William Sahgucheway was one of the most prominent students at Shingwauk in the 1870’s and 1880’s, and his death was also the death which affected Principal Rev. Edward F. Wilson the most during the early years of the Institution. William attended the Residential School for 6 or 7 years during which time he accompanied Rev. Wilson to England and on a missionary trip up Lake Superior, was training to teach and eventually enter the ministry, and was captain at the School.
Added in to the School Register on June 17, 1875 at age 13, William came from Walpole Island in southern Ontario not far from Detroit. Called Wahsashkung “Giving Light”, he was raised by his uncle James Thomas and his wife, after his parents William White and Wahwahsemooqua died when he was young. While at the Institution, William converted to Christianity and, according to Rev. Wilson, became very earnest in his religion. Although originally apprenticing as a printer, by 1878 William expressed a desire to be a teacher, and so switched to studying that instead. Students studying to be teachers or ministers devoted all their time to this and so consequently were exempt from household duties such as cooking, cleaning, or farming chores.
During this time, parents or guardians of students were expected to sign agreements for students to stay at the Institution for a certain number of years (usually five or six depending on how old they were when they entered the school). However, William’s uncle seemed reluctant to sign the agreement, and Letter Book 2013-012/001 includes a letter William wrote to his uncle asking permission to stay at the school so he could continue his education and eventually become a teacher. William began studying in Rev. Wilson’s office in the mornings with the other boys learning to be teachers or missionaries, and so spent a lot of time with Rev. Wilson. The two became very close over the years, and Rev. Wilson trusted no other boy at the school more than William. Consequently, William was given high level responsibilities such as the captainship of the school (i.e. Head Boy), which included the authority to bring back runaway boys, which William did when Jeffrey and Talfourd Brisette and Sampson Ojibway ran away in July of 1881. William was one of the only boys allowed to attend Rev. Wilson during his illness in the Spring of 1880 – Letter Book 2014-017/001(002) includes letters written in William’s hand paraphrasing Rev. Wilson’s words. Letter Book 2013-012/001 includes a recommendation letter that Rev. Wilson wrote for William in order for him to get summer work which reads “William Sahgucheway of Walpole Island is a strong, active, willing, honest, good tempered boy who will work well for anyone who will employ him.”
In the fall of 1880, William’s younger brother Elijah, with whom he was very close, became extremely ill and was unable to return to Shingwauk when it reopened after Rev. Wilson’s illness which closed the school for the summer of 1880. William remained home with him, writing letters to Rev. Wilson informing him of his brother’s condition. Elijah remained sick throughout the winter and spring of 1881 before passing away from an unknown illness on May 29, 1881. William was very upset by the passing of his brother, and talked of him often at the school.
When William himself became sick a year later with severe enteritis, Rev. Wilson wrote that William was very upset about Elijah and quoted him saying “I did so love Elijah…I want to go to him”. When William passed away on May 16, 1882, Rev. Wilson was extremely distraught, and wrote letters telling people he was “bowed down with grief” and that William “was my adopted child and I loved him as my own son”. He even stated multiple times that this death affected his as no other had since the death of his mother 20 years before. Rev. Wilson was still depressed months after William’s death, writing “I hardly feel I can keep up my work without him”. These strong feelings towards William led Rev. Wilson to write a memoir about him which was eventually published as a chapter in his book Missionary Work Among the Ojebway Indians, which can be read here. This chapter describes more information about William, including information about his illness and final hours. Part of this chapter was originally published over several issues of Algoma Missionary News starting with the obituary in June of 1882 which can be read here. A draft of this obituary is written in Letter Book 2013-012/002.
William’s family, Mr and Mrs Thomas, were informed of his death on the same day he died, and he was buried in the Shingwauk cemetery on May 18, 1882. Rev. Wilson told the Thomas’ that they could come and retrieve the body if they wanted to, since William wanted to be buried beside his brother on Walpole Island. Due to the long time it took to mail letters back and forth from Shingwauk to Walpole Island, there was some confusion about the wishes of the family regarding William’s burial. The Thomas’ originally seemed very insistent that the body be sent to Walpole for burial, but they seem to have only desired this if the body was not already buried. They did not realize that William had been buried quickly, and were angry with Rev. Wilson for holding the body from them. Rev. Wilson tried to explain that exhuming the body would be unpleasant, and that a lead coffin would be needed to ship the body otherwise the boats would not take it. While it seemed as though Rev. Wilson was giving them a choice, a lead coffin would have been extremely expensive, and shipping that coffin from Sault Ste Marie to Walpole Island would also have been very expensive, so in reality it was not an option for the family to retrieve the body. Rev. Wilson also had personal motivations for ignoring William’s own wish to be buried beside his brother, as he felt close to William and wanted to be able to visit his grave. William’s family eventually consented to leaving the body in the Shingwauk cemetery, and Rev. Wilson began raising money for a gravestone, giving $25 of the required $75-100 himself. The rest of the money was collected from students, staff, and Church Sunday Schools supporting the Institution, and the gravestone was erected sometime in the fall of 1882. It is still visible in the graveyard today, one of the few remaining markers from the early years of the Shingwauk Residential School.