standing-upright woman

Submitted by: Candy Spencer

I was about eight years old the first time I saw the grave.  My friends and I had biked out to a farmer’s field, climbed over a cedar rail fence, tip-toed passed grazing cows, to this spot on the side of a gentle hill.  There were the remains of a rusted iron fence partially guarding the worn, moss covered headstone.  We whispered to each other, wondering: who is this forgotten woman? Why was she alone in this open field? Catherine Sutton, who were you? And yet, as so often happens, children go on with their lives, forgetting a long ago outing until the name comes up again.

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.”

A simple entry in an article by Donald Smith found on a Grey County Museum website.  The memories flood back: memories of rumours about an Indian woman who went to see Queen Victoria.

Her story is more than a headstone. Catherine Sutton was an aboriginal woman who belonged to the Mississaugas, a group of converted natives who lived on ceded land by the side of the Credit River in Southwestern Ontario.  In 1837 Catherine accompanied her aunt, the English wife of Peter Jones, on a year-long trip to England. In 1839, a year after her return, she married William Sutton who had emigrated from England nine years before. They resided with the band at Credit River until 1846 when they and two other families moved north to the Newash reserve in Sarawak Township near Owen Sound.  Catherine taught and William ministered to the native children.  Catherine’s family was given 200 acres of poor farm land upon which they built a large house and barn, and they cultivated about 50 acres.  William and Catherine left their home and moved to Michigan in 1852 where they were missionaries to the Methodist Natives on reserves.  In 1857 they returned to their home, only to find that in their absence the land had been taken by the government, surveyed, and divided into lots to be sold.

       The Suttons protested and the Indian Agent responsible declared, “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.”#   The Suttons were also denied the right to buy back the land because, “Indians could not purchase their ceded land.”#  Not satisfied with these rulings, the Suttons decided to take their case to a higher authority and Catherine, with the financial help of some New York Quakers, travelled to England where she was given an audience with Queen Victoria and she presented her case.  The result: the British government overturned the previous rulings and the Suttons were allowed to buy back their property.

       Catherine Sutton successfully continued to work for Aboriginal rights until her death in 1865.  One of the things she worked on was the attempt by the Canadian Government in 1861 to purchase Manitoulin Island, a land “– promised forever to the Indians in 1836.”#  One of our Distinguish Visitors, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is from the Wikwemikong Band, Manitoulin Island and she has had to fight for her aboriginal status rights.

       The last time I visited the gravesite I climbed over that same cedar rail fence, crossed the quiet pasture with its’ grazing cattle, and walked to the sloping hill overlooking Owen Sound Bay.  The fence had been restored and paint white; the headstone had been restored, and there was a plaque with Nahnebahwequay’s story on it.  Little else has changed except she has a place in a museum and the children of Grey County are told of the woman who dared to claim her rights. I picture her gravestone proudly standing on the land that is rightfully hers. While there are still issues surrounding Aboriginal rights in Canada, her grave site represents a small form of justice. Someone placed you here overlooking Owen’s Sound.  Here, where you can watch over the land and the clear waters of the bay.

Georgian Bay, where Catherine Sutton’s grave looks out on. Photo credit:


Donald B. Smith

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.

editor’s note: Candace (Candy) Spencer is a third year student, majoring in Political Science and Women’s Studies.  Her interest in higher education was instilled in her by a mother who had only attended school until the eigth grade. In 2010 she came to the campus and asked Student Advisory what programs were available for older people.  To her amazement there was something called Women’s Studies; to a long time activist, a proud 2nd Waver, this was  an opportunity to learn how a new generation of women were going to continue the struggle for women’s rights and equality.  50 years is a long time between high school and university but Candy would encourage anyone of any age to continue learning.


1 thought on “standing-upright woman

  1. OK, so here I am again sitting at my computer and crying. Again it is over an issue of injustice surrounding women. Again it is over an aboriginal woman and her loss of rights under (at least) section 15 of the Indian Act . . . have I got that last bit right . . . why did I think that the Indian Act came in 1876 . . . it did come in 1876. So why was she denied her rights because she married a white man back in 1839 and then tried to get her land back in the 1850s . . . was this practice of denying rights to aboriginal women who ‘married out’ legitimized by the 1876 Act? Can someone clarify this for me please? Or I’ll ask next Tuesday!

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