Pauline Johnson Biography

Emily Pauline Johnson was born on March 10, 1861 on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, Canada. She was a Mohawk Indian; her Indian name was Tekahionwake. Her family and friends called her Pauline. She was one of four children (two girls and two boys) born to George Henry Martin Johnson and Emily Suzanna Howells. Her mother was the sister-in-law of an Anglican missionary on the Six Nations Reserve. The Johnson family name came from Sir William Johnson who was Pauline’s great-grandfather’s godfather. Pauline’s grandmother was English, she was brought up as a Mohawk Indian after having been kidnapped in a raid. Her grandfather was Chief “Smoke” Johnson, Indian name Sakeyengwaraton.

Pauline grew up in a mansion named Chiefswood on the outskirts of the Six Nations Reserve. Many notable people of the area paid visits to the family. Pauline was very close to her grandfather who used to tell her stories about the past and Indian legends. Pauline was educated mostly at home by her mother. She did have a governess for two years. She also attended an Indian day school for 3 years, and Central Collegiate in Brantford for 2 years. She finished school in 1879.

After school, Pauline lived a life of leisure at Chiefswood. However, things changed in 1884 when her father died. The family had to sell Chiefswood and take lodging in Brantford. The family was supported by her older brother who was employed in Brantford.

Pauline’s first published poem was “My Little Jean”, it appeared in “The Gems of Poetry” in 1885. In June of 1885, the Toronto magazine “The Week” bought her poem “A cry from an Indian wife”. She became life-long friends with the editor, Charles G. D. Roberts. In 1886, she was asked to contribute a poem for the unveiling of a statue of the Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant (Brantford was named after him). She was too shy to read it out loud.

In 1889, 2 of Pauline’s poems (“In the Shadows” and “At the Ferry”) were included in “Songs of the Great Dominion”. In 1892, Pauline was invited to read for the Young Liberal Club of Toronto. She chose to read “A cry from an Indian wife”. Due to this reading she became known to the public.

Between the years of 1892 and 1909, Pauline toured Canada, the United States, and England. She was very popular with audiences.

In 1894, Pauline arranged to have her first book, “The White Wampum” published in England. It was a critical success. Also around this time, Pauline began to write article for magazines to earn money to help support her mother.

Her mother died in 1898. This helped to ease some of the financial pressures on Pauline. That year she also became engaged to Charles Drayton. For reasons unknown, she called off the engagement.

The time spent touring took a tool on Pauline’s creative writing. Other than writing articles, she did not get back to creative writing until 1909 when she settled in Vancouver. She wrote a book of stories, “Legends of Vancouver”

In 1910, Pauline was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her need for pain-killers more or less ended her creativity for a couple of years. In 1911, her friends arranged for “Legends of Vancouver” to be published to help her financially. Also, in 1912, “The White Wampum” and some previously unpublished poems, were incorporated into a new book called ” Flint and Feather”. This wasn’t published until 1917.

In May of 1912, Pauline was admitted to a private hospital. She wrote the poem “And he said, Fight on”. She also began work on Indian ballads. She completed only one of these ballads, “The Ballad of Yadda”. Both of these were included in the 1917 publication of “Flint and Feather”.

Pauline Johnson died on March 7, 1913. She was cremated and her ashes were buried in Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC. A cairn was erected over her ashes which read, “in memory of one who’s life and writings were an uplift and a blessing to our nation”.

References:

Van Steen, Marcus. Pauline Johnson: her life and work. Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965.

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