The History of Chief Yellowhead's House
According to a report filed with the Indian Department by Superintendent Captain Thomas Gummersall Anderson, by the 1820’s the aboriginal people in Simcoe County were demoralized, indebted to the fur traders, and bordering on starvation. Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colbourne responded in 1830 by setting aside several thousand acres as a reserve stretching from the Narrows at Lake Couchiching to Coldwater. About five hundred members of three bands of Chippewa or Ojibwa under chiefs Yellowhead, Aisance, and Snake, besides a band of Pottawatamie from Drummond Island or Michigan, were placed under Anderson’s direction. An ancient portage was widened and several log houses were built at each end and along the route between the Narrows and Coldwater. The government also erected a council chamber or mission house, two school houses, a store, grist mill, and two saw mills, as well as frame houses for Aisance, Yellowhead, and Superintendent Anderson. About five hundred acres were cleared, teachers hired, missionaries arrived, a model farm established, and the process of settling began.
The band of Chief William Yellowhead or Musquakie settled at the Narrows. He was born about 1769, the son of William Yellowhead, the principal chief of the Deer Tribe who encouraged his people to support the Crown. About March 1832, Jacob Gill was contracted by the Indian Department to build a dwelling for Yellowhead (the son), but construction did not continue as planned. In June, local settler Gerald Alley informed the Department that: “Gill’s board kiln burned with all the boards for Yellowhead’s house.” A report by deputy-surveyor William Hawkins in March 1833 notes that: “There is a large frame House building for the Indian Chief, Yellowhead.” Gill had quickly overcome the setback.
With the influx of European settlers, the Ojibwa grew dissatisfied with their location and in 1836 surrendered their reserve to the government. Two years later, the band removed from the Narrows to Rama township where they had brought about sixteen hundred acres using government annuities. A second house was built for Yellowhead at Rama and in September 1839, Mrs. St. john asked permission to occupy his vacant dwelling at the Narrows. This may be the Mrs. St. John, wife (or recent widow) of St. Andrew St. John of Mona Cottage. It is not known if she was successful in her request.
An appeal in April 1845 by the Reverend John McIntyre of Orillia to the London office of The Society for Converting and Civilising the Indians and Propagating the Gospel Among the Destitute Settlers in Upper Canada (SPG), for which McIntyre served, provides insight into the disposition of Yellowhead’s house. McIntyre explained that as the settlement had only opened in 1832, and “had many difficulties to contend with, and much privation to endure, they were unable to raise anything like a requisite amount…in order to build a place for the worship of God.” By 1840, the Society had leased a “place of Worship, which had been built for them (the Ojibwa) by the Government” and Yellowhead’s house for use as the rectory.
When the reserve lands were released for sale, the government surveyed the area into lots. Plan 8 was registered in 1846 and shows Yellowhead’s house straddling the boundary between Lots 7 and 8, south side, Neywash. In 1857, the funds were raised by a later successor to McIntyre, the Reverend Thomas B. Read, to acquire Lots 6 to 8.
Yellowhead’s house was the Anglican rectory until about 1837 when plans for a new building were approved by the Vestry. The new rectory at 57 Neywash Street was completed by 1875. The 1881 Historical Atlas of Simcoe Country states that about the time the rectory was finished, the Chief’s house was moved by Jupp (possibly James R. Jupp) for use as a dwelling on the “Atherly Road, near the Railway Junction.” According to historian Andrew Hunter, the Chief’s house was in use in 1909 as a dwelling, although in a changed condition.
The appearance of Yellowhead’s frame house before it was altered for use as a rectory is unknown. An early photograph reveals a one and a half storey, Georgian style dwelling, with a three-bay front façade, and a centre door case flanked by two exceptionally large, almost storefront proportion, window openings. A roof dormer, returned eaves, balanced chimneys, multi-paned, double hung sashes, and roughcast plaster cladding are evident. A verandah with a bell cast roof supported by delicate posts with scalloped brackets was probably a later refinement. Even if only a portion of these elements were original, the scale and design of the house reflect a respect for the status of Yellowhead as Chief. He died in 1864 and was buried in the St. James’ churchyard. When the present church was under construction in 1890, his was one of the bodies moved to make way for the excavations. The exact place of Yellowhead’s burial place now is not known. His relocated house is believed to have been demolished. In 1959, a plaque commemorating Chief Yellowhead was placed at St. James’ by the Orillia Historical Society.