Kitchener’s John Norton building commemorates key 1812 figure
Author’s disclosure: The author has worked at National Historic Sites related to John Norton.
So reads the cenotaph at Frederick Street and Duke Street East in Kitchener. Round the corner, and there is another monument to a defender of Canada most don’t know about.
The stone-faced edifice beside the cenotaph is fronted by a fitful Canadian flag. One set of doors bears printer-paper notices that walk-in visits to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada are no longer accepted. The sign outside reads, “John Norton Building. 15-29 Duke Street East” in both languages. And where the two wheelchair ramps meet, an oxidized plate bears a memorial to “his contribution to the War of 1812.”
The crackling of broken twigs recalls the sound of musketry. Painted faces part the crisp air as files of moccasined warriors labour up the wooded slope. Eighty they number, for many have faded away, fearful for families camped near Niagara-town, fearful of defeat. Fleeing Canadian militiamen have reported General Brock is dead, that the enemy army is out of all proportion.
The ground levels; the trees break. Across a field, the dull light of an overcast sun illuminates the green coats of New York riflemen.
The Iroquois halt. One of their leaders, a scarlet kerchief bound about his scalp, turns.
“Comrades and brothers — be men. Remember the fame of ancient warriors, whose breasts were never daunted by odds of number. You have run from your encampments to this place to meet the enemy. We have found what we came for.”
Teyoninhokarawen, “it keeps the door open.” That is what they called him as a chieftain of the Mohawk nation, adopted as a nephew by Joseph Brant. But he was christened John Norton.
He was born in Crail, Fife, Scotland, in 1770, but only his mother was Scottish. His father, of the same name, was a Cherokee. Both joined the British Army, only to desert in Canada.
The junior Norton became a teacher for the Mohawks, then a fur trader, then a British Indian Department interpreter, before rising to prominence among the Mohawks of the Grand River.
“He’s a very important person in Crown-Indigenous history,” says Carl Benn, a Ryerson University scholar, “as he worked very hard to protect Six Nations sovereignty at Grand River.”
“One thing that’s very important is that he wrote history of the Six Nations based on his understanding and Joseph Brant’s understanding. So what we have is early 19th-century understanding of Six Nations history by people from within the Six Nations. So it’s a very important document that needs to be actually studied with more care than it’s received to date.”
Norton’s book records that history, and relates Norton’s own experiences travelling into the United States to visit the Cherokee and in the War of 1812. It languished in Scottish Castle Alnwick for a century and a half, until the Champlain Society first published it in 1970.
“He played a fundamental role in maintaining the Indigenous-Crown alliance during the War of 1812,” says Benn, “which is critical for the successful defence of Canada against the American invasion. And then beyond that, we have, of course, that he played a major role as a combat leader during a wide number of actions in the War of 1812; he saw more action probably than anybody else.”
He has been under fire already today, skirmishing back and forth across the open ground on the summit of Queenston Heights. The Iroquois warriors are the only troops opposing the Americans in their bridgehead atop the heights. Isaac Brock and Lt.-Col. Macdonnell have fallen leading counterattacks on the slopes below. Norton stands brooding on his tactics for another onset.
Norton writes in his Journal — with idiosyncratic punctuation — “An impatient Ondowaga Warrior called out, — ‘Why stand so mute, — now here is the Foe before us?’ He then replied, — ‘Come on, — I never will fail to lead where any Warrior can follow,’ — & darting forward and swiftly, they stand within a Javelin’s throw of the crowded Ranks.”
Norton and his comrade pull back the hammers of their muskets with their thumbs — click! Those hammers grip the flints which, biting steel, will ignite the powder charge that hurtles bullet out of barrel. Each brings his musket-butt to his shoulder and —
“Levelling sure, — they discharged the Leaden Deaths among them: — the Slight foliage of some Slender Oak concealed them from hostile view. Those (warriors), who with more distant assault annoyed the Enemy, — attracted his attention, — until the Fusil’s Flash & near report, discovered the (two) Friends, — then the Foe raged like a Hive of Bees disturbed, — Volleys of Bullets flew towards them, but all passed harmless over; — viewing each other with a smile, they acknowledged it rather too hot, & retired towards the more numerous Body.”
There they harangue their comrades to fresh exertion.
As they speak, a column of men in drab and scarlet coats is stepping to the beat of drums across the dun fields to the ascent of the heights.
He’s emblazoned in stained glass in Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks in Brantford, Ont.
“One of the windows we have depicts John Norton,” says Roxanna Nazarowicz, the chapel’s cultural coordinator. “He’s dressed in white, white robes. He’s actually standing at the front of the chapel. … And he’s essentially in the window depicted showing him giving out the gospel, which was translated into Six Nations language, and he’s essentially giving it to the Six Nations community.”
Norton was a man with broad horizons, fluent in multiple languages and acquainted with the Clapham Sect of English Christian social reformers, travelled in the wilds of North America.
Bronze statues of Norton and John Brant, Joseph’s son and a fellow Queenston combatant, stand vigil at the Landscape of Nations memorial on Queenston Heights, opened in 2016.
“John Norton’s loyalty was always to the Indigenous people,” says historian Donald Graves, who lives near Perth, Ont. “He thought that the best path was with the British. … But at times, especially when the Seneca and Tuscarora, which are two of the Six Nations but lived in American territory, got involved in the war, as they did in the summers of 1813 and 1814, a lot of Grand River people said, ‘We aren’t going to fight our brothers,’ went home and he agreed with that.”
But Norton, who held a British Army captaincy and was brevetted major after the war, remained under arms. After Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812, he saw action at Fort George and Stoney Creek in 1813 and Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane and Fort Erie in the final, brutal campaign on the Niagara.
The cup of victory had bitter dregs. In 1823, Norton shot a man in duel over his wife’s honour and was convicted of manslaughter. Benn says Norton sojourned in the south, intending to return, but died in 1827, likely near the Dwight Mission to the Cherokees in the Arkansas Territory, the adopted home of his father’s people.
15-29 Duke Street East went up in the late ’30s. John Norton became its namesake in 2013.
His name may not stir the commemorative memory of most passersby.
But it keeps the door open.
Quotations taken or adapted from the Journal of Major John Norton, 1816, published by the Champlain Society, Toronto, in 1970 and 2011.