Writer/performer E. Pauline Johnson grew up in an elegant mansion (which is now a museum) on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford Ontario. Johnson was the Margaret Atwood of her day, a “big name” writer and international celebrity. A guided tour of her birthplace sheds light on her life and her unique bi-cultural family.
Right: Publicity shot of Johnson.
Photo source: wikipedia
Chiefswood National Historic Site is the birthplace of one of our first internationally-recognized Canadian celebrities, 19th century writer and performer E. Pauline Johnson.
Her most famous poem, which was reprinted for decades in Canadian school texts, is “The Song My Paddle Sings”. It begins:
WEST wind, blow from your prairie nest,
Blow from the mountains, blow from the west.
The sail is idle, the sailor too;
O wind of the west, we wait for you!
I have wooed you so,
But never a favor you bestow.
You rock your cradle the hills between,
But scorn to notice my white lateen.
Johnson’s birthplace is now a designated heritage property. Just 20 km east of Brantford Ontario, you’ll find this gracious home surrounded by a garden with indigenous plants and a lawn dotted with plaques commemorating Johnson and her family. I recently visited Chiefswood and took a guided tour of the house.
A Little about Johnson and Her Family
Johnson was an inspirational woman with talent and tenacity who knew
success on the one hand, and tragedy on the other, who died much too
young from breast cancer at the age of 52. During her lifetime, she
gained international fame for her books of poetry, her short stories,
non-fiction articles and, most of all, for her on-stage recitals of her
Johnson was born at Chiefswood on March 10, 1861. She came from a mixed marriage, which in those days was very unusual. Her father George was a Mohawk from the local Six Nations reserve, and her mother, Emily, was an English immigrant. She had two brothers and a sister, and she was the youngest child. Her father, in addition to being a Chief in the Six Nations Confederacy Council, was a government interpreter, being fluent in eight languages. He also owned farm land and rented out part of his property to other farmers.
Johnson sold her first poem to Gems of Poetry, a New York literary magazine, in 1885 when she was twenty-four years old. Over the next few years she published other work, but it wasn’t until she was 30 that she began to earn a living through her stage performances.
As a much-respected “recitalist”, Johnson performed her own poetry on stages and in drawing rooms in England, United States and Canada for more than 17 years. She took her famous great-grandfather’s name Tekahionwake as her pen name and stage name. Recitals of literary works were at the time a very popular form of entertainment. Another Canadian writer who performed his own work (mostly short stories) on stage in the late 1800s early 1900s was Stephen Leacock.
As she toured, Johnson continued to write for magazines and published books of poetry as well. One book, Legends of Vancouver, features Squamish tales told to her by a good friend, Chief Joe Capilano. Parts of it also read like travel writing at its best. It’s my favourite work by her.
you visit Chiefswood, you’ll be given a guided tour of the house. Our
charming guide was a university student studying history and she was
very well-informed about the family and the history of the house.
She pointed out to us that Chiefswood is an unusual house with two front doors, one facing the Grand River to welcome guests arriving by water and one facing the road to Brantford to welcome guests arriving from town. This must have been a challenge for any servants when guests arrived at both doors at the same time…who to answer first?
The house contains many of the original furnishings and belongings of the family. On the first floor is the living room, dining room and sitting room. There’s also one room set aside for some interpretative display; this is where you’ll get some background about the family and, in particular, the “romantic” tale of the tension-fraught courtship of Pauline’s parents. The two conducted a secret romance for five years before marrying, because neither family approved of the relationship.
On the second floor you’ll find the children’s classroom and the bedrooms. In Johnson’s bedroom, you’ll find her writing desk:
All interior shots of Chiefswood are courtesy of
Chiefswood National Historic Site
….and a dresser with some of her personal artifacts. The paddle recalls Johnson’s love of the Grand River and of canoeing, which remains a popular recreational activity today.
In her parents’ bedroom we came across this stunning porcupine quill work table, said to be made by her mother Emily:
Johnson and her siblings were taught at home in the classroom on the second floor until they went away to residential school for a short period and then (in Pauline’s case) Brantford Collegiate Institute.
Before you leave the property, be sure to pick up the pamphlets on the gardens and enjoy the local plants on display. You can learn about traditional herbal remedies for problems like hives, colic, and headaches.
The Museum is located on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory at 1037 Highway 54 Ohsweken, ON (corner of Highway 54 & Chiefswood Road). This is right near Chiefswood Park which hosts the Grand River Powwow every year. There’s a small fee for the guided tour (which is excellent). For current hours and pricing, see the museum’s web site http://www.chiefswood.com.
Brantford is only about 20 km down the road. There you’ll discover Woodland Cultural Centre and the Royal Chapel of the Mohawks. Learn more about these at Six Nations Tourism: http://www.sntourism.com.
To learn more about E. Pauline Johnson
If you want to learn more about Johnson, start with the Chiefswood web site listed above. Of the many books about her, I recommend Sheila M.F. Johnston’s “Buckskin and Broadcloth: a Celebration of the Life of E. Pauline Johnson—Tekahionwake” (1997); it’s essentially a scrapbook of various documents about Johnson. It’s like an archive in book form.
You may enjoy
The Grand River Powwow – This event is held at the Chiefswood Park every summer and is great fun!