The war of 1812: A native hero named Norton

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

Mohawk chief John Norton was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and a Cherokee father. He went on to play a significant role in the War of 1812.

Canada is a country so vast that too often, it seems, our history is lost inside our geography. A striking example is our country’s First Nations, whose long, rich history is well-preserved by them, but seldom gets the same attention on a broader scale, even when their stories affect us all.
Consider Mohawk chief John Norton’s role in the pivotal Battle of Queenston Heights during the War of 1812. As we prepare for National Aboriginal Month in June and National Aboriginal Day on June 21, it is a particularly appropriate time to do so. It is also why the Historica-Dominion Institute has prepared a new Heritage Minute for release in June commemorating the heroism of Norton and other First Nations warriors. Without the efforts of Norton and about 80 Grand River warriors in repelling more than 1,000 American soldiers, the battle might have been lost, and the tide of war turned.
Norton was, by any measure, unique. Born in Scotland around 1760 to a Scottish mother and Cherokee father taken from North America by British soldiers, he enlisted with the British army in 1784, was posted to North America in 1785, and deserted the army two years later while serving in Niagara (he was later pardoned and received an official discharge). He became involved with the Six Nations of Grand River, and learned the Mohawk language and culture under its chief, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), who adopted him as his nephew. That gave Norton the status of chief, and the name “Teyoninhokarawen,” which in Mohawk means “open door.” Despite his desertion, he kept close contact with the British, remained a devout Anglican, and was considered an ally by the administration.
With the outbreak of war, Norton (now in his early 50s) was made a captain by the British, and began recruiting Grand River Mohawk and others to fight. They had a reputation as fierce warriors and soon had a chance to prove it. On Oct. 13, 1812, more than 1,000 American troops crossed the Niagara, seeking to take control of Queenston Heights. Part of the force reached the top, circled the British artillery position and forced the Redcoats from the Heights. Gen. Isaac Brock, one of the most respected British military leaders of his day, was killed leading a counter-attack.
With British troops in potential disarray, Norton, John Brant, and about 80 other Aboriginal warriors stepped in, and stepped up. Outnumbered more than 10 to one, they held back the Americans for hours — long enough for reinforcements to arrive so that the British could retain the crucial outpost.
That effort by Norton and First Nations warriors was a remarkable contribution to the war effort, but it was far from their only one. In the following year, as recounted in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Norton and his warriors covered the British retreat to Burlington Heights after the Americans took Fort Niagara, provided scouts before a successful night attack at the Battle of Stoney Creek and contributed to the rout of the Americans at the Battle of Beaver Dams.
After the war, Norton was given the brevet rank of major. Overall, First Nations people made up as much as 10 percent of British forces in the war. Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the creation of the Canadian Forces War of 1812 Commemorative Banner and Medals to be given to successor First Nations and Métis communities. As the prime minister said: “Canada’s Aboriginal People were, in every sense, key to the victory that firmly established Canada as a distinct country in North America.” So, as we observe National Aboriginal Month, we also pay tribute to efforts that shaped not only our past, but also the nation that we are today.

Anthony Wilson-Smith is the president of the Historica-Dominion Institute.

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