Francis Pegahmagabow (March 9, 1891 – August 5, 1952) was the First Nations soldier most highly decorated for bravery in Canadian military history and the most effective sniper of World War I. Three times awarded the Military Medal and seriously wounded, he was an expert marksman and scout, credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more. Later in life, he served as chief and a councilor for the Wasauksing First Nation, and as an activist and leader in several First Nations organizations. He corresponded with and met other noted aboriginal figures including Fred Loft, Jules Sioui, Andrew Paull and John Tootoosis.
Francis Pegahmagabow was born on what is now the Shawanaga First Nation reserve. His father was Michael Pegahmagabow of the Parry Island First Nation and his mother Mary Contin of the Henvey Inlet First Nation, located further up the Georgian Bay’s north shore. An Ojibwa he grew up at the Parry Island (Wasauksing) Band, near Parry Sound, Ontario. He was orphaned at an early age and was raised by the Shawanaga First Nation community. Prior to the war, Pegahmagabow worked as a marine fireman for the Department of Marine and Fisheries on the Great Lakes.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Pegahmagabow volunteered for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in August 1914 and was posted to the 23rd Canadian Regiment (Northern Pioneers). After joining the Canadian force he was based at CFB Valcartier. While there he decorated his army tent with traditional symbols including a deer, the symbol of his clan. In February, 1915, he was deployed overseas with the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion of the 1st Canadian Division—the first contingent of Canadian troops sent to fight in Europe.
Shortly after his arrival on the continent, Pegahmagabow saw action during the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans used chlorine gas for the first time on the Western Front, and it was during this battle that he began to establish a reputation as a sniper and scout. Later, his battalion took part in the Battle of the Somme and it was during this battle that Pegahmagabow was wounded in the left leg. He recovered in time, however, to return to the 1st Battalion as they moved to Belgium. Over the course of these two battles which spanned almost a year, Pegahmagabow carried messages along the lines, and it was for these efforts that he received the Military Medal. Initially, his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Albert Creighton, had nominated him from the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citing the disregard he showed for danger and his “faithfulness to duty”, however, it was later downgraded.
On November 6/7, 1917, Pegahmagabow earned a bar to his Military Medal for his actions in the Second Battle of Passchendaele. During the fighting there Pegahmagabow’s battalion was given the task of launching an attack at Passchendaele. By this time, he had been promoted to the rank of corporal and during the battle he was recorded playing an important role as a link between the units on the 1st Battalion’s flank. When the battalion’s reinforcements became lost, Pegahmagabow was instrumental in guiding them to where they needed to go and ensuring that they reached their allocated spot in the line.
Later in the war, on August 30, 1918, during the Battle of the Scarpe, Pegahmagabow was involved in fighting off a German attack at Orix Trench, near Upton Wood. His company was almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded. In an effort to prevent a disaster he took it upon himself to bring up the necessary supplies. Braving heavy machine gun and rifle fire he went out into no-man’s land and brought back enough ammunition to enable his post to carry on and assist in repulsing heavy enemy counter-attacks. For these efforts he received a second bar to his Military Medal, becoming one of only 38 Canadians to receive this honour.
In November 1918, the war came to an end and in 1919 Pegahmagabow was invalided back to Canada. He had served in the military for almost the whole war, and had built up a reputation as a skilled marksman. Using the much-maligned Ross rifle, he was credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more.
- He was first awarded the Military Medal while fighting at the second battle of Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy, for courage under fire in getting important messages through to the rear.
- Earned his first bar to the Military Medal at the bloody Battle of Passchendaele.
- His second bar to the Military Medal came at the battle of The Scarpe, in 1918. Only 37 other Canadian men received the honour of two bars.
In 2003 the Pegahmagabow family donated his medals, and chief head dress to the Canadian War Museum where they can be seen as of 2010 as part of the World War I display.
While writing his 2005 novel Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden undertook a considerable amount of research on Pegahmagabow. When interviewed by Herb Wylie, Boyden was asked about why he thought that Pegahmagabow had not received a higher award like the Distinguished Conduct Medal or the Victoria Cross. In response, Boyden speculated that it might have been due to Pegahmagabow being a First Nation soldier. He also stated that there may have been some jealousy on the part of some officers who he felt might have been suspicious of the number of Germans Pegahmagabow claimed to have shot because he did not use an observer while sniping.
Upon his return to Canada he continued to serve in the Algonquin Regiment militia as a non-permanent active member. Following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, he was elected chief of the Parry Island Band from February 1921. Once in office he caused a schism in the band after he wrote a letter calling for certain individuals and those of mixed race to be expelled from the reserve. He was re-elected in 1924 and served until he was deposed via an internal power struggle in April 1925. Before the motion could go through, Pegahmagabow resigned. A decade later, he was appointed councillor from 1933 to 1936. In 1933 the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) changed its policies and forbade First Nation chiefs from corresponding with the DIA. They directed that all correspondence, as of the spring of 1933, go through the Indian Agent. This gave huge power to the Agent, something that grated on Pegahmagabow, who did not get along with his Indian Agent, John Daly. First Nation members who served in the army during World War I were particularly active as political activists. They had travelled the world, earned the respect of the comrades in the trenches, and refused to be sidelined by the newly empowered Indian Agent. Historian Paul Williams termed these advocates as “returned soldier chiefs”, and singled out a few, including Pegahmagabow, as being especially active. This caused intense disagreements with Daly and eventually led to Pegahmagabow being deposed as chief. Daly and other agents who came in contact with Pegahmagabow were incredibly frustrated by his attempts, in his words, to free his people from “white slavery.” The Indian agents labelled him as a “mental case” and strived to sideline him and his supporters.
In addition to the power struggle between the Indian council and the DIA that Pegahmagabow took issue with, he was a constant agitator over the islands in Georgian Bay of the Lake Huron. The Regional First Nation governments claimed the islands as their own and Pegahmagabow and other chiefs tried in vain to get recognition of their status.
During World War II he worked as a guard at a munitions plant near Nobel, Ontario while being a Sergeant-Major in the local militia. In 1943, he became the Supreme Chief of The Native Independent Government, an early First Nations organization.
Family and legacy
A married father of six children, Francis Pegahmagabow died on the Parry Island reserve in 1952 at the age of 61. He is a member of the Indian Hall of Fame at the Woodland Centre in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, and his memory is also commemorated on a plaque honouring him and his regiment on the Rotary and Algonquin Regiment Fitness Trail in Parry Sound. Most recently honoured by the Canadian Forces by naming the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group HQ Building at CFB Borden after him.