SETTEE, JAMES, Church of England missionary and author; b. between 1809 and 1816 near Split Lake (Man.) of Swampy Cree and British descent; m. 1835 Sarah (Sally) Cook, and they had six daughters and five sons; d. 19 March 1902 in Winnipeg and was buried in St John’s cemetery.
By James Settee’s own account his great-grandfather was a Captain Smith, an officer at York Fort (York Factory, Man.), and his grandfather, called the Little Englishman, “had been elected as Chief of all tribes living on the seacoast.” One of his grandmothers was the daughter of John Newton*, officer in charge of York in 1748. According to a letter Settee wrote in 1857, he left Split Lake “in 1824 at eight years of age and went to school at Red River.” He was one of four children collected from the Nelson River district for the Church Missionary Society’s school there. Settee was baptized as an “Indian” by the Reverend David Thomas Jones* in 1827.
Jones’s predecessor, John West*, had been an ardent supporter of the idea of a native church. West’s successors did not place a similar emphasis on the training of native evangelists, but the idea survived in the CMS under the influence of its secretary, the Reverend Henry Venn. Settee’s writings suggest that he was deeply committed not only to converting his people but also to assisting them, as far as lay in his power, to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances of the Canadian west in the 19th century. He and his schoolfellow and friend Charles Pratt*, reflecting on the future, saw “our Countrymen melting away from the face of the earth, they will perish eternally. Something must be done for them.”
In this double dedication Settee was influenced by the Reverend William Cockran*, “my benefactor and father ever since I was nine. . . . I toiled [beside him] among the Indians of St. Peter’s [Dynevor] and Nettle [Netley] Creek . . . till I was called by him and others to labour among them in their hunting lands.” Cockran believed that the natives could confront the harsh realities of the decline of the fur trade and the hunt only by agricultural settlement. Settee laboured to set an example but a certain scepticism emerges from his view of this policy. His letters to the CMS give a more realistic picture of the agricultural possibilities of the native missions at Lac la Ronge (Sask.) than the formal reports of his superiors. “With regards to the farming,” he commented in 1852, “I have often thought that we cannot improve the temporal condition of the Indians here, on account of the scarcity of the soil.” He urged the necessity of giving the natives support in their conversion to a sedentary life and was so generous in sharing his own resources that he was sometimes in trouble with his superiors.
When Cockran entered “the inland race for Indian souls” Settee and Henry Budd*, the first natives to be appointed catechists and schoolteachers, were his “first candidates for inland missionaries.” In 1841–42 Settee wintered in the Beaver (Weatherald) Creek–Moose Mountain (Sask.) region with a band of Cree-Assiniboin and returned to Fort Ellice (Man.) with his wife and family. The mission ended in failure in 1845, for Settee, a northern Swampy Cree, lacked kinship and language ties with the southern Plains Cree.
Settee and his wife taught for a time at The Pas (Man.), and in the summer of 1846 the Reverend James Hunter* prepared him for Lac la Ronge, where groundwork had already been done by natives James Beardy and Kayanwas. The Settees’ work there was apparently satisfactory. Hunter visited them and in July 1847 baptized over 100 adults and children, and married 13 couples. In 1849, “because of scarcity,” Settee moved to Potato River, where he stayed until a new missionary, the Reverend Robert Hunt, arrived shortly afterwards to establish the mission on a permanent basis and select “the most advantageous site.” As it turned out, Hunt decided to move the mission, renamed Stanley Mission, to the southeast shore of Mountain Lake. He and Settee were residing there by October 1852.
Settee and other native catechists such as Thomas Vincent resented their shabby treatment by the CMS. Their stipends were half those of their European counterparts and they received far less in living allowances. At Lac la Ronge Settee was expected to house and feed his growing family while carrying a full load of secular and religious duties. “During [the] absence [of Hunt and his wife] I answer for all purposes, teacher, farming and fisherman according to the circumstances of the times,” he wrote to the society.
Described by Archdeacon John Alexander Mackay* as the founder of the Lac la Ronge–Stanley Mission, Settee seems to have been hurt by his supersession there. He was rescued from this situation by Bishop David Anderson*, who, in a revival of West’s idea of a native ministry, enrolled him at St John’s Collegiate School in 1853. Settee was ordained deacon on Christmas Day 1853 in St John’s Church. In July 1854, with the Reverend William Stagg, he made his way to Lake Manitoba, where he began an association with the Fairford mission and the Swan River district which was to last until 1867.
The Swan River district, and Settee’s activities in it, extended from Lake Winnipeg to the Qu’Appelle (The Fishing) Lakes and the Touchwood Hills (Sask.). During his years there he visited a multitude of places, including Fort Pelly, Fort Ellice, Berens River, and Manitoba Lake Post, but it seems to have been at Shoal River that he established his family for the longest period. The families of missionaries could not expect to lead a settled life. It was a period of disturbance, as the grip of the Hudson’s Bay Company on the fur trade slackened.
On 1 Jan. 1856 Settee was ordained by Anderson at St John’s, the second native to be accepted into the Anglican priesthood. His salary of £100, half that received by a newly ordained deacon recently arrived from England, was not supplemented by particularly generous allowances and his accounts were supervised by Stagg. Mrs Settee may have been less patient than her husband in accepting the dangers and privations they endured. In a letter to the committee of the CMS in 1860 Stagg reported: “Poor Mr. Settee is a good Christian man . . . but his family are a great hindrance to him in his work. His wife is not in subjection and his sons are not steady.” Indeed Mrs Settee so upset the diocesan finance committee that at one point it was preparing to force Settee to divorce her or be suspended. As a granddaughter of chief factor William Hemmings Cook*, Mrs Settee was a member of one of the largest extended families of Red River and therefore not insensitive to the gradations of place, prestige, and property in the complex society of the northwest in the 19th century.
In May 1858 Settee was instructed by Bishop Anderson to “settle the Qu’Appelle,” although his first attempt in the 1840s to establish a mission in the region, at Beaver Creek, had ended in disaster. His friend Charles Pratt had better connections there and had been able to maintain himself at the Qu’Appelle Lakes mission. Settee was visited at the mission in the summer of 1858 by explorer Henry Youle Hind, who heard him “read the prayers in English with great ease and correctness,” but described what he regarded as the very casual baptism of an Indian. Hind warned of the possible danger in the bishop’s having sent a Swampy Cree among the Plains Cree as a teacher and minister. His apprehension proved well founded for in 1859 Settee was repulsed from the Qu’Appelle “by the hostile feelings of the Plain Tribes, who on no account would allow us to plant a Mission station on the borders of that river being the road of the Buffalo.” They were not opposed to Christian teaching, Settee affirmed, but feared “that most of the wandering half-breeds would come and occupy the place . . . [keeping] off the buffalo.” He visited the Qu’Appelle region again in 1861 and 1865, and the Touchwood Hills in 1861, 1862, and 1865.
In 1867 Settee, who had been in charge of the Swan River district for “just near one year,” was superseded by the Reverend D. B. Hale and transferred to Scanterbury (Man.). His letters from Scanterbury suggest that he was depressed and certainly Mrs Settee did not contain her anger. Between 1867 and 1879 he served there and at various other native missions in the diocese of Rupert’s Land, including Mapleton, Netley Creek, Lake Winnipeg, and Nelson River Island.
By early 1881 he was in Prince Albert (Sask.). There he did the work of a rural dean, which was well suited to his experience and disposition towards itineracy. Late in 1883 he was called back to The Pas, where the Reverend Joseph Reader*, having fallen under the influence of the Plymouth Brethren, was threatening to disrupt the long-established Devon mission. Successful in restoring Anglican order, Settee was relieved about a year later. He returned to Prince Albert, but increasing age and infirmity led him to retire to Manitoba. He had been formally released from the CMS in 1884 but was described as “still witnessing for his ‘Lord and Master’ in 1899,” and as “doing all he could until past ninety.” He was said to have been 93 at his death.
Settee’s likeness shows a thickset man of middle height, and a photograph of him in clerical surplice and scarf, with a white beard and full moustache, presents very much the image of the late-Victorian clergyman. Vigorous even in later life, humorous, and patient under the afflictions of his strenuous life, he emerges from his writings as an attractive figure. Literate in English and familiar with native languages and culture, Settee was remarkable as one of the longest-surviving witnesses to the rapid transformation of the Canadian northwest and its native people in the 19th century.
In his daily life Settee clearly had a talent for getting on with people, native and European, in spite of his not infrequent conflicts with authority. Twice driven out of the western plains, he pertinaciously returned and explained his reverses not in terms of resistance to Christian teaching but on sound grounds of economic reality and the threat of material change. Even when depressed by his relegation to Scanterbury, he would express thankfulness for “the expansion of our Native Church.” He regretted that so much “of our time is occupied to secular affairs” – houses, schools, chapels, and farms – that he lacked the leisure “to hold communion with God.”
He made skilful use of his command of his native heritage. There are several instances of his employment of tobacco as a gospel weapon. Early in his experience at Swan River a visitor came to call on him at his camp. “I filled the calumet for him. I immediately lead his thoughts to God and religion.”
He wrote a legible and, by late-20th-century standards, even an elegant hand. His English prose style is lively, clear, and compressed, often unconventional in punctuation and capitalization, occasionally in syntax, but seldom in spelling. There seems little doubt that he was at home in English, Cree, and Ojibwa, conversationally and liturgically.
His longest literary exercise, written late in life, has recently attracted scholarly attention as “a contribution to northern Algonquian Indian literature,” preserving “a distinctively Cree vitality and vividness.” It seems likely that he wrote the manuscript, “An Indian camp at the mouth of Nelson River Hudsons Bay,” in the late 1880s when he was serving at Jackhead, Man. If so, his advanced years, the probability that he may not have been writing or indeed speaking in English as much as before, and the fact that, as far as is known, this is his only piece of extended writing, perhaps explain why his prose is less conventional, and even livelier, than his earlier writing.
The major source of information for James Settee’s life and work is the Church Missionary Soc. records, available on microfilm at NA, MG 17, B2. Apart from his own journals and correspondence there are numerous references to him in the papers of missionaries with whom he was associated, among them James Hunter, Abraham Cowley*, and William Stagg, and those of his fellow native catechists and clergymen, including Charles Pratt and Alfred Campbell Garrioch*. Further information on Settee is found at the PAM, HBCA, and in the records at the ACC, Diocese of Rupert’s Land Arch. (Winnipeg), available on microfilm at PAM. Settee’s manuscript account of the 1880s has been published in J. S. H. Brown, “James Settee and his Cree tradition: ‘An Indian camp at the mouth of Nelson River Hudsons Bay,’” Algonquian Conference, Papers of the eighth conference, ed. William Cowan (Ottawa, 1977), 36–49.
T. C. B. Boon, The Anglican Church from the Bay to the Rockies: a history of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land and its dioceses from 1820 to 1950 (Toronto, 1962). J. S. H. Brown, Strangers in blood: fur trade company families in Indian country (Vancouver and London, 1980). V. K. Fast, “The Protestant missionary and fur trade society: initial contact in the Hudson’s Bay territory, 1820–1850”
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Cite This Article
Lewis G. Thomas, “SETTEE, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/settee_james_13E.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:||Lewis G. Thomas|
|Title of Article:||SETTEE, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|