Major John Richardson was a veteran of the War of 1812, a historian, and English Canada's first novelist. Much to his frustration he was also - in his own time and to this day - one of English Canada's least-read novelists.
John Richardson was born in Queenston, Upper Canada on 4 October, 1796. His hometown was later the site of a major battle in the War of 1812. His extended family had business interests on both sides of the border, particularly on each bank of the Detroit River. After his father, a military officer, was stationed at a frontier post on Lake Huron, John, his siblings and his mother spent good many years being shuttled from household to household. An important part of this time was spent in the former British garrison town of Detroit, which was now American1. John was expected to learn what he could about cross-border trade. Whatever he might have learned, however, quickly proved of little use. In 1812 some foolish men decided to test Thomas Jefferson's suggestion that the conquest of Canada would be a matter of marching.
With the American declaration of war and a clearly impending invasion, fifteen-year-old John turned from his civilian learning and, with the help of his maternal grandfather, gained an appointment as a gentleman volunteer in the 41st Regiment on 9 July, 1812. He saw combat in every engagement of his regiment, including the capture of Detroit at which he explained he 'had the honour of mounting my first guard at the Flag Staff'. With the defeat at the battle of Moraviantown in October 1813, Richardson was captured and imprisoned until the war's end in 1814. After his release, Richardson was transferred from regiment to regiment as the British army was being gradually downsized after the defeat of Napoleon. By 1820, Richardson was living in London as a man of letters. In 1828 he published a long poem titled Tecumseh, a celebration of the Shawnee military genius who captured Detroit. In the next year he published his first novel, Ecart, or the Salons of Paris a tale of dissipation in the clubs of Paris.
Richardson's greatest claim to fame is the novel Wacousta, published in Britain in 1832 but not published in his homeland until after his death. It is a marvellous gothic tale of terror, mystery and revenge set in Detroit during the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763.
In 1834 Richardson joined the British Auxiliary Legion, a force of 10,000 men whose mission was to support the Spanish crown against a pretender. After almost a year of illness, battle and intrigue in Spain, Richardson returned to London in 1836.
In 1838 he returned to Canada. During this residence in his native country, Richardson wrote a number of descriptions of Canadian political affairs for British newspapers as well as a sequel to Wacousta titled The Canadian Brothers and set during the War of 1812. In 1842 Richardson began publishing a history of the War of 1812. Unfortunately, he never completed what was to be a multi-volume work.
In 1849 he left Canada for the last time. He spent his last years in New York City, destitute and depressed. He died on 12 May, 1852.