He was man of God
By Beth Gruber
Special to the Journal
Nah-ben-ay-ash, who also went by the English name Thomas Cornelius Thomas, was a man who moved between two worlds.
Born on March 15, 1859, most likely in the Munising area, he was a full-blooded Chippewa. His parents were Quay-quay-cub and Con-sa-que, who also went by the English names Thomas and Nancy Thomas.
Nah-ben-ay-ash’s parents and the majority of the Munising Band of Chippewa had been converted by Methodist Episcopal missionaries. Life in the band centered on a small log church overlooking Munising Bay. It was the first church built in Alger County.
The converts were reportedly deeply religious and as a result of this influence, Nah-ben-ay-ash couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a preacher. From an early age he took an active role in the church. Perhaps influenced by his desire to enter the ministry, Nah-ben-ay-ash focused on completing his education where he excelled.
In 1876, as Munising grew, construction began on a two-story building that housed the township school on the first floor and the township hall on the second. Nah-ben-ay-ash taught at the school, where classes appear to have been held irregularly.
The school also served as a social center with church services and Sunday school classes being held there.
Although unordained at the time, Nah-ben-ay-ash and another Chippewa preacher, John Clark, conducted the services while a white missionary made monthly visits. Visiting clergy of other denominations were always invited to preach when in the area.
In 1881, Nah-ben-ay-ash was ordained a deacon in the Methodist Episcopal Church. That same year he and his brother-in-law, Antoine Blair, took out homesteads on land three and half miles east of Munising leading the tribe’s relocation. This venture was an attempt to preserve the community during changing times.
It appears that it was during this timeframe that Nah-ben-ay-ash and his family changed their surname to Thomas due to pressure from white people. From that change, the new settlement became known Thomasville.
In addition to teaching, Thomas worked for various lumber companies as a bush ranger. During these years, he was known for his strict conscientiousness, refusing to work on Sundays but also very thorough and precise with any work that didn’t conflict with his religious convictions. At other points in time, Thomas worked as Munising Township Clerk and he even spent time as a Bible salesman.
In 1882, a Mining Journal reporter spent a Sunday with the band and reported day-long services in which three preachers, including Thomas, conducted stirring services in Chippewa while a white preacher conducted services in English. The services were interspersed with “good old hymns.”
Thomas was ordained as an elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1884. Believing that the survival of their people depended on education, the Thomasville community constructed a small school in 1886.
As before, Thomas was the teacher. The following year, the community also built a steepled log church near Thomas’ home.
At some point in the late 1880s, Thomas attended the Methodist Episcopal affiliated Albion College for two years and he was ordained as a full minister. He then became the only resident clergyman in Alger County, traveling on foot and by train to serve many areas.
Thomas married Mary Emma Pennock, a half-Chippewa woman in 1891 and they had five children, three of whom died young. In 1908 Thomas and Emma donated a stained glass window to the Methodist Episcopal Mission Church at L’Anse in memory of their two deceased daughters, Lillian and Luella.
Despite their religious devotion, the community at Thomasville struggled to survive long term. With virgin forests to clear, little knowledge of farming, large families and the need to supplement their incomes, their venture proved nearly impossible.
In the early 1890s, many community members began moving to reservations. Rev. Thomas Nah-ben-ay-ash himself left in 1897 when he was assigned as pastor of the Odanah, Wisconsin Methodist Church, where he ministered to the Bad River Band of Chippewa.
The Thomasville church was left under the guidance of his brother, Joe. In the early 1900s community members and their descendants began returning to the area, revitalizing Thomasville, which eventually became known as Indiantown.
Rev. Thomas Nah-ben-ay-ash became well-known as a preacher and was in great demand at camp meetings throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
In addition to a vigorous preacher and lecturer in his own right, he also frequently served as an interpreter when white speakers addressed Native audiences.
In January 1912, Rev. Thomas Nah-ben-ay-ash was brought to St. Luke’s Hospital in Marquette for treatment of cancer.
He died just four days later at the age of 53. He was survived by his wife and two children, Belle and John Elihu.