PAC, RG 10, vol. 2877, file 177181; RG 31, 1861 census, Sarawak Township; Keppel Township. PRO, CO 42/624, pp.355, 409, 428–29. UCA, Mission register for the Credit River Mission. Christian Guardian, 12 Jan. 1848; 2 April, 28 May 1862; 8 Nov. 1865. Enemikeese [Conrad Vandusen], The Indian chief: an account of the labours, losses, sufferings, and oppression of Ke-zig-ko-e-ne-ne (David Sawyer), a chief of the Ojibbeway Indians in Canada West (London, 1867), 119–37. Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby), History of the Ojebway Indians; with especial reference to their conversion to Christianity . . . (London, 1861); Life and journals of Kah-ke-wa-quo-na-by (Rev. Peter Jones), Wesleyan missionary (Toronto, 1860). Wesleyan Methodist Church in Can., Missionary Soc., Annual report (Toronto), 1845–46. Illustrated atlas of the county of Grey (Toronto, 1880; repr. Port Elgin, Ont., 1971), 17. Daily Sun Times (Owen Sound, Ont.), 30 Aug. 1960.