The Grand River Navigation Company: The Grand Theft

Speaking of not paying . . . The [Grand River Navigation Company] of colonial and confederate Canada never paid the Six Nations for non-surrendered expropriated land nor returned a single penny of investment but most remarkable was this turnaround: the canal company was forever in need of cash infusions and used up Six Nations’ capital monies in fifteen years. The Navigation wrung so much out of Six Nations’ trust funds the people actually landed in debt to the Receiver-General in 1843–44, right about the time the brand-new and salubrious Caledonia with the village’s very profitable mills burst upon the Haldimand scene. 

This story is about a scandal – a scandal of incredible proportion.

a) By the time the digging stops on the Grand River Navigation Company’s canal system, the Crown in the name of Canada will have, once again, robbed and left destitute its Haudenosaunee allies.  

b) “Canal fever” is an unhealthy obsession with building canals – a pun on the mosquito-born illnesses that plague the navvies who do the digging and quarrying for the waterways and canals.

c) Upper Canada’s William Hamilton Merritt and David Thompson 1 are entrepreneurs and visionaries and they catch a bug. They catch “canal fever,” which, along with malaria, is running rampant on this continent in the 1830s.

d) W. H. Merritt and D. Thompson 1 and the colonial government pick the Grand River for their latest water highway. The water highway, as envisioned, is meant to improve the old Grand – the Ouse, Tinaatoua – which flows from west to east. Work begins. And nothing but trouble ensues.

e) A bit of history. Because of the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee – Iroquois League – forfeit not only their homes in the Mohawk Valley but also their precious sovereignty. After General Sullivan’s massive scorched earth campaign, the Eastern door of the Longhouse is gone. The land is devastated, and the diaspora moves north to Niagara. Swiss-born General Frederick  Haldimand, Governor of Quebec (1778-1786), warns the colonial office of impending local uprisings: there are many displaced warriors camped out at Niagara and he, Haldimand, has to do something quick to damp down a crisis. He naturally wants to avoid a revolt. Haldimand deeds the Grand River Tract (Ouse) to the the Six Nations. To be clear. Mohawk Pine Tree Chief Thayendanegea, known to the English as Captain Joseph Brant, is not “given” anything. After checking out Cataraqui, Brant claims the the Grand River and adjacent lands for the people. The valley is fertile and the Seneca Nation is glad to have allies nearby. Thayendanegea expects the support of the Crown. Why not? For allied help, the Crown has promised the friendly members of the Indian confederacy and Brant’s volunteers (including families of displaced Palatine Germans) a new country. Not all of the Haudenosaunee are allied with the Crown. Some, such as Brant’s in-laws, support the patriots. In any case, the Crown has promised to pay and compensate the allied warriors and their leader Thayendanegea Joseph Brant for their invaluable assistance and losses incurred during the war. Brant expects sovereignty for his nation(s), as he insists. He wants nothing more nor less than that which his people enjoyed in the Mohawk Valley, USA (see James Paxton).

With Haldimand’s deed for Grand River Territory, Brant brings his people (those willing) to the Grand River to build a new settlement on their upper-country hunting grounds.

By 1784, due in great part to the efforts of Brant and the service of Brant’s Volunteers (fighting as allies of the “English,” later called “the British,” during the American Revolution), the Six Nations or Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga and Tuscarora) own the Grand River and six miles on either side.

See readings.

 NB: The Haudenosaunee are not subjects of the Crown. The Haudenosaunee are the Crown’s allies. Future generations of Canadians, including Mohawk F.O. Loft, muddy the two concepts to the detriment of the People of the Longhouse.

You can hear Phil Monture on land claims (YouTube).



Back to the canal waterway: Merritt and Thompson

For the growth of Canadian markets and the fostering of Canadian-American trade, W H Merritt and D Thompson see stars in Buffalo’s skies. Buffalo is end of the line for the Erie Canal. How best to get to Buffalo from the British-held upper country? That is the big question. Perhaps the old Tinaatoua, a.k.a., Ouse, a.k.a., the Grand River, provides an answer.



Why choose the Grand River for a waterway?

Early in the 19th century the Grand River was dammed at its mouth. A feeder line ending at Dunnville took smallish craft to Welland Canal. Late loyalist Absalom Shade used the river to transport goods. Shade was a mill owner and a distillery operator who lived upstream on the Grand in what is present day Galt/Cambridge. Shade built and floated his giant arcs downstream. Shade’s large rafts demonstrated what Douglas Reville, in the History of the County of Brant, calls a “phantasmal” opportunity, which was a river highway to market heaven, so to speak.

Entrepreneurs like Shade argued the entire Grand River made a logical addition to the North American canal waterways system. Brantford to Buffalo. (Or for Canadian commodities and markets, Brantford to St. Catharine’s to Toronto or Montreal). From the upper country fast river currents would float to Lake Erie the raw products – the interior’s gypsum of plaster, wheat, sowbellies and timber – and then return the favour. The Grand River could paddle people, luxury imports and manufactured commodities upstream. For Merritt and Thompson the city of Buffalo offered the main jumping-off point to American markets and all eyes in Brantford were on burgeoning Buffalo as desirable means of entry from British Upper Canada into the United States.

Visions and visionaries go bad

The Grand River Navigation Company (Bruce E Hill’s book is available at Brant Historical Society) details not only a financial disaster but also an Indigenous scandal, which one can drop at the feet of the entrepreneurs who catch canal fever. In particular, David Thompson 1 and William Hamilton Merritt. But let us not forget other culpabilities. The two canal builders got official sanction from colonial officers John Colborne and John Henry Dunn. 






The set-up

Digging a mid-19th-century canal was a job for supermen – mostly poor Irish supermen. Canal-building took many designers and overseers – mostly Scottish and American. Paying for the new canal waterway on the Grand River took significant financial and natural resources – mostly Haudenosaunee.

The nascent British colony (Upper Canada, post 1791) ran on a hope and a prayer. The colony did not have enough of what it needed to build another, newer canal system – not enough money, no river, no adjacent land. So. Who had money? What river? What about land? Call the ancient federation what you will – the Iroquois League or the Six Nations Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee or the Rotinonhsyonni or the Grand River’s People of the Longhouse – they had money.

The Haudenosaunee were rich. Filthy rich. At the very very least £40 000 rich. Not only that. They owned a river. They owned land. They owned minerals. But, sadly, the Haudenosaunee people faced shrinking ranks. The people started to be fewer in number than American-born settlers. Their lesser critical mass made their deep pockets ripe for the picking.

As mentioned, Brantford and the Grand River lie within Six Nations Territory (see the Haldimand Proclamation). Buffalo grew apace. But in 1822 Brantford itself was hardly a village. Less than 100 people according to James Wilkes, whose memoir Reville excerpts. Wilkes recalled hard travel on the detestable roads. “The principal trade was done with the Indians, but there was some through travel on the way to Detroit. This section was known as the Grand River Swamp, and twenty to thirty miles a day was big travel, so that taverns were, of necessity, numerous” (p71). Taverns were numerous because roads were terrible but for sure the upper country’s wheat farmers and stock producers, drunk or sober, were desperate. They wanted to get commodities to and from Buffalo.

Reville says many “wide-awake” souls in the 1820s figured the Grand River’s water levels might permit slack-water navigation. The waterway would take engineering. The river would take “tinkering.” It will would take some locks and some dams and maybe a few canals. Lachine, Rideau and Welland canals were making a go of it – sort of – and settlers argued they could imagine the ancient Tinaatoua, with improvement, might compensate them for the world’s worst highways and byways.

For the most part the Grand River is a fast-moving shallow river and tinkering is operative word. Nonetheless canal fever was a perfect front for individual loyalists and a few Six Nations’ entrepreneurs and Scottish land jobbers and the Crown – all of whom declared their investment in the navigation company should return big money.

The Crown mouthed the right sentiments but one doubts genuine good intent. “Indifferent intent” would be the correct phrase. Whatever happened, a poor “Indian” nation was better than a rich one. And so poverty-stricken Irish supermen started in earnest to dig the Grand River Navigation Company’s canal system. Did the colonial officers care about a return on the money, or did they want to impoverish the wealthy Haudenosaunee? For real this time.

Why do some people believe the Grand River’s Six Nations Confederacy is impoverished in 1832?

Once-upon-a-time the Haudenosaunee on the Grand River were rich. In “Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) & the Haldimand Tract: Beliefs versus Facts,” the ever-cautious Deyoyonwatheh notes Sir John Colborne believes the Six Nations Confederacy “then impoverished [pre 1832]” would benefit from the opening up of the Brant-Haldimand region.

Hold on. Why, one asks, was the Six Nations Confederacy on the Grand River impoverished? From 1832 to 1842, the Haudenosaunee had enough money tucked away (somewhere) to build an entire upper-country canal/waterways’ system.

Ah. English banks held the Six Nations’ money.

Following 1815 and the relatively peaceful years of Anglo-American relations, the warrior nations had plenty of money but what they did NOT have was political clout. Councils at Onondaga understood they needed clout to get access to their own funds. Being “wards,” the Indigenous received a paltry allowance, which was designed to keep them living at a subsistence level. The people appeared impoverished and felt impoverished but in fact they were extremely wealthy. Who would hammer in the last nail? Who could take Six Nations’ money and finish the job of impoverishment? Colonial (and a few Six Nations) entrepreneurs stood by.

Question: Why had the ferocious Haudenosaunee (Iroquois League/the Six Nations Confederacy) fallen so low in the eyes of the Crown? The situation reflected a matter of usefulness. There was Anglo-American peace. Peace was bad news for the First Nations. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Great Britain enjoyed a precarious calm on the North American continent and, as long as the United States did not nibble away at British territory, or invade Canada, the Crown believed it had “no use” for the erstwhile fighting allies. The poorer the old allies were, the better – the less threatening. Britain did not need a wealthy sovereign First-Nations confederacy competing with the immigrants for colonial control. During the extended peacetime, the British Secretary of State for the colonies felt free to toy with colonial governance and shifted Indian nations to a civilian administration and scooped all available Indian monies, promising, of course, that the trustees would be trustworthy.

The results of American and Irish/Scots immigration were shameful. Waxing prejudice against “Indians” relentlessly assisted the cause of English colonialism. The Family Compact’s men played their wards like checkers. They shoved them around and the Crown scooped the most fertile land. European-origin settlers (mostly American) controlled the homelands and hunting grounds of the First Nations: Neutral, Wyandot, Mississauga and Haudenosaunee.

Americans (now newly-signed in as British subjects) got right into the farming business and removed considerable sections of Carolinian forest. And to put the capper on the caper, the colonial government with the assistance of the Grand River Navigation Company, robbed the only 19th-century Indigenous and/or settler people in British North America who had significant financial resources. 

But I get ahead of myself. Follow the money.

Early on, Brantford threatened to transform itself from cedar swamp into farmland. United Empire Loyalist/Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson, by turning a blind eye to unlawful American settler incursions into Indian Territory (see Sidney Harring’s White Man’s Law), encouraged land jobbers and/land sharks, or, as they called themselves, “deserving” squatters – people like James Wilkes and his friends – to put down roots in Brantford and Brant County and to make improvements. Settlers paid rents, not as much as they should, of course, to the Haudenosaunee on the Grand. Indeed, as Harring tells us, James Wilkes and his sons just didn’t bother to pay the rent they owe the Hills, and eventually impoverished the family. Wilkes held land in what was to become the centre of the village of Brantford. No colonial law enforcement stopped the swamping. Men like James Wilkes and father-son James and Ignatius Cockshutt stepped right in to fill the legal void.

Under lawless conditions, but in an optimistic mood about Brantford’s growing agriculture sector and the possibility of building other canal villages, the two main canal promoters, William Hamilton Merritt and David Thompson 1, got together with other interested riverside stakeholders. Brantford. Cayuga Heights. Caledonia. York. Indiana. Cayuga. The Iroquoian communities were located within the Haldimand Tract and transformed. All would become canal villages.  

Merritt and Thompson wanted to act on the Grand River canal venture and these two pushed governments to make a seminal decision. Promoters used funds that were not theirs.

Promoters decided to use Six Nations’ money.

Deyoyonwatheh believes the people have found themselves in an impoverished state in 1832. One must ask, why?

Where was their money? Six Nations Confederacy Councils claimed people are poor, likely, some said, due to the alleged corruption of Chief Joseph Brant, but no. Brant was not corrupt (see historians Graymont, Kelsay, Paxton, Stone, Taylor, Calloway, et al). And yes. The people were poor. Again. Why? The people’s money was held in English banks and invested in English bonds and, like ice cubes in a glass, Six Nations’ money melted into the infamous catchall: the English government’s “general revenue.” In 1832 the People of the Longhouse had lots of money. More than any other community or First Nation in British North America. How much you ask? Why buckets of the stuff. For over fifteen years the Confederacy had enough money to build canals and “tinker” with waterways and maintain the infamously rotting wooden locks. But the Haudenosaunee councils had no access to their own money. They were not on the board of the navigation company. There’s the snap.

John Beverley Robinson

In the Beginning

In 1832, Merritt and Thompson lined up their ducks and with some valuable help from high officials they chartered the Grand River Navigation Company – the Navigation. 

Six Nations Councils were understandably nervous.

Thompson held 2000 shares. Merritt had 2000 shares. A host of millers and forwarders including a certain Barton Farr held a nominal number of shares. Last but not least, the Six Nations owned 1760 shares. At the close, the Haudenosaunee owned 80% of the shares. Lest the confederacy worry itself sick about an enormous and stunning investment being made on the people’s behalf, a few canal-committed chiefs observed some high officers wanted this project. The high officers were Colborne and Dunn. They were canal lovers.

Sir John Colborne, 1st Baron Seaton, was colonial governor. He was a staunch Anglican and serious about canals. He loaned his own money to the Welland Canal Company.

John Henry Dunn was about to prove himself. Some (many) said John Henry was not the sharpest thorn on the rose. All work and no play made Jack a dull boy but not a poor boy from all accounts. He was a Six Nations trustee and the Welland Canal Company’s president. And by the way. Dunn was the Receiver-General of Upper Canada. The man simply ignored conflict-of‑interest. Dunn knew influential people and like Governor Colborne he caught canal fever and he too trumpeted the value of a colonial waterways system. Why worry?

John Dunn                              


John Brant                                                                                                                          

John Colborne 1st Baron Seaton


Dunn fell out with the canal magnate William Merritt over Dunn’s refusal to release a promised 50,000 pounds in debentures for Welland Canal against which Merritt had secured loans. But that conflict was for future days. Promoters Dunn and Merritt were cronies at the inception of the Grand River Navigation Company. Canal builders knew all along John Dunn was a valuable crony to have.

Dunn commanded the hefty Six Nations’ funds to which the Six Nations themselves had no access. These funds, which had accumulated from years of timber sales and land sales and land surrenders, were enough to build a waterway and after Colborne himself approved the money grab the canal game was afoot. The Grand River venture was monumental and controversial but leaping from the foam both John Henry Dunn and John Colborne rose to meet the occasion: why not? If necessary, they would impoverish the undeserving “Indians.” Buffalo here we come. It’s fine to say investors merely made a mistake, that the Grand River waterway was never going to succeed – and what about the poor investors? This kind of argument comes from a descendent of Augustus Jones. “Some investors were bound to be disappointed.” Rest assured. No one was as “disappointed” as the robbed Six Nations, who had no council representative on the company’s board. 

Ongoing Haudenosaunee resistance to the canal waterways venture was a fact of life. Six Nations’ councils of chiefs challenged the Navigation. They had every right. More than a right. They owned river and  bonds and trust monies and thousands of un-surrendered acres and gypsum and trees. Every single stick of wood belonged to them. Wiley schemer old Augustus Jones and Six Nations Tory Billy Kerr (husband of Elisabeth Brant, daughter of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant and Catharine Adonwentishon Croghan, and grandson of Molly Brant and William Johnson) remained on side with the Navigation throughout the early 1840s. But in the early days (1832), Tekarihogan, Chief John Brant (Elisabeth Brant’s brother), and after him most of the Six Nations’ Councils at Onondaga said no to the venture. They worried about the dams. Flooding and a host of other problems were evident with Welland Canal. Chiefs feared sloppy administration. Haudenosaunee councils did not want outside promoters, either public or private, to assign town-sites and waterfront lots and towpaths. Not within their Territory. Settler voices drowned out the people’s voices. Even a certain Barton Farr made a claim for flooding on land he had scooped from the people. 

Over the Haudenosaunee’s objections, the Navigation’s promoters charged ahead. For the Navigation’s sake and incoming settlers’ prosperity, the colonial government created and laid out the new villages within the Haldimand tract. (Cayuga Heights. Caledonia. York. Indiana. Cayuga.) In 1834 the Navigation hired Ranald McKinnon to build a dam in Seneca and a dam in Caledonia. Completed in 1840 the dams made waterpower available. Mills popped up everywhere and they ground out a lot of money for the millers but nothing for investors. Ever weak and fiscally unaccommodating the canal system, the Navigation, did not show a profit. The Six Nations sunk into poverty – real this time.

The Haudenosaunee investors never see a dime.

Not a thin white dime.

The enterprise remained forever iffy. The canal company started out on risky footing and so the waterway continued to the tipping point. 

What went wrong?

The Navigation’s directors managed risk. They had a charter to that effect. In most companies a heavy investor wants some say on the board of directors. Directors want to hold shares in a company they plan to make profitable. In the Navigation’s case neither was true.

Two of the company’s directors, that would be Merritt and Thompson, committed fraud. In their process of selling shares high they dump stocks – and bought shares back later at a depressed rate. Such conduct is unlawful. As directors of the company, Thompson and the millers and forwarders served themselves first. They kept tolls low – too low for the company to show a profit.

Even the Indian Department believed the sucking sound it heard was the Navigation. With its need for constant investment the new canal company was like Mohawk Lake. Bottomless. And a man-made source of pollution.


Reckless colonialism

The attitude of American-European settlers toward the finances and well being and security of the Haudenosaunee in Canada was a disgrace. (A similar disgrace occured in USA. For native headrights  – oil –  whites murdered some of the wealthy Osage Indians of Oklahoma. See Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann.)

“Surrogates” for the “unenlightened” Six Nations continued to “buy” the Navigation’s stock but the story was the same old. Chiefs and councillors at Onondaga had no idea when the last stock purchase occurred. Councils had no control over the company’s development and they watched in helpless anger as the health of their communities deteriorated. Councils believed, and by rights as it turns out, that land-patent numbers were not commensurate with occupied lots. People starved because annuities were washed up. Meantime, David Thompson 1 lived like a lord at Ruthven Hall.

Anxious to grab land and resources, Anglo-American settlers and Irish canallers (navvies) and nefarious lumberjacks swarmed into Indian Country and into the new Navigation villages and even into the Grand River Settlement.

The river flooded and dried up and rolled on. Bit the Navigation’s books dissolved in a moist mess. Perhaps Indian Superintendent David Thorburn could sort out the problems.

Samuel Peters Jarvis

Samuel Peters Jarvis held the post of Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1837. Jarvis was fired in 1844. Jarvis was a man in disgrace for the alleged embezzlement of Indian funds, whereupon Special Commissioner David Thorburn took over. Thorburn ruled on Six Nations’ land disputes. But! Thorburn was also a director of the Navigation and unlucky for him and everybody else he was a man in serious conflict. David Thorburn worked for the flimflam Indian Department. Thorburn felt duty-bound to support the government’s commitment to waterways. He had an obligation to the company’s powerful directors. We remember Thorburn also carried a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s hapless investors – the Six Nations. For Thorburn and the others ratting about in the Indian Department the circumstance was more complicated because the Navigation was a two-headed creature: a Crown and a public corporation. No one, it seemed, could float the company into the black, and the Six Nations Confederacy got trapped in a financial labyrinth. The Navigation did not thrive and David Thorburn could not breathe life into it – in some part because millers/directors continued to refuse to pay the tolls. 

Speaking of not paying . . . The company never paid the Six Nations for non-surrendered expropriated land nor returned a single penny of investment but most remarkable is this turnaround: the company was forever in need of cash infusions and used up Six Nations’ capital monies in fifteen years. The Navigation wrung so much out of Six Nations’ trust funds the people actually landed in debt to the Receiver-General in 1843–44, right about the time the brand-new and salubrious Caledonia with the village’s very profitable mills burst upon the Haldimand scene. 

Accurate bookkeeping was not a strong suit of the Indian Department, which consciously/unconsciously realized its books would never (must never) balance out in favour of a First Nation.

In The Grand River Navigation Company Bruce Hill quotes from Reverend W. H. Landon’s letter to Lord Stanley. Nothing describes Six Nations’ misery more simply than this following observation: “many of the Six Nations the year before [the post-1837 period] perished from want of food owing to the non-receipt of funds expended by the government on the Grand River Navigation Company” (p23).

William Merritt begged the Governor General for yet more money: “The Indians hold 80% of the stock, they receive no dividend, no income, and can have no prospect of receiving any until the work is in successful operation throughout” (p51). 

Who was responsible for the mysterious financial discrepancies and missing monies in the scattered Indian Department?

Ontario historian David Shanahan insists Samuel Jarvis was innocent of the embezzlement charge that gets him fired. Jarvis was an infamous Tory with a history of irascible behaviour. Historian Shanahan indicates Jarvis fell afoul of the rising power of Reformers.

Who were some notable Reformers of the period? David Thompson 1 is an Oppositionist/Reformer. Before Jarvis’s dismissal, Samuel Jarvis was openly critical of David Thompson. Jarvis disliked Thompson’s sharp practises. There was no love lost between these two. Shanahan argues that villains were close to home. The villains were not Jarvis but the Navigation’s own directors. Were Thompson and Merritt guilty of monkeying around with Indian monies?

No matter. It is merely Canadian history. The winner writes the story and, as James W Loewen illustrates, when it comes to the the original occupants of North America, teachers teach lies. Everyone then (and now) blames Jarvis for embezzling Indian money. William Hamilton Merritt stays a hero. Gets his own 8 cent stamp. 


Lieutenant-Colonel David Thompson and Ruthven Park. What can one say about the Navigation’s other powerful director?

David Thompson was a tough guy with a weak constitution (see Quirk, L. K. The Thompsons’ Town: Family, Industry, and Material Culture in Indiana, Ontario 1830–1900 2010).

Larger than life in many ways, Thompson was neither an honest nor a sympathetic businessman, which, one supposes, made Indiana’s American settlers believe he was just a shrewd operator and not a heartless sonofabitch who could squeeze the life-juices out of ashlar stone.

In Ontario the main organizing symbol was not gold but land. In 1845 in the midst of the Six Nations’ severest financial shortages, Thompson, the former Navigation director and mill owner and liquor mogul and magistrate and Member of the Legislative Assembly, constructed his Greek-revival mansion on a vast swath of land (Ruthven Park indeed!), which was not really his. Ruthven Park mocked the poverty-stricken landowners, who were forced to finance the canal venture and vicariously finance his villa and who lived on a small section of their original land allotment.

As busy as a bee in Indiana, Navigation’s director Thompson understood the canal company’s sorry balance sheet. Canadians could hear train whistles and saw the lights at the end of the tunnel but waterways were an important means of carrying commodities. During the building of Ruthven Hall, the Grand River highway carried a significant level of river traffic but the corporate company, “the Navigation,” touched bottom. Despite extensive river use, the company was not performing up to anybody’s idea of peak.

Under desperate circumstances David Thompson was particularly Scroogey. He led the millers by example and refused to pay tolls. Thompson’s health was as fragile as his moral compass. He died in 1851. Rather than a guilty conscience, perhaps malaria, picked up during his days of overseeing the Welland canal, was the culprit.

After 1851, David Thompson 1 pretty much disappears from the Canadian narrative, and the village of Indiana fades away. Indiana, once the home of the high and the mighty, is a ghost town and bird sanctuary. Ruthven Hall pays for itself through weddings. The setting of Ruthven Park is stunning and both birds and brides love it. Back in the day, likely for tax purposes, David Thompson tried to undervalue his assets. Turns out he was right. As a village, Indiana isn’t worth anything.

No wonder the Navigation company seemed rudderless. The Grand waterways system swirled in a perfect maelstrom – administrative, financial, structural and ethical – and David Thompson 1 was the offender-in-chief. Looking at the condition of the starving people on the reserve, one might say Ruthven Hall was ruthless hall.

Ruthven Hall dining room

David Thompson 1

Ruthven Hall


The rest of the story . . .

Of course, there were malingering complications with canal fever in and of itself. Not all of the Navigation’s drawbacks were systemic or fraudulent. Tolls and revenues did not meet projections because many farmers were doubters and they continued to ship goods by land in spite of bad roads. Wooden locks were ripe for fast decay and money for necessary repairs and upkeep was in short supply. Ongoing cost of the Navigation was crippling. Debt and deficit in a nascent colony where economic downturns prove the norm provided no legitimate follow-up to Six Nations’ funds. Public money was scarce. The little money there was drifted toward the needs of railroads and Canada’s entrepreneurs who would build them.

Failure of the Navigation to turn a profit shocked the powerless Six Nations in the 1840s. By the 1850s shock waves reached upstream to Brantford citizenry. Brantford Canal opened in 1848 but the Navigation was already stressed to the breaking. The town of Brantford eyed the railroads with warmth but the local citizenry was fiscally responsible. Brantford did support the failing canal company with debentures and loans throughout the fifties. Rail aficionados and the skeptical Brantford Expositor got it right. Railroads would win. Trains took over the Navigation’s stations and commandeered its tolls but what’s a poor town to do? Brantford put up thousands of dollars and the Navigation defaulted on payments.

Historian Cheryl MacDonald writes “Help arrived in the form of the Brantford and Haldimand Company, Ltd. The new company bought the locks and dams that had formerly belonged to the GRNC [the Navigation], with the town of Brantford holding the mortgage . . . The Haldimand Navigation Company had sold 75% of its stock, continued to earn revenue from tolls and had spent most of its money in repairs but still the dams and locks were far from being in a safe and satisfactory condition” (p279).

Then the waterway turns nightmarish for Brantford

Further petitions for government and municipal monies got denied. Brantford’s town council was left with no option. Brantford took the last step and foreclosed. New Navigation and Brantford go to court. In 1861 one Judge Spragge informed the wide-awake Brantford citizens they were entitlement to “some remedy” under their statutory mortgage, and Spragge determined that Brantford owned the corporal remains (Hill). Citizens expressed dismay and “alarm” at the extent of the mess. Hill quotes the Expositor, “concealment from the citizens of such an alarming state of affairs [in the Navigation] is absolutely criminal” (p70). Indeed. When the Navigation dared to dump its depredations on Brantford’s doorstep a newspaper’s editor sat up. 

Where is a wily Ariadne when you need her? When it comes to finding settlements and offering restitution? Where is the guiding string to show interested parties a way out of the Navigation’s maze? Financial threads in government accounts, Thompson accounts, and Navigation accounts stick together [see Hill]. Nothing seems to match up. Land patents (Where are they? Who holds them? When are they registered?), towpaths (How big? Where are they?), right-of-way lands around the dams and locks and towpaths (How large? Who sells them? Who pockets the profits?), timber sales (Who gets that money?) and just about everything within the Haldimand Tract incites disagreement and stirs up a court case. Every doubt gets substantiated and every question lacks an answer.

Alfred Watts was a human dynamo with an Electric Dynamo. He and his electrical device paddled the new Navigation to the end of the line. Hill writes, “In 1875 Alfred Watts bought the remaining holdings of the upper navigation system for $1.00 from the town of Brantford with the stipulation he keep in good repair the dams, locks and canal banks and afford access over the Grand River Navigation lands for sewer and drains” (p131).

Of course that did not happen.

In the mid-1880s Watts sold the entire canal system to the Brantford Electric and Power Company, which the power company’s President, Watts himself, formed with G. Wilkes, R. Henry and Watts’ two sons – C. Watts and A. Watts. Selling price was $40,000. By anybody’s reckoning a hearty increase from the original price of one dollar (p131). Jokes about Watts and electricity and wattage-sized deals aside, the Navigation was kaput. The company abandoned the last lock in 1880.

You may ask. What about stateside? What about stars in skies of burgeoning Buffalo? Do exporters-importers from upper country in Canada go to Buffalo?

Yes. They do. Newspaperwoman Jean Waldie writes, “January 13, 1854, was a gala day for Brantford, for it marked the long-awaited opening of the Buffalo and Brantford Railway. Notwithstanding inclement weather, 12,000 people are said to have assembled at the little depot to await the arrival of trains conveying invited guests from Buffalo and intermediate points. . . . Shortly after 2 p.m. the trains pulled in, to be greeted with loud cheers, firing of cannon and other demonstrations of rejoicing.” A regular Mayor Shinn, the mayor of Brantford, George Wilkes, made a congratulatory speech (in Waldie p86; in Reville p184). Brantford to Buffalo was a railroad reality. The hometown band might have played Lida Rose – or something like.

The Navigation is extinct but memory and lawsuits linger on. Right to our present day.

After almost two centuries knots tie up the case. Hundreds of knots. An Anglo-American-Canadian spider has spun a sticky labyrinth of truths and secrets and lies. Villages built for the Navigation (except for the ghost town Indiana) did perform a minor economic turnaround because of railroads and stable infrastructures. By the mid-1840s the Six Nations Confederacy was truly broke. The Councils at Onondaga were angry with the colonial government. And the people were furious with their chiefs and leaders. And with each other. The people wondered what happened to their wealth and their sovereignty. Who nowadays can untangle the knots? 

In general we do know this. Economic depressions and shoddy bookkeeping and shuffled bank accounts, and shifty entrepreneurs plus the gross negligence of Dunn, Colborne, the Family Compact and Reformers, all the aforementioned, followed an ancient recipe for making a major First Nations’ catastrophe. One which leaves many Six Nation’s people dead from starvation and brings undocumented settlers into the Grand River Territory.

Keep the Indians poor

One recalls Colborne’s seminal reason for building the canal. To help bring prosperity to an “impoverished” Six Nations settlement. With bonds and monies and investments being held in trust, and enormous funds deposited into general revenue in England, why do the Six Nations not live well in 1832? On paper, the Haudenosaunee were prosperous.

One can argue a great swindle of the Confederacy was well underway even before the Grand River Navigation Company came into being. The Navigation finished the job the colonial government and the British Crown had started with their trusteeship. The Navigation wiped out the significant monies and holdings of the “impoverished” community, and killed the people’s dream of self-sufficiency and immediate sovereignty.

The Navigation and colonial government spent Six Nations’ monies freely and carelessly and foolishly and managed to keep the Six Nations poor and desperate and internally divided. Many blame Joseph Brant for swindling them but Brant was not the villain in this story. Education is the answer to redeeming Brant’s reputation among the people. Facts. Brant does not harm the people. The British government did. The colonial government did. Merritt and Thompson did. The Courts did. The Navigation fulfilled the Crown’s long-time silent agenda of keeping Indigenous nations too poor to demand sovereignty. By 1845 a silent promise was kept. 

Ruthven Hall today

David Thompson’s Ruthven Park welcomes visitors but pamphlets and tours indicate nothing about the murky origins of the great hall or the Indigenous ownership of Cayuga Territory. One rarely reads anything about the real troubles of the Navigation and there’s nary a reference to the Navigation scandal at the big house. Some say there is a ghost named Bessie who sits on the hall’s nautilus staircase but no one speaks of a monster ghost who, as a blizzard in winter, blows like a chill wind up and down the corridors. 

To date the sole historian of the Navigation is Bruce E. Hill. Bruce Hill writes his master’s thesis in 1964 and thank goodness because Canadians can’t sweep history of the original Navigation’s crimes and Thompson’s shady dealings under the park’s welcome mat. 

One wonders whether Bruce Hill could research the same documents for The Grand River Navigation Company in today’s climate.  The Navigation is more than a bad investment. From start to finish the Navigation is one great, awful, con job but Canadians don’t seem to care much about our history and the story gets kicked aside, time and again.

From Jim Windle, Two Row Times 

Oneida Business Park Suite 124
50 Generations Drive, Box 1
Ohsweken, ON N0A 1M0
Six Nations of the Grand River Country

“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. [Ruthven Park is] 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.”  


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