Native History: Chief Joseph Brant Walked in Two Worlds
This Date in Native history: On November 24, 1807, Mohawk Chief Thayendanegea died at his home in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Thayendanegea, also known by his English name, Chief Joseph Brant, is remembered as a war chief, British loyalist, statesman and missionary.
Brant’s death at age 64 came at the end of a controversial—and ultimately disappointing—career, historian Gavin Watt said. A “pine tree chief,” Brant forged his own path, galvanizing Native warriors and uniting with the British crown during America’s Revolutionary War.
“He wasn’t elected, not approved by matrons or council,” Watt said. “He just decided to a make a role for himself.”
Brant was born in Ohio in 1743. His sister was Molly Brant (also known as Mary), wife of Sir William Johnson, a colonist and Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Johnson adopted Brant as a brother and saw that he was educated at Moor’s Indian Charity School, the parent institution of Dartmouth College.
“Consequently, Joseph had the veneer of education, the use of English,” Watt said. “He could write, which was rare at the time, and a lot of Natives looked at him as if he was in the white circle.”
Brant walked in two worlds, Watt said. He is believed to have taken his first scalp at age 13, yet he also served as a spokesman for the tribe and visited England in 1776, where he had his portrait painted.
During the Revolutionary War, the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy—including the Mohawk—tried to maintain neutrality. After returning from England, Brant began campaigning for the tribes to ally with the British.
By 1777, he had assembled an army called Brant’s Volunteers and led 300 soldiers—Native and white—during the expedition to Fort Stanwix, in what is today Rome, New York, on the edge of Indian Territory. He launched an ambush of 800 men and was successful, earning him a name with the British military.
“After this battle, Joseph’s star was rising amongst the white leadership and his own people,” Watt said. “Over time, he became more and more accepted for his capability because he was a great soldier in the Native sense, a great warrior and excellent leader.”
Brant continued to lead raids during 1778 and 1779, but he always faced an undercurrent of resentment from the Mohawk people because he was not a proper chief, Watt said. That came to a head when he was named captain and instated as a leader over the Iroquois.
In August 1779, American forces launched a scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois, destroying at least 40 villages. Brant, meanwhile, was sent to the western tribes to rally more support. By 1782, he had returned to New York.
Support for Brant ended with the Revolutionary War, Watt said. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, there wasn’t a single mention of the Natives.
“After all their support in the war, all the treaties signed, all the promises that were made were broken,” Watt said. “Brant in particular felt betrayed because he was one of the main proponents of staying on the British side because he thought they would never let him down.”
Brant later settled in Burlington Bay, near Toronto, Canada, where he lived peacefully. Before dying, he reportedly said, “Have pity on the poor Indians. If you have any influence with the great, endeavor to use it for their good.”
Brant continues to have a presence in New York and Ontario. Brant County and the city of Brantford, Ontario, are named after him. The city of Brant, New York, also bears his name.