Pauline Johnson

Pauline Johnson spent her childhood boating on the Grand River and playing in the woods. As an adult, Pauline wrote of her experiences. She became Canada's first Native poetess.

Pauline Johnson was born on March 10, 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. Her mother, Emily Johnson was a white woman who had come to Canada from Ohio. Her father was George Johnson, a Mohawk Indian and a chief of the Six Nations.

When George Johnson married his wife, he built her a mansion on the reserve. Nestled in a small forest, he named it Chiefswood. The mansion was located on the north bank of the Grand River.

Pauline was isolated from the other children on the reserve and at an early age spent many hours in the forest and canoeing on the Grand River. Both were only a few hundred yards from her doorstep. Here, Pauline learned to love nature and spent most of her time camping and canoeing. She could recite poetry before she could read. Pauline spent many happy hours with her Grandfather, John "Smoke" Johnson. She sat enraptured as he told her the legends and traditions, as well as war stories of her native ancestry.

Pauline was enrolled in classes at Central School in Brantford. Though she attended only seven years, she often read works by Sir Walter Scott, John Milton and William Shakespeare.

In 1884, Pauline's father died of injuries he sustained while trying to stop illegal cutting of trees on the Six Nations Reserve. Due to financial hardship, the Johnsons could no longer maintain Chiefswood. They were forced to rent it out and move to Brantford.

Pauline had an active social life in Brantford Society and though she expected to marry one day, no man proposed. In order to make a living; Pauline used the stories her grandfather told her, plus her own experiences along the Grand River, to write poems. These she sold to the Brantford Expositor, the local newspaper. Some were also published in an anthology, Songs of the Great Dominion. Finally, Pauline began to recite her poems to small audiences to supplement her income.

In 1892, at the age of 31, Pauline began to appear in professional recitals for the purpose of paying to have her first book of poetry published. Her performances were so successful that she began to tour throughout Ontario. The audiences loved her. Her recital of poems with Native themes, such as The Song My Paddle Sings and her poems of nature of which Marshlands is the best known, assured her success.

Reviews of her performances mention her quick wit as well as her ability to move audiences to tears or make them shiver in fear.

For the first half of her recitals, Pauline wore a costume she had made herself and portrayed her as the Indian Princess that she was. It was made of buckskin, rabbit's fur and was embellished with Mohawk metalwork, her father's knife, wampum belts, feathers and two scalps. She wore a necklace of bear claws and the newspapers often reported she wore a bracelet of elk's teeth and mountain lions' claws presented to her by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seth.

In this part of the program, Pauline recited dramatic poems about Native subjects. In the second part of her recitals, she would appear in an evening gown and recite patriotic poems and short plays.

Pauline loved her parents very much. Her first book, The White Wampum, was dedicated to them. In her book The Moccasin Maker, she describes her parents' engagement and marriage. She also published a third book My Mother. She regarded them as perfect parents. She gave them credit for her pride in her Mohawk heritage and for her love of reading.

While traveling, Pauline wrote poems for her second poetry collection, Canadian Born. She also wrote political stories for newspapers. Her work appeared in Saturday Night, The Boys World and The Mother's Magazine, as well as in the Brantford Expositor. These stories were based on Native legends though Pauline was known to embellish them to make the stories more exciting for her readers. Pauline sold her first poem for $3.00 and was never able to make much money from her writings. To support herself, she toured Canada and the United States. She often had to arrange publicity and accommodations herself.

After a series of successful performances in Canada and the United States, Pauline saved enough money to go to England. She planned to find a London publisher to print her first book of poetry. To pay her expenses, Pauline gave recitals at parties of wealthy society hostesses. When she found her publisher, she returned home. She brought much of her collection of Native masks, blankets and other memorabilia with her. She surprised one interviewer with her vast knowledge of Mohawk traditions, history and legends.

In 1907, Pauline grew tired of touring. She hoped to settle in London, England and write full-time. Her hopes were dashed when, during a second tour, the British magazines did not buy her writings. Disillusioned, she returned to Vancouver and after one exhausting tour of the United States, retired to become a full-time fiction and magazine article writer. At the time, she published Legends of Vancouver, a collection of Squamish stories. In 1912, Pauline published one final collection of works - Flint and Feather.

Pauline died of breast cancer on March 7, 1913. She was 52. All flags in Vancouver flew at half-mast the day she was buried.

Before her death, Pauline had requested she be buried in Stanley Park, her favorite retreat in Vancouver. She is the only person who has ever been buried in the park. Though she requested that her grave have no monument, the Women's Canadian Club erected a large stone etched with her picture and Mohawk designs.

Chiefswood, Pauline's birthplace, officially opened to the public in May 1977. In recent years, the Six Nations have had the house restored to its original splendor.

Chiefswood is located in Southern Ontario on the Six Nations Reserve of the Grand River Territory, just off Highway # 54 between Brantford and Hamilton, near the village of Onondaga. If in the area, be sure to visit.

Many tourists say they can feel Pauline's spirit when they are visiting the mansion. Some claim to have seen her ghost. Whatever the case, when you enter Chiefswood, you take a step back in time. It is a truly inspiring experience for those who are interested in history and Native Culture.

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