POWLIS (Powles), GEORGE, convicted murderer; b. 1812 in the Mohawk Village (Brantford), Upper Canada, son of Paul Powlis (Paulus Paulus) and Margaret Brant; m. Susannah Davis, and they had six children; d. in or after 1852 in Upper Canada.
The presence of Indians in Upper Canada posed special problems at times in the application of the law. Until 1825 the judiciary considered them to have – by virtue of their treaty rights and unceded lands – a legal immunity from prosecution for crimes committed by one of their number against another. Even when the law could be applied, there was an appreciable cultural problem and the case of Angelique Pilotte* in 1817 illustrated the intrinsic difficulties in judging the customs of one society by the laws of another. The judicial basis for the Indians’ immunity was reinforced by the military threat they posed collectively and by the possibility of retaliation against sheriffs, constables, or magistrates acting against them.
After the War of 1812 white settlers increasingly deplored the behaviour of the Indians. In 1817 a Gore District grand jury condemned the Grand River settlement of the Six Nations as a “frequent scene of riot and tumult . . . out of the reach of the law.” Its pressing concern was the effect of such activity on settlement and progress. A year later Peter Lossing* and others petitioned the Legislative Council about the “frequent depradations” of the Six Nations Indians against each other and neigbouring whites, and the “repeated instances of horrid murder . . . among themselves.” The petitioners called “loudly” for “some further legislative interference . . . to establish civil authority,” blaming “a laxity in [the Indians’] former modes of regulating and punishing offenders” on “the baneful effects of intoxication” and prolonged acquaintance with “white people.” In 1822 Judge William Campbell* questioned the legal immunity of Indians in the case of Shawanakiskie*, who had killed an Indian woman in Amherstburg. Three years later it was finally determined that the criminal law could be fully extended to Indians.
George Powlis grew up on the Six Nations’ lands. His lineage was distinguished: on his father’s side he was a grandson of Sahonwagy*, a Mohawk sachem; on his mother’s side, a grandson of Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*]. Powlis, who was a member of the Church of England, was 5 feet 9¾ inches tall with black hair and hazel eyes. On 22 Feb. 1839 George, his brother Joseph, and their father were arrested for murdering Susannah Doxater, a Mohawk, and were incarcerated in the district jail at Hamilton. By this time there was no longer any judicial trepidation over prosecuting Indians.
The Powlises were tried on 6 June before Levius Peters Sherwood* and two local associate judges, John Willson and Richard Beasley*. The case was prosecuted by Hamilton’s leading citizen, Sir Allan Napier MacNab*. The Powlises were defended by two local lawyers, Miles O’Reilly and George Sylvester Tiffany. Murder cases in Upper Canada were usually decided upon circumstantial evidence; this trial was no different. Some facts were beyond doubt. The victim had been seen walking home towards the Mohawk Village about sunset on the evening of 16 February. Two days later, her naked body was found on the side of Vinegar Hill, which was known locally as a “place of resort for dissolute people.” The examining surgeon thought she might have died by strangulation. Evidence indicated that the murder had not occurred where the body was found but at one of two nearby sites littered with chestnut shells and food. The tracks of four men and one woman led from one site to the other. At one a ring was found. Sleigh tracks led to these locations. Witnesses established that Doxater, an old woman who “occasionally got drunk,” had been sober and one witness thought she had been “ravished.”
The Powlises were connected to the murder by slender evidence. They had been seen in Brantford on the day of the murder. They left for the Mohawk Village “about sunset”; George was dropped off at Vinegar Hill while Paul and Joseph went on to the village. Sleigh tracks were found leading from Joseph’s log cabin to the murder site. His sleigh had distinctive tracks and he was not in the habit of lending it. George had bought chestnuts and had some with him on his way home; there were shells at the murder site and between it and Joseph’s cabin. The ring was identified as one that had been sold to George in Brantford that day. Finally, he was not seen after being left at Vinegar Hill. That night someone called several times at Joseph’s cabin. No one saw the visitor, but one witness, who had been sleeping there, thought he spoke Mohawk. These visits agitated Joseph and Paul (then living with his son), who left the cabin each time for prolonged periods.
In his charge to the petit jury Sherwood concluded that most of the evidence was circumstantial and that the “real difficulty” was establishing whether the Powlises had killed Doxater or were present as accomplices. The testimony concerning George’s ring constituted “strong presumptive evidence against the owner” because no explanation for it was given. Sherwood instructed the jury that the whole testimony was not conclusive of the guilt of any of the prisoners and that they should be acquitted if there was any doubt. After little more than an hour, the jury acquitted Paul and Joseph. George, however, was found guilty and sentenced, two days later, to be executed on 18 June.
Powlis immediately petitioned for royal clemency, claiming his innocence and arguing that the evidence was so palpably insufficient that the jury’s decision was unwarranted. His plea was supported by 14 chiefs and others of the Six Nations. On 11 June, Sherwood tendered his report of the trial for the consideration of Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur. The judge admitted his own doubt of Powlis’s guilt but did not wish to intimate an error by the jury. The Executive Council, the provincial body which usually reviewed capital cases, met on 13 June. Sherwood appeared before it and reiterated his conclusion: there was sufficient evidence to find Powlis guilty but it was “wholly circumstantial.” Moreover, several facts were wanting to make the case “so conclusive as would be satisfactory in a case of capital punishment.” The council followed Sherwood’s lead. Solicitor General William Henry Draper*, however, urged that a murder committed by an Indian “should be visited with a punishment calculated to produce a deep impression on the minds of those of his own race.” He recommended that the sentence be commuted to transportation for 14 years, but the council, with Arthur’s concurrence, decided upon 7 years of hard labour in Kingston Penitentiary. William Allan reasoned that “protracted imprisonment . . . would be more Salutary, and even felt to be more severe by the Indians.”
Uncertainties about Powlis’s conviction lingered. Andrew Drew*, who had known Powlis for seven years, sought clemency for him in February 1840. Aided by Miles O’Reilly and William Johnson Kerr*, a son-in-law of Joseph Brant, Drew had investigated the case and was convinced that Powlis had not “acted a principal part in the murder.” O’Reilly felt there was “a possibility” of guilt but “the evidence did not show even a probability of it.” Again, Arthur referred the case to the Executive Council and on 2 March 1840 Robert Baldwin Sullivan reported that no new facts had been disclosed to warrant a further commutation of punishment.
The case was reopened for the last time on the petition in May 1841 of Powlis’s wife and his mother, supported by chiefs and warriors of the Six Nations. Emphasizing Powlis’s “good character,” his conviction upon “slight grounds,” and his relationship to Brant, the women urged Governor Lord Sydenham [Thomson*] to pardon him. The matter was referred to Sherwood, who wrote on 6 July that although he still had some doubt of Powlis’s guilt, he was not sure the verdict was wrong. Since the jury was better acquainted with the witnesses and the locale, he had reasoned that it was “more capable” of drawing a correct conclusion. Asked to comment on the judge’s response, Samuel Peters Jarvis, chief superintendent of Indian Affairs, urged “favorable consideration” of the petition. Civil Secretary Thomas William Clinton Murdoch disagreed on the grounds that “it is with these people [Indians] more than others, that it is necessary to discourage the ideas that such crimes may be committed with impunity or atoned for by light punishment.” Sherwood, however, had been troubled by the case. He reread his notes and discussed the case with Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson*. The chief justice was a much more decisive and self-assured man than Sherwood and undoubtedly his influence can be seen in Sherwood’s letter of 13 July declaring, “I now think there is sufficient doubt of his guilt to warrant his discharge.” The following day Powlis was pardoned and released from penitentiary.
The decision was, undoubtedly, the correct one. Although Powlis had never explained his whereabouts on the night of the murder or why his ring had been found at the murder site, the evidence could not sustain the jury’s verdict. From the outset Sherwood had legal grounds for recommending a pardon; it was his failings as a judge that had imprisoned Powlis. The convict, on the other hand, was not the paragon depicted by his family, friends, and Drew. Kerr had alluded to the “bad Company” he kept and the beneficial effect likely to result from his imprisonment. A Mohawk woman, Sarah Ruggles, complained in June 1841 that Powlis was a “wretch” who, with others, had cheated her of her lands. Subsequently, the only surviving mentions of Powlis are on an 1849 census list for the Six Nations and on the provincial census of 1852.
AO, RG 22, ser.134, 6: 119. HPL, Gore District jail reg., 1839. PAC, RG 1, E3, 65: 105–41; L3, 402: P9/57; RG 5, A1: 14336–39; RG 10, A1, 6: 2702–11, 2724–25; A5, 153: 88360; B8, 999A, Six Nations census for presents, 1849; RG 31, A1, 1851. Wis., State Hist. Soc. (Madison), Draper
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Cite This Article
Robert Lochiel Fraser, “POWLIS, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/powlis_george_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Robert Lochiel Fraser|
|Title of Article:||POWLIS, GEORGE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||March 22, 2023|