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IRONSIDE, GEORGE, Indian Department official and merchant; b. c. 1761 in Scotland; m. 1 April 1810 Vocemassussia (Isabella), a relative of the Prophet [Tenskwatawa*], in Sandwich (Windsor), Upper Canada; d. 31 May 1831 in Amherstburg, Upper Canada.

Although George Ironside was an accredited scholar, having received an am from King’s College, Aberdeen, on 22 Feb. 1781, like many contemporary Scots he emigrated to North America. By 1789 he was settled at the Miamis Towns (Fort Wayne, Ind.) as a clerk, likely in the employ of George Leith. His clerical duties gave him a sound training in commerce and accounting, while his participation in what one observer called the “Rascally Scrambling Trade” for pelts brought him into close contact with other traders, government officials, and the resident Shawnees. Ironside learned the Shawnees’ language, took part in their councils, and spoke on their behalf. He was widely recognized as a convivial companion and sincere friend.

Life on the frontier was perilous. In 1790 Ironside barely escaped drowning in a canoe accident. Then a series of punitive American raids culminating in the decisive battle of Fallen Timbers ruined the trade along the Miamis (Maumee) River. However, Ironside’s skills were a valuable asset. In 1795 he was appointed storekeeper and clerk to the Indian Department on the recommendation of Alexander McKee*, the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada, and was stationed at Amherstburg, headquarters for the Western District.

Ironside was saddled with a corrupt, illiterate superior in Matthew Elliott*, the district superintendent. As Elliott’s clerk, he was drawn into the confrontation with garrison commander Hector McLean when the latter accused Elliott of misappropriating government stores. Elliott was dismissed in 1797; Ironside barely escaped the same fate by apologizing to McLean and agreeing to follow a more regular line of conduct. There is no evidence that Ironside was personally involved in peculation. In fact, he subsequently received a strong character reference from William Claus, McKee’s successor, who noted that his “Character for integrity is unimpeached.” Ironside later acted as superintendent of the Western District when Elliott, reinstated in 1808, was absent with leave.

During the period before the War of 1812 Ironside pursued his own business interests. His petitions for land resulted in grants totalling some 2,000 acres in the Western District. He also operated a successful forwarding business, supplying the local worthies and officers at Fort Amherstburg with a wide range of luxury items. As a freemason and a member of the community’s Anglican congregation, St John’s Church, Sandwich, Ironside fitted comfortably into the local oligarchy, enjoying a measure of wealth, status, and influence.

The outbreak of conflict in 1812 shattered this tranquil existence. The demands of war, particularly meeting the needs of the native allies who actively supported the British [see Tecumseh*], placed a heavy burden on the department. In 1813 Ironside was forced to join in the precipitous flight to Burlington Heights (Hamilton) when the Right Division under Henry Procter abandoned the Detroit frontier.

With the return of peace, the Indian Department was re-established at Amherstburg. Ironside became embroiled in the feuding within the department, siding with Billy Caldwell* who successfully conspired to wrest the local superintendency away from his father William Caldwell. Although a loyal and effective official, Ironside did not have sufficient power or connections to override the claims of more powerful rivals when Billy Caldwell was dismissed in 1816. The superintendency went to John Askin Jr and Ironside was appointed clerk. (The more important position of storekeeper had disappeared about 1817 when the commissariat at the fort took over the management of Indian Department supplies.) Within three years Askin’s health failed and Ironside was called upon to act and then to serve as the superintendent at Amherstburg. His appointment was dated 1 Jan. 1820.

For the remaining years of his career, Ironside provided sound, efficient, and honest administration of Indian affairs. He continued to be a pillar of the community, serving as an elder in the Amherstburg Presbyterian church after it was founded. In 1830 he requested permission to retire from the Indian Department. He was the father of two daughters and five sons, and the fact that he was allowed to pass on his position to his son George* is a measure of Ironside’s stature in the organization. His career is typical of many functionaries of the department. He entered it through talent and affiliation with an important official – in his case, McKee. Many years of faithful service finally enabled him to secure a senior position.

Dennis Carter-Edwards

[The best source for Ironside’s activities with the Indian Department is his extensive correspondence with departmental officials, now located in the DPL, Burton Hist. Coll., George Ironside papers. Also useful is the correspondence in PAC, RG 8, I (C ser.), especially 251: 129, and 1206: 159–271. Other aspects of his career are found in Aberdeen Univ. Library (Aberdeen, Scot.), Kings College and Univ., record of graduates, 22 Feb. 1781; AO, GS 848, Session records, May 1831 (mfm.); PAC, MG 23, GII, 17, ser.1, vo1.25: 123–40; RG 1, L3, 254: I–J2/21; 257: I12/8; RG 19, E5(a), 3744, claim 271; and St John’s (Sandwich) Anglican Church (Windsor, Ont.), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1802–27 (copies at PAC).

Secondary sources useful for this study are various. The author would like to acknowledge the work of Douglas Leighton, who presented a paper on Ironside at the Western District Hist. Conference of 1979 at the Univ. of Windsor. R. S. Allen’s study, “British Indian Dept.,” Canadian Hist. Sites, no.14: 5–125, is basic for anyone looking into this topic. Reginald Horsman, Matthew Elliott, British Indian agent (Detroit, 1964), covers the early period of the Indian Department at Amherstburg, including the McLean–Elliott affair. Two doctoral dissertations which are helpful for a study of the department are D. R. Farrell, “Detroit, 1783–1796: the last stages of the British fur trade in the old northwest” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1968), and H. C. W. Goltz, “Tecumseh, the Prophet, and the rise of the Northwest Indian Confederation” (phd thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., 1973). There is also the author’s study of the British military garrison at Amherstburg, Fort Malden: a structural narrative history, 1796–1976 (Can., National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Manuscript report, no.401, 2v., Ottawa, 1976).

Other sources used in this study are: [Henry Hay], “A narrative of life on the old frontier: Henry Hay’s journal from Detroit to the [Miamis] River,” ed. M. M. Quaife, Wis., State Hist. Soc., Proc. (Madison), 1914: 208–61; John Askin papers (Quaife); O. M. Spencer, Narrative of Oliver MSpencer; comprising an account of his captivity among the Mohawk Indians, in North America (2nd ed., London, 1842); “U.C. land book B,” AO Report, 1930: 23, 79; J. A. Clifton, “Captain Billy Caldwell: on the reconstruction of an abused identity” (typescript, n.d.; expanded version of a paper presented to a symposium on ethnogenesis on the Great Lakes frontier at the annual meeting of the American Hist. Assoc., Washington, 1976); and R. D. Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln, Nebr., and London, 1983).  d.c.-e.]

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Cite This Article

Dennis Carter-Edwards, “IRONSIDE, GEORGE (d. 1831),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ironside_george_1831_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ironside_george_1831_6E.html
Author of Article:   Dennis Carter-Edwards
Title of Article:   IRONSIDE, GEORGE (d. 1831)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 26, 2023