Author Tags: Anthropology, Religion
"Over the years he became the most famous Methodist missionary in British Columbia, if not all of Canada." -- Clarence Bolt
As one of the eldest of 14 children in a poor family, Thomas Crosby had much in common with the intrepid creator of the two Metlahkahtla compounds, William Duncan. Missionary life afforded both men a path to self-improvement and social success beyond class-conscious England. Both had early jobs in tanneries, both endorsed commercial and industrial values for their Aboriginal followers and both enforced rigid and conservative standards of conformity. A famous photo of the missionary Thomas Crosby shown wearing a Tshimsian blanket and a carving atop his head that resembles a wooden seagull is very misleading. Crosby favoured a revivalist brand of Methodism and strongly disapproved of all Aboriginal religions and customs.
Born in Pickering, Yorkshire, England on June 21, 1840, Thomas Crosby immigrated to Woodstock, Ontario with his staunch Methodist parents when he was 16. When his father's attempts at farming failing, he took a job in a local tannery to help the family survive. Having had some strong religious premonitions while crossing the Atlantic and encumbered by both sunstroke and a broken leg, Crosby had an religious epiphany at a revivalist camp meeting near Woodstock during which he gave himself up to the Lord. His zeal was inspired by Reverend William 'California' Taylor who had returned to Ontario from serving gold miners in California for seven years. As a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Crosby responded to the call of Reverend Edward White in 1861 when he wrote letters to the Christian Guardian encouraging young me in Ontario such as Crosby to go west and serve as missionary assistants. Wesley Christianity stressed the conversion experience and argued all people were equal before God. Crosby would embrace the former concept but often overlook the latter.
After a long and arduous sea voyage, Thomas Crosby arrived on Vancouver Island in 1862. "I was like a bird let out of a cage," he wrote. Despite his lack of formal education, he soon received an appointment as a teacher at a school for Aboriginals in Nanaimo that was managed by Cornelius Bryant. Equally repulsed and fascinated by Aboriginals, Crosby quickly grasped the necessity of learning Aboriginal languages to gain control of Aboriginal hearts and minds. Simultaneously he developed a strong intolerance for heathenism that "crushes out a mother's love and turns the heart to stone and changes the father into a foul indifferent fiend." In Nanaimo, Crosby met and encouraged his first Aboriginal protégé Santana, who took the English name of David Sallosalton. "Santana was a real flathead Indian,” Crosby wrote, “and had endured all the suffering belonging to such a barbarous custom." Raised in the Nanaimo tribe, Sallosalton taught the Bible among his own people as of April, 1862 and achieved mass conversions of Aboriginals to Methodism in the Fraser Valley with the persuasiveness of his preaching. His famous “Steamboat Whistle Sermon” compared the three warning blasts routinely given by Fraser Valley sternwheelers to Christ’s repeated calls to his followers to travel with him to heaven. A studio photograph of Crosby with his protégé was taken by an unknown photographer, circa 1870. “It was necessary,” Crosby wrote, “to dress Sallosalton up a little more than he had been accustomed to if he was to live with a white man, and so a new suit of clothes was procured.” Sallosalton died of tuberculosis at age 19 in 1873. Crosby wrote a 62-page biography.
After several years as an itinerant preacher, travelling through the B.C. Interior from 1872 onwards, with significant impact in the Chilliwack area, Crosby was sent to Fort Simpson in June of 1874. He remained among the Tsimshian people for 23 years, frequently travelling along the coast in his mission boat called Glad Tidings, launched in 1884, on which he averaged 9,000 miles a year of itinerant preaching. Crosby overcame some initial frictions with William Duncan at Metlakahtla to become one of his main allies. When Duncan left Canada to start another religious compound in Alaska, Duncan wrote, "What a shame to our government that one thousand good industrious people are driven out of our country." Crosby also travelled extensively throughout the province and held revival meetings at Port Simpson between 1882 and 1892. He supported Aboriginal land claims but simultaneously encouraged the Tsimshian to reject their traditional ways. Despite his ability to converse with the Tsimshian and his many years of contact, he remained convinced their traditional religious beliefs were "feeble and quite indefinite polytheism" and not "of a high order intellectually or morally." At Fort Simpson, Crosby and his wife Emma established the first Protestant school for Aboriginal girls in British Columbia in the hopes that students could learn practical skills and escape the evils of prostitution. This experiment led to the creation of other early educational institutions for girls in the 1880s, notably All Hallows in the West, an unusual institution in Yale, administered by Reverend Acton Windeyer Sillitoe, where non-paying Aboriginal girls were boarded and taught alongside the daughters of wealthy whites. In 1897, Crosby became chair of the B.C. Conference of the Methodist Church. After his stints as a missionary at Sardis and Chilliwack, where he supported the first Coqualeetza Industrial School for Indians, founded in 1887, he published the second installment of his autobiography in the year of his death. The first installment, Among the An-ko-me-nums, concerned his 12 years among the Cowichan and Nanaimo from 1862 to 1872. Thomas Crosby died on January 13, 1914.
A collection of correspondence, manuscripts, documents and photographs known as the Thomas Crosby and Emma Douse Crosby Fonds was donated to UBC Special Collections by Mrs. Helen L. Hager.
David Sallosalton (Toronto: Department of Missionary Literature of the Methodist Church, 1906?)
Among the An-Ko-Me-Nums, or Flathead Tribes of Indians of the Pacific Coast (Toronto: William Briggs, 1907)
Up and Down the North Pacific Coast by Canoe and Mission Ship (Toronto: The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, The Young Peoples' Forward Movement Department, 1914)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Anthropology" "Religion" "Missionaries"