Pauline Johnson was one of the most admired, widely known and successful Canadian women of her time.
Both as a poet and entertainer, this talented pioneer of the Canadian stage charmed audiences from remote halls in Western Canada to sophisticated drawing rooms in England.
She was born on the Six Nations Indian Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, on March 10, 1861. Her father was the distinguished Mohawk Chief George Johnson, while her mother was British-born Emily Howells. Pauline grew up on the family estate, Chiefswood, along the Grand River. The house, built in 1856, still stands and can be seen from Highway 54, just east of Brantford.
Pauline’s education consisted of extensive tutoring from her mother, two years of instruction from the family’s English governess and several more years at the Brantford Collegiate. She was a voracious reader, devouring most of the hundreds of books in the Johnson family library.
Particularly fond of literature, she began to demonstrate a talent for writing poetry at an early age. As she grew older, most of her literary inspirations came from a love of Canada, nature and the heritage of her father’s people. Extremely proud of her Mohawk blood, she once wrote, “My aim, my joy, my pride is to sing the glories of my own people.” By the 1880’s, she became good enough to have a number of her poems and articles published in various magazines.
Then came January 16, 1892. On that evening, Pauline and several other Canadian writers took part in a program at the Academy of Music in Toronto. Each author had been invited to recite several of their compositions. The organizer of the event was Frank Yeigh who had known Pauline when he lived in Brantford. He admired her work and felt she was ready for this type of public performance.
He was right. Dressed in a simple white gown, Pauline recited A Cry From an Indian Wife, a dramatic poem she had written about the Riel Rebellion of 1885. Her attractive appearance, natural stage presence and clear expressive voice captivated the audience and earned her wild applause. She was a sensation.
Capitalizing on this success, Yeigh asked to become her manager and began arranging appearances for her in other cities and towns. This began Pauline’s professional career as a recitalist and platform entertainer. For the next 17 years she crisscrossed Canada many times, travelling thousands of kilometres by train, carriage and wagon. She played one-night stands in all types of communities, from those so isolated they had never had any entertainers visit them before, to Toronto’s Massey Hall. She also toured the eastern United States as part of a vaudeville circuit and visited England several times.
Audiences loved her. Often billed as the Mohawk Princess, she would wear a beautiful buckskin dress during the segment of the program in which she recited her poems about Indian life.
Her first book was published in 1895. Entitled The White Wampum, it featured the poem she’s probably best remembered for today, The Song My Paddle Sings. A later book was Flint and Feather.
Beginning in the fall of 1892, Pauline began to be teamed with another performer, Owen Smily. He was an accomplished pianist, ventriloquist and impersonator. His talents gave more variety to the program.
On the night of January 14, 1895, Johnson and Smily came to what was then the Village of Niagara Falls, appearing at the Stamford Township Hall on Ferry Street, now part of the Niagara Falls History Museum. The event was sponsored by the village band. Possibly due to poor publicity or bad weather, there was not a large crowd for the show.
A press review was generally complimentary to Pauline but not to Smily. It noted, “The actor and the audience were not in sympathy and both were painfully aware of the fact.” After getting hisses from the boys at the back of the hall during his final skit, Smily cut short his performance, sarcastically thanked the audience and walked off the stage.
On a more positive note, it was recorded that Pauline was very pleased with her accommodation at the famous old Prospect Hotel on Main Street, currently the site of Mints Night Club.
Three nights later, the Canadian Order of Foresters sponsored the duo’s appearance at the Niagara Falls Town Hall. This building, although greatly altered from what it looked like in 1895, still stands on the corner of Queen and Erie in front of the present City Hall. Things seemed to go better here. A reporter wrote that a “respectable, appreciative audience was given a very clever entertainment.”
During the late summer of 1909, Pauline retired. She settled in Vancouver, a city she had visited many times and had come to love. It was here that she died from breast cancer on March 7, 1913 at the age of 51. A memorial stone was erected in Pauline’s honour and may still be seen in Vancouver’s beautiful Stanley Park.
By Sherman Zavitz
Official Historian, City of Niagara Falls, Canada