Right into his 90s, John “Smoke” Johnson would tell stories of his time fighting in the War of 1812.
“He claims to have been personally responsible for canoeing across the Niagara River and setting Buffalo on fire,” said Chiefswood National Historic Site curator Karen Dearlove. “We can’t validate that, but we can’t invalidate it either.”
The father of Chiefswood builder George Johnson and grandfather to poet E. Pauline Johnson joined the war effort at the age of 23, fighting for the British.
“Smoke” Johnson’s tale makes up part of Chiefswood’s latest exhibit, The Six Nations, John “Smoke” Johnson and the War of 1812, on now until the museum closes for the season on Oct. 7.
“Even though Chiefswood wasn’t constructed at that time, we wanted to give more of a name and a face to Six Nations veterans of the War of 1812,” Dearlove said. “If you read the history books they say things like ‘There were 400 Mohawks,’ but don’t give a face or a name.”
Dearlove is a member of the Six Nations Legacy Consortium, which is working to preserve Six Nations historical legacies.
“One of our projects is to try and identify as many of these names and bring those personal stories to life. They were important and they have their own stories. John ‘Smoke’ Johnson is a great example of that,” Dearlove said.
The exhibit also tells the story of E. Pauline Johnson’s involvement in War of 1812 history.
Following the war, the British presented the people of Six Nations with the Claus Wampum belt as a way to give thanks and confirm their promise of continued freedom for Six Nations.
The belt was entrusted to wampum keeper and Onondaga chief, John Buck. But, upon Buck’s death, his family, unbeknownst to the community, sold the belt for personal gain.
The belt was purchased by Pauline Johnson to use in her stage costumes.
When Pauline Johnson was looking to finance a trip to England to promote her poetry in 1905, she sold it to U.S. Native American artifact collector George Heye for $500.
Heye eventually transferred much of his collection to a museum in Philadelphia, but the belt was missing.
“It wasn’t until 1996 when someone was cataloguing the collection that it was found again,” Dearlove said. “It was missing for 90 years.”
That year members of Six Nations started the process to repatriate the belt, and this year the belt was formally returned.
“It was given to the Six Nations as a promise of war, it spent time in the Johnson family, was sold to a collector and 200 years later it made its way back on the anniversary of the war,” Dearlove said. “I think it’s a fascinating story. It encapsulates this nearly 200 year old agreement between the British and Six Nations.”
In addition to the Johnson family’s stories, the exhibit also features a series of the family’s artifacts of the war, including a photograph of Chief Oshawana – often considered Tecumseh’s second in command – musket balls and a souvenir flag from the War of 1812 centennial.
“With the War of 1812 there is so much to learn about in this area and we want to make this part of the experience,” Dearlove said. “It’s an other chapter.”