Joseph Brant, Warrior, Statesman, Mohawk Leader

While transcribing the World War I draft records, I came across the name Joseph Brant Poodry, an Indian who registered in Genesee Co., NY.  Recognizing the name Joseph Brant, I wonder how many times obvious clues to family history exist, and we simply either miss them entirely, or miss their more subtle meanings.  In this case, Joseph Brant was both a famous and an infamous Mohawk leader.  He was most well known for his leadership and loyalty to Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, a position that does not and did not warm the cockles of the hearts of American people.  In some circles, Joseph Brant was a hero, and elsewhere, a villain.  His life was not without passion and adventure.  Joseph Brant Poodry was named for Joseph Brant who died 80 years before his birth.  This tells you that either Joseph Brant Poodry is a descendant of Joseph Brant, or his family shared Brant’s sentiments and were possibly some of Brant’s Volunteers.  For more about Joseph Brant, his volunteers and the roles they played, I’ve borrowed liberally from Wiki and interjected a bit of commentary.  Love him or hate him, the man was indeed very interesting. 

Joseph Brant (March 1743 – 24 November 1807), or Thayendanegea, his Native name, was a Mohawk military and political leader, based in present-day New York, who was closely associated with Great Britain during and after the American Revolution. He was perhaps the best-known American Indian of his generation. He met many of the most significant people of the age, including George Washington and King George III.

While not born into a hereditary leadership role within the Iroquois League, Brant rose to prominence due to his abilities and his connections to British officials. Through his sister, Molly Brant, he was associated with Sir William Johnson, the influential British Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the province of New York. During the American Revolutionary War, Brant led Mohawk and colonial Loyalists against the rebels in a bitter partisan war on the New York frontier. He was accused by the Americans of committing atrocities.  Some charges were later shown to be false. After the war, he relocated with most of his people to Canada to the Six Nations Reserve, where he remained a prominent leader.

Brant was born in 1743, probably in March, in the Ohio Country somewhere along the Cuyahoga River.  This was during the hunting season when the Mohawk traveled to the area. He was named Thayendanegea, which in the Mohawk language can mean “two wagers (sticks) bound together for strength”, or possibly “he who places two bets.” As the Mohawk were a matrilineal culture, he was born into his mother’s Wolf Clan. Anglican Church records at Fort Hunter, New York, noted that his parents were Christians and their names were Peter and Margaret Tehonwaghkwangearahkwa. His father died before 1753.  From the several paintings that exist of Brant, he looks admixed, not entirely Native.  However, the portraits were all painted by Europeans, although you would think that of the dozen or so that exist, not all of them would carry the same error of perspective.

After his father’s death, his mother Margaret, or Owandah, the niece of Tiaogeara, a Caughnawaga sachem, returned to the province of New York from Ohio with Joseph and his older sister Mary (also known as Molly). They settled in Canajoharie, a Mohawk village on the Mohawk River, where they had lived before.

On 9 September 1753 his mother married again, to a widower named Brant or Canagaraduncka, a Mohawk sachem. Her new husband’s family had ties with the British; his grandfather Sagayendwarahton (Old Smoke) was one of the Four Mohawk Kings to visit England in 1710. The marriage bettered Margaret’s fortunes, and the family lived in the best house in Canajoharie. Her new alliance conferred little status on her children, however, as Mohawk titles and leadership positions descended through the female line.

Brant’s stepfather was a friend of William Johnson, the influential and wealthy British Superintendent for Northern Indian Affairs who had been knighted for his service. During Johnson’s frequent visits to the Mohawk, he always stayed at the Brants’ house. Brant’s half-sister Molly established a relationship with Johnson, who had made his great wealth as a highly successful trader and landowner. His mansion, Johnson Hall, impressed the young Brant so much that he decided to stay with Molly and Johnson. Johnson took an interest in the youth and supported his English-style education, as well as introducing him to influential leaders in the New York colony.

Starting at about age 15 during the French and Indian War, Brant took part with Mohawk and other Iroquois allies in a number of British actions against the French in Canada: James Abercrombie’s 1758 expedition via Lake George that ended in disaster at Fort Carillon; Johnson’s 1759 Battle of Fort Niagara; and Jeffery Amherst’s 1760 expedition to Montreal via the St. Lawrence River. He was one of 182 Native Americans awarded a silver medal from the British for his service.

In 1761, Johnson arranged for three Mohawks, including Brant, to be educated at Eleazar Wheelock’s “Moor’s Indian Charity School” in Connecticut. This was the forerunner of Dartmouth College, which was later established in New Hampshire. Brant studied under the guidance of Wheelock, who wrote that the youth was “of a sprightly genius, a manly and gentle deportment, and of a modest, courteous and benevolent temper.”  Brant learned to speak, read, and write English, as well as studying other academic subjects. Brant met Samuel Kirkland at the school. In 1763, Johnson prepared to place Brant at King’s College in New York City. The outbreak of Pontiac’s Rebellion upset his plans, and Brant returned home to avoid hostility to Native Americans. After Pontiac’s rebellion, Johnson thought it was not safe for Brant to return to King’s College.

In March 1764, Brant participated in one of the Iroquois war parties that attacked Lenape villages in the Susquehanna and Chemung valleys. They destroyed three good-sized towns, burning 130 houses and killing the natives’ cattle. No enemy warriors were seen.  The Algonquian-speaking Lenape and Iroquois were of two major language families; they were traditional competitors and often warred at their frontiers.

On July 22, 1765, in Canajoharie, Brant married Peggie (also known as Margaret). Said to be the daughter of Virginia planters, Peggie had been taken captive by Native Americans. After becoming assimilated, she was sent to the Mohawk by western Indians. They lived with his parents, who passed the house on to Brant after his stepfather’s death. He also owned a large and fertile farm of 80 acres near the village of Canajoharie on the south shore of the Mohawk River. Peggie and Brant had two children together: Isaac and Christine. After attacking his father in a fight, Isaac died of a wound. In March 1771, Peggie died from tuberculosis.

Brant married again, but his second wife Susanna died near the end of 1777.

While based at Fort Niagara, Brant started living with Catherine Adonwentishon Croghan, whom he married in the winter of 1780. She was the daughter of the prominent American colonist and Indian agent, George Croghan, and Catharine Tekarihoga, a Mohawk. Through her mother, Adonwentishon was head of the Turtle clan, the first in rank in the Mohawk Nation. Her birthright was to name the Tekarihoga, the principal sachem of the Mohawk nation. By his marriage to Catherine, Brant also became connected to John Smoke Johnson, a grandson of Sir William Johnson and relative of Chief Hendrick.

With Catherine Croghan, Brant had seven children:

  • Joseph;
  • Jacob (1786–1847);;
  • John. Catherine selected him Tekarihoga at the appropriate time. He did not marry.
  • Margaret
  • Catherine
  • Mary
  • Elizabeth. She married William Johnson Kerr, grandson of William Johnson and Molly Brant. Their child also became a chief with the Mohawk.

Aside from being fluent in English, Brant spoke at least three and possibly all of the Six Nations’ Iroquoian languages. From 1766 on, he worked as an interpreter for the British Indian Department. In 1775, he was appointed departmental secretary with the rank of Captain for the new British Superintendent’s Indian warriors from Canajoharie. When Loyalists were threatened after the war broke out in April 1775, Brant moved to the Province of Quebec, arriving in Montreal on July 17. His wife and children went to Onoquaga in south central New York, a Tuscarora Iroquois village along the Susquehanna River, the site of present-day Windsor.

On November 11, 1775, Guy Johnson took Brant with him to London to solicit more support from the government. Brant hoped to persuade the Crown to address past Mohawk land grievances in exchange for their participation as allies in the impending war. The British government promised the Iroquois people land in Quebec if the Iroquois nations would fight on the British side in what was shaping up as open rebellion by the American colonists. In London, Brant was treated as a celebrity and was interviewed for publication by James Boswell. He was received by King George III at St. James’s Palace. While in public, he dressed in traditional Mohawk attire. He was accepted as a Mason and received his ritual apron personally from King George.

Brant returned to Staten Island, New York in July 1776. He participated with Howe’s forces as they prepared to retake New York. Although the details of his service that summer and fall were not officially recorded, Brant was said to have distinguished himself for bravery. He was thought to be with Clinton, Cornwallis, and Percy in the flanking movement at Jamaica Pass in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. He became lifelong friends with Lord Percy, later Duke of Northumberland, his only lasting friendship with a white man.

In November, Brant left New York City and traveled northwest through Patriot-held territory. Disguised, traveling at night and sleeping during the day, he reached Onoquaga, where he rejoined his family. At the end of December, he was at Fort Niagara. He traveled from village to village in the confederacy, urging the Iroquois to enter the war as British allies. Many Iroquois balked at Brant’s plans. Joseph Louis Cook, a Mohawk leader who supported the American colonists, became a lifelong enemy of Brant’s.

The full council of the Six Nations had previously decided on a policy of neutrality at Albany in 1775. They considered Brant a minor war chief and the Mohawks a relatively weak people.

Frustrated, Brant freelanced by going to Onoquaga in the spring to engage in war his way. Few Onoquaga villagers joined him, but in May he was successful in recruiting Loyalists who wished to retaliate against the colonists. This group became known as Brant’s Volunteers. In June, he led them to Unadilla to obtain supplies. There he was confronted by 380 men of the Tryon County militia led by Nicholas Herkimer. Herkimer requested that the Iroquois remain neutral but Brant responded that the Indians owed their loyalty to the King. They hoped to evict the settlers from their territory.

In July 1777 the Six Nations council decided to abandon neutrality and enter the war on the British side. Brant was not present. Sayenqueraghta and Cornplanter were named as the war chiefs of the confederacy. The Mohawks had earlier made Brant a war chief of the Mohawks; they also selected John Deseronto.

In July, Brant led his Volunteers north to link up with Barry St. Leger at Fort Oswego. St. Leger’s plan was to descend the Mohawk River valley to Albany, where he would meet the army of John Burgoyne, who was descending Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson River. St. Leger’s expedition ground to a halt with the Siege of Fort Stanwix. Brant played a major role in the Battle of Oriskany, where a Patriot relief expedition was stopped. St. Leger was eventually forced to lift the siege, and Brant traveled to Burgoyne’s main army to inform him.  Burgoyne’s restrictions on native warfare caused Brant to depart for Fort Niagara, where he spent the winter planning the next year’s campaign. His wife Susanna likely died at Fort Niagara that winter. (Burgoyne’s campaign came to an end with his surrender after the Battles of Saratoga.)

In April 1778, Brant returned to Onoquaga, and became one the most active partisan leaders in the frontier war. He and his Volunteers raided colonists throughout the Mohawk Valley, stealing their cattle, burning their houses, and killing many. On May 30, he led an attack on Cobleskill and in September, along with Captain William Caldwell, he led a mixed force of Indians and Loyalists in a raid on German Flatts. Contrary to early reports of the July Battle of Wyoming, Brant was not present at that incident, in which the Seneca were accused of slaughtering noncombatant civilians.

In October 1778, Continental soldiers and local militia attacked Brant’s base at Onaquaga while his Volunteers were away on a raid. The American commander described Onaquaga as “the finest Indian town I ever saw; on both sides [of] the river there was about 40 good houses, square logs, shingles & stone chimneys, good floors, glass windows.” The soldiers burned the houses, killed the cattle, chopped down the apple trees, spoiled the growing corn crop, and killed some native children they found in the corn fields. On November 11, 1778 Brant led Mohawk forces in the Cherry Valley massacre. Led by William Butler and composed primarily of Senecas angered by raids on Onaquaga, Unadilla, and Tioga, and by accusations of atrocities at the July Battle of Wyoming, the force rampaged through Cherry Valley, a community in which a number of people were known to Brant. Despite his best efforts to minimize atrocities, more than 30 noncombatants were reported to be slain in the attack.

n February 1779, Brant traveled to Montreal to meet with Frederick Haldimand, the military commander and Governor of Quebec. Haldimand gave Brant a commission of Captain of the Northern Confederated Indians. He also promised provisions, but no pay, for his Volunteers. Haldimand pledged that after the war ended, the government would restore the Mohawks to their state before the conflict started.

In May, Brant returned to Fort Niagara where, with his new salary and plunder from his raids, he acquired a farm on the Niagara River, six miles (10 km) from the fort. To work the farm and to serve the household, he used slaves captured during his raids. Brant also bought a slave, a seven-year-old African-American girl named Sophia Burthen Pooley. She travelled with him and his family for many years before he sold her to an Englishman for $100.  He built a small chapel for the Indians who started living nearby. There he also married for a third time.

Brant’s honors and gifts caused jealousy among rival chiefs, in particular the Seneca war chief Sayenqueraghta. A British general said that Brant “would be much happier and would have more weight with the Indians, which he in some measure forfeits by their knowing that he receives pay.” In late 1779, after receiving a colonel’s commission for Brant from Lord Germain, Haldimand decided to hold it without informing Brant.

In early July 1779, the British learned of plans for a major American expedition into Iroquois Seneca country. To disrupt the Americans’ plans, John Butler sent Brant and his Volunteers on a quest for provisions and to gather intelligence in the Delaware River valley near Minisink, New York. After stopping at Onaquaga, Brant attacked and defeated American militia at the Battle of Minisink on July 22, 1779. Brant’s raid failed to disrupt the Continental Army’s plans, however.

In the Sullivan Expedition, the Continental Army sent a large force deep into Iroquois territory to defeat the Iroquois and to destroy their villages and crops. Brant and the Iroquois were defeated on August 29, 1779 at the Battle of Newtown, the only major conflict of the expedition. Sullivan’s Continentals swept away all Indian resistance in New York, burned their villages, and forced the Iroquois to fall back to Fort Niagara. Brant wintered at Fort Niagara in 1779-80.

Brant resumed small-scale attacks on the Mohawk Valley. In February 1780, he and his party set out and in April attacked Harpersfield. In mid-July, 1780 Brant attacked the Oneida village of Kanonwalohale, as the nation was an ally of the American colonists. Some of the Oneida surrendered, but most took refuge at Fort Stanwix. Brant’s raiders destroyed the Oneida houses, horses, and crops.

Traveling east, they attacked towns on both sides of the Mohawk River: Canajoharie and Fort Plank. He burned his former hometown of Canajoharie because it had been occupied by American settlers. On their return up the valley, they divided into smaller parties, attacking Schoharie, Cherry Valley, and German Flatts. With Butler’s Rangers and the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, Brant’s forces were part of a third major raid on the Mohawk Valley, where they destroyed settlers’ homes and crops. Brant was wounded in the heel at the Battle of Klock’s Field.

In April 1781 Brant was sent west to Fort Detroit to help defend against Virginian George Rogers Clark’s expedition into the Ohio Country. In August 1781, Brant soundly defeated a detachment of Clark’s army, ending the threat to Detroit. He was wounded in the leg and spent the winter 1781-1782 at Fort Detroit. From 1781 to 1782, Brant tried to keep the disaffected western Iroquois nations loyal to the Crown before and after the British surrender at Yorktown.

In June 1782 Brant and his Indians went to Fort Oswego, where they helped rebuild the fort. In July 1782, he and 460 Iroquois raided forts Herkimer and Dayton, but they did not cause much serious damage. Sometime during this raid, he received a letter from Governor Haldimand, recalling the war party and ordering a cessation of hostilities. Brant denounced the defensive policy as a betrayal of the Iroquois and urged the Indians to continue the war, but they were unable to do so without British supplies.

In the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the war, Britain and the United States ignored the sovereignty of the Indians. Britain ceded the sovereign Six Nations’ lands within what it regarded as the new United States territory. British promises of protection of the Iroquois domain had been an important factor in the Confederacy’s decision to ally with the British, and they were bitterly disappointed with the results. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) served as a peace treaty between the Americans and the Iroquois but forced the cession of most of their land. Some reservations were established for the Oneida and Onondaga, who had been allies of the American rebels.

Brant became infamous for the Wyoming Valley massacre of 1778, which he was believed to have led, although he did not participate in the battle; and for the Cherry Valley massacre. During the war, frontier colonists called him “the Monster Brant”. Stories of his massacres and atrocities were widely circulated, and added to an American settlers’ hatred of Indians that soured relations for 50 years. The colonists called the Indian killings “massacres,” but their forces’ destruction of Indian villages and populations were seen as part of war. After the war, hostility to Brant in the Mohawk Valley remained high. In 1797, because of threats against him, the governor of New York provided a bodyguard for Brant’s travels through the state.

Some historians have argued that Brant had been a force for restraint in the violence that accompanied the campaign in the Mohawk Valley. They have discovered occasions when he displayed compassion and humanity, especially towards women, children, and non-combatants. Colonel Ichabod Alden said that he “should much rather fall into the hands of Brant than either of them [Loyalists and Tories].”  But, Allan W. Eckert asserts that Alden was pursued and slain by Brant as Alden fled to the Continental stockade during the Cherry Valley attack.

Lt. Col. William Stacy of the Continental Army was the highest-ranking officer captured during the Cherry Valley massacre. Several contemporary accounts tell of Stacy being stripped by the Iroquois and tied to a stake, in preparation for ritual torture and execution. Brant intervened and spared him. Some accounts say that Stacy was a Freemason and appealed to Brant on that basis, gaining his intervention for a fellow Mason.  Allan W. Eckert, a modern-day historian, speculates that the Stacy incident is “more romance than fact,” though he provides no documentary evidence.

In 1783, Brant consulted with Governor Haldimand on Indian land issues. At Brant’s urging, Haldimand made a grant of land for a Mohawk reserve on the Grand River in present-day Ontario in October 1784. In the fall of 1784, at a meeting at Buffalo Creek, the clan matrons decided that the Six Nations should divide, with half going to the Haldimand grant and the other half staying in New York. Brant built his own house at Brant’s Town which was described as “a handsome two story house, built after the manner of the white people. Compared with the other houses, it may be called a palace.” He had about twenty white and black servants and slaves. Brant thought the government made too much over the keeping of slaves, as captives were used for servants in Indian practice. He had a good farm of mixed crops and also kept cattle, sheep, and hogs.

In the summer of 1783, Brant initiated the formation of the Western Confederacy. The Iroquois and 29 other Indian nations agreed to defend the Fort Stanwix Treaty line of 1768 by denying any nation the ability to cede any land without common consent. In November 1785, Brant traveled to London to ask King George III for assistance in defending the Indian confederacy from attack by the Americans. The government granted Brant a generous pension and agreed to fully compensate the Mohawk for their losses, but they did not promise to support the confederacy. (In contrast to the settlement which the Mohawk received, Loyalists were compensated for only a fraction of their property losses.) He also took a trip to Paris, returning to Quebec in June 1786.

In 1790, after Americans attacked the Western Confederacy in the Northwest Indian War, member tribes asked Brant and the Six Nations to enter the war on their side. Brant refused; he instead asked Lord Dorchester, the new governor of Quebec, for British assistance. Dorchester also refused, but later in 1794, he did provide the Indians with arms and provisions.

In 1792, the American government invited Brant to Philadelphia, then capital of the United States, where he met President George Washington and his cabinet. The Americans offered him a large pension, and a reservation in upstate New York for the Mohawks to try to lure them back. Brant refused, but Pickering said the Brant did take some cash payments. George Washington told Henry Knox in 1794 “to buy Captain Brant off at almost any price.”  Brant attempted a compromise peace settlement between the Western Confederacy and the Americans, but he failed. The war continued, and the Indians were defeated in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The unity of the Western Confederacy was broken with the peace Treaty of Greenville in 1795.

In early 1797, Brant traveled again to Philadelphia to meet the British diplomat Robert Liston and United States government officials. He assured the Americans that he “would never again take up the tomahawk against the United States.” At this time the British were at war with France and Spain. While Brant was meeting with the French diplomat Pierre August Adet, Brant stated: “[H]e would offer his services to the French Minister Adet, and march his Mohawks to assist in effecting a revolution & overturning the British government in the province.”  When he returned home, there were fears of a French attack.  Russell wrote: “the present alarming aspect of affairs – when we are threatened with an invasion by the French and Spaniards from the Mississippi, and the information we have received of emissaries being dispersed among the Indian tribes to incite them to take up the hatchet against the King’s subjects.”  He also wrote that Brant “only seeks a feasible excuse for joining the French, should they invade this province.”  London ordered Russell to prohibit the Indians from alienating their land. With the prospects of war to appease Brant, Russell confirmed Brant’s land sales. Brant then declared: “[T]hey would now all fight for the King to the last drop of their blood.”

In late 1800 and early 1801 Brant wrote to New York Governor George Clinton to secure a large tract of land near Sandusky, Ohio which could serve as a refuge. He planned its use for the Grand River Indians if they suffered defeat. In September 1801 Brant was reported as saying: “He says he will go away, yet the Grand River Lands will [still] be in his hands, that no man shall meddle with it amongst us. He says the British Government shall not get it, but the Americans shall and will have it, the Grand River Lands, because the war is very close to break out.” In January 1802, the Executive Council of Upper Canada learned of this plot, led by Aaron Burr and George Clinton, to overthrow British rule and to create a republican state to join the United States. September, 1802, the planned date of invasion, passed uneventfully and the plot evaporated.

Brant bought about 3,500 acres from the Mississauga Indians at the head of Burlington Bay. Upper Canada’s Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, would not allow such a sale between Indians, so he bought this tract of land from the Mississauga and gave it to Brant. Around 1802, Brant moved there and built a mansion that was intended to be a half-scale version of Johnson Hall. He had a prosperous farm in the colonial style with 100 acres of crops.

Joseph Brant died in his house at the head of Lake Ontario (site of what would become the city of Burlington, Ontario) on November 24, 1807 at age 64 after a short illness. His last words, spoken to his adopted nephew John Norton, reflect his lifelong commitment to his people: “Have pity on the poor Indians. If you have any influence with the great, endeavor to use it for their good.”

In 1850, his remains were carried 34 miles (55 km) in relays on the shoulders of young men of Grand River to a tomb at Her Majesty’s Chapel of the Mohawks in Brantford.

Brant acted as a tireless negotiator for the Six Nations to control their land without Crown oversight or control. He used British fears of his dealings with the Americans and the French to extract concessions. His conflicts with British administrators in Canada regarding tribal land claims were exacerbated by his relations with the American leaders.

Brant was a war chief, and not a hereditary Mohawk sachem. His decisions could and were sometimes overruled by the sachems and clan matrons. However, his natural ability, his early education, and the connections he was able to form made him one of the great leaders of his people and of his time.

The situation of the Six Nations on the Grand River was better than that of the Iroquois who remained in New York. His lifelong mission was to help the Indian to survive the transition from one culture to another, transcending the political, social and economic challenges of one the most volatile, dynamic periods of American history. He put his loyalty to the Six Nations before loyalty to the British. His life cannot be summed up in terms of success or failure, although he had known both. More than anything, Brant’s life was marked by frustration and struggle.

His attempt to create pan-tribal unity proved unsuccessful, though his efforts would be taken up a generation later by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

So, in summary, we discovered that Joseph Brant took his step-father’s surname, married three times, but only children of the third marriage survive. Of those children, several were male and descendants today could well carry the Brant surname. Brant was both revered and hated, depending on who you were and which side of the Revolutionary War you were fighting on or for.  Today, disagreement over some of the specifics regarding warfare and battles and Brant’s role still exist, both within and outside of the Native community.

For an excellent article about Brant from a slightly different perspective, click here:  http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/1998/brant.html

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About robertajestes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Military, Mohawk. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Joseph Brant, Warrior, Statesman, Mohawk Leader

  1. Nora P says:

    Great report on Brant. I have heard his name over the years but was not fully aware of his role. It was good to find out about him.

  2. Publius says:

    See modern reenactors at Old Fort Niagara, Youngstown, NY ,recreate Brant’s Volunteers…year round…

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