In early nineteenth-century Upper Canada, what today is Ontario, John Norton was an important if largely forgotten link between the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, and the British. Known in Mohawk as Teyoninhokarawen, he was born across the ocean in 1770, of Cherokee and Scottish descent, and is a testament to the dynamic relationships among Indigenous and European peoples of the period. Lesser known than other figures — including the Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant and his sister, the clan mother Molly Brant — Norton left behind a rich literary legacy in the form of Journal of a Voyage of a Thousand Miles Down the Country of the Cherokees: Through the States of Kentucky and Tennessee. Completed in 1816, but not published for another 150 years, the memoir describes, among other things, his trip to the American Southeast, where he tried to connect with his father’s family.
With A Mohawk Memoir from the War of 1812, the Ryerson University history professor Carl Benn presents a full scholarly edition of the War of 1812 section of Norton’s journal, including a comprehensive introduction, valuable annotations, and comprehensive bibliography. Benn, the author of The Iroquois in the War of 1812 and Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, considers the text to be “one of the most extensive, absorbing, and historically useful autobiographies from the War of 1812 by any of its participants, regardless of ethnicity or status.” By carefully authenticating the manuscript, Benn reveals even more about the vital role Indigenous groups and individuals played in saving Upper Canada from American conquest in the first year of the war.
Benn confirms, among other things, key biographical details. John Norton was born in Scotland. His Indigenous father, also known as John Norton, was captured as a young boy during a British raid on the Lower Cherokee town of Kuwoki, South Carolina. He was taken to Great Britain, where he eventually joined the army. In 1770, he fathered John Jr., with his Scottish wife, Christian Anderson. In Scotland, the younger John obtained a good basic education before his own enlistment, and he left for Canada with his regiment in 1785. He deserted two years later and was discharged in 1788. Norton taught school for a year at Tyendinaga, a Mohawk community on the northeastern shore of Lake Ontario, but grew restless and moved west into the Ohio Country, claimed by the fledgling United States but largely controlled by Indigenous peoples until the end of the Ohio War, in 1795.
Joseph Brant encountered the Cherokee Scot in the early 1790s, trading furs among the First Nations south of Detroit, and subsequently gave him a position among the Iroquois peoples of the Grand River, a community of approximately 2,000 near present-day Brantford, Ontario (the Mohawks constituted one-quarter of the population). In effect, Norton became the war chief’s secretary, a post he held until Brant’s death in 1807.
Sometime around 1797, Brant adopted Norton as his nephew, creating a powerful cultural bridge. Several years later, the Six Nations Council adopted him as Mohawk, naming him Teyoninhokarawen (meaning “it keeps the door open”). The Iroquois badly needed someone with an in-depth knowledge of English, as well as competence in Indigenous languages. Norton’s military background also was an asset, but his adoption antagonized the British: “With deep distrust afflicting Anglo–Haudenosaunee relations when John Norton left the Indian Department to become an adopted Mohawk at the heart of Brant’s circle,” Benn writes, “it is not surprising that the colonial establishment regarded him with suspicion. Consequently, they tried to undermine Norton’s attempts to serve as a leader.” Benn unpacks a complex geopolitical situation with great clarity, while effectively refuting the charge, levelled by several suspicious officials, that Norton was hardly Indigenous.
After joining the Mohawk Nation, Norton made two trips back to Britain — the first on behalf of Brant in 1804–05, and the second in 1815–16 to fight for greater autonomy for the Grand River Iroquois. In England, he left behind a manuscript with Brant’s friend the Duke of Northumberland; it rested unknown for a century and a half in Alnwick Castle. That’s when the literary scholar Carl Klinck, with the assistance of the historian James J. Talman, published The Journal of John Norton, 1816, in 1970. (Reissued in 2011, by the Publications of the Champlain Society, the full text is available online, with an introduction by Benn.)
With A Mohawk Memoir, Benn focuses on Norton’s War of 1812 reminiscences and does not include his travelogue of Cherokee country. Each of the eight sections begins with a helpful review of the military context. In-depth footnotes provide additional information, such as this vivid description of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls, in 1814: “Normally, it was not difficult to distinguish British from American regular infantry in daylight, but in the dark, the colours of their coats were indistinct, a problem made worse by the fact that the tailoring, accoutrements, and other features of their uniforms were similar.”
The book also describes the pivotal battle of Queenston Heights, at the war’s outset. “Much of the success in the battle,” Benn writes, “stemmed from the contributions of the Six Nations (and the troops below the heights), who prevented the Americans from consolidating their position and then wore down the invaders until Roger Sheaffe brought his forces together in strength for the final portion of the fighting.” After the battle, the British named Norton “Captain of the Confederate Indians.” Such recognition, however, caused at least one important Mohawk to object. Henry Tekarihogen, a ranking sachem, said of the appointment: “We will never consent that he shall again have a right to interfere in our affairs. We know nothing of him. He has no Indian blood in him. He is a bad man, and we cannot help fearing that he will injure us.” Brant’s esteem for Norton was not unanimously shared; despite all of his prestige and capabilities, Brant (like most leaders) was not followed blindly by his nation.
Throughout the book, Benn complements Norton’s contemporary account with historical analysis. And with his epilogue, he takes the Cherokee Scot’s story beyond the War of 1812. Norton’s final year on the Grand River, 1823, proved tragic. He was found guilty of manslaughter after a fatal confrontation with a Six Nations warrior, with whom he suspected his young wife, Catherine, was having an affair. With his customary balance, Benn writes, “Surviving documents tend to be mixed about Catherine’s conduct but sympathetic toward her husband; yet it is nearly impossible to understand the intricacies of a marriage after the passing of two centuries.”
Shortly after paying a twenty-five-pound fine, Norton left his family and departed for the United States, vanishing into the interior. He died sometime in 1827.
This consummately presented volume paints the picture of the Cherokee Scot in the most detail yet, though Benn concludes that “much remains to explore, evaluate, and say about this fascinating individual.” Indeed, John Norton’s incredible life, straddling two nineteenth-century societies, is of great interest and relevance to a twenty-first-century nation that continues to grapple with complex identity formations and reconciliation.