Sunday, November 22, 2020

A little west of the GTA, near Brantford, stands a truly unique home. It was built in the 1850’s for a native chief and his English bride and is recognized as Canada’s first truly multicultural home. The county atlas section below shows that area in 1877. The property of George H. M. Johnson is outlined in green and the house is circled in green. The church where our love story starts is circled in orange. The tow path along the Grand River is marked in blue and is a feature from the canal system that once ran along the river.

George Henry Martin Johnson was born in 1816 at Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and grew up to become a chief on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council. He also spent time as an interpreter for local preachers and government officials. Meanwhile, Emily Susanna Howells was born in Bristol, England in 1824. Four years later her family moved to the USA where they became active in the underground railroad transporting slaves to Canada. It was when Emily moved to Canada to live with her sister and brother-in-law at Tuscarora Parsonage that she met George Johnson and fell in love with him. After being secretly engaged for 5 years they were married in August of 1853.

George started building the house in 1853 to be given to her as a wedding present. The nature of their multi-cultural marriage caused George to incorporate some unique features into the design, creating a house that would eventually become a Canadian National Historic Site

The house has a central hall plan with two rooms on either side and four more upstairs. Four fire places kept the place warm in the winter and eventually a summer kitchen was added to help keep the heat down in the summer. The symmetry on the inside of the home was mirrored on the outside in a unique way. The front and the back of the house are identical. There is no “front” and “rear” entrance because both sides of the home are identical. This is because the multicultural marriage was honoured in the very architecture of the home. Emily’s family and friends would arrive by horse and carriage and would be welcomed on the side of the house facing the road.

George’s family would arrive by canoe along the Grand River and be greeted on that side of the house. Neither side of the family was given any preference, although the side facing the river seems to be in a little better shape today. It took three years to complete the building and the family didn’t move in until 1856. The Johnson Family lived here until 1884 and, after various tenants, it was willed to the Six Nations in 1937.

Emily Pauline Johnson was born at Chiefswood and was raised enjoying some of the benefits from both of her cultural ancestries. She went on to become one of Canada’s premier poets and story tellers whose work often focused on the plight of her native ancestors. At the time she was referred to in some circles as half-breed but her fame rises above all that. On the hundredth anniversary of her birth she was honoured with a postage stamp. She has the distinction of being the first woman, other than the queen, to be featured on a postage stamp. She was also the first author and the first indigenous person on a Canadian stamp. One of her poems was called “Both Sides” and reflects the fact that her family entertained people from both sides of the river.

It was recognized as a National historic Site in 1953 and opened as a museum in 1963. Since then it has been renovated a couple of times. Plans are in the works to create a more popular tourist attraction by adding interpretive signage and upscale camping sites. Near Chiefswood, they have already constructed a replica of a longhouse for teaching purposes. This building is very similar to the ones reconstructed at Crawford Lake.

The house is open for tours, and would certainly be interesting to see inside, but that wasn’t an option when I was there so I enjoyed it from the outside.

Google Maps link: Chiefswood

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