“We now, brother, hope to see these bad children chastised, and that we may be enabled to tell the Indians who have always been faithful and ready to assist the king what his majesty intends.”
In November 1775, Guy Johnson, the acting superintendent of Indian affairs in the North American colonies, sailed to England, taking with him two young Mohawk warriors, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) and John Hill (Oteronyente). The main purpose of their visit was to convince the British government that they should install Johnson in the superintendent post rather than the man who had been recently appointed by the governor of Quebec. They also wanted the British authorities to recognize the importance of the American Indian nations, particularly the Six Nations Iroquois, to the British war effort. Brant assured the newly appointed secretary of state for the American Department, Lord George Germain, of the Six Nations’ support, and he contended that British authorities should actively encourage the Indians to join the fight against the rebelling American colonists. For Brant, like many other Indian leaders, the politics of wartime alliance became a way to win concessions from the British government, particularly regarding contentious issues of land ownership.
Soon after the American Revolution opened with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, American leaders began to plan an invasion of Quebec. With only a small contingent of British troops overextended throughout region and much of the population, notably the French colonists, having dubious loyalty to the Crown, the Americans saw an opportunity for military victory and the potential for Canadians rallying behind the American cause. At the end of August, American forces under General Richard Montgomery invaded Canada. As an American expeditionary army advanced on Fort St. Jean, south of Montreal, they were initially driven back by a British scout unit consisting mostly of Indians. It is likely this is the skirmish that Joseph Brant referred to when he informed Lord Germain that the Indian allies “alone” defeated the New England invaders. Later in September, the Indian allies also helped defend Montreal from a poorly planned assault on the city by Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys under Ethan Allen. Numerous Indians had come to the aid of the British, yet instead of being rewarded for these actions and encouraged to continue in British service, they received little support from Quebec’s governor-general, Sir Guy Carleton, who was unwilling to depend upon the assistance of an independent and undisciplined Indian fighting force. The Indians disbanded and returned to their villages, unsure of their role in the conflict.
Much of the confusion in British–Indian relations at the start of the war came as a result of the death of the influential Indian superintendent William Johnson in July 1774. For twenty-five years, he had managed Indian affairs in British North America, earning the respect of both British officials and the Indians and becoming a very wealthy land baron through his trading operations and land deals with the Indians. Before his death, he nominated as his successor Guy Johnson, a cousin, who had long served as his deputy and who had married his eldest daughter. Although knowledgeable about Indian affairs, Guy Johnson lacked much of the charisma and leadership abilities of his predecessor.
Thayendanegea was born around 1743 to Margaret and Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa, Mohawks then living near Cuyahoga, in present-day northern Ohio. After the death of his father, Thayendanegea’s mother returned to her home village of Canajoharie in New York, where in 1753 she married Brant Kanagaradunkwa, an influential Mohawk leader. Both Thayendanegea and his older sister Konwatsitsiaienni took their stepfather’s name, becoming known as Joseph and Molly Brant.
In 1759, Molly Brant moved into the home of the Indian superintendent William Johnson and soon gave birth to the first of their eventual eight children. Although not formalized, their relationship functioned as a marriage within both white and Indian societies. This situation brought her family prestige as intermediaries in the Iroquois community and also helped Johnson better function within the clan system of Iroquois diplomacy. Molly and Joseph likely received some English education from missionaries, and in 1761, Johnson sent Joseph to further his studies under Reverend Eleazar Wheelock at Moor’s Charity School in Lebanon, Connecticut. Joseph spent two years at the school and returned having acquired the manners of a colonial gentleman, skills as a translator, and strong familiarity with the Bible.
In 1765, Joseph Brant married Margaret “Neggen Aoghyatonghsera,” the daughter of Isaac Dekayenensere, a leading Oneida chief. They settled on an eighty-acre farm at Canajoharie. After Margaret died in 1771, Brant married her half sister Susanna. When Guy Johnson became the acting Indian superintendent in 1774, he employed Brant as an interpreter, and when Johnson attempted to rally Indians to the British cause in May 1775, he recruited Brant along with most of the Canajoharie Mohawk warriors to go with him to Canada. Johnson likely convinced Brant to accompany him to England in November 1775 to support his bid for the Indian superintendent position and to convince British authorities of the necessity of cultivating Iroquois allies. During his stay in London, Brant became a celebrity. Along with Johnson and John Hill, Brant was presented to King George III on February 29, 1776. Afterward, he was a frequent guest at elite social functions. He even had his portrait painted by renowned artist George Romney.
Upon returning to America in July 1776, Brant recruited a potent fighting force of Indians and loyalist whites. They were involved in British victories at Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany and launched devastating raids against the American revolutionaries in upstate New York, notably at Cobleskill and Cherry Valley. After the war, Brant became a prominent leader of the Mohawk and other Six Nations refugees who resettled on a reservation in Ontario. In 1785, he returned to England, where he presented a successful case for British compensation for Indian war losses. Brant worked to preserve the land rights and independence of the Six Nations and sought to reunite the Iroquois Confederacy that had been torn apart in the American Revolution. His efforts at introducing more British ideas and practices into the lives of the Indian people caused a large faction to oppose him, and they likely drove him from the community. Around 1803, he moved to Burlington, Ontario, where he lived a European lifestyle until his death on November 24, 1807. He was survived by his third wife, Catherine “Adonwentishon” Croghan, the daughter of an Irish fur trader and the niece of a prominent Mohawk chief, whom he married in 1779. They had seven children, including John Brant, who later served as the Six Nations Indian agent and was elected to the Canadian legislature.
By the 1770s, the once-mighty Mohawk nation lived in a precarious position because their homeland along the Mohawk River in upstate New York had been engulfed by white settlement, with even the ownership of the land occupied by their two principle villages, Tiononderoge (Fort Hunter) and Canajoharie, claimed by influential European colonists based on dubious land patents. For Joseph Brant and other Indian leaders, the American Revolution presented an opportunity: If they proved their military worth to the British government, they could get more economic assistance and would be better able to secure land ownership. This was not a new strategy. The Mohawks had bargained their military assistance in King George’s War (1744–48) and the Seven Years’ War (1754–60), coming to the aid of the British against the French. After the French surrendered their North American possessions in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain recognized the claims of their Indian allies to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. This, however, did little to stem the tide of white settlement on Indian lands. Rather than helping secure Indian rights and possessions, the defeat of the French resulted in a decline in Indian influence because they were no longer needed as allies. With the advent of the American Revolution, however, the Mohawk nation again occupied a potentially powerful negotiating position. Joseph Brant meant to exploit it.
Since their settlement of America in the early seventeenth century, Europeans viewed the Mohawks as one of the most important tribes. The two societies developed strong economic ties, although they maintained an uneasy relationship fueled by mutual suspicion, misunderstandings, and fraudulent practices. Much of the tribe’s power derived from its membership in the Six Nations Confederacy, a political coalition of Iroquoian-speaking peoples who occupied central and northern New York. Composed initially of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes, this confederacy had existed since the fifteenth century and later included the Tuscaroras, who had migrated from the North Carolina region in the early eighteenth century. By maintaining a formal process of dispute resolution and decision making, these tribes were able to act cohesively. Because they occupied a strategic position between the English, French, and Dutch, they had early access to European weapons and other goods. With a relatively stable political system and European trade connections, the Six Nations became the most powerful Indian group in North America at that time.
At the beginning of King George’s War, the governor of New York, George Clinton, bypassed the Administration of Indian Affairs established by the Albany Committee and appointed the trader William Johnson to act as the Indian agent for the Six Nations. Johnson had come to New York from Ireland in 1738 to manage the lands belonging to his uncle Peter Warren, a British naval officer. Within a few years he had established a successful trading post along the north side of the Mohawk River. What distinguished Johnson from the other traders and Albany Committee representatives was his understanding of the rituals and customs of the Iroquois, particularly the role that gift exchange played in reinforcing social networks. He learned the Mohawk language as well as their songs and dances, and around 1742, he was adopted into the tribe.
To facilitate recruitment of the Six Nations to the British war effort, Governor Clinton gave Johnson permission to generously supply the Indians with gifts and to pay a bounty on enemy scalps and prisoners. Johnson successfully convinced many in the Six Nations to side with the British in King George’s War, and they engaged in raids that terrorized the French and their Indian allies. When peace was declared, Johnson found himself caught in factional New York politics and rivalries over the management of the Indians. To the great displeasure of the Six Nations, he resigned his position in 1751. A few years later, with another war brewing, Johnson was reinstated, and in 1754, he commanded America militia troops and Indians in an invasion of Canada. While the military operation failed, it proved to be a propaganda victory for Johnson, resulting in King George II making him the baronet of New York and the British Board of Trade designating him as the superintendent of Indian affairs.
The Seven Years’ War (also called the French and Indian War) demonstrated the power of the Six Nations and helped solidify Johnson’s influence. At the war’s conclusion, Johnson prodded the British and American colonial governments to fulfill the promises he made to the Indians to resolve the ongoing land disputes. He advocated the establishment of a firm boundary between the lands belonging to the American colonists and the Indians. At a huge conference held at Fort Stanwix beginning in September and ending in November 1768, the representatives of the colonies and the Six Nations reached an agreement that drew a line from Fort Stanwix to the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers and then following the Ohio River to its confluence of the Tennessee River. While this protected much of the homelands of the Six Nations, the treaty surrendered lands in the Ohio River Valley claimed by Six Nations but occupied by other tribes, notably the Delawares and the Shawnees. Problems with this agreement surfaced soon after the signing as settlers to the lands in Kentucky and West Virginia found Indians who still maintained their hold on the land. Settler and Indian violence became common along this frontier, and in 1774, Virginia launched a militia operation called Lord Dunmore’s War. When Joseph Brant mentions in his letter to Lord Germain “our brothers on the Susquehanna” who had been distressed by “a mistake made in the boundary we settled in 1768,” he is referring to this conflict.
The Fort Stanwix treaty established Mohawk ownership of lands surrounding their two villages but, as Brant’s comments to Germain reveal, the Mohawks remained uneasy about their situation. A large part of their anxiety stemmed from the persistent efforts of George Klock to claim their lands. Klock, a German farmer and trader who lived across the Mohawk River from the Mohawk village of Canajoharie, had a long-running antagonistic relationship with Johnson and some of the Mohawk leaders, who accused him of improperly selling liquor to the Indians and cheating them. Klock went from a small irritation to a large problem in 1761 when he purchased the quit claim to the eight-thousand-acre Canajoharie Patent land that included the Mohawk village and planting grounds. Originally patented in 1731 by then secretary of Indian affairs Philip Livingston and a group of influential partners, it came under immediate dispute from Mohawk leaders who asserted that the deed had been obtained fraudulently. Well aware of the contested title of the lands, the Livingston group never attempted to take possession. At the start of the Seven Years’ War, the patentees relinquished their claims in an effort to placate the Mohawks.
Upon obtaining the patent, Klock starting gathering Indian affidavits and attempted to assert control of the land by evicting the Mohawks’ white tenants. Johnson responded by compiling evidence of the original fraud and by attacking the characters of Klock and the Indians that endorsed his claims. In an apparent attempt to bypass Johnson and the New York government, Klock visited London in 1774, taking with him a Mohawk man whom he apparently put on exhibition. He failed to get a meeting with British leaders, however. Upon his return to America, Klock supposedly stole the money and presents given to his Mohawk companion during their time in England. In retaliation, Brant led a raid on Klock’s house, killed his livestock, and threatened his life if he did not sign a release of his land claims. Although he promised to sign, Klock instead escaped to Albany and filed charges against Brant for the assault.
Brant returned from England in July 1776 with a plan to organize warriors of the Six Nations into a fighting force for the British, but with little political standing among the Iroquois, he failed to entice many others to join with him. The following spring, however, he formed an unpaid militia unit called Brant’s Volunteers, which was made up initially of about twenty Mohawk followers and eighty New York loyalists. In July 1777, they supported British forces under Colonel Barry St. Leger in an invasion of New York. On August 6, Brant’s forces ambushed colonial troops and their Oneida allies at the Battle of Oriskany, coming away with a resounding victory, an action that raised Brant’s status as a military leader. This battle also irrevocably split the Six Nations Confederacy and resulted in devastating Oneida revenge raids against Mohawk villages. After the British defeat at the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777 ended their northern campaign, Brant’s Volunteers continued to operate effectively as a guerilla force in upstate New York throughout the war.
Guy Johnson returned to America with Brant in July 1776. While in London, he received an appointment as the superintendent for Indian affairs, but with authority only over the Indians in the northern colonies, not those in Canada. Johnson remained with the British forces in New York City for three years before going to Fort Niagara, Canada, where he attempted to manage the Iroquois refugees who fled there after General Sullivan’s 1779 northern New York campaign. Johnson never obtained the confidence of either the Six Nations leaders or British authorities. When in 1781 British authorities accused him of inflating his Indian accounts, Johnson resigned the post and returned to Britain where he died in 1788.
The American Revolution shattered the Six Nations Confederacy. The Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Onondaga nations who supported the British saw most of their villages in central and western New York devastated in Sullivan-Clinton Campaign of 1779. For the remainder of the war, most of them lived in extreme poverty as refugees at Fort Niagara. The Oneida and Tuscarora nations who supported the Americans faced a similar destruction of all of their villages by loyalist forces. After the war, a series of treaties between the Americans and the Six Nations, notably the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, resulted in the surrender of most of the Iroquois’s New York lands and the establishment of much smaller reservations.
As compensation for their services, the British government provided Brant and other Six Nations refugees a large land grant along the Grand River in Ontario, Canada. Roughly one-third of the Iroquois resettled there and founded a new governing council, thus eventually dividing the Iroquois Confederacy into two separate administrations, one in the United States and the other in Canada.
Although he had great influence, Brant proved a controversial leader among the Six Nations, mostly because of his adoption and advocacy of a more European lifestyle, including British agricultural practices and social institutions such as the Anglican Church and Freemasons. Brant also had disputes with the British authorities over Indian ownership rights to the land of the new Grand River reserve. He maintain that they should be able to lease or sell their excess lands, but British officials held that the Indians had only a right of occupancy and any sales must be made to the government. In an effort to secure land rights and further compensation, Brant returned to England in 1785 where he was again feted as a celebrity. He was unable, however, to negotiate a change in land policies.
The life story of Joseph Brant is intermingled with important historical questions about the resilience and adaptability of the Iroquois people in the face of political, economic, and legal systems weighted against them. Undoubtedly, Brant was one of the most prominent American Indians of his period. He served the British military cause with distinction during the American Revolution as a skilled leader of Mohawks, Iroquois, and white loyalist fighters. Brant’s story is part of a larger and often overlooked picture of Indian involvement during the war.
After the American Revolution, Brant functioned as an important cultural diplomat, advocating Indian sovereignty and unity as well as promoting their adoption of European social and economic practices. Brant’s historical legacy remains ambiguous, however. He frequently operated as an outsider to the dynastic politics of the Six Nations. And, although he never completely abandoned Indian traditions, he embraced a luxurious lifestyle resembling a British elite more than a Mohawk leader. A mostly unfavorable portrayal can be garnered from aspects of his postwar life that involved land deals and treaty negotiations that seemingly benefitted him personally while ignoring the will and the welfare of his people.
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