Remembering Oronhyatekha: A Giant in His Time

By Barry Penhale

 Dr. Oronhyatekha was the subject of a long-awaited thoroughly researched account of his quite inspiring life, published by  Dundurn Press  in 2016.

Dr. Oronhyatekha was the subject of a long-awaited thoroughly researched account of his quite inspiring life, published by Dundurn Press in 2016.

Many Ontario heritage enthusiasts have their own short list of favourite historical figures. Locally in the Quinte region the historical interests of the late C.W. (Bill) Hunt of Belleville, culminated in a baker’s dozen of popular books with an emphasis on Bill’s keen interest in the prohibition/rum running era and his equal preoccupation with early aviation. Thanks to Bill Hunt, and a veritable army of dedicated Ontario history researchers, the general public today has a much greater awareness of our province’s multi-layered heritage.

An expanding interest of mine continues to be Canada’s rich Indigenous history, which has resulted in my unabashed admiration for that extraordinary man once so closely identified with Hastings County, Oronhyatekha (1841 – 1907). My limited knowledge of Oronhyatekha rapidly increased upon meeting the affable and dedicated keeper of Mohawk history, Melville Hill at Tyendinaga in the early 1960s. His warm welcome whenever travels took me to the Bay of Quinte are now cherished memories, and it was Mel’s admiration for Oronhyatekha that added greatly to my own growing interest in a man truly larger than life. Visitors to the Hill home, which also doubled as a unique museum, were treated to numerous reminders of local Mohawk history, including photographs of Oronhyatekha (Burning Sky) and his splendid Tyendinaga home property known as “The Pines.”

The man, whose eventual achievements and prominence in numerous fields would set him apart in a particularly difficult time for First Nations people, was born into the Mohawk Nation on the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory on August 10, 1841, and baptized that year as Peter Martin. A member of the Wolf Clan, he was the child of Peter Martin, a veteran of the War of 1812, and Lydia Loft, a Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte. Loft’s maternal grandmother was the sister of John Deserontyon, the noted warrior captain who was responsible for settling a number of his people locally following the American Revolution. Notwithstanding the distance between Tyendinaga and Grand River Mohawk settlements the members of both communities enjoyed fairly regular contact. Prompted by her marriage circa 1834, Loft moved from Tyendinaga to the Grand River area. There, living among illustrious kinfolk on his father’s side, Oronhyatekha was schooled in Mohawk values. Possibly his single biggest influence was his paternal grandfather, George Martin, a Haudenosaunee Confederacy Council Sachem (Chief, political leader), War Chief, and an American Revolution veteran.

It is reputed that, when asked why he favoured being known as Oronhyatekha and not the name by which he had been baptized, he replied that the world consisted of thousands of Peter Martins, however there was but one Oronhyatekha. Be it as his preferred Oronhyatekha, or as Peter Martin, this accomplished man was destined for greatness in many fields including business, fraternalism, medicine, and sports. There were so many achievements that it would call for a massive list to chronicle major milestones and accomplishments. But it is noted that the 1860 Royal visit to Canada West by the Prince of Wales, (later known as Edward VII) undoubtedly boosted Oronhyatekha’s stock early in his career. At nineteen years-of-age, he was chosen by the Confederacy Council to present a speech he had written to the Prince, which he, splendidly attired in ceremonial dress, did at Brantford on September 14, 1860. This visit proved highly important to the youthful Oronhyatekha, since it introduced him to Sir Henry Wentworth Ackland, who was the Royal physician to the Prince of Wales. Ackland’s encouragement of Oronhyatekha’s further education led to his short-term attendance at Oxford University, which was financially supported by his Grand River community. Oronhyatekha, who held the distinction of being the first Indigenous student to be admitted to that illustrious school, would be befriended and mentored throughout his lifetime by Dr. Ackland.

Having an affinity for Tyendinaga and with an older brother now settled there, Oronhyatekha headed in that direction upon his return to Canada in June 1862. Once there, he began to teach in a school at Shannonville, a town whose site was leased by the Tyendinaga community. In his off-hours, he also began assisting Dr. John W. Fergusson, a physician from Hamilton. Throughout this period money issues weighed heavily on Oronhyatekha’s broad shoulders, appearing as a constant impediment to his continuing aspirations to become a physician. Fortunately in other ways life had brightened considerably due to the entry into his world of Ellen Hill (1843 – 1901). She was a direct descendant of both Joseph Brant and John Deserontyon. Deyorouseh (Pretty One), as Ellen was known, and her several siblings were raised at Tyendinaga by their widowed mother, who owned an extensive property. From a historical perspective perhaps the most interesting part of this holding was Captain John’s Island, situated in the bay opposite Mill Point, later to become Deseronto. (An Ontario government plaque commemorating the founding of Deseronto in 1881 is located in Centennial Park between Main Street and the waterfront. The naming honours Captain John Deserontyon.) Once married, Oronhyatekha and Ellen built a large log cabin as their first home, and by 1864 they were favoured with a daughter fondly called Bena.

 As an IOF project in support of orphaned children, Oronhyatekha had Captain John’s Island cleared of large black rat snakes and comfortable buildings erected, including a veritable mansion. Renamed “Forester Island,” the site received its first visitors in 1894.  Tinted postcard, Penhale Collection.

As an IOF project in support of orphaned children, Oronhyatekha had Captain John’s Island cleared of large black rat snakes and comfortable buildings erected, including a veritable mansion. Renamed “Forester Island,” the site received its first visitors in 1894. Tinted postcard, Penhale Collection.

It would fall to Ellen and a brother to farm the land for the income they needed while Oronhyatekha, now having been admitted to the Toronto School of Medicine in 1863 – 64, began studies that would lead to receiving his Bachelor of Medicine (M.B.) in 1866, followed by his qualifying for a Doctor of Medicine degree. Though he successfully practised elsewhere in Ontario, Oronhyatekha’s bond with the Quinte region would find him returning to Hastings County with early medical offices established in Frankford on the Trent and later at nearby Napanee. At Frankford he was assisted in the preparation of medicines by his brother-in-law, George Hill, who at that time, was enrolled in medical studies at Belleville’s Albert College. As a medical practitioner and county coroner, Oronhyatekha, now known as Dr. “O” was to enjoy upwards of middle-class success and ultimately international prominence as the supreme chief ranger of the fraternally organized insurance company, the Independent Order of Foresters (IOF). By 1890, his Tyendinaga holdings exceeded 250 acres and the original log cabin was but a memory, having had been replaced by the palatial residence – “The Pines.” It was a home that would receive many distinguished visitors from around the globe.

 An artist’s rendition of “ The Pines ”.  Courtesy of Mel Hill/Penhale Collection.

An artist’s rendition of “The Pines”. Courtesy of Mel Hill/Penhale Collection.

Oronhyatekha left huge footprints when he departed this world on March 3, 1907. He died while visiting the United States and three days later a CPR train carrying his body pulled into Toronto’s Union Station. From there, the glass-top coffin was transported to Massey Music Hall where he lay in state. Close to ten-thousand mourners came to say their own goodbyes and several thousand more attended the evening funeral service. The following day a specially commissioned train carried his body on the journey home to “The Pines” – the home described in his own words as “nearest his heart,” – with only one stop en route at Napanee, before arriving at Tyendinaga.

A physically big man in his prime, standing six-foot three inches, it was reported that he crowded the seven-foot mark when wearing a head-dress. But it is not for his imposing stature but rather as a humanitarian who touched so many lives that he is best remembered. It is fitting that at the end of such a productive life the much beloved Dr. “O” was eulogized by Indigenous and non-native alike.