Joseph Brant was an influential Mohawk leader whose lasting achievement was the establishment of the Six Nations Grand River Reservation in southern Ontario. An active ally of the British during the American Revolution, he was known for conducting military raids against New York State colonists. After the war, his allegiance to the British was rewarded with a reserve of several hundred square miles along the Grand River, held in trust by the British crown. The final ten years of his life were marked by frustration with British authorities, however, who often blocked his attempts to sell portions of the land to raise sorely needed money for his people. Very well educated for a frontiersman, Brant helped to translate a bilingual Mohawk–English prayer book, and kept up an extensive political correspondence for much of his life. His Mohawk name, Thayendanegea (pronounced Tai-yen-da-nay-geh), has been variously translated as "He Places Two Bets" or "Two Sticks of Wood Bound Together."
The records of Brant's youth are obscure, but both of his principal biographers agree that he was born of humble origins. Little is known of his parents, Margaret and Peter (Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa). John Norton, a close friend of Brant's, wrote that they may have been captured Canadian Wyandots adopted by the Mohawks near the Bay of Quinte. Because Margaret was certainly not from sachem lineage, her son's political future was limited. Joseph was probably born on a hunting trip in Haudenosaunee (Six Nations, or Iroquois) territory in Ohio during 1743. Over the next ten years, Margaret went though three husbands, had more children (Molly was from her second husband), and lived in the town of Canajoharie on the Mohawk River. Her third husband was a well connected Mohawk sachem named Brant Canagaraduncka.
Because Joseph's new father-in-law was a sachem, Sir William Johnson's courtship of his half sister, Molly, made political sense for the rising British Indian superintendent. Johnson wished to keep the Mohawks as strong allies, and he took fifteen-year-old Brant on raids and battles against the French in 1758, although Brant did not see much action until the siege of Fort Niagara in 1759.
When the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock wrote to Johnson seeking bright young candidates for his Indian school in Lebanon, Connecticut, Johnson sent Brant in 1761. In addition to learning basic skills in English literacy, Brant developed friendships with many of the missionaries trained at Wheelock's school, such as Samuel Kirkland. In 1763, Pontiac's rebellion broke out, however, and Brant was summoned home by his mother. Brant was asked to recruit warriors to discipline Pontiac's Shawnees and Delawares who were waging war against the British. While on a recruiting trip along the Susquehanna River, Brant met Neggen Aoghyatonghere, or Peggy, whom he eventually married in 1765. They had two children, Isaac and Christina, and lived a comfortable life in Canajoharie, with Brant working as an interpreter for William Johnson, and then his successor Guy Johnson, for seventy pounds a year. After Peggy died of tuberculosis in 1771, Brant married her half sister Susanna in 1773.
As war with the colonies loomed in 1775, Brant went to England with his superior, Guy Johnson, who was seeking appointment as Indian superintendent. During his eight-month stay, Brant met George III, attended parties, and was generally well liked for his pledges of fidelity to the crown.
Although the British initially resisted employing Indians in warfare, by 1777 Brant was asked by Guy Johnson to recruit the members of the Six Nations for action. For the next several years, Captain Brant headed small groups of Indians and frontier Loyalists to harass upstate New York towns. Brant commanded several noteworthy raids on Oriskany, Cherry Valley, and German Flats, even burning his friend Samuel Kirkland's church at Oneida. Thomas Campbell, in his 1806 poem, "Gertrude of Wyoming," blamed "the Monster Brant" for the massacre of 227 people at Wyoming, New York, even though Brant was not present.
Following General Sullivan's march through central New York in 1779, Brant conducted many successful raids in 1780 and 1781, but the pro-British Indians were largely forced to hunker down at Fort Niagara for the remainder of the war. Brant's second wife, Susanna, died there, also of tuberculosis. Shortly afterward, however, Brant met Catharine Adonwentishon, daughter of George Croghan and a Mohawk woman. At thirty-six years of age, Brant married her and he also became lifelong friends with her half brother, the sachem Henry Tekarihoga.
When the war ended in 1783, the British made no provisions for their Indian allies, and, as a result, they were afraid that the Indians might turn on them. Although Brant remained an ostensible supporter of the British for the next twenty years, he began also to support pan-Indian unity as a means to counteract the intrigues of British and American politics. At an important postwar council at Sandusky, Ohio, in 1783, Brant recommended that all the Indian nations act as one body in the future. The British General Frederick Haldimand, trying to placate the Mohawks, arranged in October 1784 to award them several hundred square miles of land along the Grand River as recompense for the lands they had lost in New York.
Brant was grateful to Haldimand but the political betrayal by the British had lasting consequences. Just after the war, Brant went again to England to request financial restitution on behalf of the Mohawks for what they lost in the war and to inquire about the delay in his Indian department pension. Although he was finally successful on both counts, he was insulted that Indian requests were so slowly acted on.
The second half of Brant's life saw him trying simultaneously to heal the disagreements between the various Indian nations and to obtain Indian ownership of Grand River. As a result, he was sometimes perceived as unscrupulous. In actuality, however, it was the British and the Americans who drove these intrigues. To his credit, Brant frequently made trips to Ohio and Detroit, telling the Indians not to rely on the British for military aid. He told the Haudenosaunee living in New York, who began to court the favor of the United States after 1790, that they should not rely on American favors. By August 1793, when the Miami and Shawnee rebellions were at their peak of success, Brant urged the western Indians to accept a compromise borderline with the United States at the Muskingum River, but other British agents successfully quashed his peace proposal. From the Americans' point of view, however, the collapse of the August 1793 negotiations was due to Brant.
At the same time that Brant was unsuccessfully trying to get the western and Haudenosaunee Indians to work together, he also was involved in numerous Haudenosaunee land sales. Although Brant was probably guilty of accepting bribes at the largest New York sales—the 1788 Phelps-Gorham Purchase and the 1797 Treaty of Big Tree—even most of the whites who attended were directly bribed or had some financial stake in the sale. Bribed or not, most of these land sales should be evaluated in light of the crushing poverty that the Haudenosaunee began to experience in the 1790s.
Indian poverty was the primary motive behind the final act of Brant's life, the sale of large portions of the Grand River lands to his business associates (Johnson, 1964; Kelsay, 1984). Haldimand gave the land to the Six Nations in trust in 1784. By 1797, however, Brant was petitioning the trustees to give the Indians the land in fee simple, allowing them the right to make sales. British authorities, who saw Indian populations on the border as useful political tools, declined. Over the course of the next ten years, Brant became enraged by the delaying tactics of the British Indian Superintendent William Claus and Canada's Lieutenant Governor Peter Russell. In 1804, Brant secretly sent his friend, John Norton, an adopted Mohawk of Scottish ancestry, to go over Russell's head and lobby English authorities directly. When the Six Nation sachems heard that Norton was advertising himself as a Mohawk chief on a mission they knew nothing about, they met in 1805 and stripped Brant of his authority. Although Brant was eventually reinstated by his Grand River constituents, he died on November 24, 1807, before he cleared title on the land.
The principal biographies of Brant have different strengths. The first, by William Leete Stone, is extraordinarily thorough regarding his Revolutionary activities and politics. Stone benefited from correspondence with many people who knew Brant well. Even today, Stone's biography remains a rich source of primary documents and speeches not reprinted in later works on Brant. Curiously, however, Stone spends only twenty pages on the final decade of Brant's life. Isabel Kelsay's modern biography, which corrects Stone's omission, is very well footnoted and an excellent research tool for scholars. Charles Johnson's collection provides a detailed and comprehensive overview of Brant's financial dealings at Grand River.
Johnson, Charles M., ed. 1964. The Valley of the Six Nations: A Collection of Documents on the Indians of the Grand River. Toronto, ON: Champlain Society; Kelsay, Isabel. 1984. Joseph Brant, 1743–1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; McCallum, James Dow, ed. 1932. The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock's Indians. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Publications,; Norton, John. 1970. Journal of Major John Norton. Edited by Carl F. Klinck and James J. Talman. Toronto, ON: Champlain Society.; Stone, William Leete. 1838. Life of Joseph Brant—Thayendanegea, Including the Indian Wars of the American Revolution. 2 volumes. New York: George Dearborn and Co.