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From Warrior to Wordsmith

For the week of Monday May 12, 2014

On May 18, 1828, Major John Richardson wrote the preface to his epic poem Tecumseh. It was the second major publication for this soldier turned writer, who was one of the first Canadian-born novelists.

Richardson, holding the flag, is shown alongside other heroes of the War of 1812: Brock, Tecumseh, and de Salaberry. This sculpture by Tyler Fauvelle is titled “We See Thee Rise” (www.tylerfauvelle.ca)
© Tyler Fauvelle
Richardson was born October 4, 1796, in the Niagara region of Ontario and spent his childhood with his grandparents in Detroit, where his grandmother’s tales of bygone days inspired his love of storytelling. He rejoined his parents in Amherstburg, Ontario, until the War of 1812 began and then he enlisted at age 15. He met the heroes Tecumseh and General Brock, and fought in key battles at Fort Detroit, Frenchtown, and Moraviantown. These dramatic events left an enduring impression on the young man, and were the subject of most of his writings.

After the war Richardson lived in London, England, and Paris, France, and saw military service in the West Indies and Spain. In 1826 a London literary periodical serialized his account of the War of 1812 as A Canadian Campaign. In 1832 he married his beloved Maria Drayson, and that same year published Wacousta, a story of love, hate, and revenge set during the War of 1812. It was praised for its “originality,” “truth and force,” and was highly successful in the United States, where it became a stage play. An important personal achievement, it was also culturally significant because it showed Canadian history was worth writing about.

Portrait of Richardson in 1848. On his breast hang the medals he won for military service in Spain.
© Library and Archives Canada

In 1838 he returned to Canada for 11 unfortunate years. The newspapers he founded were short-lived, his wife passed away, and his personal and political enemies hounded him. This situation drove Richardson to seek new opportunities in New York, which was enjoying a literary awakening. There, the periodicals that published his works Hardscrabble, Wau-nan-gee, and Westbrook had to keep printing copies to meet popular demand, yet even this success did not bring him financial security.

He died in 1852 of illness brought on by poverty and was buried in an unmarked plot.

However, Major John Richardson is commemorated with a plaque in Amherstburg, Ontario, that honours his contributions to Canadian literature and his designation as a National Historic Person.

It is the bicentennial of the War of 1812! To read about the military leaders Richardson met, please see A Warrior's Death and Birth of Sir Isaac Brock. To discover the battles that he fought in, see The British Lose Ground and Victory at Fort Detroit! Visualize the war by exploring Parks Canada’s online artifact collection.

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