Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Peter Jones - Sacred Feathers - and the Mississauga Indians

Written by Rev.Ken Herfst
Some years ago, as an undergraduate majoring in history at McMaster University, I was working on a paper that discussed early mission work in Canada. While not always a pleasant story, there are a few stellar moments in this aspect of CanadaÕs history. One man, in particular stands out. His name is Kahkewaquonaby, an Ojibwa word meaning Sacred Feathers. PeterÕs mother was the daughter of a chief and Peter stayed with her fatherÕs tribe for much of his childhood. His father was a Welsh surveyor, Augustus Jones, who, like many frontiersmen of the day, had an additional ÔwifeÕ in the bush. If one of the reasons I was drawn to study this man was that he was mightily used of God to reach his own people, the other reason was that the story unfolds in an area where many of us live or are familiar with: Ancaster, Copetown, Lynden, Brantford, Mississauga, Rice Lake, Lake Scougog, Walpole Island, etc.

Historical Context
The Mississauga people lived on the north shores of Lake Ontario in an area west of Toronto that still bears their name. In the 1780Õs this small band numbered about 500. A decade later, smallpox, measles and other diseases brought by the white man wiped out a third of the band. Traditional ways of controlling disease proved powerless. This wasnÕt the end of their woes. Land deals, problems in understanding one anotherÕs ways, as well as problems in communication reduced the MississaugaÕs homeland to a small parcel of land near the Credit River. As is true of native peoples all over the world, their identity was linked to their land. With the coming of the white man, their world began crumbling around them. 1812 brought war to Upper Canada and the British ravaged lands belonging to the tribe as they tried to defend York (present day Toronto). This effectively destroyed the traditional hunting grounds. The white man brought another ÔgiftÕ--alcohol. Originally, the Mississaugas sought contact with the Great Spirit through dreams and visions induced by a time of fasting. Now alcohol promised them a shortcut; they could have the visions immediately. The result was devastating for the tribe and many succumbed to drinking. This was a time of tremendous change and upheaval for the natives and they were ill prepared for it.

Early Life
Born in 1802, Peter felt the impact of the ravages of war and the breakdown of his community. Although too young to fight, he saw the dead and wounded the day after the battle of Stoney Creek. By 1813, he went on his first spiritual quest. Like many Mississauga, Jones felt deserted by the spirits that had guarded them for centuries. A powerful chief who claimed to be invincible died because of his inability to ward off a bullet. Jones never had the vision he sought. In fact, his whole world collapsed around him and he was left with a tremendous spiritual void.

When peace came to the area, the MississaugaÕs land was all but overtaken by settlers. Some of the band moved to the Grand River area. The rest stayed on small reserves at the mouths of the Credit River, Twelve Mile Creek and Sixteen Mile Creek. In 1816, PeterÕs Welsh father found him and brought him to live with him at Stoney Creek. There he was enrolled in a local school and learned to read and write. Later, Jones moved his family--now with an Iroquois wife--to the Grand River area. Among the Mohawks, Jones learned to farm the land.

Christianity Among the Mohawks
By the time Peter Jones joined the Mohawks, some families had already been members of the Church of England for 100 years. Some of these Mohawk Christians began to live as whites. His fatherÕs close Iroquois friends included men like Henry Aaron Hill, son-in-law to Joseph Brant. Well educated, Hill read prayers in the Anglican Chapel on the LordÕs Day. The elder Jones was a Methodist. He and his wife attempted to instill a strong Christian morality in their children. Given the presence of the Anglicans in Mohawk territory, Peter often attended the services. Christianity appealed to him for a while. However, he later remarked:

But when I looked on the conduct of the whites who were called
Christians, and saw them drunk, quarreling, fighting and cheating
the poor Indians, and acting as if there was no God, I was led to
think there could be no truth in the white manÕs religion, and
felt inclined to fall back again to my old superstitions.

Nevertheless, to appease his father, he was duly baptized in 1820 as a member of the Church of England. Henry Aaron Hill stood as his godfather. But the ceremony meant little to him and he continued in his old ways.

PeterÕs Conversion
Methodists began making trips to the Grand River area in the 1820s. Chief Thomas Davis, a cousin to Joseph Brant, began reading the Scriptures in earnest. Although in his sixties, this respected chief felt that only true Christianity could save the Mohawks. At DavisÕ request, Methodist circuit riders began holding meetings in his home. God used these men to draw Mohawks from a nominal religion to a religion of the heart. There was a marked difference with these converts and Jones was attracted to their sober lifestyle. Seth Crawford, an American Methodist preacher from New York State joined the other preachers in the area. There was one difference: Crawford learned Mohawk. By the late Spring of 1823, Jones fell under conviction of sin.

In May of that year, Peter joined a few others on a thirty-kilometre walk to Ancaster, just west of Hamilton. The American-based Methodist Episcopal church sponsored a number of meetings. So many Methodists lived in this area that the local population called it ÒMethodist Mountain.Ó Men and women from a wide area converged on that campground for a week of meetings. For five nights various preachers addressed the crowds. By the time the week was over, Peter Jones had come to faith in Christ.

The blessings experienced there followed to the Grand River communities. A week later twenty natives crowded Thomas DavisÕ house to hear Alvin Torry, the new Methodist pastor assigned to that area. Others listened from open windows. Anglican Mohawks mocked the Methodists, but no one could stamp out their zeal.

Peter Jones felt an increased burden for his own people and in 1824 he returned to the Credit River to tell of his conversion and invite other Mississaugas to the Grand River. Many of PeterÕs immediate family--including his biological mother--were converted. The converts and other interested Mississaugas joined him at the Grand River. The Methodist missionaries were quick to see the value in PeterÕs bilingual abilities. They needed someone to preach in the Ojibwa language. They also looked to him for translation help. He became the go-between, a bilingual, bicultural Christian who could present the gospel and subsequent teaching to the Mississauga in terms they could understand. On March 1, 1825, Peter Jones was officially set apart as an Òexhorter.Ó He would speak after the local preachers or assist travelling preachers on their circuits. Later that year, Crawford, the leading Methodist pastor, returned to the States and the weight of the mission work fell on PeterÕs shoulders.

Peter had what missiologists would call today a ÔholisticÕ understanding of mission. He understood the need to bring the whole gospel to the whole person. With their traditional means of survival gone, Peter taught them farming. He wanted these Christians to be free from white dependence. About 50 Mississaugas followed Peter to Davisville, near the Grand River. There, mornings would begin with devotions. Later, as the parents went to work the land, children stayed behind for school, learning to read the New Testament. Once school was finished, these children would help their parents in the field. Each Sunday, Alvin Torry held two services and Sunday school. As JonesÕ biographer remarks, Òa cultural revolution had begun.Ó

To be continued.

ENDNOTES

1. Smith, Donald B., Sacred Feather (University of Toronto Press, 1999 [1987]).

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