In many ways, Joseph Brant was the perfect man to operate in the “Indians’ New World” of the mid-eighteenth century. A Mohawk by birth, Brant was connected through marriage to British Indian agent William Johnson and became the best hope of the Iroquois Confederacy to maintain its lands and autonomy after he fought with the British to defeat the American rebels in the Revolution. After the Revolution, Joseph Brant continued to fight for Indian sovereignty. He also supplied Europeans with one of the earliest versions of the story of Hiawatha/Deganawidah (see chapter 1). As you read through Brant’s biography, consider the following questions. How did Joseph Brant’s background and experience help him in his attempt to retain Iroquois land and sovereignty? What made Joseph Brant such a formidable foe of the Americans during the Revolution?
Born around 1743 in Ohio Country, Joseph Brant was the son of Mohawk parents, Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa and his wife, Margaret. Joseph was quite young when his father died, and his mother returned to Mohawk territory in what is today upstate New York. She was remarried to a Mohawk leader called Brant by the English. As a child, Joseph was raised in the tradition of the longhouse. He would have understood his most important relations to be his mother and her relatives. From his maternal uncles, he would have learned to hunt, to fish, and how to be a warrior. With the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War in 1754, the Iroquois Confederacy maintained official neutrality, but William Johnson’s connections with the Mohawks led a number of them to fight for the British in the conflict with the French. In 1758, Joseph Brant joined a force of Mohawks under Sir William Johnson at a battle at Fort Ticonderoga. The following year, he accompanied Johnson into Canada. Brant received a silver medal from the British crown for his service. That same year, 1759, Mary Brant, Joseph’s sister, took up residence with William Johnson. The two were married in Indian fashion—what was called the “custom of the country.” By all accounts, theirs was a long-term and loving marriage that produced several children, and Mary became a prominent clan mother.
Towards the end of the war, in 1761, Eleazar Wheelock, who had started an Indian school in Lebanon, Connecticut, wrote to Johnson offering to educate “three boys of the Six Nations,” so that they could be trained as interpreters for the British. He left it to Johnson to decide who the three boys would be. Johnson chose his brother-in-law, Joseph Brant, and two other members of his clan. At the Wheelock Indian school, Brant learned about the English language, farming methods, and culture. Wheelock described Brant as a “considerate, modest, and manly spirited youth.” Brant returned to Mohawk country to find his mother’s village claimed by white proprietors. Mohawk hunting grounds were also being threatened by the arrival of white settlers, and it seemed as though the Mohawks lost land on a daily basis. Given Mohawk support for the British in the conflict with the French, the usurpation of their lands was insulting.
Brant married three times, the first time around 1765 to a Mohawk woman named Peggie. In later interviews, Joseph Brant recalled the Mohawk custom of courtship carried out through a woman’s clan mothers who accepted or rejected a young woman’s suitor. Joseph Brant would have had to impress and win the approval of Peggie’s mother and aunts. Still, the new couple did not follow the traditional practice of matrilocality, which dictated they live with Peggie’s family. Rather, they lived with Joseph’s mother and family. When Peggie died in 1771, Mohawk custom was for the dead wife’s family to provide a man with a new bride, and, in 1773, he married Peggie’s half-sister Susanna. Clearly Brant’s world was an adaptive one that found him sometimes following older customs, at other times creating new forms to follow.
Joseph Brant never moved into the European world that beckoned him—he was first and foremost a defender of the Iroquois. Sir William Johnson, who had acted so effectively as British agent to the Iroquois, died in 1774. In 1775, as the American Revolution loomed, the British, anxious to ensure Iroquois support against the Americans, brought Joseph Brant to London, where he was received by King George III and feted by the British elite.In the official negotiations, Brant made it clear that his people had objectives of their own in the coming struggle. “The Mohawks, our particular nation, have on all occasions shown their zeal and loyalty to the Great King,” he declared. Yet we “have been very badly treated by his people in that country . . . We have been often assured by our late friend Sir William Johnson that the King and wise men . . . would do us justice; but this has never been done, and it makes us very uneasy. Indeed it is very hard, when we have let the King's 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. We are tired out in making complaints and getting no redress.”
Armed with British assurances that the Mohawks could write their own terms at the conclusion of the conflict, Brant returned to America in 1776, but convincing the Iroquois Six Nations Confederacy to join a formal alliance with the British proved impossible. Brant was one leader among many within the Confederacy, and Iroquois practice required consensus among all the member nations for such an alliance. The two nations closest to American settlements—the Oneidas and the Tuscaroras—were reluctant to take up arms against those living so close to them. Attempting to convene a council fire at Onondaga, Brant and other British supporters failed to get the Oneidas or the Tuscaroras to attend. Other Iroquois allies, such as the Delawares to the South, saw in the Revolution an opportunity to extract themselves from Iroquois control. The support of the Ohio Valley Indians was also precarious. Most Indian tribes that fought in the Revolution did so for their own reasons and allied themselves according to where they thought their fortunes lay.
Unable to get the council fire at Onondaga, Brant called a meeting of sympathetic chiefs at the British trading town of Oswego, on Lake Ontario. Representatives of four nations—Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas—agreed to fight with the British, and Brant assumed command of the Iroquois loyalists. Many of the Oneida and Tuscarora chiefs decided to side with the Patriots. During the Revolution the Iroquois not only suffered from the devastating raids of the Americans but were torn by civil war as well. Although Brant and his troops were feared foes of the Americans, regularly stopping superior military forces, the war itself was a catastrophe for the Iroquois. Even as Brant successfully pursued his military agenda, in 1783, the British abandoned their ally at the Treaty of Paris, when they ceded all lands south of the Great Lakes to the new United States, dividing the lands of the Iroquois Confederacy between two foreign nations. Joseph Brant fled to Canada to escape American retaliation, reportedly saying, “We are now stuck between two hells.”
At the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Joseph Brant attempted to negotiate with the Americans over Iroquois land and rights within the United States. The Iroquois leaders also hoped to negotiate for those tribes west and south of Iroquois over whom they had claimed dominion prior to the war. Although the British had assured the Iroquois that the Treaty of Paris did not deprive them of their lands, the Americans had different ideas and insisted that the treaty with the British gave them by right of conquest all Iroquois lands south of the Great Lakes. Iroquois divisiveness prevented effective negotiations, as did the holding of Iroquois hostages by the Americans to assure their cooperation. Under such duress, the native representatives at Fort Stanwix ceded western Pennsylvania and Ohio to the Americans, a move that was later declared illegitimate by the Ohio Valley tribes. When, in the 1790s, the Ohio Valley Confederacy under the Miami Little Turtle took a stand against American encroachment, Brant urged unity among the western tribes in resisting the Americans. As this pan-Indian confederacy that ranged from the Great Lakes to the southeast took form in the later 1780s, the U.S. government found itself continuing the Revolution with the western tribes.
Joseph Brant yielded his military leadership role to the younger generation and removed himself to the Grand River, forty miles north of Niagara Falls in Canada. While he encouraged his fellow Iroquois to adopt Christianity and English-style education—perhaps remembering his own education at Eleazar Wheelock’s school—Brant remained first and foremost a Mohawk. In the late 1790s, in order to help relieve the destitution of the Grand River Iroquois, Brant sold some 350,000 acres of land for money that he hoped would become an annuity for his people. The plan was a disaster, the white men who had bought the Indians’ land did not deliver the promised payments, and Brant’s own material circumstances declined. His reputation suffered, and Joseph Brant quietly retired with his third wife, Catherine. He died on November 24, 1807.
For further reading, see Isabel Thompson Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807:Man of Two Worlds (1984).