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Mohawk Chief John Norton
(from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online at Libraries and Archives Canada)
NORTON, JOHN (Snipe, Teyoninhokarawen), schoolmaster, Indian Department interpreter, Mohawk chief, army officer, and author; b. probably in Scotland, the son of a Scottish mother named Anderson and a Cherokee father named Norton; fl. 1784–1825.
The date of John Norton’s birth is not known. His father had come from the Cherokee nation, “having been taken, a boy, from Kuwoki, when that village was burnt by the English,” according to one report. His mother was an Anderson who was probably living near Dunfermline, Scotland, when their son John was born. It is also probable that the son received his education in a good school in Dunfermline, and in a print shop, perhaps his father’s. The letters, speeches, and journal which John composed later show that he had had good training in the writing of English.
He came to Canada as a private soldier. The muster rolls of the 65th Foot record his enlistment at Mullingar (Republic of Ireland) early in 1784. He arrived in the province of Quebec with the regiment in the following year and accompanied it to Fort Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) in 1787. There he deserted. In 1788 he received his discharge.
Norton then appears, in the records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, as a schoolmaster in the Mohawk settlement established by John Deserontyon* at the Bay of Quinte. Norton found “teaching school too tedious, and confinement . . . more than he could bear,” recalled one acquaintance, adding that “he associated with the young Indians in all their diversions.” Norton resigned in 1791.
He next went to the old northwest to become a fur trader, employed by John Askin* of Detroit, evidently from 1791 until 1795. After Anthony Wayne’s defeat of the western Indians at the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, Norton returned to the Upper Canadian side and became an interpreter in the Indian Department at Niagara.
Captain Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea*] soon drew Norton into his own service as an interpreter, made him an emissary, and adopted him as a “nephew,” deputy, and successor. Norton resigned from the Indian Department and began living at Onondaga on the Grand River. His appointment as Teyoninhokarawen, a rank as a chieftain for diplomacy and leadership in war, came in 1799. It did not make him a hereditary chief; it gave him, as Joseph Brant’s rank also did, a challenged, but strong, position between the chiefs and the Indian Department. Norton was soon acting in what he called “a public capacity without incurring blame” when he defended the cause of the Six Nations. He was, however, rejected by some of the chiefs when the Indian Department under William Claus, the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada, actively opposed, through channels of Upper Canadian officialdom, Norton’s claims to speak for the Grand River Indians.
In the early 1800s Norton and Brant revived claims on behalf of the Six Nations for deeds to Grand River lands. After the American revolution the Six Nations had been invited to settle in what became Upper Canada on a vast tract of land. But the extent of the lands and the nature of the title had soon been called into question. Brant insisted that the grant allowed the Indians to sell off portions of land to white settlers. Officials in Upper Canada maintained that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 denied the validity of such purchases by white people. Not all the Grand River Iroquois agreed with Brant on this matter. Free certified ownership by Indians was the issue.
Brant decided to go over the heads of Upper Canadian officials and to appeal to the Privy Council of Britain. With considerable secrecy, he sent Norton to plead the case in London. Norton was, in fact, eager to go because he wished to enlist in the British army for service in the war which had been declared against France. He set out for Britain in February 1804. His hopes for enlistment failed, and his mission to the government brought only disappointment when Claus through Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* informed the British that some councils of the Six Nations had denied Norton’s authority and that Norton was disreputable and unworthy.
Norton’s trip from 1804 to 1806, nevertheless, was a personal triumph, for his character and potential were recognized by leaders of the evangelical missionary movement which was active at this time. His closest friends were members of the Society of Friends: the scientist William Allen and the Philadelphia-born brewer Robert Barclay. Through Barclay, Norton became associated on friendly terms with the members of the famous “Clapham sect,” who founded the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, the year of Norton’s arrival in Britain.
These parliamentarians and philanthropists were vigorously working for abolition of the slave trade and for the extension of Christian missions. They converted Norton, the discouraged political petitioner, to their humanitarian cause, sought his advice regarding the condition of North American Indians, and employed him as a translator. Indeed, the first application of the new bible society’s funds for printing a portion of the Scriptures in a foreign language went to Norton’s translation of the Gospel of St John into Mohawk. Two thousand copies were printed in English and Mohawk, but his introductory address to his own people was not published because the society’s rules forbad supplements to the text. He was entrusted with 500 copies for circulation in the Canadas.
His friends sent him home in style: passage on a frigate of the Royal Navy was arranged for him by high-ranking officers in that service. He was now a changed man, having found an honourable place in missionary work, and a vocation in correspondence with his English friends, especially with Robert Barclay and his family, with the Reverend John Owen of the bible society, and with the Duke of Northumberland (a friend of Joseph Brant). The letters from abroad contained plans for the improvement of the Grand River community in agriculture, industry, education, religion, sobriety, and morality.
Discouraged by his failure to obtain deeds, when he returned to the Grand River Norton found conditions at home even more depressing. Joseph Brant was losing his strength, and his son John [Tekarihogen] was still a youth. Norton’s constructive service as Teyoninhokarawen was urgently needed, but he was constantly thwarted by the opposition of the Indian Department under Claus, Lieutenant Governor Gore, and some civil chiefs in council. Those antagonistic to Norton saw his idealism as hypocrisy, his claims for Indian ownership of land as greed, his loyalty to Britain as treachery, and his whole attitude as a threat to privilege. Humanitarian projects had to be Postponed. Personal attacks upon him increased and he wished to retire.
On 9 April 1809 Norton set out from the Grand River to make a journey which would take him a thousand miles through Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee to the land of the Cherokees. He had several plans. He wished to trace his father’s family and find relatives, and to make an inquiry into “the situation of our brethren the Cherokees.” Relatives were, indeed, there to be visited. He was accepted as a Cherokee, and given every opportunity to make a careful study of all aspects of the “situation.” Then he set out for Upper Canada by way of the Shawnee country. He arrived at his home on the Grand River in June 1810.
Depressed by conditions there, he soon had thoughts about leaving again, this time “to the westward.” The prospect of war between Britain and the United States kept him in the colony. The proposed journal of his travels to the American south had to be set aside.
Throughout the campaign in 1812, the first year of the war, he assembled and commanded fighting men of the Six Nations and other tribes, the parties varying in size with conditions and necessities along the Niagara frontier. His leadership in the great victory at Queenston Heights was the high point in his military career. Norton’s own account is vivid and inimitable.
His brilliant tactical decision to take a “circuit” meant an ascent of the escarpment at a considerable distance along the road west of Queenston, and a climb easier than that attempted by Major-General Isaac Brock* on the cliff close to the Niagara River. The woods on the right flank of the American force moving westward along the heights were precisely what Norton and his Indians needed for cover as they pinned down the enemy’s advance until Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe* and his troops came up to sweep the Americans off the heights. Reinforcements from Chippawa also arrived.
Sheaffe mentioned in his dispatches “the judicious position which Norton and the Indians with him had taken.” One week after the battle, on 20 October, Sheaffe honoured Norton by appointing him “to the Rank of Captain of the Confederate Indians” – the same rank that Joseph Brant had held during the American revolution. Sir George Prevost*, governor-in-chief of British North America, congratulated Norton upon his courage and perseverance, with advice “to keep up and increase the numbers of a description of Force so truly formidable to their Enemies and so capable of sustaining the good cause in which we are engaged.”
In the campaigns of 1813 Norton was active again. He and a hundred Indians were at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) when the Americans attacked late in May, and they took part in the subsequent British withdrawal to Burlington Heights (Hamilton). After the American thrust was stopped at Stoney Creek on 6 June, Norton and some warriors pursued the retreating enemy. He was not with the Indians who fought at the important battle of Beaver Dams, but he participated in skirmishes during the remainder of the summer. His power was at a high point, for the wartime situation had enabled him to shake off much of the Indian Department’s authority. Major-General Francis de Rottenburg recommended that Norton be given discretionary control over the allotment of presents to those who served with him; but he also remarked: “All my endeavours to reconcile . . . [Claus] and Norton are in vain, the latter is certainly a great intriguer, but is a fighting man – and may do a great deal of mischief if not supported.” Early in 1814 Norton was called to Quebec by Sir George Prevost for consultation on the role of Indian support. Prevost confirmed Norton in the rank given him by Sheaffe. Indian Department officers were forbidden to interfere with Norton in his dealings with the Grand River Indians.
In the campaigns of 1814 Norton was at the head of some 200 Iroquois at the battle of Chippawa on 5 July. Although they did not play an important part in the action, they suffered their heaviest casualties of the war, and some seriously considered the proposal instigated by the American Iroquois leader Red Jacket [Shakóye:wa:thaÃ] that the Iroquois fighting on both sides should withdraw from the war.
Norton himself remained on the frontier. His generosity with presents was such that Indians of other nations, including the Prophet [Tenskwatawa*], had joined him, but at least a few Iroquois remained with him after Chippawa. He was at the head of a fighting force at the battle of Lundy’s Lane in late July and at the unsuccessful British assault on Fort Erie in mid August. After the Treaty of Ghent in December, he retired from fighting and was granted a pension of £200 per annum. He kept on supporting the claims of Indian war veterans for losses incurred in the campaigns.
During 1813, while the war was on, he was married at Niagara by the Reverend Robert Addison to an attractive and talented girl named Karighwaycagh (Catherine), said to have been a Delaware. She was about 16. Norton must have been about 50 and had at least one son by a previous marriage to an Iroquois woman. In 1815 he and Catherine, along with John (Tehonakaraa), one of his sons, went to visit Britain. Catherine and the boy were enrolled in a school at Dunfermline, Scotland, and she proved to be “a very keen student.” She was befriended by the Duchess of Northumberland, who had her portrait painted by an Edinburgh artist. Norton spent some of his time in England with Barclay, Owen, and the Duke of Northumberland – the good friends of his 1804–6 visit.
These men became the recipients of a long manuscript journal. In its first section, Norton’s trip of 1809–10 to the American south was described for the benefit of interested friends in England. He recorded in great detail what he had seen in the Cherokee country, and heard from the lips of the leaders of that nation. His notes had eventually covered Cherokee geography, history of warfare, traditions, mythology, customs, social conditions, and sport. The second section was devoted to a somewhat bookish history of the original five Iroquois nations, whom Norton correctly believed to be related to the Cherokees. Under Joseph Brant he had been well taught regarding Iroquoian lore, but he found it useful to prepare for the journal by consulting “the accredited Memoirs of the neighbouring Europeans.” Among his sources were Cadwallader Colden’s history of the Iroquois and George Heriot*’s history of Canada. Anthropologist William Nelson Fenton has suggested that Norton probably had “some contact with savants” in London or Edinburgh. The final section, an eye-witness account of various actions in the War of 1812, is the most personal, but carefully factual, part of the work.
Norton and his wife returned from Britain to Upper Canada in 1816. He had received a commission as a brevet major in the British army, but he was unofficially called Colonel Norton. He became the owner of a large farm overlooking the Grand River at Sims Locks, south of present-day Brantford, and he “improved” his lands, setting an example in agriculture for the Grand River community. Occasionally he gave parish assistance to Robert Addison, and he translated the Gospel of St Matthew into Mohawk – an effort which caused him to leave the work on other gospels to an assistant, Henry Aaron Hill [Kenwendeshon]. Debts kept on worrying him. The old traveller and warrior became restive; he toyed with plans to visit his Cherokee relatives in the south.
In 1823, believing that Catherine had been guilty of sexual misconduct, Norton ordered off his farm a young Indian named Big Arrow (Joe Crawford). This intruder demanded a duel; he died of a wound accidentally inflicted in a scuffle. Norton volunteered to stand trial. The charge was murder, but he behaved honourably, refusing to use his own “best defence,” which would have exposed Catherine publicly to shame. He was convicted of manslaughter and fined £25. Catherine wrote a pathetic letter, begging forgiveness, but he would not see her again. He settled a share of his pension upon her and then left for the territory of Arkansas. A friend received a letter from him in February 1824, stating that he might be away three years. Catherine, meanwhile, had left the Grand River to live at Fairfield (near Thamesville). She died there on 16 Jan. 1827.
The Colonial Advocate of 9 March 1826 reported that a friend of Norton had received at least one letter from him, written from Laredo (then in Mexico) “in November last.” Norton had then “expected to come home.” There is no evidence to show that he ever returned to the Grand River. As late as 4 Sept. 1851, a nephew and reputed heir-at-law stated to a lawyer that he was prepared “to prove [Norton’s death] in the month of October 1831.” No proof has been found.
Carl F. Klinck
[John Norton’s journal was dedicated to the Duke of Northumberland, in whose splendid library at Alnwick Castle (Alnwick, Eng.) the manuscript was preserved in a fair copy (evidently not in Norton’s own handwriting), bound in two volumes. The amanuensis was probably “A. W.,” a friend who signed a table of contents (and who may have been Adam Wilson of Edinburgh, a cousin of Norton). The manuscript had passed through the hands of Robert Barclay and John Owen during plans for publication, which then proved abortive for reasons of cost. Although completed shortly after the War of 1812, it remained unpublished for more than 150 years, until the Champlain Society brought it out under the title The journal of Major John Norton, 1816, ed. C. F. Klinck and J. J. Talman (Toronto, 1970). Most of the documentation for this biography of Norton can be found in the acknowledgements, footnotes, and introduction to the Champlain Society volume.
A portrait of Norton by Thomas Phillips is located in Syon House, London. c.f.k.]
Valley of Six Nations (Johnston). Handbook of Indians of Canada (Hodge), 224–26. J. P. Brown, Old frontiers; the story of the Cherokee Indians from earliest times to the date of their removal to the west, 1838 (Kingsport, Tenn., 1938; repr. New York, 1971). E. C. Woodley, The Bible in Canada; [the story of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Canada] (Toronto, ), 44–50. W. N. Fenton, “Cherokee and Iroquois connections revisited,” Journal of Cherokee Studies (Cherokee, N.C.), 3 (1978): 239–49. Ray Fogelson, “Major John Norton as ethnologist,” Journal of Cherokee Studies, 3: 250–55. C. F. Klinck, “New light on John Norton,” RSC Trans., 4th ser., 4 (1966), sect.ii: 167–77. J. McE. Murray, “John Norton,” OH, 37 (1945): 7–16.
© 2000 University of Toronto/Université Laval