Friday 15 February 2013

George & Emily Johnson: A Love Story

A couple of miles down the road from my house is the Chiefswood National Historic site. ~

This is the birthplace of E. Pauline Johnson, famed Canadian poet and recitalist.  The modest, Georgian mansion was built in the 1850's as a wedding gift by her father, George Johnson, to his bride, Emily Howell.

I believe it was the love story of George and Emily that made it possible for Pauline to bring unfamiliar worlds together in understanding and beauty.

I'm entranced with the tale.  George Johnson was the son of a Mohawk Chief.  His mother was a hereditary clan mother, with the sole right to choose one male from her line to be one of the chiefs of Six Nations Confederacy.  George was given a formal education and showed a gift for languages, speaking all six Mohawk languages, English, French and German.  He became an interpreter for the Anglican Church ministry on Six Nations territory.

Emily Howell was the daughter of an Englishman, who brought his family to Ohio and started a number of schools.  He is reputed to have been a man of contradictions;  ardent supporter and instrumental in the establishment of the Underground Railway, aiding slaves escaping to freedom.  He was also a cruel and abusive parent.  Emily's sister married the Anglican minister in charge of the mission at Six Nations and rescued her little sister from the parental home, bringing her to Canada.

The interpreter, young George, lived in the mission house with them as part of the family.  He was clever and refined, handsome and athletic.  Emily was a pretty, shy girl and had the perfect manners of a British lady.  The young couple became fast friends from the start and love followed.

This was shocking to local society and both families.  The match was vehemently opposed on all sides.  Mixed marriages were not acceptable.  George's children would be mixed blood and he would be giving up all rights of one becoming a chief.  His mother was appalled.  Emily's family, for all their abolitionist views, would not accept a marriage with a man of colour.

The couple dated secretly for five years.  George was, by then, an official government interpreter, a chief of the Confederacy and an important liaison between Six Nations and the government.  Wealthy enough to build  a fine house for his lady, the couple announced their intention to marry and defied all social convention.

They determined to make both cultures equal in their home.  Victorian style furniture had traditional native motif carvings.

The intricate porcupine quill top on this table was done by Emily herself. ~

The house has identical front and back doors to greet those that came by canoe, on the Grand River that flows behind the house, and those who came by horse and carriage, on the road that ran from the white settlements, as equally important guests.

Those guests eventually included chiefs, governor generals, lords and ladies, Alexander Graham Bell, artists, Prince Arthur and Princess Louise.  Everyone who was anyone came and everyone remarked on the refined living style of George, Emily and their four children.  All were fascinated with the blend of cultures.

The children were taught to be proud of their heritage and E. Pauline Johnson thrilled her audiences as she recited her poetry and read from her books wearing first this costume ~

and then finished the concert in evening dress. ~

George worked tirelessly to facilitate understanding between natives and whites.  He was also insistent that the illegal trade in liquor, by a gang of white thugs, be stopped and the illegal lumbering of prime timber by white businessmen, with consent of a sector of natives for their personal profit, cease on reserve lands.  He had the culprits arrested and fined.  The liquor dealers waylaid him one night and beat him so severely that he was unconscious for five weeks.  He recovered and went right back to rooting out the lawlessness in his territory.  The lumber men attacked him next.  They beat him, fracturing two ribs and a finger, shot him and left him for dead.  Again, he recovered. 

Public outrage at this second attack was universal.  White and native people came together to take up the cause.  They drove out the liquor dealers and the lumbermen withdrew under public pressure.  

Someone had shown them the better way.  George and Emily had lived a life of love and respect, walked right over the barriers to their happiness, raised four fine children, given Canada a national treasure in Pauline and brought together two cultures to battle for decency.

Every Canadian has read 'The Song My Paddle Sings', by E. Pauline Johnson.  My favourite lines are at the end.  I can paddle a canoe from the back of my house, right up to George and Emily's river door. ~

Be strong, O paddle! be brave, canoe!
The reckless waves you must plunge into.        40
Reel, reel,
On your trembling keel,
But never a fear my craft will feel.
We ’ve raced the rapids; we ’re far ahead:
The river slips through its silent bed.        45
Sway, sway,
As the bubbles spray
And fall in tinkling tunes away.
And up on the hills against the sky,
A fir tree rocking its lullaby        50
Swings, swings,
Its emerald wings,
Swelling the song that my paddle sings.

For information on visiting the Chiefswood National Historic Site click here.


  1. What a fabulous post Maureen!!!
    I never knew any of that story - thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Great share. I am embarrassed to say that I never knew that story either but it is definitely a great one.

  3. I have read that poem before in a book of best loved poems. I never knew the story behind the author. What an amazing tale of triumph over the bigotry of society. I love it! Thanks so much for taking the time to share it here- xo Diana

  4. A fascinating story. Can't believe you can actually canoe to their river-side door. I'd like to read about that some time :)

  5. That story would make a lovely book. We have native blood in our family. Way back quite a few generations an employee of the Hudson's Bay company (my husbands so many great grandfather) married a native woman, but then had to abandon her when the Hudson's Bay company would not allow her to go back to England with him.

  6. Maureen, this should be in a magazine because people need to know this amazing history. Why are you hiding your candle under a bushel? Only little cracks of light are escaping when so many more could profit from its full exposure.

  7. I do love that love story! I have been saying for years that you should be writing professionally.
    From one of your biggest fans,

  8. This is a wonderful love story. My best friend married a black man in the 1990's and was met with much the same reaction. They then adopted two mixed children that desperately needed a home. Thank you for telling the story.

  9. I love anyone who supports the underdog. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

  10. What a great story...don't you just wonder about people back then? They didn't really have the luxury to throw it all to the wind and do what they wanted like we do...they really had a price to pay

  11. Great story Maureen. Thanks for sharing it with us.
    Audrey Z.
    Timeless Treasures

  12. Beautiful story, that quilt top is amazing.

  13. Oh my gosh! What an amazing and romantic story. Why in the world hasn't someone made a movie about this!? I am enchanted with the story and would love to know more!


  14. Wow, that is interesting. I agree with Cindy above, sounds like a good movie.

  15. Maureen, I loved this story. She was truly a beautiful woman, inside and out. It would be so interesting to know what their children went on to become in life. True love never dies!

  16. Wow, I'd never heard of Pauline and her love story before this post. I love educational and interesting posts like this one!


  17. Oh my gosh Maureen! What a fabulous post. Even I know that poem (I had two canoes in Montana) but I had no idea of it's author nor the history behind it! What incredible people! When I come see you someday, I want to take that canoe ride with you!

  18. Wow... that is really an amazing story! I remember reading that poem long ago, but never knew the history of the poet. Totally fascinating stuff! Thanks so much for sharing!

  19. Maureen,
    Yes a wonderful story. Old Homes with romantic history and love. Thank you for sharing this.

  20. What a wonderful love story! Thank you so much for sharing this with us. Very interesting!

  21. Oh, I love a love story, so glad so many prejudices are gone, but it took brave people like this to pave the way!


  22. How beautiful dear Maureen! The moving story, the poem, and the picture of the house! I love the entrance to the river.
    Isn't it amazing how one or two people are enough to change the perceptions of many, even years after they died..

  23. Love this post, Maureen. Wonderful love story!
    Mary Alice

  24. You know...the story I heard on the Grand River Cruise just doesn't do justice to your story. You made me feel all caught up in the love story of our ancient neighbours and I'm appreciative of the history you bestowed upon us in your story was beautiful Maureen! xo wendy

  25. Fascinating story, and I love that house. If I am ever down that way again, I'll make a point of visiting It's about a six-hour drive according to Google maps!