VINCENT, THOMAS, teacher, translator, and Church of England clergyman; b. 1 March 1835 in Osnaburgh House (Ont.), son of John Vincent and Charlotte Thomas; m. 11 Sept. 1861 Eliza Anne Gladman in Moose Factory (Ont.), and they had two daughters and three sons; d. 16 Jan. 1907 in Fort Albany, Ont.
Thomas Vincent was the grandson of fur trader Thomas Vincent* and his native-born wife Jane Renton. Advancement in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company during the early 19th century was difficult for young men of mixed ancestry. Raised at HBC posts without the advantage of a good education, many could not compete with recruits from Britain unless their fathers were present to advance their interests. Thus Vincent Sr’s son John found himself demoted from clerk to postmaster when his father retired in 1826. HBC governor George Simpson* had created the position of postmaster for “half breed Sons” who had “no prospect of further advancement except in vary particular cases.” It may have been the hope of providing better opportunities for his own children that prompted John to quit the company’s service and move his family, including five-year-old Thomas, from Osnaburgh House to Middlechurch (Man.) in 1840.
Thomas attended the parish school and then graduated from St John’s Collegiate School in Winnipeg. He offered his services to David Anderson*, the Anglican bishop of Rupert’s Land, and accompanied him on a visit to Moose Factory in 1855. For the next five years Vincent was apprenticed at Moose Factory to the Reverend John Horden* as labourer, teacher, translator, and catechist. In Vincent, Horden thought that he had finally found a native who could serve as a missionary “for his countrymen.” From his base at Moose Factory, Vincent visited Hannah Bay and Rupert House (Waskaganish, Que.) in 1857, Fort Albany and Martin Falls (Ont.) in 1858, and Mistassini (Que.) in 1859, all during the summer months.
In 1860 Vincent was ordained deacon and stationed at Fort Albany, where it was hoped he would “shut out the Roman priests” who had made many converts there after the departure of Wesleyan Methodist missionary George Barnley in 1847. In 1863 he travelled to the Red River settlement (Man.) to be ordained priest on 26 May. From 1865 to 1867 he took charge of the mission at Moose Factory while Horden was on furlough. When Horden returned, he reported that Vincent lacked the “personal influence” and “weight of character” for such an important position and concluded that Moose Factory would need to be staffed by a missionary of European origin “for some time.”
Christopher C. Fenn, secretary of the Church Missionary Society, which supported many Anglican missionaries in the northwest, urged Horden to give Vincent more freedom and responsibility and to let him learn from his mistakes. The CMS wanted to see a strong native church in North America, and Horden agreed in principle, but he was a gradualist. One day native people would occupy “the very highest positions” in the church, but not until “the native character [was] more solidified.”
Vincent’s visits to neglected missions took him to Little Whale River (Petite Rivière de la Baleine, Que.) and Great Whale River (Grande Rivière de la Baleine) in the summer of 1867. In 1871 he visited Michipicoten (Michipicoten River, Ont.) and New Brunswick House (on Brunswick Lake, Ont.) en route to Port Hope, where he placed his two sons in school under the supervision of his father-in-law, retired HBC fur trader Joseph Gladman. The following year Vincent visited New Post on the Abitibi River. In 1876 he returned to Port Hope to act as executor for Gladman’s estate.
When Horden, who had been consecrated first bishop of the diocese of Moosonee in 1872, went on furlough nine years later, he chose the Reverend John Henry Keen, a young Englishman, to take charge of Moose Factory. On his return, however, he found the faithful Vincent in charge, for Keen had abruptly abandoned his post and returned home. In 1883 Horden promoted Vincent archdeacon, the first native to attain that rank in the diocese.
In 1885 Vincent accompanied Horden on a tour of the Ojibwa missions at Martin Falls and Osnaburgh House. Horden was impressed by Vincent’s work, but felt that a man of mixed ancestry was inherently inferior because of the “declension of the European intellect in the second or third generation.” If Vincent or his father had married a woman of European ancestry, children of “fair intellect” might have resulted; instead, intellectual petrification had set in and Horden considered Thomas’s sons to be “all stupid.”
In 1886 Vincent travelled to England to see his Cree translation of The pilgrim’s progress published, visit his grandfather’s homeland, meet with the CMS, and raise funds for missions in the northwest. He took charge of Moose Factory again when Horden spent his third and final furlough in England during 1888–89. Vincent’s subsequent travels took him to Fort Hope (Ont.), where he baptized 120 natives in 1891. His work there was significant because the CMS assumed that there were no longer any unbaptized Indians in the region and, therefore, that the Indian missions in the diocese of Moosonee required no further funding. After Horden’s sudden death in January 1893, he was summoned from Fort Albany to take charge of Moose Factory once again and to bury his bishop. Three months later the bilingual 58-year-old native clergyman, the senior and most experienced minister in the diocese, learned to his dismay that British-born Jervois Arthur Newnham, with less than two years’ experience in the territory, would become the new bishop.
In 1893 Vincent received an honorary dd from St John’s College, Winnipeg. The following year he visited Chapleau and Missanabie, Ont. Alone following the death of his wife in 1891 and disappointed by Newnham’s appointment, he retired and moved to Stonewall, Man., in 1900. He returned to the James Bay region briefly the next year as an enumerator for the federal census. When Newnham was translated to the diocese of Saskatchewan in 1904, Vincent offered to replace him in Moosonee but was rejected. By 1906 the diocese of Moosonee faced such a shortage of clergymen that Vincent was summoned out of retirement to return to Fort Albany. He died there early the following year and was buried at Moose Factory.
Horden had had high hopes when he stationed Vincent at Fort Albany. The Oblates acknowledged Vincent as a worthy opponent, but after the arrival of the Roman Catholic order, the native population there was never “purely Protestant” again. The Indians would adhere in roughly even numbers to one of the two churches; in 1947 separate native communities were formed along denominational lines. At best, Vincent and his native assistants merely held their ground there. They none the less extended the CMS’s reach, particularly among the Ojibwa on the upper Albany River and among the Cree at Mistassini.
Known for his endurance and sturdy physique, as well as for his unwillingness to compromise with native spiritual views – he considered the use of the drum at Rupert House in 1881 as “the first step back to heathenism & conjuring” – Thomas Vincent was almost a legend in the northwest at the time of his death. His letters and reports of his activities published in CMS periodicals contributed to what one historian has called “a larger-than-life concept” of Vincent as the ideal missionary. Yet his career also illustrates the difficulties which men of mixed ancestry faced, even if they were better educated than the previous generation. Like his father’s before him, Vincent’s advancement had limits which were set by his mixed ancestry; the rank of archdeacon seems to have been the church’s equivalent of the fur trade position of postmaster. Vincent considered himself equal “to the best Englishman that ever lived,” but he was a victim of discriminatory racial views held by churchmen in the field such as Horden, in spite of the more liberal aims of their CMS superiors in England.
Some descendants of Vincent’s elder daughter, Clara Caroline (Nicholson), still live in the James Bay region. The surname Vincent also survives there among the descendants of Erland Vincent, a grandson of Thomas’s brother James.
ACC, General Synod Arch. (Toronto), M61–3 (Moosonee coll.), box 2, St Paul’s Church, Fort Albany, RBMB and journals, 1883–1923; Thomas Vincent, letter-book, 1895–99 (copy). NA, MG 17, B2 (mfm.). Winnipeg Free Press, 15 April 1961. Jacob Anderson and Richard Faries, “Thomas Vincent,” Leaders of the Canadian church, ed. W. B. Heeney (3 ser., Toronto, 191 “3), 2nd ser.: 89–109. J. S. Long, “Archdeacon Thomas Vincent of Moosonee and the handicap of ‘Métis’ racial status,” Canadian Journal of Native Studies (Brandon, Man.), 3 (1983): 95–116; ‘“Shaganash’: early Protestant missionaries and the adoption of Christianity by western James Bay Cree, 1840–1893” (ed.d. thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1986). Marsha Snyder, “Thomas Vincent, archdeacon of Moosonee,” OH, 68 (1976): 119–35.