This Week in History


A Mohawk who Succeeded in the Victorian World

For the week of Monday August 6, 2007

August 10, 1841, marks the birth of Oronhyatekha, doctor, philanthropist and first Supreme Chief Ranger of the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF), a mutual benefit organization.

Oronhyatekha was born on the Six-Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario. He began his education on the reserve, and then continued his studies in Massachusetts and Ohio. During a visit to Canada in 1860, the Prince of Wales invited him to study at Oxford. After a semester there, Oronhyatekha returned to Canada and studied medicine at the University of Toronto and at the Toronto School of Medicine. In 1867, he became the first member of a First Nation to be licensed to practice medicine in Canada. He was very proud of his Mohawk heritage and language, and worked to promote them throughout his life.

The memorial window in stained glass donated to the Christ Church Royal Chapel by Oronhyatheka
The memorial stained glass window  donated to the Christ Church Royal Chapel by Oronhyatheka's family
© Parks Canada / Leslie Maitland / 1995
Oronhyatekha had a special interest in mutual benefit organizations, temperance organizations and Masonic societies, which were very popular at the time. In February 1878, he was accepted into the IOF, even though its constitution allowed only “white males” to join. The IOF had been created in England to help families cover their funeral expenses. The principle behind this type of organization was to help and protect those most in need by creating a fund where members pooled their resources.

The IOF divided in 1881 even though Oronhyatekha led the movement against the split. He rebuilt the IOF in June 1881 and became its Supreme Chief Ranger. He quickly reworked its constitution to make it more profitable, reduced the premium so that more people could join and worked hard at recruiting new members. Starting in 1882, he fought to include women in the organization, but they were not allowed to join until 1898. His experience with publicity helped him garner prominent visibility for the IOF. For example, in 1897, he moved the organization’s head office to Toronto, where he commissioned the Temple Building, then the tallest building in the British Empire. In 1891, the IOF offered a range of products that included a pension plan, weekly sickness benefits, life insurance and allowances for funeral fees.

The Temple Building in Toronto
The Temple Building in Toronto
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-028964
Oronhyatekha succeeded in making the IOF the most profitable mutual benefit organization in the world. Even traditional insurance companies could not compete! He became living proof that a Mohawk could shine in the Victorian world. Oronhyatekha was designated a National Historic Person in 2001. He is buried in Christ Church Royal Chapel, which is located on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Reserve and was designated a National Historic Site in 1995.

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