National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983 

Annual Index
Author & Subject

William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant

by Gloria Lesser

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8      

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 as Brant.

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 American Revolution.

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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