Manitoulin’s original mystery

Part II: The 150th anniversary of the death of William Gibbard and ‘The Manitoulin Incident’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week Shelley Pearen concludes her account of fishery inspector William Gibbard whose death was attributed to the 1862 treaty of Manitoulin. Ms. Pearen examined the murder while writing her new book ‘Four Voices, The Great Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1862.’ Ms. Pearen is also the author of ‘Exploring Manitoulin,’ and co-transcriber/translator of a number of Jesuit letters and reports about Manitoulin, including ‘Letters from Manitoulin’ and ‘Letters from Wikwemikong.’

by Shelley Pearen

William Gibbard was a son, husband, infantryman, surveyor, civic-minded citizen and the inspector of fisheries for Lakes Huron and Superior. By 1863 he was in charge of a six man, 28 foot keel boat. He earned $400 a year plus $1.50 per day when on the water and was on the lakes from May to the end of November.

But on Manitoulin, Mr. Gibbard was known as Eshkamejwanoke (The Gatherer of Fish Guts) by the Anishinaabeg. His notoriety had grown exponentially since 1859 when he had simultaneously announced and enforced the new fishing regulations. The government’s Fishery Act of 1857 was neither understood nor accepted by the Anishinaabeg for whom fishing was the main source of food and income. They could obtain free domestic fishing licences in the name of their superintendent, but commercial fishing required tendering for specific locations.

In October 1862 William Gibbard had not only acted as a witness at the treaty negotiations, but patrolled for liquor traders and whisked the Commissioner of Crown Lands, William McDougall, off to the mainland as soon as the treaty was signed.

In June 1863 Mr. Gibbard acted on his belief that the fisheries were underutilized by the “American Indians.” He visited Lonely Island (Akiwesi Minis) and leased the south side of it to two non-Native residents of Wikwemikong, despite knowing it was a traditional fishing station of the Wikwemikong Anishinaabeg.

Then he wrote a very inflammatory note to the Jesuit superior at Wikwemikong, instructing him to inform the Indians that: “I have leased the south half of Lonely Island – also, four miles into the Lake, all round the east, south and west sides thereof – to Philemon Proulx and Charles De La Ronde; that no Indian, or other person, will be allowed to fish on that ground, or to use the beach included in their lease, or cut wood on the same, unless driven in by bad weather, without the written permission of the lessees. By notifying your Indians, you may save them from being punished and sent to gaol, as I shall strictly enforce the law. Any complaint made will be followed up by me.”

When Mr. Gibbard delivered his notice to Wikwemikong on June 28, 1863, he was met by disgruntled residents. The fisheries, treaty, ownership of the islands and governance were hotly debated in French, English and Ojibwe. Mr. Gibbard eventually retreated.

The signing of the lease by two non-Native Wikwemikong residents showed that they supported the government and not the band. Chief Ozawanimiki was deputed by the chiefs to order the lessees to leave the territory.

Mr. Gibbard, hearing of the intended eviction, returned to Lonely Island with his men. On June 30, 1863, Chief Ozawanimiki and about 20 men went to Lonely Island. The chief read the removal warrant to the lessees.

Mr. Gibbard and the chief argued passionately through an interpreter. Eventually the Anishinaabeg departed to discuss the matter in council. The following day the lessees were peacefully expelled by a large deputation of chiefs and men.

The Anishinaabeg complained to the governor general and the lessees complained to Mr. Gibbard. Mr. Gibbard informed his superior, William McDougall, the commissioner of Crown Lands and the man responsible for the 1862 treaty of Manitoulin. Mr. McDougall responded that Mr. Gibbard, as a magistrate, could uphold the law.

William Gibbard hired 21 “special constables” including current and former policemen and an assortment of tradesmen and fishermen to accompany him back to Wikwemikong to deliver warrants and summons for the Lonely Island expulsion. He intended to take the charged men to Sault Ste. Marie to face the charges. The special force landed at Wikwemikong on July 24, 1863 where they were met by an agitated band.

A heated three-language argument and scuffle ensued when Mr. Gibbard ordered his men to carry out the arrests. William Whichter, who investigated the incident, reported that “the spectacle of 22 armed men laying hands upon and hand cuffing first one and then another of the Indians, some as defendants, others as rescuers, others for inciting & c., whilst the constables were palpably dissenting and indecisive among themselves – was not such a display either of prudence or of force as could command respect.” Mr. Whitcher noted that though he did not understand the “necessity or object of enforcing the service of summonses by such an exhibition of force,” Mr. Gibbard was “a dutiful and industrious officer,” whose “bearing and language were, on the one hand, very aggravating and on the other were not such as to dissuade the Indians from their purpose and calm the excitement.”

Mr. Gibbard and his men eventually withdrew with the promise from the priests and chiefs that they would state their case before a justice in Quebec. Reports and petitions were addressed again to Mr. McDougall and the governor.

Mr. Gibbard continued west with his men. He arrested Chief Ozawanimiki for the Lonely Island expulsion at Bruce Mines and took him to the Sault to be tried. Father Kohler and barrister David Blain managed to have the chief released on bail.

Meanwhile on July 27 the Toronto Globe broke the story of the fishery dispute, re-launching Manitoulin back into the headlines of the nation’s newspapers. Manitoulin and its resident Anishinaabeg had only recently disappeared as public interest in the controversial 1862 treaty waned.

“THE MANITOULIN ISLANDS. Outrages by the Waquimakong Indians. ARMED FORCE SENT TO ARREST FATHER KOHLER AND OTHER RINGLEADERS” led a three-column story. Mr. Gibbard must have supplied the details himself, anticipating recognition.

As Globe readers learned of the “outrage,” that same day, July 27, 1863, William Gibbard, his 22 special constables, David Blain, Father Kohler and Chief Ozawanimki and other travellers boarded the steamboat Ploughboy returning eastward.

The Ploughboy was well-equipped for the time. It had two decks, private and shared staterooms, and a dining saloon. William Gibbard occupied the captain’s room but seems to have spent most of the night walking the upper deck. The “special constables” were housed about 10 to a room, though few of them spent much time in their bunks. More than a dozen men including some of the “specials” spent the evening playing cards and drinking in the saloon. Many of the passengers stepped ashore at the ports. At Bruce Mines Mr. Gibbard and several others went ashore.

The Ploughboy docked briefly at Little Current about 2:30 am Tuesday morning on July 28. As usual some of the passengers stepped ashore. The steamer left Little Current about 3 am. Mr. Gibbard was last seen walking on the upper deck 20 minutes later.

When the Ploughboy reached Killarney (Shebowahnaing) just past 5 am Father Kohler and Chief Ozawanimiki disembarked. Mr. Gibbard’s nonappearance at breakfast prompted a search. Barrister David Blain and Captain Smith conducted an immediate enquiry. Mr. Gibbard’s disappearance was reported at Collingwood and a small search party went to search for him. His body was found in the water between Strawberry, Cloche and Heywood Islands. The memorandum book and leather money purse that he always carried in his pockets were missing, though his watch, eye-glass, pocket knife, compass, pencil, tooth-pick, handkerchief and coins were still on him.

A surgeon who examined the body “saw nothing to lead me to suppose violence had been committed” but found an injury on the right temple probably from a blow that could have come from a fall from the upper deck. An inquest was immediately launched.

The Globe’s provocative July 27 story was followed three days later with an editorial: “THE TROUBLES ON THE MANITOULIN” and a report: THE MANITOULIN ISLANDS. The Outrages by the Indians. MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF MR. GIBBARD. The editorial blamed the priests for inciting the Manitoulin residents and claimed that “the officers of the law, bearing regular warrants for the arrest of offenders, have been resisted in the execution of their duty, and compelled to leave the Island without executing their mission. The tragic end of poor Mr. Gibbard, the chief of the officers of the law, casts a lurid shade over the whole transaction, but is not actually connected with it.” The companion article provided a lengthy description of Mr. Gibbard’s trip to Wikwemikong, the confrontation, arrest and Mr. Gibbard’s disappearance.

Just as the 1862 treaty had provoked a national storm of newspaper stories, comments and counter-comments, Mr. Gibbard and the Lonely Island fishery caused a flood of pro and anti fishery, Indian, and Catholic sentiments. And once again some writer’s positions and attitudes were based on political affiliation rather than sympathy with the parties involved.

The Quebec Chronicle, recognized as a pro-Conservative-party newspaper, asserted that the commissioner of Crown Lands on behalf of the government was guilty of a “double act of injustice and inhumanity” in negotiations with the Indians of Manitoulin, and that if “Gibbard has met his death at the hands of Sawamackoo, the blame lies solely with the Government, whose very acts courted murder, or intended to inflict it.”

Le Journal de Québec also covered the Manitoulin problems from an anti-treaty perspective. It carried excerpts from the Globe articles, but concluded: This is the clear product of the excursion of Mr. McDougall, on Grand Manitoulin,” and “the result of politics without depth promulgated by the Globe and practised by one of the radical leaders of Upper Canada.”

The Globe’s coverage prompted barrister David Blain to write a letter to the editor of the Globe. Mr. Blain, who had defended Chief Ozawanimiki at the Sault, was on board the Ploughboy when Mr. Gibbard disappeared, and helped to conduct the onboard enquiry. Mr. Blain explained that the Indians maintained that the fishery had never been ceded or surrendered by them to the government. He questioned the wisdom of a $4 lease of a fishery on which 700 Indians depended, as well as the legality of Gibbard’s warrants, summons, and arrests.

Manitoulin Island coverage vanished from most newspapers in mid-September after the verdict of “wilful murder by person or persons unknown” was rendered. If William Gibbard was murdered, and I am not sure that he was, his assassin was never found.

His death was a result of the Department of Crown Lands expecting one lone officer to enforce the Fishery Regulations in a vast “wild-west” sort of territory where unscrupulous traders, speculators and adventurers outnumbered the Anishinaabe residents, honest settlers, and traders.

Two weeks before his death Gibbard had reported that he had been threatened by “a notorious vagabond” or “outlaw” and his men who had taken control of a lease on Horse Island.

Several of Mr. Gibbard’s specials were unhappy with their assignment and the treatment of the Catholic priests. His own interpreter stated that “everybody in the boat knew Gibbard had the money with him to pay the Indians on Superior. I was afraid of the white people on the boat, not of the Indian, on Mr. Gibbard’s account.” Compounding Mr. Gibbard’s problems, rumours that he had been disgraced in India circulated at the Sault just prior to the Ploughboy’s sailing.

William Gibbard’s death was mourned in Collingwood and the province. It was a tragic loss of life. Though he was unpopular with Anishinaabe fishermen, he had also brought some control to unscrupulous non-Native fishermen and traders who dealt in liquor as well as fish. His views on land surrenders, westward expansion and settlement were widely held and even endorsed by his superiors.

William Gibbard was buried in Collingwood. His widow and his sister erected a plaque in his memory in the Anglican Church in Collingwood, noting he had killed by an assassin while on duty when he was 45 years and six months of age.

In September 2011, William Gibbard’s death was recognized with other historic deaths of officers at the 34th National Police and Peace Officers’ memorial service. “Inspector of Fisheries William Gibbard – 28 July, 1863 (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) is the earliest of 822 names etched on glass panels at the Memorial Pavilion in Ottawa.”

For further information on William Gibbard and the Manitoulin treaty of 1862 see ‘Four Voices, The Great Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1862’ available exclusively in Manitoulin shops and at The Expositor office.