NAWAHJEGEZHEGWABE (Newechekeshequeby, Nawachjekezhegwabe; signifying “the sloping sky”; known in English as Joseph Sawyer), member of the Eagle totem, soldier, and Ojibwa chief; b. 1786 in the Genesee country (western New York State); d. 8 Nov. 1863 at the New Credit Reserve, Tuscarora Township, Canada West.
Nawahjegezhegwabe, the son of Wahbanosay (Wabenose, Wobenosay), “a chief of the Messissauga Tribe of the Ojibway Nation,” and Pakakis, his wife, was born in the territory of the Senecas, allies of the Ojibwas. The family apparently resided in the vicinity of the head of Lake Ontario (Hamilton, Ont.), and there Nawahjegezhegwabe learned to fish and hunt. In 1801 or 1802 the Reverend Joseph Sawyer, a Methodist preacher, baptized Nawahjegezhegwabe as “Joseph Sawyer.” At that time the Indian lived with surveyor Augustus Jones* and his family on their large farm at Stoney Creek. Shortly after his baptism, however, Nawahjegezhegwabe returned to his people and the faith of his forefathers. Once among his tribe, called Mississauga by the white settlers, he married Wetosy (Jane Sawyer), a member of the Otter clan. A loyal supporter of the crown, he fought in the War of 1812 at Detroit, Queenston Heights, and Lundy’s Lane.
Joseph Sawyer was tormented by spiritual conflict for 20 years following his conversion. As “his convictions of the truth of Christianity remained,” he suffered from “terrible depressions” which led him to drink heavily. Being a “wiry and muscular” man, Sawyer proved “a terror to the whole band” when drunk; in such a state only several Indians could control him. The band considered him at that time to be completely under the control of the Mahje-munedoo, or evil spirit. “This was the only way,” the white Methodist missionary Conrad Vandusen* wrote, that “they could account for his vile and vicious conduct.” His “second” conversion to Christianity in 1824 would resolve his spiritual dilemma.
The native missionary Kahkewaquonaby* (Peter Jones), the son of Sawyer’s sister Tuhbenahneequay and Augustus Jones, brought his uncle back to the Methodist Episcopal Church. Early in the spring of 1826 Sawyer moved with his family from the head of the lake to the Methodist Indian settlement then being formed at the Credit River, where he farmed and served as a class leader. Following the death of Chief James Ajetance (Ajetans) in 1829, the warriors in council elected Sawyer their head chief.
In conjunction with his fellow chief and nephew, Kahkewaquonaby, Sawyer sent many petitions to the lieutenant governor and the assembly at York (Toronto) seeking adequate protection for the Credit band’s fishery and a firm title to their reserve. Probably Chief Sawyer’s most eloquent appeal came when Sir Francis Bond Head* proposed that the band move from the Credit River to Manitoulin Island. After a dozen years of hard work the Mississauga hunters had become successful farmers. Consequently, Sawyer bluntly informed Head, they did not favour removal to a barren island: “Now we raise our own corn, potatoes, wheat; we have cattle, and many comforts, and conveniences. But if we go to Maneetoolin, we could not live; soon we should be extinct as a people; we could raise no potatoes, corn, pork, or beef; nothing would grow by putting the seed on the smooth rock.”
Only when the government’s intention not to give them secure title to their reserve was made clear did Sawyer and his council consider leaving the Credit River. Having made the decision to depart, they eventually accepted the invitation of the Six Nations tribe to settle in 1847 on a fertile tract on their reserve in Tuscarora Township, Brant County. Sawyer remained head chief at the New Credit until his death in 1863. On at least two occasions he was also elected president of the Ojibwa Grand Council of Upper Canada. His son Kezhegowinninne* succeeded him as head chief.
UCA, Mission register for the Credit River Mission. Canada: Indian treaties and surrenders . . . (3v., Ottawa, 1891–1912; repr. Toronto, 1971). I, 34–40. [J. S. Carroll], Past and present, or a description of persons and events connected with Canadian Methodism for the last forty years (Toronto, 1860), 57–58. Christian Guardian, 12 Jan. 1848, 16 Dec. 1863. 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), 18–21. 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). Kahgegagahbowh (George Copway), Recollections of a forest life; or, the life and travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh . . . (London, ). Minutes of the General Council of Indian chiefs and principal men . . . , comp. Henry Baldwin (Montreal, 1846). Benjamin Slight, Indian researches; or, facts concerning the North American Indians . . . (Montreal, 1844).