“So let’s go see the downtown,” said Peter Campbell, the director of Finding Peter Bryce. We were driving down Mount Pleasant Road just south of Brantford, and we were coming up to a four way stop. There was a house on one corner, a bistro on another, and across the street a market with a windmill on top and on the other corner, a cemetery.
“This is it,” I told him. “This is all there is to Mount Pleasant.”
Peter wanted a downtown to shoot some incidental scenes, and he had imagined Mount Pleasant to be a classic Ontario downtown with brick buildings and lamp posts and the like (the next day we shot in Port Hope, which was just the kind of place Peter was imagining). Mount Pleasant is more like a collection of houses – hardly noticeable as a community anymore. But 160 years ago, this village represented opportunity for settlers. The land was fertile, and Mount Pleasant was beside the Grand River which emptied into Lake Erie and gave access to markets across the lake in the U.S. It was an important transportation route in the days before railroads or even basic roads. Mount Pleasant had location, location, location.
Mount Pleasant is also remarkable because it was the first plot of land leased out to settlers by Six Nations Chief Joseph Brant. The Six Nations are made up of the six Iroquois bands which supported the British in the American Revolutionary War. To reward their Indigenous allies (who were also facing punishment and perhaps death in the U.S.A.), the British offered them the Haldimand tract in what is now Ontario. It was an enormous grant – 10 miles on either side of the Grand River from Lake Erie to what is now Mount Forest. But Chief Joseph Brant started leasing out land to settlers. He figured the land would bring in money, and encourage the settlers and Indigenous to work together. He didn’t see the Indigenous lifestyle of hunting and trapping in the future and wanted his people to adopt the agricultural lifestyle. At least, that’s the history that we have inherited as the descendants of the settlers. As I have found on this journey more than once, Indigenous history and Settler history are different in their interpretations. My next piece of research will be to flesh out how the Indigenous view their relationship with Europeans at that time. This should help to answer a question that is core to Peter Bryce’s story; Did he have regular contact with Indigenous people while growing up?
“Peter Bryce had acquired a sensitivity to the Aboriginal population,” says historian Bill Darfleur. “I’m sure that’s because Six Nations is on the other side of the town line. “
It’s not the first time I have heard this interpretation; my cousin Kevin Best had talked to me about this more than a year before. Kevin knows more about the Indigenous world, than any other non-Indigenous person I have met. Well before Kevin knew about his ancestor’s advocacy of Indigenous people, he had developed a deep appreciation for Indigenous culture and spirituality. At a ceremony in Toronto in 2015, Kevin offered me his eagle feather as support when I was about to give a thank you speech on behalf of the family. It was a generous and personal offering and I was touched.
“There was definitely contact in the early days,” says Kevin. “The Haudenosawne (Iroquois confederacy) had a real problem at Six Nations because so many of their men had been killed fighting for the British. On the other hand many of the settlers around Mount Pleasant were officers from the British military who were single. There was a lot of intermarriage.”
It’s easy to find the results of this intermarriage. We were hosted in Mount Pleasant by Linda Guest, who ran a B&B and is a descendant of Joseph Brant’s assistant, Epaphras Phelps. He was from the Mohawk valley of upper New York state and he moved to the area and married a Mohawk woman named Esther Hill in 1798. Despite some rocky moments during the war of 1812 when Epaphras predicted the Americans would win and was charged with treason for his comments, the Phelps family has many descendants living in the Mount Pleasant area.
But all of this happened well before George and Catherine Bryce (Peter’s parents) arrived in 1843. According to the book The Work of their Hands, by the 1840s Mount Pleasant was well established as a commercial centre, and the fertile land and active farming community was bringing money in for the merchants and tradesmen of the village.
The Work of Their Hands is an interesting story all on its own. The book was commissioned by a group called Heritage Mount Pleasant. It hired a researcher from the University of Waterloo named Dr. Sharon Jaeger to research and write about Mount Pleasant from 1799 to 1899. Remarkably this book is 296 pages long, and among other things, it outlines how the two Bryce brothers (Peter and George) played major roles in the development of Canada. But the village was also home to Arthur Sturgis Hardy, who went on to become Premier of Ontario. As Premier, Hardy would often lock horns with Dr. Emily Stowe on suffragette issues. Stowe was the first female medical doctor in Canada, and she had been educated in Mount Pleasant.
In the book, Jaeger quotes local journalist Jean Waldie who in 1854 describes Mount Pleasant as a hub of activity with inns, taverns and stores, a carriage shop and at least one blacksmith. In this era a number of substantial homes were built, and many of them still line Mount Pleasant Road. It was the heyday for Mount Pleasant, and all that economic activity helped the Bryce, Hardy and Stowe children to have influential lives in the new country of Canada.
But history has not been kind to Mount Pleasant. By the end of the 19th century, much of the industry in Mount Pleasant had moved to nearby Brantford and by the time of the automobile in the 20th century, Mount Pleasant’s future as a sleepy village was cemented.
What keeps me going on this journey is how I peel back a layer of history, only to find another. In researching Mount Pleasant I found a story about a village with great prospects which got left behind by history. It’s a story that has been repeated dozens of times in Canada. But now I am left wondering about the next layer, and that involves the other people in this story – the people of Six Nations. In researching that story, I suspect I will find yet another layer that will tell me more about this country. Such is the nature of history.
The documentary film Finding Peter Bryce is currently in post-production but it needs funding to be completed. If you are interested in contributing, you can give through our partners, the Canadian Public Health Association and receive a tax receipt in return. Go to How to donate to the Film to find out more. Click here to see the promotional trailer. If you have other questions, suggestions or thoughts, please contact me at email@example.com