NELLES, ABRAM (Abraham), Church of England clergyman, missionary, and translator; b. 25 Dec. 1805 at Forty-Mile Creek (Grimsby), Upper Canada, third son of Robert Nelles* and Elizabeth Moore; m. first 3 May 1831 Hannah Macklem (d. 6 July 1863) of Chippawa (now part of Niagara Falls, Ont.), and they had two sons; m. secondly in 1866 Sarah Macklem, a cousin of his first wife, and they had a son and a daughter; d. 20 Dec. 1884 in Brantford, Ont.
Abram Nelles was descended from a Mohawk River valley family of German origin. The loyalist migrations of the late 18th century brought this family of prosperous farmers from New York into the Niagara peninsula where they were the pioneers of the village of Forty-Mile Creek, Grimsby Township, Upper Canada. The Nelles family appears to have been an early benefactor of the Church of England and Abram pursued studies towards a career in the ministry at York (Toronto) under the direction of John Strachan* and Alexander Neil Bethune*. Nelles’ father and grandfather had both been involved in the conduct of Indian diplomacy and it may have been this influence that led him at the age of 21 to offer his services as a student missionary to the Six Nations at Grand River.
Few clergymen in the western part of the diocese of Quebec were attracted to the isolation, the linguistic and cultural differences, and the uncertain living conditions of the Indian missions. Financial constraints made it impossible for the church in Upper Canada to underwrite costs, and agencies such as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the interdenominational New England Company financed the missions. Bishop Charles James Stewart* of Quebec was pleased by Nelles’ sense of commitment and entertained great hopes for his future. He petitioned the SPG to provide funds for an extra studentship at the Grand River Reserve so that Nelles might attach himself to the mission that the Reverend Robert Lugger* maintained there. The society obliged by providing an extra £50 per year, enabling Nelles to study Iroquoian dialects during a two-year apprenticeship from 1827 to 1829.
Ordained deacon at York by Bishop Stewart on 14 June 1829 and priested the following year, Nelles soon transferred his services from the SPG, which was experiencing financial difficulty, to the New England Company, which supported Lugger. Nelles was stationed at Tuscarora for the next several years and on 30 Sept. 1837 became the senior missionary to the Grand River community, Lugger having died the previous March. He was succeeded at Tuscarora by Adam Elliot*.
Nelles’ new post carried with it the rectorship of the Mohawk Church and the principalship of the Mohawk Institute, a day-school operated by the New England Company for Indian students. Under his administration for 35 years, the institute, teaching both academic and practical subjects, became a model for Indian schools which had assimilation of the Indians as their object. As early as 1844 Nelles transformed the institute into a boarding-school for 50 children. Many students’ families were scattered about the reserve and “living in” was necessary for the school’s success. His students included several who became prominent Indian leaders, for example, George Henry Martin Johnson.
The missionary’s concern for the welfare of his parishioners earned him the respect of both Indians and whites in the surrounding community. He was given a Mohawk name, Shadekareenhes, meaning “two trees of equal height.” Nelles used his knowledge of the Mohawk language to publish in 1839 a hymnal entitled A collection of psalms and hymns, in the Mohawk language, for the use of the Six Nations Indians, translated by catechist Henry Aaron Hill*, and in 1842 an edition in Mohawk of the Book of Common Prayer; both were published in Hamilton, Upper Canada. Active in the affairs of the Anglican diocese of Huron after its formation in 1857, he received several ecclesiastical distinctions including, in 1868, those of canon of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and rural dean of Brant. In 1872 he retired from the Mohawk Institute although he retained the rectorship of the Mohawk Church. Six years later he was appointed archdeacon of Brant by Bishop Isaac Hellmuth* and held that position together with the rectorship until his death in 1884. He was buried in the churchyard of the Mohawk Church.
The Archives of the Diocese of Huron of the Anglican Church of Canada, located at Huron College, London, Ont., provides important information on the career of Abram Nelles in its holdings of the records of the Church Society of the diocese, the parish of Six Nations and the Indian mission papers, and the Cronyn letterbook covering the period 1858–67.
AO, Strachan (John) papers. Eva Brook Donly Museum (Simcoe, Ont.), Norfolk Hist. Soc. coll., Walsh papers, T. W. Walsh papers, 4624–27 (mfm. at PAC). PAC, MG 24, I131; RG 10, A2, 12. The valley of the Six Nations: a collection of documents on the Indian lands of the Grand River, ed. C. M. Johnston (Toronto, 1964). Daily Expositor (Brantford, Ont.), 20, 23 Dec. 1884. Globe, 24 Dec. 1884. Chadwick, Ontarian families, II: 157. J. L. Duncan, “Church of England missions among the Indians in the diocese of Huron to 1850”