Richardson, John (Major John Frederick Richardson)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Richardson, John (Major John Frederick Richardson)

Richardson, John (Major John Frederick Richardson) (1796-1852) Canadian journalist and novelist

English Canada's first novelist, John Richardson wrote dramatic historical romances based on his exploits on the battlefield and his observations of biculturalism. Born in Queenston, Upper Canada (now Ontario), he was the grandson of a Scots fur trader, John Askin, and Nanette, an Ottawa Indian. After his education in Detroit, Michigan, and Fort Malden, Amherstburg, Ontario, he joined the British 41st Welsh Regiment of Foot, heroes of the War of 1812. In 1813, following his capture at the Battle of Moraviantown, he spent nine months in a prisoner-of-war penitentiary at Frankfort, Kentucky. After his release, he went to Europe to fight but arrived too late for the Battle of Waterloo. During his time in military service, he developed expertise in guerrilla tactics. After switching regiments several times, serving in Barbados and Grenada, he received invalid pay for medical reasons. He stayed in London and Paris, supporting himself through journalism, writing dispatches for the London Times. His first novel, Ecarte, or the Salons of Paris (1829), was a social study of gambling in the Paris demimonde. In the years to come, he would write articles, novels, short stories, and even songs, and he started but failed to complete a history of the War of 1812. He returned to Canada in 1838 but left for good in 1848 and died in New York City on May 12, 1852, broke, depressed, and mostly unappreciated in his native country.

Richardson contributed to battlefield literature and colonial FRONTIER LITERATURE with Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (1832) and The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled (1840), paired novels set during the French and Indian War and the war of 1812. Traditionally compared to the American frontier novelist James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Richardson's twin narratives have earned respect as a colonial Canadian epic. They dramatize British military errors during battles with the Ottawa chief Pontiac from 1763 to 1766 in the wilderness of the Sinclair River environs of Fort Detroit and Fort Michilimackinac as well as events of the War of 1812.

In his books, Richardson appears ambivalent toward the displacement of first peoples. Graphic confrontations between Indian and European contrast methods of reconnoitering and fighting, especially the Indian kidnap and terrorizing of women. The English garrison believes that the “savages” have several methods of isolating and capturing outposts. A proof lies in Pontiac's “bloody atrocities in all the posts that have fallen” and in his war tent, which he rings with scalps of men, women, and children (Richardson 1832, 317). In chapter 3, white pickets fail to spy a single unarmed Ottawa floating by the fort to observe the size and location of their force. Because of the swimmer's stealth, the English must admit, “The bird is flown, and we have only to thank ourselves for having been so egregiously duped” (72). In a later admission of short-sightedness, Richardson declares that the insurgents originally seemed as nonthreatening “as a mite among the numerous nations that were leagued against the English” (162). Counterbalancing the desperate military situation is the friendship of Miss de Haldimar with her rescuer Oucanasta, a wordless woman-to-woman synergy that eases tensions on the frontier.

The sequel of Wacousta, Richardson's The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled, foresees the rise of Canadian nationality. Set on Lake Erie in summer 1812, the narrative opens in celebration of the British possession of Amherstburg, “one of the loveliest spots that ever issued from the will of a beneficent and gorgeous nature” (Richardson 1840, 1). Needing assistance against the Americans, white Canadians ponder the arrival of the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh and the possibility of a British alliance with Great Lakes tribes. In the ensuing debate, colonial officials, in the presence of black slaves, use wartime scalping and pillaging as justification for refusing the proposed treaty. The response from the general reminds the white naysayers that “Indian cruelty does not exceed that which is practiced even at this day in Europe, and by a nation bearing high rank among the Catholic powers of Europe” (78). The statement is a testimonial to Richardson’s evenhandedness in representing the clash of empires and cultures.


Moss, John. Future Indicative: Literary Theory and Canadian Literature. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1987.

Richardson, John. The Canadian Brothers; or, The Prophecy Fulfilled. Montreal: A. H. Armour and H. Ramasay, 1840.

----- . Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas. London: T. Cadell and W. Blackwood, 1832.