William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant
| Français | Introduction
by Gloria Lesser
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Very little precise information is known about Joseph
Brant's early life. Tradition and biographers agree that Brant was born
in Canajoharie, in the Mohawk Valley, but some accounts say that he was
born along the banks of the Ohio River, while the Mohawks were on a hunting
party south of Lake Erie. Family lore says that Brant's mother was a Mohawk,
and that his father was Tehowaghwengaraghkin, a full-blooded Mohawk of
the Wolf Clan, who died while Joseph was still young. (13) There is also unsubstantiated
speculation that it was Sir William Johnson who was his father and that
his mother later remarried an Indian in Canajoharie known among the whites
There is uncertainty over the question of whether Brant
was a full-blooded Indian. Descriptions and pictures of him show that he
was rather light-complexioned. Despite conflicting and contradictory evidence
about Brant's birth and parentage though, it is evident that he lived a
way of life influenced by the impact of British products, culture, religion,
government, and by Britain's military entanglements with its neighbours.
An important step in Brant's training was his schooling. With
the backing of Sir William Johnson, at nineteen Brant entered Moor's Protestant
Charity School at Lebanon, Connecticut, the fore-runner of Dartmouth College.
Although he benefited from the school's academic programme, (14) the Mohawks
thought of themselves as warriors, rather than scholars, and they urged
him to leave school during the time of the Pontiac uprising of 1753. For
them, war remained the traditional avenue to fame and prestige. (15)
After his military service in the Pontiac uprising, Brant married an
Oneida chief's daughter in 1765 (name unknown) who bore him two
children (names unknown), and he set up house in Canajoharie. He continued
to be active in religious matters, joining the Anglican Church and working
with the Reverend John Stuart in translating parts of the Bible into the
Mohawk language. (16) He also acted as an interpreter and aided missionaries
in teaching Christianity to the Indians. In 1773, Brant married Susanna,
the half-sister of his first wife, who had died in 1771, but this union
produced no offspring.
At the same time, Brant was employed by Sir William Johnson
to help in dealing with the Indians. The ten-years experience Brant acquired
before the American Revolution led to the growth of his later knowledge
of, and influence over, the intricacies of frontier diplomacy and policy.
Until the outbreak of the American Revolution, European migration westward
had continued unchecked. Situated between Canada and the American colonies,
the Six Nations Indians knew they could not remain neutral. Respect for
both Johnson and Brant as skilful arbitrators of Indian affairs led the
Iroquois to choose Brant as head war chief, pending the outbreak of the
After Sir William Johnson's death in 1774, Brant became secretary
to Sir Guy Johnson in the British Indian Department. The political situation
in North America rushed headlong to a crisis, and the Iroquois felt the
pressure applied from both the Loyalist and Revolutionary sides. While
the Johnsons and their supporters sympathized with the King, there were
settlers along the Mohawk who were ardent patriots. Because of inadequate
support for the British side, Sir Guy Johnson took a group, including Joseph
Brant, to England in 1775-1776. while there, Brant received a promise of
commitment to the Indians, and in ex change, pledged to fight in the Loyalist
cause with 3 000 warriors.
Joseph Brant served as a captain and later as a colonel in the
Revolutionary War. He fought with a corps known as Butler's Rangers, named
after John Butler (1725-1796), whose men served as scouts and light infantry
alongside the Loyalist Indians of the now divided Six Nations. Brant served
at Wyoming Valley, at German Flats, and he took an active part in the
Cherry Valley massacre (1778), Sullivan's campaign (1779), and along the
Ohio River against Clark (1781). (17)
The Haldimand Grant of 1784, which resettled the Indians after
the Revolutionary War, provided the Iroquois with two reserves, one in
the Bay of Quinte, the other in the Grand River valley, representing a
total of about 570 000 acres, as a substitute for the loss of their tradition
al homelands in New York. In addition, a personal grant of 3450 acres
of prime land fronting Lake Ontario at Burlington was awarded to Joseph
Brant by King George III.
In 1786, Joseph Brant returned to England to negotiate land
rights. He also requested British support for a war with the United States,
but this was diplomatically refused by King George III. Brant returned
home to spend the rest of his life working for his resettled people.
The province of Upper Canada, formed in 1791 and governed
by John Graves Simcoe, saw a rapid increase in population during the closing
decade of the eighteenth century. Official policy welcomed population growth
as a means of deterring Upper Canada from joining the American union, and
new settlers received free land grants when they took the oath of loyalty.
The use of favouritism in granting land encouraged speculation, and Joseph
Brant soon became involved in such tactics.
Brant was given power of attorney by the Iroquois to surrender,
sell, and collect payment for Grand River lands, and to form a fund to
provide an annuity for them when the traditional Indian lifestyle vanished.
However, he was accused of illegal use of attorney trust in 1797, having
sold three-fifths of the total Iroquois lands, mostly to Americans and
at enormous personal profit. (18)
Although Brant maintained that he was acting on behalf of his
people, the fact remains that his wealth increased considerably because
of his land dealings. In his defence, he rationalized that since the original
land grant was too small to provide a living from hunting, but larger than
that required for farming, the revenue from land sales to settlers skilled
in agriculture would provide greater advantage to the Indians in terms
of both financial return, and the opportunity to learn productive farming
techniques. However, the reality was that the Indians received little money
from the speculators, and their land reserves were severely diminished.
In retrospect, Brant appears at least naive in judgement, and by capitalizing
upon the situation for personal gain, must bear some of the responsibility
for selling out Indian lands.
In his later years, Joseph Brant was extremely wealthy. He retained
his commission in the British military service, drawing half-pay from
the government, and lived a genteel life in his two-storey Georgian house,
which he called Wellington Square. (The Joseph Brant Museum in Brantford,
Ontario, is a replica of that house and stands on the original grounds.)
The literature (19) describing Brant's life and that of his third wife, Katerine,
a Mohawk girl whom he married at Niagara in 1780 and who bore him seven
children, dwells on their finery and attire. The couple also possessed
fine domestic furnishings in the latest fashionable Georgian styles.
The Six Nations Indians were contemptuous of Brant's allegiance to the Crown.
By releasing control over their own lands and religion, the Six Nations Indians became wards of the British government. Caught in a ruinous power
play between the two forces of an empire and an expanding frontier,
the Indians were treated on all sides as being expendable pawns. With time,
what resistance there was became apathetic and powerless.
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