QandA with Richard D. Merritt, author of On Common Ground

QandA with Richard D. Merritt, author of On Common Ground

Posted on June 20 by admin
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On Ask an Author this week, we were able to catch up with Richard D. Merritt, and talk about his newly released book On Common Ground. Richard lets us in on who his favourite characters are his desire to have the Commons designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

CS: Tell us about your book.

Richard: On Common Ground traces the rich military and political history of a large tract of oak savannah at the mouth of the Niagara River set aside as a Military Reserve in the 1790s. The site of the first parliament of Upper Canada, a War of 1812 battleground and an annual summer militia camp, it also served as the training camp for tens of thousands of men and women during the First and Second World Wars.  In the midst of the Reserve stood the important Indian Council House where thousands of Native allies gathered for treaty negotiations and their annual presents.

From its inception however, the Reserve was regarded by the local citizenry as common lands, their Commons.  Although portions of the original perimeter have been severed for various uses, today this historic place encompasses three National Historic Sites and open green public spaces including remnants of a first-growth forest known as Paradise Grove.

This book chronicles the extraordinary lives and events that have made this place very special indeed.

CS: How did you come up with the idea for this work?

Richard: As a boy I was often regaled with stories of the Commons by elderly family members.  When I returned to Niagara-on-the-Lake to practise medicine and to raise a family, I came to appreciate the rich natural and cultural history of these wonderful open spaces. However, I soon realized that some politicians and a few bureaucrats, often with good intentions were regarding the Commons as a land bank for various development schemes.  Hopefully, by documenting for the first time the rich and varied heritage of the Commons this book will encourage generations to come,  to stand up and oppose future development proposals for this special space.

CS: In your own work, which character are you most attached to and why?

Richard: There are actually two very different characters with whom I relate strongly:  the first is Miss Janet Carnochan, schoolteacher, historian, collector, museum builder. The Commons would not have survived without the strong out-spoken advocacy of this remarkable little dynamo, “Miss Janet”; the second is the remarkable Chief John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) who arguably is the most talented and accomplished character to have ever walked across the Commons.

Born in Scotland in 1770, the son of a Scotswoman and a Cherokee Native who had been rescued as a boy by a soldier during the Seven Years War, John arrived in British North America as a private in the 65th Regiment of Foot at age fifteen years and soon became enamoured with the Native way of life. During the 1790s he served as an interpreter with the British Indian Department at the Indian Council House on the Commons. The tall and handsome Norton was fluent in four European languages and a dozen Native dialects; highly literate, he was blessed with a remarkable memory and great oratorical skills. He caught the eye of Chief Joseph Brant who persuaded Norton to move to the Grand River where he was adopted as Brant’s nephew and subsequent successor. Norton was primarily responsible for keeping the Six Nations on the side of the British during the War of 1812 and lead native warriors at Detroit and every battle on the Niagara Peninsula, save one.

After Tecumseh’s death he also assumed the military leadership of the Western Native Allies. After the war, he returned to England were he was named a brevet major, awarded a generous pension and  presented with personal gifts by the Prince Regent himself. Returning home to the Grand River he campaigned strenuously for just compensation for the native veterans and their families and served as a strong advocate for native land rights, quality of life and cultural transition.  During an earlier trip to England he translated the Gospel of St. John into Mohawk, the British and Foreign Bible Society’s very first translation project.

After the war he completed his monumental Journal that consists of three parts: a description of his epic journey to his father’s Cherokee homeland which provides a detailed ethnological description of the state of Aboriginal peoples in the young Republic; the second section provides an important, previously unrecorded history of the Iroquois Confederacy; the final section is Norton’s accurate narrative of the events of the War of 1812 – the most comprehensive personal account from both the Native and the British perspectives.  The Journal manuscript remained forgotten on a library shelf in a Northumberland castle until rediscovered and finally published in 1970 by the Champlain Society.

In 1823 Norton became involved in a duel over his wife’s alleged infidelities; his protagonist was killed and Norton, refusing to sully his wife’s reputation pleaded guilty for which he was fined. Greatly shaken, Norton settled his affairs and headed south again, never to return to Upper Canada which he had so strenuously fought to preserve. (In 2011 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated Norton as a National Historic Person).

CS: What are you reading right now?

Richard: For over two years I have been reading nothing but reference books for my forthcoming book. I am now enjoying the indulgent luxury of reading some historical fiction: Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man is a wonderful read. I am concurrently reading At Home with Books; How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries by Ellis, Seebohm and Sykes. For anyone who cherishes books this is a great coffee table/reference book.

CS: What is your new project?

Richard: I would like to be involved in the production of an in-depth documentary film featuring the Commons.  I am also considering a second book on the Commons but focusing on Camp Niagara with many more personal stories and illustrations.  Ultimately, I would like to work with Parks Canada on an application to have the Commons, with its three National Historic Sites designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Richard D. Merritt was co-editor and contributing author of The Capital Years: Niagara-on-the-Lake 1792-1796. Although an ophthalmologist by profession, he has had a lifelong interest in Niagara’s history. In 2009 he was named Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Citizen of the Year for his contributions to heritage preservation.