All my reading life I’ve heard novelists marvel at how a character just took over their story and ran away with it. Apparently, this happens in non-fiction as well. Captain Joseph Brant, Mohawk Frontier Partisan of the Revolutionary War, has ambushed me and taken over Volume II of Warriors of the Wild Lands.
As I’ve mentioned before, Volume II is devoted to “men of the middle ground”: Frontier Partisans who walked a winding, narrow trail through the porous cultural borderlands; men who lived comfortably, but dangerously, in both native and Euro-American worlds — and in the living created a borderlands culture that was both-and-neither “white” and “native.”
I’ve long been aware of Brant, and I ran up against him frequently in the early reading for this book. Badass alpha-male war captain that he is, the Mohawk Pine Tree Chief simply barged into my research, threw his Scottish pistols and one of his multitude of tomahawks on my table and demanded center stage.
Thayendenegea was not born to prominence among the Six Nations of the Iroquois League, based in what is now central and western New York. He came into the tumultuous world of the 18th Century frontier in 1742 or 1743 along the banks of the Ohio River, during an extended family hunting expedition. It seems that his father died when he was young, and his mother married a Mohawk known to the English as “Brant.” His mother was of “middling” station among the Mohawk and in a matrilineal society, that meant that Thayendenegea was of middling station, too.
Except for one thing.
He was the younger brother of Molly Brant, and Molly Brant was the common law wife of Sir William Johnson, His Majesty’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Northern District. The Irish-born Johnson (MacShane) was a man of sharp mind, stout heart and stiff pecker; he operated like a feudal lord or Highland Clan Chief in New York’s rich Mohawk Valley. He was an adopted Mohawk and regarded by the Iroquois as a chief.
Molly was beautiful, ambitious and politically savvy; she wielded considerable influence in the Mohawk world, and not only because she was Johnson’s woman, who bore him nine children. She was a formidable force in her own right.
Sir William took an interest in his brother-in-law Thayendenegea, known to the English as Joseph Brant. He ensured that he was well-educated at Eleazar Wheelock’s famous Indian school in Connecticut, and granted him thousands of acres of land to give him a good start in life. Young Joseph was also blooded early, as a teenager, in Johnson’s campaigns in the French and Indian War and running with pro-British partisan Indians during the subsequent “rebellion” nominally led by the Ottawa chieftain known as Pontiac.
As he reached young manhood, Joseph Brant was the very picture of the Man of the Middle Ground — not so much a “man of two worlds” as he has been depicted by some scholars, but an exemplar of a new world aborning, a borderlands culture. The Mohawk Valley of the 1760s was wildly multicultural. Its British patron was an Irishman and adopted Mohawk; its people were Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), Palatine German refugees, Swedes, Highland Scots, Irishmen, Scots-Irish and Congregationalists from New England. There was a range of religious and political affiliations that made up a society that, while not without friction, functioned admirably. Until it didn’t. Just as the stresses that would lead to revolution began to build to a head, Sir William stroked out and died, in 1774, right in the middle of a grand council. Within a year, the Mohawk Valley society splintered apart in a civil war that would leave the region soaked in blood and blackened by fire and evil deeds.
Joseph Brant would become a fierce partisan of the Crown in that fight.
The great tragedy of it all, for me, is that the borderlands culture that evolved in New York and a few other places in North America could not survive the stresses of war. There was a moment there where it was just possible that the First Nations peoples had chance to create their own version of modernity, on their own terms. Brant was an example of what might have been.
Here was an educated and literate man, conversant culturally and linguistically with a polyglot collection of neighbors. He was a devout Anglican Christian; he translated the Anglican Catechism and the Gospel of Mark into the Mohawk tongue. He was a canny businessman and a successful farmer, who lived in a fine frame house, ate off silver plate and china (as befit a man of his station in that time, he also kept African slaves). And yet he remained a Mohawk, attuned to the natural world around him, a skilled hunter and a leader committed to the well-being of his people.
This resonates powerfully with me, on a deeply personal level. Here is a man living in an era of profound change, seeking to move into the future with his people, while carrying the fire of their rich culture. I fancy that Brant was seeking much the same kind of “sweet spot” that we here are seeking to find and cleave to.
I am also fascinated by the complex and flawed nature of this remarkable man. He was not universally loved and respected by the Iroquois or by his British allies. His ambition and well-founded self-confidence could trip over into arrogance. Like Tecumseh after him, Brant had visions of pan-Indian unity and a state of their own in the Old Northwest. And he saw himself as the head of that state. Like many Great Men, he sometimes seemed to have a hard time distinguishing between his own interests and the greater good, and his personal land deals in Canada after the Revolution have been called into question.
On at least two occasions, soaked in rum, brandy and whiskey, he committed dark, violent deeds that left him writhing in an agony of remorse.
Though he was regarded by the American Patriots as “The War Chief of the Six Nations” — and held accountable for every atrocity committed in the savage warfare of 1778-1781 — Brant led only a relative handful of Mohawks during the Revolutionary War. He exerted some influence with the other Iroquois partisans, but they had many war leaders, especially the numerous and dangerous Seneca. Interestingly, the force that Brant had under his immediate command was often composed mostly of white Loyalist settlers. Contrary to stereotype, these were not the well-to-do Tories of the Valley, trying to hold on to their social priority and landed gentry status. They were mostly poor mountain folk from the Adirondacks. They served willingly under the Mohawk leader, and adopted the dress and equipage of the forest warriors. The willingness of a large cadre of white men to serve under a Mohawk war captain says much both about the nature of the struggle and about Brant’s personal capabilities.
With the end of the war, most of them — white and Iroquois alike — ended up settling in British Canada, where Brant remained a figure of prominence and influence until his death in 1807.
Thayendenegea, Joseph Brant, was once the most famous Indian in North America. His portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart, who also painted the most well-known portrait of George Washington.
Yet now, he has fallen into relative obscurity. There’s a statue of him in Ottawa, and he’s regarded as a Founding Father of Canada, but his fame in Native American history has largely been eclipsed by others. That surely must gall the shade of the proud Mohawk upstart. Perhaps that’s why he has so forcefully intruded into my work, insisting that he be given his due.