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Updated: Aug 20, 2023

"The Grand River project was unique in one particular way. It was the only major project in Canadian history financed by Indian funds. . . . Their total investment subscribed without their knowledge or consent, amounted to over £40 000. Over a hundred years of protest by the Six Nations Indians and the periodical efforts of lawyers have not reimbursed them.” B. E. Hill

Bruce Hill brings to light a serious 19th-century financial and land-jobbing scandal.

Unvested writers, historians and archaeologists studying Ontario’s Haldimand tract should fall to their knees. Without Hill’s compilation one fears the gross behaviour of colonial officials toward the Haudenosaunee on the Grand River would go forever unnoticed, at least on main street. William H Merritt. David Thompson 1. Barton Farr. Cayuga Heights (also Cainsville. Caledonia. York. Cayuga. Brantford.) Complicit, all.

At one point the generally feckless 19th-century Indian Department came forward to complain “. . . the town [Brantford] was claiming more property than the [Navigation] actually owned” (p39). Without Hill, who would know such details about the Grand River Navigation Company and the scoundrels at work removing a fortune from the wealthiest community in Upper Canada? Until Hill’s investigation the case was stone cold. Evidence lay buried beneath Grand River ice, and Canada was happy to leave it there. What happened to the wealthy Haudenosaunee? Indigenous people with miles of land and a river valley and vast mineral deposits and a bursting bank account whipped up the perfect storm for colonial officials, who were intent on stealing everything. The official shrug about the 19th-century scandal had long needed investigation, and in the 1960s Bruce Hill took up the cause. The colonial government claimed ridiculous amounts of Six Nations’ resources and property for the benefit of the canal company’s investors. Tycoons and transportation men, men like William Hamilton Merritt, David Thompson and the Mohawk Trilogy’s fictional Octavius Millburn, said such claims and incursions were necessary. To sustain the jobbers, and of course, to help the Navigation. Six Nations lost on all fronts. But among Canada West’s general scruff one man ruled.

Lieutenant-Colonel David Thompson, builder of Ruthven Hall.

“There is the little matter of the illegal and unauthorized purchases of 6,121 shares of GRNC stock valued at £38,256.5 ($160,000.00 CAD) bought between July 9, 1834 and March 13, 1845. Six Nations has been demanding some form of restitution ever since.” Jim Windle

Hill says, “By far the greatest offender [in taking advantage of his position] was David Thompson, who was a director [of the Navigation] in 1840. It had been Thompson who instigated the reduction in tolls. Not only did he have whiskey made at his distillery exempted from tolls but he claimed ‘that since wheat had been charged, the pork shipped from his company where pigs are fattened should not pay tolls.’ Thompson went even further and claimed that since he was a director, the lock at Indiana should be opened for him ‘free of charge at at all times.’ Samuel Peters Jarvis summarizes Thompson’s chicanery with the statement: ‘In fact no means have been unattempted by him to injure the company’ (p45).” Jarvis, no Six Nations’ benefactor, roundly criticized Thompson. That alone should give us pause.

From Ruthven, posted for main street on Facebook, 5th February 2018. The post reads, “‘Preserve your memories and keep them well,’ wrote Louisa May Alcott, ‘for what you forget you can never retell.'”

“What Ruthven Park’s brochures forget to tell is the tale of Thompson’s deliberate and ongoing malfeasance.”

Samuel Peters Jarvis with father William Jarvis

Entrance to morning room at Ruthven Hall

In an anecdote capturing the nature of Lieutenant Colonel Thompson L. K. Quirk writes “. . . in 1868, a suit was brought forward from the estate of Richard Brown, against the estate of David Thompson, for dividends on stock in Gore Bank. The suit alleged that David Thompson 1 wanted more power on the board of directors of the bank so he bought and paid for stock, but placed it in the hands of his friends, specifically in Richard Brown’s hands, and that Brown was willing to vote as he was told. After their respective deaths, due to uncertainty about the stock’s ownership, the dividends were not paid for some years. The accumulated dividends in question amounted to $1,200 and the bank was ready to pay whomever the court decided was the rightful owner. Although the court admitted that the practice of buying votes was considered fraudulent and contrary to the charter of Gore Bank, it was decided that the impurity of the transaction died with Mr. Thompson. Brown’s heirs, however, were entitled to the stock and dividend. Such a posthumous revelation of the elder Thompson’s conduct might have shocked some, but probably not all who really knew Thompson.”

Quirk notes that evidence of Thompson’s malfeasance in Indiana seems to have vanished. (See Indiana and Ruthven Hall and the case of the purloined papers). David Thompson 1 was a magistrate. And an MP in the United Province of Canada. And an incurable scofflaw. How interesting is that?

Too interesting for a curator’s mention at Ruthven Park now open to the public as a heritage site. After all. Where lies the evidence? Vanished.

We have read William Hamilton Merritt’s entry (by J. J. Talman) in online Dictionary of Canadian Biography and find Talman’s omissions compelling. Analysis of the Navigation’s scandal and its utter affront to the Six Nations is nowhere to be seen. Talman seals his loyal lips.

(Although . . . Historian David Shanahan believes Merritt might have been the one to help himself to Indian funds. Not the disgraced Jarvis but who knows? No answers are necessary when no one asks questions.) Here is an excerpt from Dr. Talman’s cool piece on Merritt and may we say butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Talman says “With the St Lawrence system opened, tributary streams which disgorged themselves into it, could, [Merritt] said, be made navigable by private companies such as the Grand River Navigation Company with which he was involved as a director and adviser from 1834 to 1857. That company, using funds from the Six Nations [Confederacy], improved transportation on the Grand River and gave the inhabitants of the area an inexpensive outlet to markets.” And so renowned Canadian historian J. J. Talman twirls around the Six Nations’ financial debacle and spins Merritt’s reputation and skates over the Navigation’s cold and decomposing body. Talman’s version of history, false because of omission, settlers.

Hill offers truths.

Hill finds evidence of a gross scam/debacle designed to relieve Six Nations of monies, river, lands and resources. All without compensation. This happens in the 19th-century when rascals were free to take what they wanted without brakes because crucial Canadian recognition of Six Nations sovereignty was not an option. Now until now. Bruce Emerson Hill, we who want to know about the Grand River Navigation Company are in your debt. You share with us “interesting” information about the Navigation, which no other Canadian historian has done, before or since.

When all is said and done, a question lingers. If the Six Nations coffers held enough money (invested in bonds and English banks and “saved” in the Crown’s general revenue) to build a canal system, why, in 1832, were the Indigenous “inhabitants” of the Grand River settlement destitute?

Read the 1867 report on the Grand River Navigation Company

Jim Windle

SIX NATIONS – The story of Brantford, its growth and the importance of the Grand River Navigation Company in establishing it and a number of other communities along the Grand River between Brantford and Duncanville, goes without saying. [Actually, the fact of it does not go without saying. The story of the Navigation should be told and told again. SM]

The idea of connecting the Grand River in a more direct path to the Lake, cutting off 12 miles, made all the sense in the world in the 1830s when rivers were the main highways of travel and commerce. The success of the Welland Canal had spawned the idea of connecting another canal to expand the canal network considerably. The industrial revolution was in full swing and foreign trade was in the minds of European and Canadian movers and shakers eager to make their fortune quickly in the New World.

For a time there was prosperity and enormous growth as Brantford began gobbling up more and more land beyond the seven to eight square miles agreed to by John Brant and the Six Nations Confederacy.The Grand River Navigation Company (GRNC) was incorporated on January 18, 1832 and promoted by several early Canadian industrialists and politicians, including David Thompson who certainly had vested interest in the project. He also had the ear of those in government who lusted over the increasing Six Nations Trust Funds bottom line, acquired through land sales and leases of Haldimand Tract land.

But financial instability slowed the completion of the canal project down, alarming the settler investors of the expensive project. Those with their finances and reputations in the balance, could not afford to let this idea fail.

The Chiefs said “no” to several overtures from government officials and speculators for Six Nations investment in the canal. Desperate, the board of directors found a way to access Six Nations Trust Funds and purchased on their behalf, 6,121 shares of GRNC stock to keep the company solvent for a time.

For all the money invested and all the labour intense carving of the landscape to straighten the meandering path of the Grand, the entire life of the GRNC lasted only 29 years. The development of the railway was the last nail in the coffin of the era of the canal. It was cheaper, more direct and it was usually open year round, whereas the canal season only lasted as long as the river was not frozen over.

But during most of those years, with its connection to the Welland Canal completed in 1824, it made Brantford, Caledonia, York, and Dunnville boomtowns. There is no questioning of the spin-off economic benefits the Grand River Navigation Company has had on settlers and speculators, if not investing in the canal system itself, investing in building the towns and villages along its path.

The entire canal system was not completed and opened until 1848. To accomplish this task, 360 of the 551 acres taken to build locks, erect dams and other support system, belonged to Six Nations. Settlers who sold their land in favour of the Canal were paid quite nicely while Six Nations received nothing. Timber needed for the project was also cut from Six Nations Territory with no compensation. But the biggest farce of justice is that the promoters of the Canal arbitrarily used Six Nations Trust Funds, without authorization or knowledge, to keep afloat this money-loosing venture.

In its heyday, the Grand River was a busy place with 100 steamers registered operating on the Grand. By 1850, passengers aboard the “Queen”, Red Jacket” and “Messmore” could make a return trip from Brantford to Buffalo in a mere 48 hours. Passenger and freight steamers made regular stops at Newport, Caledonia, Cayuga and Dunnville, along the way. The canal system created jobs along the canal front and the mills set up close by, but the GRNC itself was still leaking money and getting worse with the advent of the rail system.

By 1859 the canal locks were in need of much repair and the town of Brantford foreclosed on the mortgage it had put up for the GRNC. A court decision put full ownership of the company in the City’s hands in 1861.

The Haldimand Navigation Company was formed to purchase a part of the GRNC, except what is known as the Brantford Cut, comprising of three locks, tow-path and the canal path. By 1880, the system lay desolate, neglected, abandoned and becoming a liability and safety concern to the city.

Mr. Alfred Watts had a solution. He would build a hydro-electic dynamo repurposing part of the canal as a water-race source to turn the turbines.

“Brantford was more than glad to deed this land to Mr. Watts in 1875, for the cost of one dollar,” writes author Bruce Emerson Hill in his book, “The Grand River Navigation Company”.

As part of the agreement, Mr. Watts was to maintain the canal property and protect the banks against the encroachments of the Grand River. By 1905, Watts’ dynamo was generating a capacity of 1,200 horsepower and was supplying electric power to many large industries popping up in the area.

A win-win, right? Not for everyone. There is the little matter of the illegal and unauthorized purchases of 6,121 shares of GRNC stock valued at £38,256.5 ($160,000.00 CAD) bought between July 9, 1834 and March 13, 1845. Six Nations has been demanding some form of restitution ever since.

The town of Indiana was built to offer homes to mill and warehouse workers and a community to live in which was within walking distance to the canal. The community of Indiana was the brainchild of David Thompson, who, with thinly vested interest, promoted the Grand River Navigation Company using his government connections. His mansion, “Ruthven” still stands on Highway 54 as a tourist attraction where it was built, it is said with Six Nations Trust Funds, in 1845 located at the edge of what was once Indiana, facing the Grand River. There is little trace of Indiana left except for the “gatehouse” at Ruthven Park.

This unauthorized use of Trust Funds has never been explained or dealt with by Canada or Brantford and remains on file today. In essence, the Township of Brantford had purchased stolen stocks from the GRNC and using those bogus stocks as authority to sell off the real estate, alienating the people of Six Nations from 360-acrea of their land and all future revenues, which could have been derived from this land had it not been stolen.

This claim has been registered several times in Six Nations petitions addressed to the Crown, but as of today, some 180 years later, there is still no settlement.

In closing, to say the Grand River Navigation Company was essential to the growth and establishment of the City of Brantford would be a true statement and even an understatement, but it most certainly is not a proud moment in Brantford/Six Nations relations and remains a stumbling block today.


Letter to Editor

Brantford Expositor: Tim Reynolds, author

8 February 2008

“My concern is that there has not been any real effort by the Liberal provincial and Conservative governments to educate the general public honestly about treaties, treaty relationships, land claim policies and the real history of Canada.

“Premier Dalton McGuinty says he stands behind the Ontario land registry and well he should because it’s doing a lot of damage upfront to the relationships with First Nations people and its degenerative smoke and mirrors avoidance of international treaty laws and Canadian laws.

“All levels of government have stated that they want to settle land claims fairly, speedily and in good faith, but their actions keep issuing high rates of building permits on mutually acknowledged disputed land which under any law is illegal and a high-handed application of the law.

“In 1990 former prime minister Brian Mulroney promised to settle land claims but didn’t and during the Jean Chretien-Paul Martin years, only three claims were settled. Concerning the Plank Road claim in Caledonia, the Road to the Reclamation radio series by CKRZ 100.3 presents facts and documentation that point to fraud by Indian Affairs and that the land was never surrendered lawfully.“

I have read the book, The Grand River Navigation Company, written by Bruce Emerson Hill, published by the Brant Historical Society that clearly shows swindling of Six Nations trust funds and a large portion of their land.

“Yes, the government has an iron-solid standing case, but, unfortunately, it’s in the middle of pit of quicksand filled with lies, swindling and a reluctance to return what isn’t theirs!

“Can Canadian governments meet the challenges of decolonization of First Nation’s people and, if they can’t, land claims should be settled in an international court that will not have a biased and economic vested interest in the land like Canada has so often demonstrated. These battles without honour and humanity must end.”

Tim Reynolds


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