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John Gorham’s controversial legacy

John Gorham helped build Bedford and Sackville, but he has a history of killing and racism

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Nova Scotia was a sparsely populated wilderness where European settlers waged bloody war on the native population. This was the land John Gorham was already familiar with 1749 when he founded Fort Sackville, the foundation of modern Bedford and Lower Sackville.

For many, this founding is where Gorham’s recognition should end. Well before Edward Cornwallis, Halifax’ founder, issued his scalping proclamation in October 1749, Gorham’s Rangers (a mix of New Englanders, non-Mi’kmaw First Nations, and those with a mixed ancestry) hunted down Nova Scotian natives for this very reason.

“The way I think of him is that he’s the same as Hitler and his henchmen,” says Dan Paul, a Mi’kmaq elder, author and historian, who has long opposed anything be named after Gorham including a connector road between Bedford and Sackville in the late 1990s. “He was not a good guy. Period.”

Jon Tattrie, author of Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax agrees, noting there are better historical figures to honour.

“I think the troubling thing is that we focus on this period of history and these characters,” Tattrie says. “Joe Howe or Rose Fortune, who became the first black female police officer in Canada, are those that people want to honour.”

Gorham was born in Massachusetts in 1709 and originally worked as a merchant, often on whaling ships that sailed between Nova Scotia and New England. These endeavours, which included an attempt to buy land on Sable Island, proved unsuccessful, and by 1741 he moved on to the military.

In 1744, with the rank of captain, he came to Nova Scotia to assist in the Siege of Annapolis Royal. While he had arrived too late to be much help, he would later fight in the Siege of Louisbourg in 1745. He would also be involved in many other battles, including the Battle at St. Croix and the Battle at Chignecto during Father Le Loutre’s War. The war was a six-year battle, from 1749 to 1755, where the British fought against the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians. After the war, which is named after Jean-Louis Le Loutre, a priest who led the Mi’kmaq and French, the British started deporting the Acadians from their lands.

In 1744, to help the British in their attempts to control Nova Scotia, the governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq people. Usually, this meant they were killed and scalped for a fee. According to a brochure from Sackville’s Fultz House, Gorham and his rangers didn’t care who this bounty affected, as some of the first people they killed were a family that included three pregnant women and two children.

When Cornwallis took command in Halifax in 1749, two things changed for Gorham: The Nova Scotia Council gave him an appointment; and the scalping order was renewed. Since it was still legal, he and his rangers continued attacking and killing Mi’kmaq for profit.

Tattrie believes Gorham wouldn’t have see anything wrong with what he was doing, which is where the debate regarding recognition lies. Gorham even successfully lobbied Cornwallis to increase the bounty price from 10 guineas to 50 guineas in 1750.

“He wouldn’t have been ashamed with what he was doing,” says Tattrie. “He had voted for the bounty in the first place and voted for the increase of his business.”

Gorham and Cornwallis often didn’t get along. The handling of Louisbourg was one reason why.

“When Cornwallis came here, Gorham didn’t like him, as he just seen British forces take that prize [the Fortress of Louisbourg] away from him and rebuild it and hand it back over to the French,” Tattrie says. “The difference with Gorham is he was a New Worlder, so to see Britain do that, he and Cornwallis were not friends.”

But the animosity between the men didn’t end with the fact that Cornwallis was British and Gorham was North American. According to John Hawkins’ book The Founding of Halifax Duc D’Anville, Governor Cornwallis, Captain John Gorham, Gorham considered Cornwallis a “uninformed upstart,” while Cornwallis thought Gorham was “undisciplined,” “ignorant,” and not officer material.

Gorham also often argued with Cornwallis when it came to trying to get funds for his rangers. In Violent Birth of Halifax, Tattrie noted one instance when the Nova Scotian governor arrived back from a trip, he could hear Gorham yelling “where’s my money?” from the beach as soon as he touched land.

Eventually Gorham had enough of Nova Scotia and Cornwallis. In August 1751, he left for England onboard The Osbourne to see if officials in London would give him and his rangers the financial support Cornwallis withheld. However, Gorham contracted small pox and died in December of that year. His rangers remained an active military unit in Nova Scotia until 1761.

For Tattrie, the legacy of Gorham is quite simple and it should be recognized for what it is: historical footnote.

“From a historian perspective … much like Cornwallis, he’s not a swashbuckling figure who came here to plant a flag,” he says. “He was just an unpleasant person who did a lot of terrible things and then died of smallpox.”

While he no doubt had an impact on the development of Bedford, Paul believes that Gorham needs to remain the past for Nova Scotia to move forward.

“We are a country that is moving toward reconciliation with our (Mi’kmaq) people, so why would anyone want to, supposedly in the enlightened age, honour a colonial official like him, a man who terrorized people?” says Paul. “He’s in the history books and that’s where he should be.”

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