This memoir is based on the importance to me, growing up, of my mother’s family and of my nostalgia for the role of Brooklea, the home of my grandparents on the Grand River, near Brantford, Ontario. I was glad to hear how this resonated when a reader told me: “I wish I’d had a Brooklea.”
I learned much later that the place had also been the site of an early Mohawk settlement, Davisville, which has recently been the object of major archaeological work. This juxtaposition is a remarkable coincidence, given that my grandmother’s aboriginal roots lay in another Six Nations Davis family.
For her own reasons, which are explored in the book, my grandmother deliberately kept this heritage from me and the rest of her descendants . A family secret. My eventual understanding of, if not sympathy for, the reasons for this secret, suddenly dawned on me while writing the last chapter, because for many years I had closely held a secret of my own.
My extensive research over a number of years was greatly improved by considerable expert advice, the details of which are contained in the Acknowledgements section.
The research itself was motivated in large measure by a very contrarian desire to find out as much as possible about a family whose relationship to us was secret for so many years. In fact, I was 61 when it became apparent. This was an especially notable gap, and therefore tantalizing, because the rest of my mother’s extended family was very close to us.
The Davis family, the principal focus of my research, was a member of the Six Nations located on the Onondaga portion of their Reserve near Brantford. They had both Mohawk and Oneida links.
I came to know this family very well.
The most colourful member was undoubtedly Squire Davis (1825-1886), my great great grandfather. However, my Davis family story begins with his grandfather, a certain Peter the Runner (possibly Peter Ta Ka gegh ronta tye), born about 1770.
More prominent Six Nations figures appear in Scratchings, such as Chief Thomas Davis Tehowagherengaraghkwen of Davisville (c1755-c.1834), Chief George Martin Ohnyealeh, Shononghsese 1767-1853), Chief John Smoke Johnson Sakayengwaraton (1792-1886), Chief George H.M. Johnson Onwanonsyshon (1816-1884), his performer/poetess daughter Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake (1861-1913), Dr. Oronhyatekha Peter Martin (1846-1902) and Dr. Walter Davis (1883-1957), physician on the Six Nations Reserve for decades.
Given my own passion for history, it seemed logical as I went along to situate my research on the characters in the various historical contexts in which they found themselves.
I strongly believe that my conclusions have a broad application. Over the generations these people, like many others in Canada, frequently intermarried with whites. My hope is that recounting the history of this one family will lead to a better understanding of the contexts in which inter-racial relations were seen through successive generations, and the growing prejudice associated with racial mixing.
The title, Scratchings, refers to the stark evidence of steps taken in my grandparents’ time, to cover up the aboriginal part of my grandmother’s heritage. It also characterizes the research process needed to find traces of a fairly modest family.
My very candid approach to a family secret is I think justified because it enables me to show clearly, through the experience of real people, how inter-racial relations have evolved and regressed over time, and how very much freer we are today to be ourselves.
Scratchings therefore ends on a cautiously optimistic note, based on the positive attitudes and support of my own generation of the family, and its next generation, during my effort to uncover a previously hidden past. It also applauds with gratitude Government action (most particularly the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Perhaps most importantly, there is a degree of tolerance in the population at large that I could not have imagined as I was growing up. The list of things I thought I would never live to see keeps lengthening.