One of the most influential Indigenous leaders of the early 19th century in Canada was a man by the name of Joseph Brant and today I am looking at his amazing life.
Born around what is today Akran, Ohio in March of either 1742 or 1743, Brant was born Tha-yen-dan-ege-a, which means two sticks bound together for strength, to Margaret Ona-gsak-ear-at and Peter Teho-wagh-wen-gara-ghk-win, who had both converted and were Protestants.
According to Brant himself, he was descendant from Wyandot prisoners who were adopted by Mohawks on both his mother and father sides.
The family would leave the Ohio River area after the death of Peter, and Margaret would take her family to the Mohawk Valley in northern New York to live when Joseph was just an infant.
Margaret would remarry to Carrihogo, or News Carrier, who was a Mohawk with Dutch ancestry that dressed and lived in the European style. White settlers would call him Barnet or Bernard, which would shorten to Brant. Living with Margaret’s ancestral people, the Brant family had distinction as she was the descendant of Chief White Head.
In 1760, Brant’s stepfather would pass away, and Old Crooked Neck took over the raising of Brant and would bring him to a man named Sir William Johnson. Johnson’s wife had died in 1759 and he would marry Brant’s sister in a ceremony that same year.
In 1761, Brant was sent to Moor’s Indian Charity School by Johnson. He would live there for two years, and his teacher Eleazar Wheelock would state that he was quote:
“Of a sprightly genius, a manly and gentle deportment, and of a modest, courteous and benevolent temper.”
It was there that Brant would learn to speak, write and read English.
At the school, Brant would begin teaching the Mohawk language to Samuel Kirkland, who would then go into the Iroquois territory to find students for the school.
Brant was such a good student that Wheelock arranged for him to go with Kirkland to the College of New Jersey, today’s Princeton University, but the plan did not materialize.
In May of 1763, Brant returned home after receiving a letter from his sister stating that the Indigenous there did not like him being at the school.
During the Seven Years’ War, Brant served with his brother-in-law and saw action in the expedition against Fort Niagara. He would remain with Johnson for many years, serving as an interpreter. He would also help missionaries teach Christianity to Indigenous people and he would translate religious materials into Mohawk.
On July 25, 1765, Brant would marry his first wife, Margaret, who was an assimilated slave and daughter of Virginia planters. Margaret was described as a quote:
“Handsome, sober, discreet and a religious young woman.”
Together, they would have two children, Christina and Isaac.
Brant began to see that war between the colonies and England was imminent, but he and the Six Nations chose to remain neutral.
In 1771, Margaret died of tuberculosis and Brant would marry her half-sister Susanna two years later. Sadly, in 1778, she too would pass away from tuberculosis.
In 1774, Sir William Johnson, while on his death bed, asked Brant to stay loyal to the Crown.
He would travel to England in 1776 to argue for Mohawk interests. James Boswell would write of meeting Brant quote:
Lord Jeffrey Amherst would give a dinner in Brant’s honour in England, toasting Brant as quote “His Majesty’s greatest American subject.”
In response, Brant would state quote:
“Among the Indians there are two roads to greatness. One is the warpath and the other is the council. The council road is the most famous because fewest are able to travel on it. Almost any Indian can be a warrior. That is all I have ever been. Even in that I have never been anything but a subordinate under warriors much greater than I can ever hope to be such as Hiakatoo of the Senecas or King Hendrick whose fame you all know”
At the dinner, one woman stated she had not expected a savage to have polished manners. Highly offended, Brant seized a bone and began to gnaw on it. He then stated quote:
“Did you expect the poor Indian to eat like this? I’m afraid madam that we have different ideas of what kind of manners constitutes the savage.”
Prior to leaving England, Brant was given two audiences with the King and his portrait was painted.
He would return to North America after the visit, just as the American Revolution becoming a major conflict.
Throughout the American Revolution, Brant fought with an Indigenous-Loyalist group, and he was admired for his abilities as a soldier, eventually making the rank of captain by 1780. Despite having this rank, he chose to fight as a Mohawk war chief.
Sir John Johnson would explain later that being a war chief quote:
“Gave him command of more men in battle than was customary with a captain. The British officers who served with Brant and the commanding officers who received reports of his military behaviour always had high praise for him. He emerges in official dispatches as the perfect soldier, possessed of remarkable physical stamina, courage under fire and dedication to the cause, as an able and inspiring leader and as a complete gentleman.”
Brant would raise a force of 300 Indigenous warriors and 100 white Loyalists to fight against the Americans.
During the revolution, Brant and his Mohawk friend Ohrante would speak with Lord George Germain, the secretary of state of the American colonies, about the encroachment on Indigenous lands by settlers. He would state quote:
“It is very hard when we have let the Kings subjects have so much of our lands for so little value, they should want to cheat us of the small spots we have left for our women and children to live on.”
Germain agreed that the Indigenous had been wronged but stated nothing could be done until the revolution was dealt with. Germain would also write of Brant’s prowess on the battlefield, stating quote:
“The astounding activity of Joseph Brant’s enterprises and the important consequences with which they have attended give him a claim to every mark of our regard.”
In the spring of 1776, Nicholas Herkimer, a Brigadier-General in the American Militia, and a friend of Brant’s, called for him to negotiate a peace, feeling that he could get Brant on to his side. Taking 380 militia to impress Brant, he arranged to meet with Brant.
Brant would come to the meeting with his warriors concealed in the trees. He then met Herkimer in a circle drawn on the ground and asked why the meeting had been drawn. Herkimer stated he merely wanted to talk to his brother Brant. Brant replied quote:
“Do all these soldiers just come out of friendship to meet their brother Brant too?”
What Brant did not know was that four settlers were concealed in the trees ready to shoot Brant if he was not won over. Brant, suspecting something wasn’t right about the situation, gave a war cry and immediately, 500 Indigenous men appeared from the trees. Brant then thanked Herkimer for the meeting but advised him to return home and if he valued his life, to stay there.
Brant would participate in the Battle of Long Island, the Siege of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany. It was at Fort Stanwix that Brant would again meet Herkimer, who responded to the siege with 1,000 men. As his men crossed a swamp, Brant’s militia began to attack, having been informed of the approaching army by one of his scouts. The battle was described as such quote:
Herkimer would be wounded but still rallied his men while propped against a tree smoking a pipe.
By the time the battle was over, 392 Americans were dead, 68 were wounded, 30 captured and nine were missing. The Indigenous lost 32 men, with 34 wounded. Herkimer would die of his wounds soon after the battle.
Throughout 1778, he and his men would conduct raids into American territory, stealing supplies and food and burning towns. The Massacre of Wyoming Valley would be pinned on Brant, despite Brant stating he was never there. This didn’t stop Thomas Campbell from writing an epic poem called Gertrude of Wyoming, referring to Brant. One passage goes as such, quote:
“The mammoth comes, the foe, the Monstrous Brant
With all his howling desolate band
These eyes have seen their blade, the burning pine
Awake at once, and silence half your land
Red is the cup they drink, but not with wine.”
With remarkable stamina, he was considered to be an excellent soldier and he helped inspire confidence with those who served with him. In fact, there are stories of non-Indigenous fighters asking to be transferred to serve with him.
General George Washington would even express concern over the ability of Continental forces to defend the New York borderlands against Brant and his force. Washington would develop a healthy respect for Brant and would even try and include him in post-revolutionary negotiations between the United States and the Iroquois. He would also look to gain Brant’s cooperation by playing to Brant’s discontent with British policies.
In July of 1778, Washington would write to Major General Philip Schuyler stating complaining about Brant’s quote:
“Considerable mischief on the North East corner of Pennsylvania.”
He would also write to George Clinton, the Governor of New York, stating quote:
“To defend an extensive frontier against the incursions of the Indians under Butler and Brant is next to impossible.”
During one battle, he attacked the settlement of Minisink with 60 Indigenous and 27 rangers, devastating the countryside. A force of 149 Orange County men were set out to find Brant. Of those men, only 27 escaped alive from the confrontation with Brant and his men.
In 1779, Brant and his men would attack the Settlement of Port Jervis and defeat the militia that had been sent to pursue them. In August, at the Battle of Newtown, he and his men were defeated and forced to retreat under an onslaught by the American army. Brant and his forces fell back to Fort Niagara as a result, but this only increased the resolve to attack the Americans among Brant and his men who spent 1780 sending raiding parties into American settlements.
In 1780, Brant would marry Catherine Croghan, the daughter of George Croghan, an Indian agent, and a woman from a Mohawk family. Together, they had seven children. One son from that marriage, John, would become a superintendent of the Six Nations in 1826 after distinguishing himself during the War of 1812.
After the war was over, Brant began to work through the 1780s and into the 1790s to form a Western Confederacy made up of the Iroquois and other western Indigenous groups in order to block American expansion into the western parts of the continent.
Brant would say on Sept. 7, 1783, at an Indigenous council quote:
Brant would also write that year quote:
“I always look upon these engagements, or covenants, between the King and the Indian nations, as a sacred thing.”
During the peace negotiations between Great Britain and the United States, England completely ignored Brant and the Indigenous allies who had helped and gave the Americans all land as far west as the Mississippi River, which was occupied by Indigenous who never gave any territory to the whites prior to this.
Brant would say that England had quote:
“Sold the Indians to Congress.”
In 1785, Brant presented Mohawk claims for war losses to the government and petitioned for half-pay pensions and to receive assurances that Indigenous land would not be given to the United States. In England, he was successful in securing a pension and £15,000 for the Mohawks. His visit to England was a huge affair. Lord Percy applauded him, and he went on several trips in the country with the Prince of Wales. The Baroness of Riedesel would write quote:
“I saw the famous chief, Captain Joseph Brant. His manners are polished, and he expressed himself with great fluency.”
Brant would meet King George III and Queen Charlotte. When the King offered his hand to be kissed, as per custom, Brant refused, stating that he was king among his people, and it was beneath his dignity to bow to anyone. He did kiss the hand of the Queen though.
At one masquerade party, Brant showed up in traditional Indigenous costume with war paint. The Turkish ambassador mistook Brant’s painted face for a false one and pinched his nose to remove the disguise. In an instant, the ambassador was on the floor as Brant stood over him with his tomahawk. Then, realizing that the man meant no insult, Brant immediately relaxed.
Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in forming his Western Confederacy due to American opposition and, sadly, betrayal by the British who he had loyally served for so long. During his 1785 trip to London, he was given a polite refusal from the British in getting involved with any Indigenous issues in a military capacity.
For the next decade, Brant would attempt to work with both the Americans and the British to secure land for his people but treaties between other Indigenous and the Americans, as well as treaties between the Americans and British continued to undercut Brant and his people. For the British, it was more in their interests to keep the Indigenous divided and dependent.
In 1792, Washington invited Brant to accompany other Six Nations leaders to Philadelphia to meet with him and his government. Washington would write that Brant quote:
“Brought the celebrated Captain Joseph Brant to this city, with the view to impress him also with the equitable intentions of this government toward all the nations of his colour.”
Brant would promise to arrange a peace with the Ohio Indigenous but by the time he returned back to his home, he had changed his mind.
Brant would write quote:
“I was offered five thousand dollars down and my half-pay and pension I received from Great Britain doubled, merely on the condition that I use my endeavors to bring about peace. This I rejected.”
Brant was then offered land worth $115,000 a year, a huge amount but he would reject this and state quote:
“How could I accept such a bribe? They might expect me to act contrary to His Majesty’s interests and the honor of the Six Nations.”
Brant eventually secured a large tract of land from the Mississauga Indigenous in the area of Burlington Bay. The government confirmed this purchase, and he would move to a large house on the land. There would be tragedy this year though, when Brant’s son Isaac, who had a violent temper, attacked his father with a knife, wounding him in the hand. Brant drew his dirk in self-defense, inflicting a scalp wound to his son. His son refused medical attention and the wound became infected and Isaac would die from it. Brant turned himself into authorities but was exonerated because it was self-defense.
He would lead several Mohawk Loyalists and other Indigenous groups to the area of Grand River in the Georgian Bay in what is now southern Ontario. This area, amounting to two million acres, was granted to the Indigenous to compensate them for their losses during the American Revolution. Later, the government would state that the northern portion of the land had not been bought from the Mississauga people by the King and the King could not give what he had not bought.
The area would gain the name of Brant Ford, which today is known as Brantford.
Unfortunately, the land was too small for hunting and too large for the Indigenous to farm. White settlers were also moving into the area and game had become scarce as a result. In order to bring income for the people there, he wanted to lease or sell land to non-Indigenous people but there was a dispute with the government over whether or not the Mohawk and Indigenous there owned the land that they were living on. The rationale of the Upper Canada government was that the King’s allies could not have the King’s subjects as tenants.
Brant would state that this restriction meant that they were only tenants of their land, and they could do nothing but quote:
“Sitting down and walking on it.”
When all land sales or rentals were completely banned for the Six Nations, Brant would state quote:
“Should we be deprived of making the most of our landed property, many must starve, many must go naked.”
In the end, the Upper Canada government would not concede land title to the Mohawk, and throughout his life, Brant would fight the British and Upper Canada governments for the right of his people to have titles on the lands in the valley and to secure full Indigenous sovereignty there.
Brant would spend the remainder of his life living in his large house at Burlington Bay, translating parts of the Bible into Mohawk. He would also become a member of the Masonic Lodge at Grand River, where he became the first Master.
Brant would die on Nov. 24, 1807, at Wellington Square, what is now Burlington.
According to legend, his last words were spoken to his adopted nephew, stating quote:
“Have pity on the poor Indians, if you can get any influence with the great, endeavor to do them all the good you can.”
His death notice, published in January of 1808, stated quote:
Originally buried at his home, his body was moved with his son John’s remains to the Mohawk Chapel in Brantford in 1850.
Along with the City of Brantford, the County of Brant is named for him. In 1886, the Joseph Brant Memorial Statue was unveiled at Victoria Square in Brantford. A Government of Canada historic plaque commemorating him stands at the Six Nations Veterans Park in the village of Ohsweken. A portrait of him, painted in 1807, is also in the National Gallery of Canada. In 1961, the Joseph Brant Hospital was opened in Burlington, Ontario. In 1972, Brant was named a National Historic Person.
I will end this episode with a quote by Brant to Reverend John Stuart, who asked him if he preferred the white man’s way of life, or the Indigenous way of life. Brant would say quote:
“In the government you call civilized, the happiness of your people is constantly sacrificed. Hence your code of criminal and civil laws, hence your dungeons and prisons. Among the Indians you will find no prisons, no pompous parade of courts. We have no written laws and yet our judges are highly revered among us. And for what are many of your people confined? Debt! You put a man in prison, perhaps for life, for circumstances beyond his control. I would rather die by the most severe tortures than to languish in one of your prisons for a single year.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Wikipedia, Mount Vernon, Canadian Museum of History, Varsity Tutors, Upper Canada History, Macleans,