War of 1812: When aboriginal warriors held the line

Toronto Star

June 17, 2013

New Heritage Minute recounts a largely unknown episode in the Battle of Queenston Heights.

By: Michael Eamon

For almost two centuries the War of 1812 has been celebrated, taught, reenacted and forgotten. Commemoration can be a double-edged sword, clearing the path for one narrative while cutting short other stories and points of view. History is predicated on the act of selection. Each subsequent generation selects the heroes, battles and outcomes deemed most relevant and fit for public memory and retelling.

Marking the centenary of Sir Isaac Brock’s death, historian John Stewart Carstairs wrote that “Brock’s fame and Brock’s name will never die in our history.” Yet, he was also optimistic that the story would broaden with time: “Perhaps, in another hundred years . . . the skirmish at Queenston may be viewed in a different light.”

The ongoing bicentennial of the War of 1812 — the war officially lasted until 1814 — gives us the opportunity to reflect upon this seminal era in our past. Generations of Canadians have hotly debated who won the war, the British or the Americans. Though this discussion continues, it is increasingly argued publicly that it was First Nations communities who lost.

In a strictly political sense, this may be correct. It is no secret that the indigenous peoples of North America, though crucial allies to both the British and Americans, were abandoned politically after the war, and have had their stories cut short, altered or forgotten. Over the past few decades the role of First Nations peoples has rightly received increased public attention. Many warriors, including those of Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe origins, fought while their families were subjected to the horrors of a war they did not want.

At the Battle of Queenston Heights, in particular, John Norton, John Brant and about 80 Six Nations warriors distinguished themselves by holding back the overwhelming American advance until reinforcements could arrive. Their invaluable efforts offer one of the many lesser-known tales of the war. The traditional historical narrative of the battle heavily privileged the courage of Brock and the swift leadership of his replacement Roger Sheaffe, rendering the story of the Six Nations, who battled a force more than 10 times their size for several hours, a footnote.

Using their knowledge of the forest and their superior marksmanship, the overmatched Six Nations warriors scaled the heights under cover, avoiding the treacherous rise where a charging Brock had fallen. While Brock had faced the invaders head on, exposing himself to sharpshooters, Norton led his troops around the battlefield to come upon the Americans from the southwest.

Taking the Americans by surprise, the warriors used the cover of gunsmoke to obscure their numbers and their war cries to strike fear in the hearts of the Americans, preventing them from advancing to take the town of Queenston. Hundreds more troops waited to cross the river from the American side, but the sounds of battle made them fear the Six Nations forces had overrun their compatriots. Fearing for their lives, the American reinforcements refused to cross the river, and the remaining troops were defeated when additional British support arrived.

Like many who served, John Brant was emboldened and embittered by his experiences and became a community leader after the conflict. The 18-year-old son of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, he would later fight for the Six Nations as a politician in the legislative assembly, the first aboriginal person to do so. John Norton, of mixed Cherokee and Scots origins, was adopted into the Six Nations community as a chief before the war and left a written diary known for its objectivity and detail. Other warriors at the battle would go on to community service as well. John Smoke Johnson became a Mohawk chief who was tasked with keeping and interpreting the community’s wampum belts. His granddaughter was the celebrated poet and performer Pauline Johnson.

A new Heritage Minute, with accompanying educational resource, from the Historica-Dominion Institute is bringing this tale to a new generation of Canadians. History is often seen as inaccessible or, worse, irrelevant to the modern public. In our busy lives, the bicentenary of the war provides pause to reflect upon our past and its relevance to our present.

Sadly, war, forced immigration, fear of attack, living as a refugee, the pain and anger surrounding death are conditions known by too many Canadians. They are also conditions known by our predecessors, conditions that shaped their actions as such experiences now shape ours. We should let stories like those of Brant and Norton act as a personal entry to these wider experiences from the past. We should not only view history in a different light, we should view it with our own light, draw our own conclusions and gain a fuller understanding of past issues to inform how we will meet the present and future challenges.

Michael Eamon is the principal of Lady Eaton College at Trent University, and a professor within the Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies program.

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