McKEE, THOMAS, army and militia officer, Indian Department official, and politician; b. possibly c. 1770, probably in a Shawnee village on the Scioto River (Ohio), son of Alexander McKee* and a woman said to be a Shawnee; d. 20 Oct 1814 at the Cascades (near Île des Cascades), Lower Canada.
A son of one of the most influential Indian Department officials in the Great Lakes region, Thomas McKee enjoyed the benefits of his father’s position, prestige, and connections. In 1785 he received a share in a tract of land at the mouth of the Detroit River given to members of the department by the Indians. In 1788 the Ojibwas and Ottawas granted him the lease of Point Pelee Island (Pelee Island, Ont. ) for 999 years. With his father’s support, on 29 March 1791 he became an ensign in the 60th Foot, part of which was stationed at Detroit; he was promoted lieutenant on 5 Feb. 1795 and captain on 20 Feb. 1796.
McKee was active in Indian affairs from an early date. Dressed as an Indian, he was with a handful of whites who participated in the unsuccessful Indian attack on Major-General Anthony Wayne’s forces at Fort Recovery (Ohio) in June 1794 [see Weyapiersenwah], and he was said to have subsequently encouraged the Wyandots to take up arms. In 1795 he attended the purchase of Indian lands at the Chenal Ecarté (on the eastern boundary of the Walpole Island Indian Reserve), and in August 1796 he took part in a council with the Ojibwas and Ottawas of the Detroit region. On the recommendation of his father, who was the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada at the time, McKee was made superintendent of Indian affairs for the Northwestern District in 1796. His area of jurisdiction centred on St Joseph Island, Upper Canada, which in that year replaced Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) as the British headquarters in the Upper Lakes region. In 1797 Matthew Elliott was obliged to forfeit the superintendency of Indian affairs in the Amherstburg region, and Alexander McKee ordered Thomas to take on the office, which he added to his responsibility for the Northwestern District.
In January 1799, following the death of Alexander McKee, the office of deputy superintendent general was temporarily entrusted to James Baby*, Alexander Grant, and Thomas McKee. There were objections to McKee’s appointment, presumably relating to his drinking, but his command of Indian languages outweighed them. In any event, the warrant to all three men was withdrawn in March so that the way would be clear for William Claus* to succeed to the post. By May McKee again had the responsibility for Amherstburg. He gathered intelligence about events south of the Great Lakes, negotiated the surrender of Indian lands to the crown, and attended councils. He also became embroiled in the Indian Department’s ongoing feud with the officious commandant at Fort Malden (Amherstburg), Hector McLean, who wanted to reduce the quantity of supplies given to the Indians and whose complaints had led to the dismissal of Elliott. McKee protested that McLean’s actions would “Operate to the diminution if not the total extinction of our influence, and may infinitely prejudice His Majesty’s Indian Interest in these parts,” and the commandant was reprimanded by Administrator Peter Russell and Governor Robert Prescott.
McKee had been elected to the House of Assembly for Kent in 1797; he was re-elected in 1800 for that riding and sat for Essex as well. His increasing alcoholism and the requirements of his work with the Indian Department, however, limited his time for assembly matters. McKee, who may have been as much as three-quarters Shawnee himself, seems to have considered that his role was primarily to serve the Indians. Certainly he was willing to support them on particular occasions. When in 1804 an individual’s rights were, in his opinion, infringed, he wrote to Prideaux Selby, the department’s assistant secretary: “The Government should consult the Indians. I am determined to make the Indians support their claims and rights and to repel force by force.” At this time McKee was still greatly respected by the native people, but by 1807 the Wyandots were complaining that he was “too young and inexperienced, he loved to frolick too much and neglected our Affairs.” William Claus thought McKee incompetent and, with the threat of war in the air following the Chesapeake affair, arrangements were made to replace him at Amherstburg with Matthew Elliott. In 1808 he lost the post, although he kept his superintendency of the Northwestern District.
Meanwhile, in 1805 or 1806, McKee had given up his commission in the 60th Foot, which was no longer serving in the Canadas. He joined the militia and in 1807 held the rank of major. During the War of 1812 he retained this rank, being attached to the 2nd Essex Department. He was congratulated by the Prince Regent for the restrained behaviour of the Indians during the capture of Detroit from the Americans in August 1812 [see Tecumseh] and was mentioned in dispatches for his service in other actions early in the war, although his qualities as a field commander were questioned. In March 1814 he was accused of “grave misconduct” among the Indians on the beach at Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour). He had allowed his followers alcohol so that they became “outrageous”; he himself got “shamefully drunk” and verbally abused them. Steps were taken to remove him from the theatre of war. In the autumn, while on his way to Montreal, he died.
By his knowledge of their languages and customs, Thomas McKee had helped maintain the friendship of the Indians who were so essential in securing the boundaries of modern Canada. Possessed of money and connections, he might have had a brilliant career. Instead he became, according to trader Alexander Henry*, “Continualy deranged with Liquor.” McKee was the father of three children by an unknown mother, and on 17 April 1797 at Petite Côte (Windsor) he married Thérèse, daughter of John Askin; they had one son. “Poor Mrs McKee suffered much while she was here with her unfortunate Husband,” wrote Henry from Montreal. On his death she was left in absolute want and was granted a pension of £40 per annum.
[The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of David Brown and Gregory Finnegan as well as that of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. j.c.]
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