CHESLEY, SOLOMON YEOMANS, public servant and politician; b. 29 April 1796 at Shodack (now Castleton-on-Hudson), Rensselaer County, N.Y., son of All Saints Chasley (Chassley, Chesley) and his wife Lené Yeomans; m. 18 Aug. 1825 Margaret Ann Vankoughnet, by whom he had a large family; d. 5 Nov. 1880, in Ottawa, Ont.
Solomon Yeomans Chesley’s parents left Shodack “for the wilds of Canada” in 1800, settling in Cornwall, Upper Canada. In February 1806 he went to live on the Iroquois lands at St Regis, where the border divides Canada and the United States. By November 1813 he was so fluent in Mohawk that he was appointed interpreter in the Indian Department, and on 25 July 1814 he was commissioned lieutenant in the St Regis Company of Indian Warriors. His services in the War of 1812–14 at Fort Covington, Châteauguay, Four Corners, and Plattsburgh earned him a grant of land and an appointment on 1 Aug. 1815 as agent at St Regis. Aided by 12 chiefs and warriors nominated by the band, Chesley managed about 50,000 acres in Upper and Lower Canada and nine islands in the St Lawrence; the Iroquois leased much of this land to tenants. In 1832 Chesley, who could speak Iroquois, French, and English, succeeded J.-B. de Lorimier as resident or superintendent at St Regis, while remaining as agent. Chesley’s residency began at about the same time as the appointment of the Reverend François-Xavier Marcoux, a French-speaking Roman Catholic, as government missionary to the band.
Chesley along with Major William Plenderleath [Christie*], also of the Indian Department, and the Reverend George Archbold, Anglican rector at Cornwall, induced Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer*] to allow an annual stipend for a schoolmaster at St Regis, and the Reverend Éléazar Williams*, an Iroquois educated at an Episcopal seminary in Connecticut, was hired. His school, in which he taught from English books, opened in July 1835 and attracted 40 students before Father Marcoux learned of the school in September. Roman Catholic Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue* wanted the Indian parents to withdraw their children from the school, and Lord Gosford [Acheson*] removed government support but declined to eject Williams from St Regis. The school closed, and when, in 1847, another school was planned the bishop was asked to name the schoolmaster.
The controversy caused embarrassment to the government which had not wanted to question the position of the Roman Catholic Church at St Regis. Perhaps as a result of Chesley’s activities in the matter, his post was slated for abolition in 1837. However, his experience at the exposed Iroquois lands made him useful during the disturbances in Lower Canada later the same year, and he was retained. He kept his life-long interest in the education of the Indians, supporting the manual labour schools pioneered by Plenderleath in Lower Canada.
Chesley had run in the Cornwall riding for the House of Assembly in the election of 1836, as a Tory, but was defeated by George Stephen Jarvis. He took the seat in 1841, but lost it to Rolland Macdonald in 1844. In the assembly, Chésley opposed Hamilton Hartley Killaly’s selection of the south side of the St Lawrence as the site of the Beauharnois Canal, claiming that the soundings on charts drawn by Frederick Preston Rubidge* were misleading; the canal was built, flooding some of the St Regis lands.
The Indian Department was reorganized soon after his electoral defeat in 1844, and Chesley left the residency on 8 July 1845 to become second clerk at Montreal under the new chief clerk, George Vardon. As a result of a further reorganization in the department, Chesley was appointed accountant in 1851. He was now the most senior departmental official with continuous service since 1813. It was Chesley rather than the chief clerk who acted as superintendent-general briefly in 1852, until a former superintendent-general, Major Thomas Edmund Campbell, was appointed pro tem., and in 1854 until Laurence Oliphant was appointed. Thereafter, Chesley was in fact, if not title, assistant superintendent-general and, on occasion, for example in 1856, acting superintendent-general.
Learning that the Indian Department was to be taken over by the colonial government, Chesley on 18 Jan. 1859 asked for a pension. On 1 December he retired and moved to Cornwall after having lived in the capital of Canada since 1845. He was elected mayor of Cornwall in December 1860. He later moved to Ottawa and in 1872 he was elected a member of the New England Company, an Anglican society which fostered Indian education.
PAC, RG 7, G1, 87, p.78; RG 8, I, D2, 1171, p.334. PAO, Diary collection, S. Y. Chesley diaries, 1851–54; ms 155, St Regis mission papers (microfilm copy). PRO, CO 42/503, 71; 42/515, 51, 94; 42/516, 36, 607; 42/599, 371; 42/617, 42. British Colonist (Toronto), 21 Jan. 1845. Canada, Province of, Legislative Assembly, Appendix to journals, 1846, app.V, “Report. The select committee to which was referred the petition of Wishe Tegaréhontie and others . . .”; Sessional papers, XVIII (1860), pt.3, no.40, “Return to an address . . . for statements of appointments to public office since July, 1860.” Chronicle & Gazette and Kingston Commercial Advertiser, 28 Oct. 1843. Ottawa Citizen, 6, 8 Nov. 1880. Peterborough Examiner, 17 Jan. 1861.