Designated a National Historic Site in 1992, the story of Chiefswood actually begins in the 1850’s with Chief George H.M. Johnson, and his English bride Emily Howells.
As a Chief in the Confederacy Council, George’s role as an intermediary between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures was greatly valued. George worked first as an interpreter for the Anglican mission at the Six Nations and later as the government interpreter in the Six Nations Confederacy Council. For most of his life, he straddled both worlds and worked to create understanding between them.
It was while working as an interpreter for the Tuscarora Parsonage that he met, and fell in love with Emily. They became engaged, but kept it a secret for five years before announcing their intent to marry. The news came as a shock to their families and communities, as society was not yet accustomed to the idea of interracial marriages. They wed in a private ceremony on August 27, 1853, and continued to live at the Tuscarora Parsonage while their new home was being constructed.
George and Emily moved into Chiefswood National Historic with their two children, Henry Beverly Johnson and Helen Charlotte Eliza Johnson, in December of 1856. The home, beautifully constructed and crafted, was a wedding gift to George’s beloved bride. It was important to them to have a home that represented both of their cultures, and special care was taken not only in the architecture, but the furnishings as well.
The house was constructed with two front doors, which referenced Chiefswood’s function as a meeting place between two cultures. As an interpreter, George and Emily often hosted meetings and dinner parties for key members of both communities, including Chiefs, Government Officials, and even acclaimed inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. Furnishings, though Victorian in nature, were also carved with Iroquoian designs to showcase their “dual cultures”. Examples of this can be found throughout the restored home, including the Drawing Room.
The Johnson family would grow to include two more children, Allen Wawanosh Johnson, and famed poetess E. Pauline Johnson also known as Tekahionwake. They would stay at Chiefswood until George H.M. Johnson’s passing in 1884. After Johnson was buried at Mohawk Chapel, the family moved to nearby Brantford, Ontario into smaller quarters.
Though the Johnson family moved on, Chiefswood, the oldest surviving pre-confederate Native Mansion in Ontario, remains as a testament to their culture, heritage, and influence with the community.
A trilingual plaque (English, French and Mohawk) was recently installed by Parks Canada at Chiefswood denoting Chiefswood’s National Historic Site status.
For more information please visit www.chiefswood.com