The Iroquoian-speaking Attawandaron, known in English as the Neutral Nation, lived in the Grand River valley area before the 17th century; their main village and seat of the chief, Kandoucho, was identified by 19th-century historians as having been located on the Grand River where present-day Brantford developed. This community, like the rest of their settlements, was destroyed when the Iroquois declared war in 1650 over the fur trade and exterminated the Neutral nation.
In 1784, Captain Joseph Brant and the Mohawk people of the Iroquois Confederacy left New York State for Canada. As a reward for their loyalty to the British Crown, they were given a large land grant, referred to as the Haldimand Tract, on the Grand River. The original Mohawk settlement was on the south edge of the present-day city at a location favourable for landing canoes. Brant’s crossing (or fording) of the river gave the original name to the area: Brant’s ford.
The area began to grow from a small settlement in the 1820s as the Hamilton and London Road was improved. By the 1830s, Brantford became a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a sizable number of runaway African-Americans settled in the town. From the 1830s to the 1860s – several hundred people of African descent settled in the area around Murray Street, and in Cainsville. In Brantford, they established their own school and church, now known as the S.R. Drake Memorial Church. In 1846, it is estimated 2000 residents lived in the city’s core while 5199 lived in the outlying rural areas. There were 8 churches in Brantford at this time – Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, two Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and one for the African-Canadian residents.
By 1847, Europeans began to settle further up the river at a ford in the Grand River and named their village Brantford. The population increased after 1848 when river navigation to Brantford was opened and again in 1854 with the arrival of the railway to Brantford.
Because of the ease of navigation from new roads and the Grand River, several manufacturing companies could be found in the town by 1869. Some of these factories included Brantford Engine Works, Victoria Foundry and Britannia Foundry. Several major farm implement manufacturers, starting with Cockshutt and Harris, opened for business in the 1870s.
The history of the Brantford region from 1793 to 1920 is described at length in the book At The Forks of The Grand.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both the United States and Canadian governments encouraged education of First Nations children at residential schools, which were intended to teach them English and European-American ways and assimilate them to the majority cultures. These institutions in Western New York and Canada included the Thomas Indian School, Mohawk Institute Residential School (also known as Mohawk Manual Labour School and Mush Hole Indian Residential School) in Brantford, Southern Ontario, Haudenosaunee boarding school, and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Decades later and particularly since the late 20th century, numerous scholarly and artistic works have explored the detrimental effects of the schools in destroying Native cultures. Examples include: the film Unseen Tears: A Documentary on Boarding School Survivors, Ronald James Douglas’ graduate thesis titled Documenting Ethnic Cleansing in North America: Creating Unseen Tears, and the Legacy of Hope Foundation’s online media collection: “Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of the Residential Schools”.
In June 1945, Brantford became the first city in Canada to fluoridate its water supply.
Brantford generated controversy in 2010 when its city council expropriated and demolished 41 historic downtown buildings on the south side of its main street, Colborne Street. The buildings constituted one of the longest blocks of pre-Confederation architecture in Canada, and included one of Ontario’s first grocery stores and an early 1890s office of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada. The decision was widely criticized by Ontario’s heritage preservation community, however the city argued it was needed for downtown renewal.