Biographical Sketch

E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) is the youngest child of a family of four born to the late G. H. M. Johnson (Onwanonsyshon), Head Chief of the Six Nations Indians, and his wife, Emily S. Howells, a lady of pure English parentage, her birth-place being Bristol, England, but the land of her adoption was Canada.

Chief Johnson was of the renowned Mohawk tribe, and of the “Blood Royal,” being a scion of one of the fifty noble families which composed the historical confederation founded by Hiawatha upwards of four hundred years ago, and known at that period as the Brotherhood of the Five Nations, but which was afterwards named the Iroquois by the early French missionaries and explorers. These Iroquois Indians have from the earliest times been famed for their loyalty to the British Crown, in defence of which they fought against both French and Colonial Revolutionists; and for which fealty they were granted the magnificent lands bordering the Grand River in the County of Brant, Ontario, and on which the tribes still live.

It was upon this Reserve, on her father’s estate, “Chiefswood,” that Pauline Johnson was born. And it is inevitable that the loyalty to Britain and Britain’s flag which she inherited from her Red ancestors, as well as from her English mother, breathes through both her prose and poetic writings.

At an extremely early age this little Indian girl evinced an intense love of poetry; and even before she could write, composed many little childish jingles about her pet dogs and cats. She was also very fond of learning by heart anything that took her fancy, and would memorize, apparently without effort, verses that were read to her. A telling instance of this early love of poetry may be cited, when on one occasion, while she was yet a tiny child of four, a friend of her father’s, who was going to a distant city, asked her what he could bring her as a present, and she replied, “Verses, please.”

At twelve years of age she was writing fairly creditable poems, but was afraid to offer them for publication, lest in after years she might regret their almost inevitable crudity. So she did not publish anything until after her school days were ended.

Her education was neither extensive nor elaborate, and embraced neither High School nor College. A nursery governess for two years at home, three years at an Indian day school half a mile from her home, and two years in the central school of the City of Brantford was the extent of her educational training. But besides this she acquired a wide general knowledge, having been, through childhood and early girlhood, a great reader, especially of poetry. Before she was twelve years old she had read every line of Scott’s poems, every line of Longfellow, much of Byron, Shakespeare, and such books as Addison’s “Spectator,” Foster’s Essays and Owen Meredith.

The first periodicals to accept her poems and place them before the public were “Gems of Poetry,” a small magazine published in New York, and “The Week,” established by the late Professor Goldwin Smith, of Toronto, the “New York Independent,” and “Toronto Saturday Night.” Since then she has contributed to “The Athenaeum,” “The Academy,” “Black and White,” “The Pall Mall Gazette,” “The Daily Express,” and “Canada,” all of London, England; “The Review of Reviews,” Paris, France; “Harper’s Weekly,” “New York Independent,” “Outing,” “The Smart Set,” “Boston Transcript,” “The Buffalo Express,” “Detroit Free Press,” “The Boys’ World” (David C. Cook Publishing Co., Elgin, Illinois), “The Mothers’ Magazine” (David C. Cook Publishing Co.), “The Canadian Magazine,” “Toronto Saturday Night,” and “The Province,” Vancouver, B.C.

In 1892 the opportunity of a lifetime came to this young versifier, when Frank Yeigh, the president of the Young Liberals’ Club, of Toronto, conceived the idea of having an evening of Canadian literature, at which all available Canadian authors should be guests and read from their own works.

Among the authors present on this occasion was Pauline Johnson, who contributed to the programme one of her compositions, entitled “A Cry from an Indian Wife”; and when she recited without text this much-discussed poem, which shows the Indian’s side of the North-West Rebellion, she was greeted with tremendous applause from an audience which represented the best of Toronto’s art, literature and culture. She was the only one on the programme who received an encore, and to this she replied with one of her favourite canoeing poems.

The following morning the entire press of Toronto asked why this young writer was not on the platform as a professional reader; while two of the dailies even contained editorials on the subject, inquiring why she had never published a volume of her poems, and insisted so strongly that the public should hear more of her, that Mr. Frank Yeigh arranged for her to give an entire evening in Association Hall within two weeks from the date of her first appearance. It was for this first recital that she wrote the poem by which she is best known, “The Song my Paddle Sings.”

On this eventful occasion, owing to the natural nervousness which besets a beginner, and to the fact that she had scarcely had time to memorize her new poem, she became confused in this particular member, and forgot her lines. With true Indian impassiveness, however, she never lost her self-control, but smilingly passed over the difficulty by substituting something else; and completely won the hearts of her audience by her coolness and self-possession. The one thought uppermost in her mind, she afterwards said, was that she should not leave the platform and thereby acknowledge her defeat; and it is undoubtedly this same determination to succeed which has carried her successfully through the many years she has been before the public.

The immediate success of this entertainment caused Mr. Yeigh to undertake the management of a series of recitals for her throughout Canada, with the object of enabling her to go to England to submit her poems to a London publisher. Within two years this end was accomplished, and she spent the season of 1894 in London, and had her book of poems, “The White Wampum,” accepted by John Lane, of the “Bodley Head.” She carried with her letters of introduction from His Excellency the Earl of Aberdeen and Rev. Professor Clark, of Toronto University, which gave her a social and literary standing in London which left nothing to be desired.

In London she met many authors, artists and critics, who gave this young Canadian girl the right hand of fellowship; and she was received and asked to give recitals in the drawing-rooms of many diplomats, critics and members of the nobility.

Her book, “The White Wampum,” was enthusiastically received by the critics and press; and was highly praised by such papers as the Edinburgh “Scotsman,” “Glasgow Herald,” “Manchester Guardian,” “Bristol Mercury,” “Yorkshire Post,” “The Whitehall Review,” “Pall Mall Gazette,” the London “Athenaeum,” the London “Academy,” “Black and White,” “Westminster Review,” etc.

Upon her return to Canada she made her first trip to the Pacific Coast, giving recitals at all the cities and towns en route. Since then she has crossed the Rocky Mountains nineteen times, and appeared as a public entertainer at every city and town between Halifax and Vancouver.

In 1903 the George Morang Publishing Company, of Toronto, brought out her second book of poems, entitled “Canadian Born,” which was so well received that the entire edition was exhausted within the year.

About this time she visited Newfoundland, taking with her letters of introduction from Sir Charles Tupper to Sir Robert Bond, the then Prime Minister of the colony. Her recital in St. John was the literary event of the season, and was given under the personal patronage of His Excellency the Governor-General and Lady McCallum, and the Admiral of the British Flagship.

After this recital in the capital Miss Johnson went to all the small seaports and to Hearts’ Content, the great Atlantic Cable station, her mission being more to secure material for magazine articles on the staunch Newfoundlanders and their fishing villages than for the purpose of giving recitals.

In 1906 she returned to England, and made her first appearance in Steinway Hall, under the distinguished patronage of Lord and Lady Strathcona, to whom she carried letters of introduction from the Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada. On this occasion she was accompanied by Mr. Walter McRaye, who added greatly to the Canadian interest of the programme by his inimitable renditions of Dr. Drummond’s Habitant poems.

The following year she again visited London, returning by way of the United States, where she and Mr. McRaye were engaged by the American Chautauquas for a series of recitals covering eight weeks, during which time they went as far as Boulder, Colorado. Then, after one more tour of Canada, she decided to give up public work, settle down in the city of her choice, Vancouver, British Columbia, and devote herself to literature only.

Only a woman of tremendous powers of endurance could have borne up under the hardships necessarily encountered in travelling through North-Western Canada in pioneer days as Miss Johnson did; and shortly after settling down in Vancouver the exposure and hardship she had endured began to tell upon her, and her health completely broke down. For more than a year she has been an invalid; and as she was not able to attend to the business herself, a trust was formed by some of the leading citizens of her adopted city for the purpose of collecting, and publishing for her benefit, her later works. Among these is a number of beautiful Indian legends which she has been at great pains to collect; and a splendid series of boys’ stories, which were exceedingly well received when they ran recently in an American boys’ magazine.

During the sixteen years Miss Johnson was travelling she had many varied and interesting experiences. She has driven up the old Battleford trail before the railroad went through, and across the Boundary country in British Columbia in the romantic days of the early pioneers; and once she took an 850-mile drive up the Cariboo trail to the gold-fields. She was always an ardent canoeist, ran many strange rivers, crossed many a lonely lake, and camped in many an unfrequented place. These venturous trips she took more from her inherent love of nature and of adventure than from any necessity of her profession.

After an illness of two years’ duration Miss Johnson died in Vancouver on March 7, 1913. The heroic spirit in which she endured long months of suffering is expressed in her poem entitled “And He Said ‘Fight On'” which she wrote after she was informed by her physician that her illness would prove fatal.

  Time and its ally, Dark Disarmament

      Have compassed me about;

Have massed their armies, and on battle bent

My forces put to rout,

But though I fight alone, and fall, and die,

Talk terms of Peace? Not I.

It is eminently fitting that this daughter of Nature should have been laid to rest in no urban cemetery. According to her own request she was buried in Stanley Park, Vancouver’s beautiful heritage of the forest primeval. A simple stone surrounded by rustic palings marks her grave and on this stone is carved the one word “Pauline.” There she lies among ferns and wild flowers a short distance from Siwash Rock, the story of which she has recorded in the legends of her race. In time to come a pathway to her grave will be worn by lovers of Canadian poetry who will regard it as one of the most romantic of our literary shrines.


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This work (Flint and Feather by E. Pauline Johnson) is free of known copyright restrictions.