Manitoulin’s original mystery

The 150th anniversary of the death of Gibbard and ‘The Manitoulin Incident’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week Shelley Pearen describes the life and mysterious disappearance of William Gibbard, the fisheries inspector who died in Manitoulin’s waters 150 years ago. His death was believed to be linked to the 1862 treaty of Manitoulin. Ms. Pearen, who has been researching Manitoulin’s history for 40 years, 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

July 28, 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the death of William Gibbard. His disappearance from a steamboat has never been satisfactorily explained despite an immediate investigation and an official inquest. The conclusion of the inquest jury was that Mr. Gibbard “was murdered when on board the steamboat Ploughboy somewhere between Little Current and Shebanawning” and that “the said murder was committed on the main deck of the said steamboat, near the foot of the stairs on the starboard or port side of the said boat, but by whom the jury have not sufficient evidence to show.”

Mr. Gibbard’s disappearance immediately aroused suspicion as he had been embroiled in controversy since his appointment as Inspector of Fisheries for Lakes Huron and Superior in 1859. Rumours circulated that he had been murdered by one of the Manitoulin chiefs or even one of the Jesuit priests.

On July 30, 1863 the Owen Sound Comet reported:

“WM. GIBBARD, ESQ. There is a painful rumour in town that William Gibbard, Esq., Government Inspector of Fisheries in lake Huron and Superior, was lost off the Ploughboy on her last trip from the Sault Ste. Marie to Collingwood, between Horse and Lonely Island. It seems to be the impression that he was secretly pushed overboard by one of the prisoners taken at the Manitoulin Island who were allowed to walk about the deck of the boat. It is to be hoped that if there is truth in the report of Mr. Gibbard being missing, that he was left accidentally at one of the stopping places.”

William Gibbard was born on January 4, 1818, the fourth child of John Gibbard and Mary Hampson Gibbard of Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire, England. The family was listed in several editions of Bernard Burke’s ‘History of the Landed Gentry.’ In the 1853 edition, William’s father John Gibbard was described as “for many years a magistrate, deputy-lieut., and receiver-general for the county, major of the Bedford militia, and colonel commandant of the local militia, son and heir of William Gibbard, Esq., of the same place.” Apparently William Gibbard was named for his paternal grandfather.

John and Mary Gibbard eventually had 13 children, although three died in their infancy. Their eldest son John would inherit the estate, while their four younger sons were destined for the military.

At the age of 15 William Gibbard was admitted to the East-India Company’s Artillery and Engineer Seminary. After three terms he asked his father to have him appointed to the infantry. John Gibbard contacted an associate, William Astell, who just happened to be a director of the East India Company, and William was assigned to the British India Company’s Bombay Infantry. He served for about three years and gained some notoriety.

By February 1844 William Gibbard was working as a surveyor in Simcoe County, Canada West. He surveyed townships, roads and harbours and laid out several town plots. He proposed a grand plan for Collingwood, Simcoe County where he lived with his wife in two-storey frame house. He drew up a plan promoting Collingwood’s lots for land developer David Reesor with a map “shewing the position of Collingwood in Reference to the Course of Trade between the Atlantic Seabord and the Great West.” Collingwood became the terminus of the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron Railway in 1855 but it never attained the population or became the gateway to the west that Mr. Gibbard, Mr. Reesor, and other town promoters hoped for.

William Gibbard was an active and well-known resident of Collingwood. In 1855 one Collingwood resident even named his son William Gibbard Goold. William Gibbard was elected to Collingwood’s first town council in 1858. He immediately participated in an attempt to unseat the newly elected mayor and fire the town clerk. William Gibbard and John Hogg, the town clerk and editor of the new local paper, The Enterprise, did not get along. Mr. Gibbard resigned later that first year, but was elected again in 1862, with his brother-in-law, John McWatt, as mayor. One local historian claimed that in the first two years of the Collingwood council’s existence there was more division recorded than in all the subsequent years together.

In September 1858 Mr. Gibbard achieved some notoriety when the New York Times copied a story from the Toronto Globe claiming that the steamer Rescue had returned to Collingwood from Fort William “bringing Mr. WILLIAM GIBBARD, of Collingwood, who conveyed the second mail to and from Red River” with an “actual traveling time between Red River and Lake Superior, twelve days and quarter.” At that time the Red River and Lake Superior were considered the far west which land hungry eastern North Americans were anxious to have accessible and populated. The article described the 699 mile trip:

“The number of portages is sixty-two; one of them, the Grand Portage, is nine miles long, from half a mile to 100 feet long. From Fort Garry to Fort Francis, Mr. GIBBARD had the same heavy canoe that he took from Fort William, which detained him; and he had, besides, to make two trips across twenty-eight of the portages. He left a stock of provisions for future mails at Islington, Fort Francis and Saginaw. He thinks that if he had had a light canoe all the way, and only his own provisions, he would have made the trip in eleven days. He waited on Lake Superior six days for the Rescue, and sent off the last mail from Fort William on the 13th. He is of opinion that there will be no difficulty in opening up a route to Red River Settlement for the transmission of passengers and goods.”

Mr. Gibbard’s adventure on the lakes may have prompted his career change. In 1859 William Gibbard was appointed to the newly created position of Fisheries Officer for Lakes Huron and Superior. It was a vast district, with a few thousand miles of coastline and hundreds of islands, bays, and rivers. The legislation, intended to preserve and protect freshwater stocks, had only been applied in the lower great lakes since its enactment in 1857. Restrictions were placed on fishing and leases were issued granting the exclusive right to fish in specific areas. The Indian Department negotiated a system whereby leases for domestic fishing could be given on behalf of Indians to their superintendents. Rent would not be charged if they confined themselves to their limits, fished for consumption only, and obeyed the Fishery Act. Other fishing grounds were to be leased to the highest bidder.

In 1857 the Anishinaabe residents of Manitoulin sold more than 2,000 barrels of fish to traders. In 1859 fishing was their most lucrative means of support and fish was their most dependable food.

William Gibbard was issued a 22-foot keel boat manned by four men. He earned $400 per year plus $1.50 per day on the water and was expected to be on the lakes from May through November.

It is no exaggeration to say that from the moment William Gibbard stepped foot on Manitoulin, controversy ensued. As most Manitoulin residents supported themselves and fed their families by fishing, Mr. Gibbard’s announcement that he was leasing what he considered to be waters off unoccupied Indian lands was a serious matter. Manitoulin residents believed that the islands and waters had been granted to them in perpetuity when they signed Francis Bond Head’s agreement in 1836 to share their lands.

When William Gibbard visited Manitoulin in July 1859 he announced the new regulations, sent local superintendent George Ironside copies of the law and moved on. A tender notice for the Lake Huron fisheries, dated July 1, 1859, with a deadline of August 1, was delivered to Wikwemikong on July 20, and only received by Ironside on July 25. The Anishinaabeg and Ironside were surprised by the abrupt regulation and complained.

They blamed Mr. Gibbard but in fact it was not entirely his fault. His superiors in the Crown Lands department had assigned him an impossible task—leasing and policing all the fishing grounds of Lakes Huron and Superior!

Anishinaabe fishermen from Cape Croker, the Saugeen Peninsula, Manitoulin, and the North Shore were particularly affected. At Manitoulin, the traditional fishing grounds especially Lonely Island or Akiwesi Minis was controversial from the start. Mr. Gibbard leased it in September 1859 though the lease was subsequently cancelled by his superiors upon multiple complaints.

Unfortunately William Gibbard seems to have formed a negative opinion of Anishinaabe fisherman almost immediately. He declared to Jesuit Father Kohler in 1859 that “the Indians were a nuisance, and as such should be driven out of this part of the country.” In his defence the missionaries had admitted to him “that the Indians would be better off without the fisheries, that the pursuit of them led them into all kinds of vice,” though they were actually more concerned with the evil effects brought into the fishing territory by non-Native fishermen.

Mr. Gibbard, like many residents of the Bruce Peninsula and even the Department of Crown Lands itself, was actively urging the government to proceed with surveying and settling western lands. In his December 1859 report he responded to his superior’s request for “Inspection Returns of Vacant Crown Lands.” He reported that Manitoulin and several other islands in his territory would make splendid settlements because of their soil and climate. He cited excellent farming conditions at Maple Point, Kagawong, Little Current, “Equimico” (Wikwemikong) and South Bay.

William Gibbard’s reports commended non-Native fishermen who leased fisheries and caught or purchased fish from Indians and sold them for huge profits, and criticized Indian fishermen for not fully utilizing the resources and attempting to remove lessees from their fishing territory.

In 1861 the Commissioner of Crown Lands, Philip Vankoughnet, whose department had gained control of the Indian Department the previous year, responded to an unofficial campaign for surplus underutilized “Indian lands” to be surrendered and settled. He sent two commissioners to Manitoulin to negotiate the surrender of the Island. The offer was flatly rejected by the Anishinaabe chiefs.

When a former Island resident wrote to the Toronto Globe defending the rights of Manitoulin Indians, William Gibbard immediately wrote two lengthy retorts criticizing Island residents, priests, and especially fishermen. He also endorsed the surrender and settlement of the Island.

In 1862 he was given a slightly larger boat—a 28-foot keel manned by six men. His territory remained the same—the waters, coasts, islands and bays of Lakes Huron and Superior.

In October 1862, a new commissioner of Crown Lands, William McDougall, travelled to Manitoulin to personally conclude a treaty of surrender of the Island. William Gibbard was a witness at the treaty negotiations, patrolled for liquor dealers, and swept William McDougall away with his treaty after the transaction. Four months later when accusations of the use of liquor at the treaty negotiations surfaced, William Gibbard publicly denied the rumours and defended the treaty. His treaty activities only increased his infamy on the Island though it appears that these same activities were commended by his superiors and his colleagues and friends in Canada West who saw Manitoulin and the North Shores as underutilized lands and fisheries.

Next week in Part II, Shelley Pearen will describe William Gibbard’s provocative and controversial activities prior to his disappearance.