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Memorable Manitobans: Sophia Thomas Mason (1822-1861)

Cree translator.

Sophia Thomas, along with a number of her siblings and her mother, was baptized 10 November 1822 at Red River, the youngest daughter of Chief Factor Thomas Thomas, Governor of the Northern Department and his Cree wife Sarah. [1] Her father, who died in 1828, left her a substantial annuity, and thereafter, the Reverend David T. Jones, and then the Reverend William Cockran cared for her. She received an education at the Red River Academy under John McAllum. She was offered the position of governess of the lady’s section of the school in 1843, but then married the Wesleyan missionary William Mason, who had arrived from Lac la Pluie to become a missionary at Norway House (Rossville Mission). Mason later joined the Church of England. In a letter to Mrs. Dugald Mactavish dated in September1843, Letitia Hargrave wrote about the Thomas/Mason marriage, noting that the Masons would be stationed at Norway House and stating that “Mrs. Mason is 28 years old & only left school when her brother married. I hear she is very quiet & inoffensive.” [2]

Mason and her husband were stationed at the Rossville Mission at Norway House, Manitoba for eleven years. [3] She brought not only piety but also knowledge of the Cree language and culture of the area to her work, and despite poor health, worked tirelessly in missionary endeavours. William Mason wrote of his wife:

Most people deem the cares of a family quite enough to employ the time of a female; but the labours of Sophia, notwithstanding her feeble and delicate constitution, were augmented by the Indian day school, visits to the Indian tents, and daily translations, besides having to attend to the wants of a large family, which she laboured to bring up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and that in the wilderness, where, in time of sickness, no medical assistance could be procured. [4]

From 1840 to 1845 the mission at Rossville was superintended by James Evans who pioneered the use of Cree syllabics. Shortly after Evans left in 1845, a printing press arrived at the mission and Mason continued Evans’ work in propagating religious texts in Cree syllabics. [5] In 1854 Mason left the Methodist Church and joined the Church of England, at which time the family moved to York Factory. [6] In 1858 the Masons moved to England where they oversaw printing of the New and Old Testament in Cree syllabics. These printed Cree syllabic texts were credited only to William Mason, which set off complaints from Native co-workers John Sinclair and the Reverend Henry Bird Steinhauer that they had contributed substantially to the work. William Mason’s own remarks suggest that his wife’s role in the translations was considerable. Sophia Thomas Mason, whose health had always been delicate, began to suffer pleurisy soon after arriving in England, and her work on translations was often stopped when she was overwhelmed by pain. In July 1861 she gave birth to her ninth child, and in the fall of that year the last of the Old Testament books was printed in Cree syllabics. On 10 October 1861 she died of tuberculosis. [7]

Sophia’s husband’s journal entry on her death stated “She has been spared to accomplish a great work, the Cree Bible; and to bear such a testimony for Jesus amongst the heathen, by the patience with which she suffered, and her zeal and persevering labours to make known the glorious Gospel of salvation…” [8]

Joseph Lofthouse, the resident missionary at Churchill from 1886 to 1898 later wrote “The translation of the Bible into Cree was to a very large extent the work of Mrs. Mason, who was a native of Red River, had grown up amongst the Indians, and understood their language perfectly. It is the most idiomatic and by far the best translation that has ever been made in Cree. ... Mrs. Mason on her dying bed finished the last chapter of this marvelous book, which has been such a blessing to the Indians of the whole north country.” [9]

Sources:

1. HBCA E.4/1a. Register of Baptisms, 1820-1841, fo. 41-41d shows Sarah, daughter of Thomas Thomas and his wife Sarah baptized, along with a number of siblings, 10 November 1822.

2. Letitia Hargrave to Mrs Dugald Mactavish, dated York Factory 14th [to 17th ] Sepr 1843, 176-177, and fn 176. Margaret Arnett McLeod notes: 176n “The Reverend William Mason married Sophia, daughter of Governor Thomas Thomas, and she died in 1858. For an account of her work see Burwash, “The gift to a nation of a written language” (Royal Society of Canada, Transactions, 1911, section ii, p. 15-18 passim). Margaret Arnett McLeod, The Letters of Letitia Hargrave. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1947. Available at: http://link.library.utoronto.ca/champlain/DigObj.cfm?Idno=9_96835&Lang=eng&Page=0340&Size=3&query=wesleyans&searchtype=Fulltext&startrow=1&Limit=Item

3. Bruce Peel, “Thomas, Sophia (Mason)” Dictionary of Canadian Biography online (hereafter DCB) IX (1976) and “Thomas, Thomas” VI (1987).

4. Quoted in: DCB: Peel, “Thomas, Sophia (Mason)”. Mason also wrote an article about his wife, see: [William Mason], “A short sketch of the life and missionary labours and happy death of Sophia Mason,” Church Missionary Gleaner (London), new ser., XI (1861), pages 135-140.

5. DCB: Thomas, Sophia (Mason)

6. I. S. MacLaren, “Guide to People and Places in Kane's Journal”, American Art Journal, 1989, page 79.

7. Bruce Peel, Dictionary of Canadian Biography, “Thomas, Sophia (Mason),” http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=4741&interval=20&&PHPSESSID=e3agrrkj4nbuia12gvt4ifha32

8. Quoted in Sylvia Van Kirk, Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), page 152.

9. Joseph Lofthouse, A Thousand Miles From a Post Office, or, Twenty Years' Life and Travel in the Hudson's Bay Regions (Toronto: Macmillan Co. of Canada, 1922), page 33.

This profile was prepared by Anne Lindsay and Jennifer Brown.

Page revised: 7 September 2009

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