Bella Davis – daughter of Jennet/Janet and Squire Davis, and wife of William G Burr

In the midst of chaos, baby Isabella Davis is born. The year is 1860.

Daughter of the Haudenosaunee’s Squire (Albert? Richard?) Davis (1825-1886) and Scottish immigrant Jennet/Jenett/Janet Ferguson Davis (1825-1905), Isabella has a steady and healthy existence for most of her adult life – but her early years have their share of tumult and shouting.

In 1859 in Uxbridge the Davidson/Davis parents pack up their brood of children – William (1847), David (1848), Richard (1852), Mary Bridden (1854), John (1856) and Margaret (1858) – and they travel south to Onondaga. James (1850) dies in Uxbridge. By 1859 Janet’s parents, William and Mary Ferguson, have also died, and William Ferguson Jr owns and runs the extensive Ferguson stock farm, displayed as a model homestead in the Old Ontario County Atlas of 1877. Be that as it may, before William Jr’s farm and his excellent husbandry reach their apex, Squire is ready to move out, and on.

In memory of
son of Squire & Jenett
who died March 8, 1852
AE 1 yr 7 mos & 17 ds

Squire leaves the Home District to relocate his large family on the Grand River. He, Janet and their young brood find and fight for a lot within the newly opened Township of Onondaga on the Six Nations Reserve. Lot 45 (46?).

Baby Isabella arrives on the scene in Onondaga and one must wonder about their circumstances: how possibly can the stressed Davis family cope with a) an overland move b) the sticky trouble of finding a new homestead, the location of which does not gain the support of disapproving chiefs and gains even less support from Squire’s brother Darius, whom Squire hopes to dislodge on the reserve (Darius runs a disorderly house on Vinegar Hill in Brantford), and c) numerous small fry?

Hence in 1861 we find the toddler Isabel [sic] living temporarily with Irish widow Harriet McKenzie and her sons. Inexplicably the census-taker records Isabella as 6 years-old. She is 1. A family researcher might believe she has unearthed the wrong Isabella. But the scribe’s notation is clear: “Daughter of Squire Davis.”

Naming and identifying are important to the amateur genealogist. As mentioned, Squire and Janet baptize their first son, William, probably after Janet’s father – William Ferguson. They call their second son David. After whom, one wonders. Our grandmother’s name, Bella, honours her mother’s deceased sister – Isabella Ferguson Thompson.

Janet and Squire are 35 when they have Bella, who is the first of several Davis children born in Onondaga. Upcoming are five more Davis babies – Elizabeth (1862), Joseph Thomas (1865), Alice (1867), Peter Robert (1869), James Clench (187?) and Albert Squire (1874). Living with stretched resources and relentless chaos must have marked the norm for a large farm family, and our Isabella sits smack in the middle of the Davis family – in the middle of the chaos and the birth order of her siblings. 

1861 census

But one gets ahead of oneself

Who is Bella Davis and what is she to us? Bella Davis is merely a straight-backed, square-jawed, attractive elderly lady, who from time to time appears in family photographs. We don’t know much more than this: Bella is our grandmother’s mother. Bella’s husband, William Graham Burr, is 23 years her senior, and Anglican Bella staunchly nurses him through his last years. Bella’s husband comes from a family of early settlers, and that’s a good thing we’re told. There’s the sum and total of our information. In the opening paragraphs I cite details gained from recent research.

As Bella’s great-grandchildren, we do not have one iota of information about our people of the Six Nations – not during our growing-up period. But we know something about our supposed origins is not copacetic. For the junior family members, most of whom consider themselves related to early and late immigrants from the British Isles, there is a vague sense of incompletion because, we feel, some matters pertinent to our family line cannot possibly be raised with our grandmother. We do meet a certain Albert Davis in Onondaga. But we have no idea who exactly Albert Davis is. Or whether we’re related.

Some buried information is sad. A cholera epidemic determines that Bella Davis misses the opportunity to know her ancestors, her grandfather Peter Davis and great-grandfather Peter the Runner. As a child she may want to discover more about the mysterious ancestor, David Davids. I know I do. Bella must know Squire’s mother, Margaret Riley Davis, who lives into the 1880s.

Some buried information is deliberate. No one in Bella’s Brantford family speaks to Bella’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren (us) about the particular significance of the aforementioned Indigenous lives, deaths and ancestors. Or the Davis homestead at Onondaga. For those of us who have long observed and admired the gentle natures of some of our family members, our grandparents’ not talking about the missing branch is frustrating–and in the end it becomes a bit of a treasure hunt.

The Burrs, Hicksite Quakers, Uxbridge/The Grahams, Children of Peace, Sharon

Our Bella Davis marries William Graham Burr, 20 November 1883. Bella is 23. W. G. is 46.

W. G. (Bill) Burr (1837-1921) is the son of Elizabeth and Reuben Burr’s youngest son, Nathaniel Burr (m Margaret Graham, b. c 1812, upper New York).

Bill Burr declares himself a member of the Church of England (or Baptist) on many a census but, in ancestral terms, he is neither. On his father’s side he hails from the Quaker/Hicksite Burrs, who are a family of late loyalists. Late loyalists are the American-born pioneers who come to Upper Canada after 1791 and before 1815,

Furthermore, Bill Burr’s mother is Margaret Graham from the Sharon Grahams, also a pacifist family of late loyalists. The Grahams belong to the Children of Peace (for more on late loyalists and their influence on Upper Canada and Canada West, see the Bloody Assize). Bill Burr’s family is part and parcel of the Markham Gang.

To understand the rise of the Markham Gang and the liberal/reform bias of the Burrs and Grahams, one rolls back time to the uprising of 1837 and the rebellion in the Home District.

In the fateful year of 1837, the Grahams and the Burrs and other republican-minded, American-born pacifists rise up against the colonial government, a.k.a., the Family Compact, of Upper Canada. (Lower Canada faces an insurrection directed against the Château Clique.)

The rebellion occurs because the executive branch of governance remains responsible to the Crown, and not to the people. Responsible government and democracy are the issues.

Some twenty to thirty years earlier, the pacifist settlers in the Home District come to British territory on the invitation of Governor Simcoe.

Simcoe offers inexpensive, large tracts of available “Canadian” land, plus recusal from military service. Recusal draws pacifists.

The pacifists come from northeastern America – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York. They arrive as pioneers and swear allegiance to the Crown and start homesteads, as agreed, but they start to despair. Why?

England’s democratic model of parliamentary, responsible government appears nowhere on the Canadian horizon. How corrupt and domineering is colonial governance in Upper Canada? It’s bad. A self-serving group indeed.

For the select men in Toronto and Montreal (see the Grand River Navigation Company swindle), however, governance resting solely in the hands of a few is too good to surrender to the whims of the people.

In Upper Canada rural American-born “British subjects” find the delay in achieving responsible government intolerable (for analysis of different British folkways, see David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s seed). The culturally disposed pacifists feel forced to take up arms against petty tyranny and resist the snooty and corrupt Toronto oligarchy – the infamous Family Compact – to demand responsible government.

1837 is also the year the year Bill Burr is born.

In the mid-1840s Bill Burr gets to hear his own holy-cow story. He is first-cousin to Robert Burr of Markham-gang fame. The Markham gang forms in the wake of the ’37 uprising. The government’s hanging of Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews cannot stand. But the gang goes in for organized crime and soon gets very good at it. From the transcripts (see Paul Arculus’ From Mayhem to Murder) we learn Nathaniel Burr defends his nephew at the gang members’ trial. Billy Burr is old enough to hear about the case from his father, Nathaniel, and old enough to realize the extent of the fuss and the fall-out from being related to the chief thug of the Markham gang, dear cousin Bob. Judging from later photographs Bill Burr matures into a quiet and unassuming fellow, a man not happy about standing in the limelight, but a man willing to distract his and Bella’s curious part-Indigenous offspring with the Burr pedigree. 

Society of Friends, Dutch Hicksites

Bella and Bill Burr have three daughters. Our grandmother is variously known as Birdy/Birdie/Bertha/Bert. She comes along in 1885. Named Birdy at birth but most often called Bert – on the 1901 census her name is Bertie – she is the eldest daughter. Burrs’ second daughter, Effie, is born in 1887. Through tragedy, the Burrs “acquire” their third daughter, Ollie Willow, in 1891. More on that later. The Burr girls are adorable. Shown in the photo are two of the three, Birdie and Effie. Looking at the camera from Effie’s perspective they are Jennie Butler (cousin, at Effie’s right, and last surviving child of Margaret/Maggie Davis and John A Butler) with Effie Burr (middle) and our grandmother Birdie Burr (at Effie’s left). Note the various skin shades of the related girls, skin shade being a defining factor in the 1901 Canada census.


Jennie Butler, Effie Burr, Birdie Burr

Bella’s daughter – grandmother Bert – is sombre when she hands me a cherished glass daguerreotype of her “renowned” late-loyalist Burr grandparents. How do you strike terror into the heart of a disorganized kid of thirteen? You say Don’t lose it. In any case Bella and her daughters are discreet women. Whatever information comes down to them stays with them. And talk about Vegas. My grandmother’s lips are tight sealed! Grandmother Bert knows volumes more than she ever tells her own children. Bert never dwells on her maternal ancestry. She expresses an interest only in the well-placed late-loyalist Nathaniel Burrs. Bert’s other grandmother, Janet/Jennet Davis, passes away at the Burr family home on Chatham Street in Brantford. Our knowledge of our handsome Haudenosaunee forebears fades away.


Margaret Graham and Nathaniel Burr c 1850

Gingerbread men and the colour-coding census of 1901

My family has dug up bones, with considerable effort, and we have learned a few things.

Squire Davis dies of typhoid fever in 1886.

Scotland-born Janet lives until 1905. We know Janet dies in her 80th year – when her granddaughter Bert Burr is 20 and daughter Bella Burr is 45, but deceased Indigenous grandfather Squire (1886) is not, apparently, a household topic.

To be fair. It is a disturbing era. Courtesy the unfortunate census of 1901, by 1905 matters are truly bad. The American Civil war is over. The effects of slavery are not.  Racism in the form of vicious anti-miscegenation and colour-coding feeds on itself and ramps up exponentially. Henry Louis Gates Jr has written a book and produced a film on post-war reconstruction in America: Stony the Road: reconstruction. white supremacy and the rise of Jim Crow.

Chicago Tribune‘s Terry Gross sums up Gates’ contention, which, because Canada is right on top of whatever happens in the USA, applies to us too: “Gates says white supremacy was born in the years after the Civil War, as white Southerners looked for ways to roll back the newly acquired rights of African-Americans.” Gates’ theses has a familiar ring. We have watched the backlash after Barak Obama’s presidency. But the point here is to understand how and why racism ramps up in Canada in the early 1900s, just when Bert and Effie Burr are in their teens.

Constance Backhouse opens Colour-coded: a legal history of racism in Canada 1900-1950 with a description of colour-coding: “The year was 1901, the eve of the first Canadian census of the twentieth century. The federal government dispatched a tidy and compact set of instructions to the faithful civil servants charged with surveying the nation. ‘The races of men will be designated by the use of “w” for white, “r” for red, “b” for black, and “y” for yellow.’ Missing was the colour brown, which was also sometimes linked to race, but including it would have mucked up the short-form letter categories, leaving two “b’s” in a polyglot of confusion. What was eminently clear, however, was that colour and race, twin conceptions were inseparably intertwined.” At the very least families must have been horrified to find their lives and loves coded at the whims of random government census-takers.

Looking back to the picture of Jennie Butler and Effie Burr and Birdie Burr (three grandchildren of Squire and Janet Davis) what do we have? In crazy code (not as they appeared on the census), Jennie is brown-skinned. Brown has no category. Jennie is a blank. Effie is coppery-skinned. She is “r” for red Indian. Birdie/Bert is white. She is “w” for Caucasian. Who would among us not shut up in the face of such hopeless and deceiving and racist tags? Understandably, living on Chatham Street in Brantford, Bella and Bill Burr demur. They code themselves and their children as “w.” In any case, mother Bella is light-skinned and she loses her status as “r” when she marries “w.” Two urban “w” parents will insist on identifying their children as “w.”

Reviewing the first part of the census page (for image, see below), starting with Percy Scholfield. Percy is “w.” Alice (daughter of Janet and Squire) is “r.” The children are “r.” Alice’s biological mother, is “w.” If you sat on your pedestal for a thousand years, and thought and thought and thought, you could not possibly come up with a stupider, more divisive or more ridiculous means of profiling people. The 1901 colour-coding does not depend on lineage or culture, which are categories that may make some sense when people self-identify. This coding depends on visible skin shade. Period. A century of trouble follows on account of this reasoning. As the excerpt of the 1901 census informs us – and depending on the mood of the census-taker – related members from the exact same family lineage are colour-coded into different “racial” categories. Urban Indigenous are more likely to code themselves “w” to fit in with their communities whereas farming families are more ambivalent about being coded “r.” Location. Location.

From another angle, the 1901 census record for William Davis is also hopeless. People declare themselves colourful, when they are not, to avoid the charge of miscegenation and to avoid incurring the wrath of the Six Nations’ chiefs and councils. William (Squire and Janet’s eldest son) gets an “r.” He and his family live on the reserve. His wife Sarah Mariah Davis also gets an “r.” But Sarah Maria is not certainly not “r.” She is “w.” Sarah Maria is the daughter of Bart Farr and Elizabeth Lymburner, both white, hence she is “w.”  But Sarah Maria is married to an avowed “r” and to avoid the charge of a racially mixed marriage she, therefore, must be an “r.” She does not want to be booted off the reserve as “w,” the way her father-in-law’s mother was in 1832. Colour-coding is nothing but nonsense. It is distressing to see the practise continue. The emphasis nowadays in multicultural Canada is on how your “colour” identifies your “culture” and not your simple humanity.

Stay clear of nonsense is the message Bella and Bert subconsciously pass down to their offspring. They themselves “code” to fit in with their location and their culture, which, apparently, is “w.”

Bella and Bert may know better than to keep secrets about ancestors and they may have done better in opening up familial information to interested progeny but in so many ways their tight lips are not surprising. Colour-coding is an insult – to them and to everyone. Ignorance piled on silence offers protection to the Burr girls – even as late as the 60s. Once practised, silence is difficult to undo. Matters that are nobody’s business are never discussed. The family, whose business it is, gets included in the ring of denial. The Burrs of Brantford rub a few “Onondagan” names off the family tree. Gone are “r” Squire Davis, and “r” William Davis, and Squire’s alleged father, the exceedingly “r” Peter Davis, and Peter’s father, the big “r,” the bringer-of-news, Peter the Runner.

All gone.


Bella’s paternal grandmother (Squire’s mother) is Margaret O’Riley/Riley/O’Reilly (b 1805). Margaret Riley identifies herself variously. Sometimes she is English (Irish?) and sometimes Indigenous. Is Margaret flexible on her colour-code category to avoid the charge of miscegenation?  Patrick O’Reilly, Margaret’s older brother, cites the United States as his birthplace on the 1851 census. We find a certain Patrick Reilly living in Niagara in 1793. But more dots have yet to be connected.

Why is Margaret’s son, Squire, registered in Ottawa as Oneida Turtle?

Why do Squire and his brothers identify themselves as Mohawk?  

Questions. Questions. But who can answer? The family-tree eraser has been at work.

We understand little about the rather heroic lives of messenger Peter Davids/Davis, perhaps called Takageghrontatye, or David Davids, a.k.a., William Karaghkontye. The latter fights at Beaver Dams in the War of 1812. John Norton refers to David Davids as “A Little Mohawk Warrior.” David Faux tell us that on the battlefield, believing he is about to die of his severe wounds, Karaghkontye passes his chiefdom to his brother Isaac Davids. Does Karaghkontye live? Who knows – perhaps little Karaghkontye  bumps into Laura Secord as they both prowl about the bush on the look-out for American soldiers.

The Davises and their fascinating and unsung heroes are gingerbread men. Brantford catches and devours them.

My family does not confirm the heretofore “suspected” existence of our maternal ancestors until 2001, wherein the 1881 census records (published online) start to unfold the amazing story. The records reveal the existences of Squire Davis, Indigenous, and Janet Davis, Scotch, and daughter Isabella, Indigenous, living with their large family in Onondaga. Thus and then, digging starts in earnest.

Life in Brantford

Some matters, however, are safe to discuss back in the day. My grandmother Bert tells me is that both she and her mother, Nanny Burr, have attended Central School (see entry on Central School by Ruth Lefler). During my grandmother’s time at Central High School she is in plays. I wonder about Bella. Does Bella, ostensibly residing in Onondaga “live in,” in Brantford while she attends CHS? How well does Bella know Pauline Johnson – the daughter of her father’s arch nemesis? This I cannot say nor can I guess how Bella catches up with Bill Burr except to note a coincidence. In Uxbridge Janet’s father William Ferguson gives the Quaker/Hicksites some of his property upon which to build a meeting-house (see plaque). Reuben, Nathaniel Burr’s father, starts out life in Canada as a Hicksite Quaker. Perhaps even before Bella Davis and Bill Burr connect the Burr and Ferguson/Davis families are already acquainted. No one thinks to ask Grandmother Bert how her parents meet, let alone her grandparents.

Nonetheless one safely speculates Bill Burr and Bella Davis have had it up to here with criminals and accusations and feuds and fame. They eschew the rough inquisitive life of the 19th century reality-show, and take the path well-worn and true: the simple path of a polite and non-Indigenous and completely non-colourful settler community. Sadly they erase family members. But happily in the day of the Internet not for long.




Pic 1: William Graham Burr (82, son of Nathaniel Burr and Margaret Graham Burr) and Isabella Davis Burr (59, daughter of Squire Davis and Jennet/Janet Ferguson) with their five grandchildren: William holding Gertrude Elizabeth Sterne, (back row) Beatrice Lillian Sterne, Henry William Sterne, Isabella, holding Isabel Frances Sterne, and, in front of Bea, Marguerite Hollier. Marguerite is the granddaughter of Bella’s older brother Richard Graham Davis, and Richard’s late wife, Sarah Lucinda Everingham Davis. Lucy dies in 1891, and the baby, Ollie Davis, goes to the Burrs, and enters the family as their own daughter: Ollie Willow Burr. Ollie Burr Hollier is the mother of toddler Marguerite in the picture. Again, the Burr daughters are Bert (1885), Effie (1887), Ollie Willow (1890). Landscape: 207 Chatham Street, Brantford, extant.


Pic 2: Photo comes courtesy of Mary and Don Danskin of Biggar Saskatchewan (Don is the son of Libby Davis Danskin and the grandson of Lucy and Richard Davis and the great-great grandson of Squire and Jennet). The photo is of the family of Isabella’s brother Richard Graham Davis and his wife Sarah Lucinda Everingham Davis. Daughter Ollie Willow yet to arrive. Either William E Davis, son of William and Sara Maria(h) Farr, or William Davis, son of Richard and Lucy, may be the Mohawk runner who comes second in the 1901 Boston Marathon and inspires famous long-distance runner – Onondaga Cogwagee – Tom Longboat. (Bill Davis-Tom Longboat connection requires verification). One can read about Tom Longboat and the horrific anti-Indigenous discrimination fin-de-siècle 19th century documented in Peter Unwin’s Canadian Folk: Portraits of Remarkable lives. Or a defence of Longboat’s training methods in Bruce Kidd’s article. And read Kidd’s book on Longboat. Or Will Cardinal’s Running against the Wind.



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