Brantford, the Earliest Occupations - Post 1

When I travel I often wonder why and how the places I visit were created out of the wilderness. What were the attributes of locations and the circumstances of the time that saw certain areas develop? Why did some communities prosper and thrive while others stagnate or disappear? Who were the early characters and what were their dreams? I will be writing about local history. Let me begin with settlement in the Brantford area.

During the last ice age most of Canada was covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet. This glacier advanced and retreated a number of times. It was the advance and retreat of the glacier that altered the geography of southern Ontario. When the ice finally retreated, about 12,000 years ago, Glacial Lake Warren was formed in the Lake Erie basin. Brantford / Brant was under this lake, but near the shore line. Notice how the topography of Brantford rises from south to north; the rise to Terrace Hill from the downtown. The glaciers shaped the land and created the Grand River Valley which was left with rich deposits of fertile soil and gravel.

The earliest human occupation of this area after the retreat of the ice can be traced back about 12,000 years ago. These people were nomadic leading a subsistence lifestyle. Between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago, the climate warmed, and the population became less nomadic settling into particular geographical areas. The period that followed saw cultural and horticulture development and communities established.

The early European records suggest that the people living in this area were the Attawandarons or Neutrals. The French called them Neutrals because they remained neutral during the continuing conflicts between the Iroquois to the south and east and the Huron to the north. Recollet missionary Father La Roche Daillon was the first European to record his visit with the Attawandarons in 1626. He found 28 villages in his travels in the Neutral’s territory, with the principal village, Kandoucho, located near present day Brantford, although the interpretation of this record is in dispute.

Father Daillon described the Grand River Valley as the most beautiful place he had seen in all his wanderings; a luxuriant valley featuring great stands of trees of all types, nut trees, fruit trees and bushes and plants, and ample variety of game, fish, and birds. Notwithstanding Father Daillon’s description of abundance, the Neutrals experienced periods of feast and famine which kept the population in check. They numbered between 12,000 and 40,000 over their period of occupation. European infectious diseases and periods of famine led to their declining numbers. The Neutrals were driven from the area in 1651 after being annihilated by the Iroquois in their conflict with the Huron over the fur trade. Of those that remained some were assimilated by the Iroquois and the others migrated west to Michigan and beyond.

The area was used by the Iroquois as an extended hunting ground and remained largely permanently uninhabited until 1690 when the Mississaugas moved into the Grand River Valley.

The Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois, are a First Nations confederacy comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. They are also known as the Six Nations.

Meanwhile in the American colonies, discontent was fomenting between the settlers and the crown after the Proclamation of 1763, which closed off the western frontier to colonial expansion. As unrest in the American colonies increased, it became clear to the British that a rebellion against the Crown was forming so the British enlisted the support of Joseph Brant, a Mohawk, and a man of influence with both the British and the Iroquois, to help them fight the rebellion and keep the American colonies under British rule. When the British lost the war and the Americans gained independence, many of the Iroquois loyal to the British, based in the Mohawk Valley and Finger Lakes region of New York State, migrated north of the Great Lakes along with their loyalist neighbours and friends. 

Brant lobbied Frederick Haldimand, the Governor of the Province of Quebec (which at the time included what is now Ontario) for compensation for their support of the Crown and the subsequent loss of their land in America. On 25-October-1784 Haldimand granted “to the Mohawks and all those that followed”, “a tract of land, six miles in depth, on each side of the Grand River” from its mouth to its source. This land was purchased by the Crown from the Mississaugas.

At the time of the land grant, south western Ontario was identified by the British as ‘Indian’ lands, as per the Proclamation of 1763. European settlement was focused in what is now southern Quebec, eastern Ontario and the north eastern and mid-Atlantic United States.

In the fall of 1784 Joseph Brant, encouraged many of the Haudenosaunee to follow him and settle in Grand River Valley. They forded the Grand River at a shallow spot south of the present day Lorne Bridge and stopped at a site that was to become known as the Mohawk Village, where the Mohawk Chapel is located. The Mohawk Village was located on an oxbow-shape bend of the Grand River, situated on a high gravel ridge above the flood plain where corn could be easily grown. The geography and climate around Brantford was similar to the Finger Lakes region. Brant and his followers were able to transfer their crops to this area of the land grant tract.

John Smith, a loyalist, and his son-in-law John Thomas, friends of Brant, were persuaded by Brant to come to the Grand River Valley with the Mohawks. Early white settlers included the Nelles, Dochsteders, Youngs, and Huffs, all military veterans. In 1788 Alexander Westbrook and Benjamin Fairchild (Fairchild’s Creek is named after him) moved to the district.

Brant eventually began to lease and sell certain sections of the land grant planning tocreate a fund for the long term benefit and support of the Haudenosaunee in this area.

Brant realised that the Six Nations people alone could not utilise all the land granted so he encouraged his non Native friends to the area. Blacksmithing, schools and other European trades and services integrated well in their traditional homeland therefore would also work well in this area.