The Colours of War: Honouring the First Nations/ British Alliance in the War of 1812

By Nicks, Trudy | ROM Magazine, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Colours of War: Honouring the First Nations/ British Alliance in the War of 1812


Nicks, Trudy, ROM Magazine


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The First Nations warriors who fought alongside the British in the War of 1812 were proud of their association with the British crown. That pride persisted through their lives. A British Red Ensign flag and a portrait of John Brant, a Mohawk warrior and hereditary chief, are among the earliest collections of the ROM. The flag arrived in 1911 when the Independent Order of Foresters donated objects and natural history specimens from a museum established by their late leader, Dr. Oronhyatekha.

Ten years later, the ROM purchased an oil painting of John Brant from one of his descendants. Both the flag and the painting are now on display in the War of 1812 section of the exhibit Sovereign Allies/Living Cultures: First Nations of the Great Lakes in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples. Before they could be displayed, the pieces were cleaned and repaired by ROM conservators Shirley Ellis and Heidi Sobol.

British Red Ensign Flag

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This flag design was used by British navy and merchant ships after 1801. The example in the ROM's collection is just over four by eight feet (approximately 1.2 x 2.4 metres) in size. It is the type of flag that the British gave as diplomatic gifts to important First Nations leaders in the War of 1812 period. Our Ensign is associated with Chief Oshawana (John Naudee), an Anishinaabe war leader from the Walpole area of southern Ontario, who saw action during the 1812-1814 conflict. It was kept by his descendants until it became part of the Oronhyatekha Museum about 1900.

Flags, or "colours," and medals had long been used by European powers as diplomatic gifts in the Great Lakes region. Such important marks of alliance were awarded to significant leaders outside the large events in which cloth goods, arms, ammunition, and other presents were distributed to assembled nations.

The journals kept by Sir William Johnson, British superintendent of northern Indians in the Great Lakes region in the 18th century, reveal how the recipients of the flags and medals used them as visual expressions of the state of diplomatic relations. They could be displayed in affirmation of alliance, as with a Delaware chief who declared that the medal and colours given to him at Niagara in 1764 "binds me so to you [that] nothing can alter my resolution."

They also figured in strategic re-alliances required when power passed from one European nation to another. Johnson recorded the arrival of a chief of the Sauk Nation on August 18, 1762: "He brought with him a pair of French Colours Flying on Board his Canoe [and he] hoped I wou'd Excuse him & give him a Stand of English Colours & he would Burn the French Ones." On occasion, diplomatic gifts could also be useful in expressing displeasure, as in 1768 when three "seemingly much discontented" Chippewa chiefs at Fort Michilimackinac "[threw] their English Colours into the Lake."

In 1912, Mississauga Chief Paudash displayed his family's Red Ensign flag, a "sacred relic," at the War of 1812 commemoration held at the Brock Monument at Queenston Heights. …

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