If Brantford has a defining feature, it would be the Grand River.
While modern Brantford has, in many ways, turned its back to the Grand, the city owes its existence to the fact there was a convenient spot to ford the river. Interestingly, the Grand is the largest river that is entirely contained within the borders of Ontario.
It flows gently from its source near Wareham, in Gray County, to empty into Lake Erie at Port Maitland. It is an unusual waterway as most rivers in Ontario flow to the nearest Great Lake. However, the Grand starts close to Lake Huron, but flows south to Lake Erie. The land south of Lake Huron slopes gently towards the south, giving the river a chance to gather water from numerous tributaries throughout southwestern Ontario. This gives the Greater Ontario’s largest watershed at about 7,000 square kilometres.
It has not always been called the Grand River. The Mohawk name for the river is O:se Kenhionhata:tie, meaning Willow River. It was probably so named because of the water-loving willow trees to be found lining the banks. The Ojibwe name for the same river was Owaashtanong, and the Mississaugas called it O-es-shin-ne-guning.
To make things even more confusing, the French settlers called it the Grande-Rivière and it was even named the Great Ouse by John Graves Simcoe.
Interestingly, the Grand was not the first river to follow this course. After the last period of glaciation which began about 115,000 and ended only about 11,700 years ago, there is evidence of a prior river that flowed through what is today the Grand Valley watershed.
The levels of the Great Lakes were higher and the land was lower from the burden of billions of tons of ice. The shores of Lake Erie could have been as far north as Brantford and the land is still rebounding today from the kilometers thick ice sheets that once covered this area.
While the history of this area is often only counted from the time of its early exploration by French explorers and Coureurs des Bois, the area had been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. There is evidence of habitation, but a lack of ceramics makes dating sites difficult, at least until the Protohistoric period starting in the 16th century.
At the time, the Grand River watershed was occupied by the Neutral people – a name given by the European settlers because they did not side with either the French or the English during their innumerable wars and skirmishes. This group was almost wiped out in inter-tribal warfare in part because of their refusal to ally themselves with others.
Control of the area was contested by the Iroquois Confederacy and the Six Nations. When the Six Nations allied themselves with the British during the American Revolution, the British, without a great deal of consultation, awarded the Grand River watershed to the Six Nations.
The 1846 Gazetteer relates the story thus: “In 1784, Sir F. Haldimand … granted to the Six Nations and their heirs for ever, a tract of land on the Ouse, or Grand River, six miles in depth on each side of the river , beginning at Lake Erie, and extending to the head of the river. This grant was confirmed, and its conditions defined, by a patent under the Great Seal, issued by Lieutenant Governor Simcoe, and bearing date January 14, 1793… The original extent of the tract was 694,910 acres, but the greater part of this has been since surrendered to the Crown, in trust, to be sold for the benefit of these tribes. And some smaller portions have been either granted in fee simple to purchasers with the assent of the Indians, or have been alienated by the chiefs upon leases; which, although legally invalid, the government did not at the time consider it equitable or expedient to cancel.”
There has been much controversy over this land as the settlers, the Crown, and Indigenous Peoples each see things differently. While some progress in reconciliation has been made and there is much co-operation between the parties, there are still many open questions to be settled about the ownership, stewardship, and control of the resources of this rich piece of land in the heart of Ontario .
This column is provided by the Brant Historical Society. Established on May 8, 1908, the society is an independent registered charity operating two museums. Its purpose is to collect, preserve and share the history and heritage of Brantford, Brant County, Six Nations of the Grand River and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. For more information, e-mail: [email protected] or via snail mail c/o The Expositor.