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HURLBURT, THOMAS, Methodist missionary, linguist and philologist; b. 3 March 1808, in the township of Augusta, Upper Canada, the fourth son of 16 children of Heman Hurlburt and Hannah Mosier; m. 1832, Betsy Almira, eldest daughter of the Reverend Ezra Adams; d. 14 April 1873, at Little Current, Ont.

Heman Hurlburt was a prosperous farmer and gave each of his children a good education; of his 11 sons, five became Methodist ministers. It is not known where Thomas received his formal education, and he does not appear to have attended university. However, although his 45-year career as a missionary, first of the Methodist Episcopal Church, then of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, was spent primarily in remote areas, he showed a thorough knowledge of many of the works of major scientists, philologists, and theologians, and produced some scholarly studies in geology and philology.

Hurlburt began teaching Indians at Muncey, Middlesex County, under Methodist auspices in 1828, and the next year was put in charge of a mission. In 1834 he was sent to the Indian village of Saugeen on Lake Huron, and in 1835 he was ordained. Moving to the St Clair mission in 1837, he came under the superintendency of James Evans* whom he assisted in the development of his recently invented orthography of the Ojibwa language. He continued to work closely with Evans in 1838 when they were sent to the outposts of the Lake Superior mission (later called Pic River) by the Methodist Missionary Society. Hurlburt remained at Pic River until 1843; in 1844, for the sake of his wife’s health, he was given leave to work under the Indian Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States in Missouri and neighbouring regions in the Mississippi valley. He returned to Canada in 1851 and served in the Indian villages at Alderville and Rice Lake until 1854 when he was appointed chairman of the Hudson’s Bay District. He travelled to his new post at Norway House accompanied by John Ryerson, who was on a tour of inspection of the Methodist missions in the northwest.

Hurlburt remained at Norway House until 1857 when he was sent to Garden River and, in 1858, to the St Clair mission. He laboured mainly at this post and on Manitoulin Island until his death on 14 April 1873, which resulted from injuries caused when he fell on the ice while building a boat for a missionary journey. Except for five years spent in pastorates among whites, he had served in almost all the Methodist Indian missions in Canada, and, for seven years, in missions in the United States.

Hurlburt’s aim was to Christianize and civilize the Indians. Only their Christianization, he argued, could bring about their civilization, and the primary needs were “the Scriptures in the vernacular, and . . . a native agency, with day schools and preaching all in the language of the people.” Hurlburt encouraged the training of Indian teachers and ministers; he made translations of scripture, catechisms, and hymns into Cree and Ojibwa and printed them. While stationed at the St Clair mission, he began to publish, in 1861, Petaubun, Peep of Day (Sarnia), a monthly newspaper in Ojibwa and English. His mastery of several Indian dialects, won by an expert knowledge of the functions of the organs of speech and of Indian phonetics, was an outstanding achievement. He was the only Methodist missionary of his time who could preach to Indians without an interpreter.

In the 1850s, the government began to expropriate lands in the Bruce Peninsula claimed by the Indians, with a view to settlement by whites. Hurlburt did not oppose expropriation but did object to the unjust and unnegotiable compensation given the Indians and their relegation to a state of “perpetual minority.” He decried the government’s assumptions that the Indians were lazy and that they would soon be extinct and urged that the only good policy was to make the Indians “citizens in every respect.”

Hurlburt’s views went unheeded and, despite his work and that of his contemporaries, the churches and governments failed to conceive a viable way of life for the Indian in Canada.

Arthur G. Reynolds

Thomas Hurlburt was the author of Evidences of the glories of the one divine intelligence as seen in his works (Toronto, 1867); “A memoir on the inflections of the Chippewa tongue,” in Information respecting the history, condition, and prospects of the Indian tribes of the United States . . . , ed. H. R. Schoolcraft (6v., Philadelphia, 1851–57), IV, 385–96; and “Review of Sir Charles Lyell on The antiquity of man,” Methodist Review (New York), XLVII (1965), 559–82. His writings and translations in Cree and Ojibwa, as well as other writings attributed to him, have not been located.

UCA, John Maclean collection, material gathered for a biography of Thomas Hurlburt. Christian Guardian (Toronto), 1838–73. Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries, III, IV, V. John Maclean, Vanguards of Canada (Toronto, 1918), 66–83. Erastus Hurlburt, “Thomas Hurlburt, Indian missionary,” Methodist Magazine (Toronto, Halifax), XXXIV (1891), 52–59.

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Cite This Article

Arthur G. Reynolds, “HURLBURT, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hurlburt_thomas_10E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hurlburt_thomas_10E.html
Author of Article:   Arthur G. Reynolds
Title of Article:   HURLBURT, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   May 28, 2023