Pennefather Treaties

In the summer of 1859, Superintendent General of the Indian Department Richard T. Pennefather signed three separate but essentially identical treaties with Batchewana First Nation (Treaty 91 [A]), Garden River First Nation (Treaty 91 [B]) and Thessalon First Nation (Treaty 91 [C]). The three treaties were part of a series of land surrenders that occurred after the 1850 Robinson Treaties. The Pennefather treaties opened additional acres for settlement and resource exploitation. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)



Chief Nebenaigoching (Nabunagoging), pictured in the centre, was a signatory to the Pennefather Treaties.

Historical Context

Within three years of signing the 1850 Robinson Treaties, the Indian Department, at the behest of settlers, began pressuring various First Nations in the Sault Ste Marie area in present-day Ontario, to surrender all or significant portions of their reserves for the purposes of development, resource extraction and settlement. For example, Indian agent John William Keating and Crown Lands agent Joseph Wilson wanted to extract timber from portions of the Garden River reserve for their personal benefit. However, Chiefs Ogista and Buhkwujjenene resisted their effort throughout the 1850s.

Sault Ste Marie resident William Palmer argued that the reserves on the north shore of Lake Huron presented “a terrible nuisance and a regular drawback on the settlement of the country,” specifically the oversized Batchewana reserve. While arguing for the surrender of the reserves, Palmer noted that the bays and mouths of rivers should at the very least be obtained. This request was an effort to access the interior for logging. He submitted this complaint in writing to the Pennefather Commission (1856–58), which had been up by the British Crown to determine “the best means of securing the future progress of civilization” for Indigenous peoples in Canada and to find “the best mode of managing Indian property, so as to secure its full benefit to the Indians without impeding settlement of the country.”

Another issue brought before Richard Pennefather concerned mining interests. Prior to the 1850 Robinson Treaties, the Province of Canada had issued mining leases and tracts that had gone unfulfilled. The Crown Lands Department began pressuring the Indian Department to allow for the sales of mining locations on reserves. Crown Lands argued extensions to complete the sales should be granted. However, concerned First Nations demanded that the money from the uncompleted sales be deposited to their accounts and the mining tracts revert to the respective reserves. While Pennefather appears to have agreed that an extension was a violation of the terms of the 1850 Robinson Treaties, he still promised to obtain surrenders.

In an effort to increase pressure on the reserve communities to surrender further tracts and agree to the mining tract sales, Pennefather, in June 1858, decided that annuities would no longer be used to pay for schooling, medical treatment or other matters. Meanwhile, Crown Lands agent Joseph Wilson prevented Anishinaabe people in the Sault Ste Marie area from logging and confiscated harvested timbers in 1857. The denial of timber sales to Garden River and Batchewana First Nations led to increased hunger and starvation over the fall and winter of 1857–58.

The Indian Department sought to negotiate a treaty that would centralize bands. This would be more cost-efficient and would help concentrate “civilization” efforts while freeing up tens of thousands of acres for settlement and settler exploitation. Pennefather even argued that if the bands refused to co-operate or surrender their reserves, the Indian Department would simply expropriate their lands. According to historian James Morrison, Pennefather and the Indian Department were essentially recreating the removal efforts begun by Sir Francis Bond Head in the 1830s.

Negotiations & Treaty Terms

Richard Pennefather arrived in Sault Ste Marie in 1859 to negotiate surrenders. Promises were made to protect fisheries and lumbering as well as to deal with the unfulfilled mining tract sales. Based on these promises and other terms, the following First Nations signed treaties over a three-day period: Batchewana (9 June), Garden River (10 June) and Thessalon (11 June).

Under the terms of the treaties, the bands were given an immediate cash payout. Garden River and Batchewana each received $1,200, while Thessalon was paid $500. The treaty with Thessalon resulted in the surrender of the entire reserve made in 1850. Batchewana surrendered its entire 1850 reserve save for Whitefish Island, where a key fishery was located. Garden River surrendered 75 per cent of its 130,000 acres, which allowed for the creation of Laird, Macdonald, Meredith, Kehoe and Duncan townships.

Additionally, any family from these bands could purchase 80 acres of the surrendered lands at a price established by the Province of Canada. All families on the reserve would be subsequently allotted 40 acres. The surrendered lands were “to be sold for our benefit, and the interest accruing from the invested proceeds of such sales to be annually divided among us.”

The 1859 Pennefather Treaties did not revoke the terms of the 1850 Robinson Treaties; for example, the Anishinaabe were still free to hunt and fish on Crown Lands and receive their 1850 annuity. The 1859 treaties also did not amalgamate the three bands, leaving each with its own chief and council.

Legacy and Significance

The promises relating to the 1859 surrenders were never upheld. Provincial Fisheries Inspector William Gibbard went back on his promises to protect the Thessalon fishery by granting it to an American interest. The promised allotment of 40 acres never took place. It was not until the demands of a lumbering company compelled Indian Affairs to survey Shinguicouse Township in 1866. Whitefish Island, reserved in 1859, was confiscated in 1898 under the Railway Act.

The 1859 Pennefather Treaties have led to a variety of historic and contemporary land claims. Thessalon First Nation is contesting the authenticity of the entire treaty. Petitions from Thessalon from shortly after the treaty signing indicate that the community was not aware that it had agreed to surrender its entire reserve. It appears that only some of the community agreed to move to Garden River, as evidenced by the continued residence of people at Thessalon Point. Batchewana successfully negotiated a return of Whitefish Island in 1992 and are currently researching the 1859 surrender of their entire reserve. Garden River in 1994 negotiated the return of unsold and un-patented lands surrendered for sale in 1859. In 2019, Garden River launched its Pennefather claim against Ontario relating to all the lands surrendered and the nonfulfillment of oral and written treaty terms. All three communities claim that the specific terms of the 1859 Pennefather Treaties were never fulfilled and that the funds generated from the land sales were never properly managed.

The surrenders also impacted Métis communities that were established on the surrendered reserve lands. The Métis community’s lands at Goulais Bay were now subject to sale to newcomers. While the Métis could buy their lands back under the terms of the 1859 treaties, many Métis families opted to join Garden River and Batchewana First Nations. Métis claims stemming from the 1859 treaties remain outstanding.


Indigenous Peoples Collection

Indigenous Perspectives Education Guide

Further Reading

  • David T. McNab, No Place for Fairness: Indigenous Land Rights and Policy in the Bear Island Case and Beyond (2009).

  • Janet Chute, The Legacy of Shingwaukonce: A Century of Native Leadership (1998).

External Links