NEWS BRANTFORD – Rumours have haunted Oxbow Road for decades...
A prominent thread running through the narrative of the Grand River Saga centres on a documented story of land theft.
In the notoriously turbulent mid-nineteenth century, this particular land theft might have gone unnoticed except for one woman's determination. That woman was the mother of Squire Tehawennihárhos. Her name was Margaret Riley Davis. For simplicity, Margaret. At the time of Margaret's husband's death, her children were John, Squire, Charles, Darius, Chrissiny, George.
First, a bit about the stolen land: Locally, Bow Park Farm has always been famous. At least, Anglo-American settlers have thought so. The farm was once owned by one of the Fathers of Confederation, George Brown, he who was the founder of the Toronto Globe newspaper.
How Brown got the land on the fertile oxbow (near Brantford) is a mystery.
We do know this. George Brown was not the first nineteenth-century owner of Bow Park Farm.
Mohawk warrior and news bearer, Peter the Runner, his wife Kayendatye, his son, Peter Davis Jr and wife Margaret Riley (Reilly, O'Reilly) had already claimed and cleared the land on the oxbow, transforming it into a farm from its original heavily-wooded state.
The cholera epidemic of 1832 killed both Peter the elder and junior. (Kayendatye, probably not an English speaker, vanished. She later turned up in Indiana on the Grand River, the village site of Ruthven Hall. One can find Kayendatye's name in the 1851 census.)
The story: Upon her father-in-law and husband's deaths, Margaret Riley Davis, Peter Jr's wife, was ordered to remove her children from the Davis's cholera-infected farmhouse. Epidemiology was in its early stages. Doctors were not sure whether cholera, like smallpox, could be transmitted through contaminated objects. In fact, one gets cholera by drinking (river) water or eating food contaminated with the bacteria.
When the moment was deemed safe, the widow Davis returned to her property, but all was not well. Margaret found another woman occupying her home. Furthermore, soon after Margaret returned, trouble came a-calling. At gunpoint and with knives brandished, John Smoke Johnson, aka Sakayengwaraton, and his Indigenous cohorts chased Margaret and her six kids (including a small Squire) off their cleared land. Who was "white"? Who was Indigenous? Those appeared to be the salient questions. Margaret's children were all listed in the 1851 and 1881 censuses as Indigenous, but not Margaret. In later censuses, however, Margaret successfully identified as Indigenous. But, as a human, as a woman, as the widow of a warrior, Margaret Riley Davis wanted her due. Margaret, though unable to read and write, had courage. It took a while, but Margaret sought repartions. See affidavits below.
When it came to grabbing land, thieves were not always colonial. Smoke Johnson was a thief. Suspicions were bruited about concerning when and how the towering Smoke Johnson obtained a copy of Chief David of Schoharie's Book of Rites. Goodness knows, somehow the famous wampum belt of the Haudenosaunee ended up in the wrong hands. Definitely though, Johnson unethically if not unlawfully seized the Davises' land. Perhaps it was a family member (or Smoke himself) who sold the Haudenosaunee's oxbow farm to white George Brown. In any case, Margaret was conveniently "white." She had to go. And Johnson saw to it.
Heard from relatives: For decades, the Davis and Johnson families remained avowed enemies. Isabella Davis and Pauline Johnson likely attended elementary school together. That was probably not much fun –– for either girl. Only after Smoke Johnson's death did council award Squire Davis the prestigious title of Pathmaster.
Squire Tehawennihárhos Davis never got over the alleged reason for Margaret's forcible and unfair eviction, especially since Smoke Johnson's own mother-in-law was white. And, ironically, Smoke Johnson and Helen Martin's elder son, Chief George Henry Martin Johnson, also married a white woman, Emily Howells.
Squire would not be satisfied until he owned land on the crazy river.
Margaret and Patrick's sworn affidavits are an incredible find. For the inspired, the muse has just knocked on the door. The impulse to reveal a monstrous theft is strong. Consequently, the writer falls headfirst down the rabbit hole. The outrageous personal story, told in tandem with the Grand River Navigation Company's scandal and the forced clearance of "coloureds" from Brantford, turns into three books, Sky Walker Tehawennihárhos, Sky Walker Tehawennihárhos: The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Sky Walker Tehawennihárhos: Charter, together known as the Mohawk Trilogy.
Did the injured Davises curse the Oxbow Road?
BY HEATHER IBBOTSON, BRANTFORD EXPOSITOR TUESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2007 12:00:00 EDT
‘Tales of murder, mayhem and the macabre have haunted Oxbow Road for at least 30 years. Variations on a horror-movie theme have evolved and mutated of their own accord into ever more gruesome tales of triple homicide, dead babies, blood-splattered walls and headless ghosts. Unfortunately for Hollywood, the whole thing is hogwash. There is no evidence of a murder, heinous or otherwise, ever occurring on Oxbow Road, and the closest things to ghosts were likely a wonky night light in the bedroom of a teenage girl or a frustrated farmer.
“There is no truth to it. There have been no sightings,” said Elke Hilgendag, 37, who lives on Oxbow Road.
“No record of any malicious bloodshed on the Oxbow has been unearthed.”
Following is the Affidavit of Margaret Riley/O’Reily/O’Reilly Davis, 27 October (1845), to David Thorburn Esq, Special Commissioner,* regarding Davis’s Oxbow Farm on the Grand River at Cayuga Heights (now Cainsville). Signed and sworn in the presence of Magistrate Nathan Gage, Brantford.
Margaret Riley Davis:
“My brother and myself had been in about two hours when John [Smoke] Johnson and from about eight to ten other Indians armed with knives and a pistol drove us out and the said John S. Johnson said he had broken the lock and opened the door and given Mrs. Dana possession of the furniture.”
“The undersigned was married about twenty years ago to Peter Davis, an Indian, and son of Peter Davis, known by the name of Peter the Runner. The elder Peter took up the land long previously and when in a perfectly wild state. At our marriage we went to live on the place with my husband’s father and resided with him occasionally to take care of him until the year 1832 when both my husband and his father died of cholera and when at the direction of the physician Doctor Gilpin I left the house and about thirty acres of improved and well cultivated land and my furniture locked up in the house. The same fall I returned to occupy the house and found one Anna Dana living in it. She appeared willing to leave it to me. My brother and myself had been in about two hours when John [Smoke] Johnson and from about eight to ten other Indians armed with knives and a pistol drove us out and the said John S. Johnson said he had broken the lock and opened the door and given Mrs. Dana possession of the furniture. I had left a quantity of potatoes and corn which my brother had secured in the house after I left plus a small sack of oats and all had been destroyed or consumed. My father-in-law nor husband ever disposed of their right to occupy the premises to any person. At the decease of my husband I was left to support five children and in consequence of being driven off in the manner as stated from my home have suffered great privation. I understand that the present occupant claims possession under Johnson. I hope that with the facts before you will not offer anyone to purchase these premises until satisfaction is made to me and my children for our rights for improvements.”
Margaret X Davis
“Patrick O’Reilly maketh Oath and Saith that he is brother to Margaret Davis, that he knew the an Indian known as Peter the Runner, that his sister was married to his son Peter, that the elder Peter resided on a place at the OxBow on the Grand River about thirty years ago in a small log house and then had about twenty acres improved and in fences – that the statement made in the foregoing communication in relation to the deposition and his sister Margaret being driven off the premises therein mentioned by Indians is true.”
Subscribed and sworn before in Brantford this 27th day of October 1845
Patrick X O’Reilly
One doesn’t believe in curses, of course not – but, if ever a property were cursed . . .
Here is the settlers' story
. . . “I’ve lived here for 30 years and there has never been anything out of the ordinary. It’s a historic farm and nothing else,” Hilgendag said.
"Bow Park Farm was once the home of George Brown. [Brown is] remembered as both a Father of Confederation and for the Toronto Globe newspaper. He established the farm in 1866. The farm later was owned by a joint stock company which ran a mixed operation, raising horses, cattle, sheep and pigs.
"By the mid-1880s, the farm was devoted primarily to the breeding and raising of short- horn cattle. At one time, it was home to some 300 of the prized and pricey purebred beasts, believed at the time to be the largest herd of short-horns in the world.
"During much of the 20th century, the farm was owned by Canadian Canners Ltd. and produced a dazzling array of fruits and vegetables.
"Today, Bow Park Farm produces pedigreed wheat and soybean varieties.
"No one knows when the rumours started, or why.
"No record of any malicious bloodshed on the site has been unearthed.”
Of course nothing malicious has been unearthed. Neither the Haudenosaunee (blinking at the many underhanded shenanigans of Pine Tree Chief Smoke Johnson, grandfather of the famous poet, Pauline Johnson) nor the people of Brantford (falling back on colonial privilege, which assumes the only Canadian life worth knowing begins in 1867) care to dig up facts when they can dig up onions.
*David Thorburn, Special Commissioner to the Six Nations, shows up in Squire's life on more than one occasion.
Images: Mohawk village, John Smoke Johnson, Bow Park farm's workers digging up onions
Squire and Jennet's daughter Maggie Davis, is shown here with husband, John Butler.
Maggie and John are the parents of Squire and Jennet's granddaughter Jennie Butler, pictured here with two of Squire and Jennet's other granddaughters, Effie Burr and Birdie Burr. Many wouldn't care who owned land 200 years ago? But why cover up the story? Did Squire and Jennet's grandchildren ever hear about the theft of the Davis farm on the oxbow? If so, they never said. Not a word to their grandchildren – even though at least one grandchild felt compelled to own land (Brooklea) on the banks of the Grand River.
In mid-nineteenth century, who had the courage to stand against Smoke Johnson and George Brown? Who left a trail for posterity to find? Who wanted Canadians to know the facts?
Margaret Riley Davis. That's who.