top of page

Situating Thayendanegea Joseph Brant

Thayendanegea Joseph Brant (1743 - 1807) was a Mohawk Kanyen'kehà:ka military and political leader. Sovereign over the Mohawk Valley, the Mohawk were people of the Eastern Woodland, originally owners of what is present-day, upstate New York. In exchange for their help in the revolutionary war, England made promises to the Mohawk, and Brant and his volunteers allied themselves with Britain, during and frustratingly after the revolution. As illustrated below, in 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord, the Six Nations (Tuscarora joined the Five Nations in 1722) met to discuss their roles in the coming war. The Thirteen Colonies wanted to rule themselves, but where did that leave the first nations, especially those in the east? While many chiefs advocated neutrality (an old game of playing both ends against the middle), prophetically, Brant predicted doom. Independence for the American patriots, he argued, meant ancient nations would lose their land. Calling upon Sir William Johnson’s influence (Johnson had died in July, 1774), Brant succeeded in convincing four of the six to fight for the British cause, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and the Seneca. The newest member of the league, the Tuscarora stayed with rebels. Oneida were split. As the war progressed, the besieged "Indian nations" realized that neutrality was impossible.


Post war, in British North America (BNA), François Louis Frédéric Haldimand, better known as Sir Frederick Haldimand, Governor of Québec (pre-division of the province, 1791), alerted the Crown: You have insulted your allies. At Niagara, allied encampments of displaced warriors and families were restive and furious. Fighting for the British, they lost their homes and territory, and almost worse, were cast aside in the Treaty of Paris, which, in 1783, had ended the first Anglo-American war. With both combatants, Thayendanegea himself retained lingering respect. He was able to press General Haldimand and Sir John Johnson to meet (at least some of) the pre-war promises the Crown had so freely made to its allies. For the peoples' resettlement, Thayendanegea eschewed Cataraqui and chose instead the fertile Grand River valley, where the diaspora would be near the Seneca. The resulting Haldimand Deed, reluctantly ceded to the Six Nations and further muddied by the Mississauga's land claims, describes a huge tract of land, west to east, on either side of the Grand River. So, the deed was completed – an impetuous deed, quickly made by Brant and Haldimand – done and dusted while a main man of the Kanyen'kehà:ka still had clout. 


Although of different sects, European countries' various attacks were, in one way or another, enacted and condoned by thoroughly Christian invaders. Only in the twenty-first century, with its more secular focus, has a large portion of society accepted the cultural inclusion of atheists, where words like "heathen," "pagan," "non-believer," "savage," are not necessarily derogatory epithets. I see myself as a heathen in a savage land. And I'm not shy to say so. In the era of the American Revolution, I and my non-Christian brothers and sisters would have been outcasts, and reviled as inferior beings. Handsome Lake Ganyodaiyo' did not reveal his code until 1799, and the code's remarkable similarity to the tenets of Christianity has been noted, noted even by followers of the Longhouse religion. From the beginning of European exploration across the Atlantic, the spirit of Christianity infused the water, the air, the trees, the people.  

George Romney painted the thirty-three year old Captain Brant in his London studio when Brant visited the city with Guy Johnson, who was the royal commissioner of Indian affairs in America. Brant sat for Romney at his studio at least twice - on March 29th and April 4th, 1776. Thayendanegea, Wolf Clan, born in 1842/43, Ohio, was the son of Kanyen'kehà:ka "Margaret" and Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa.



“Clout” is a slang term referring to a person's influence, reputation, or popularity. Because a person or a culture club has clout they invest others with the desire to obey them.

Clout happens as the result of one's having prestige, and enjoying the support of a critical mass, and offering believable threats of reward or retaliation, and usually, after amassing notable wealth.

In 1784, BNA was born. It may be understandable for (some) twenty-first century Indigenes to say Canada is a "so-called" country. Even if that's what one believes, the so-called country of Canada sits on the back of Thayendanegea and John Butler. Without Brant's help, the so-called Canada would be just one more territory on the map of the so-called United States. You cannot rewrite facts. In 1775, Indigenous nations were not strong enough to fight, unallied, against the invading European nations. Disease as much as war had depleted their numbers. The only recourse for a pine tree chief was to side with the country making his people the best offer. That was clearly England.

But, as they always are, the consequences of war were culturally stunning.


The American Revolution (1776 - 1783) created English Upper Canada (later, Canada West, Ontario). But, swayed by our ignorance via colonial propaganda, those of us who are interested in the life of Thayendanegea Joseph Brant ought to avoid making a grave mistake: The Mohawk Pine Tree Chief, though allied with the Crown in the American Revolution, was not an English-loving loyalist (United Empire Loyalist/UEL). Whatever his preferred moniker, captain or pine tree chief, Brant was a military genius, a dedicated and intelligent leader, and a kind man. There are many recorded instances illustrating Brant's personal charisma, compassion, and humour. According to records, he was an easy man to respect.


Going well into the nineteenth century and after the Anglo-American War of 1812, some establishment members of the Haudenosaunee UEL may have declared their enduring fealty to the Crown, but Brant, who died in 1807, could not be counted among them. Brant had lived long enough to see the true colours of Great Britain. When it came to European wars fought on this continent, Brant, like Pontiac before him, Tecumseh or even John Norton after him, felt his people were caught between a rock and a hard place. In the matrix social game, one would call Brant's situation "the prisoner's dilemma." Consider the contemporary zeitgeist. There was no right answer. No right side to pick. No running from the problem. No defecting. (See Chapter 9, "Abandon Cooperation, O Ye Who Walk Here," in Culture Clubs: The Real Fate of Societies.)


After European pathogens killed millions of Indigenes, several Euro populations administered the coup de grâce: Foreigners swamped the extant first nations and laid claim to their territories. For over three-hundred years, (the time of European colonization), the North American continent had witnessed the wretchedness of prolonged war and violent death. Eighteenth-century European savagery and pathogens turned the Europeans' "New World," a huge and ancient territory, into Indigenous bloodlands. The American "patriots" brought European matters to a head. Thanks largely to Thayendanegea Joseph Brant and John Butler, the nascent United States could not, and did not claim, the entirety of eastern North America. In 1784 when Christianity was king, BNA was born. It may be understandable for (some) contemporary Indigenous peoples to say Canada is a "so-called" country. Even if that's what one believes, the so-called country of Canada sits on the back of Thayendanegea. Without Brant and his militant volunteers, the so-called Canada would be just one more territory on the map of the so-called United States. You cannot rewrite facts.


In 1775, Indigenous nations were not strong enough to fight, unallied, against the invading European nations. Disease as much as war had depleted their numbers. The only recourse for a pine tree chief was to side with the country making his people the best offer. That was clearly England. After the revolution, if we are to believe John Norton and not the duplicitous William Claus or the cynical C. M. Johnston, the statesman Joseph Brant, now living in the new Mohawk village (BNA) on the Grand River and dealing with British colonial officials, was a man who remained "loyal" to his Grand River home and the people of the settlement. From 1784 until Brant moved to Burlington (c 1802), he wrote dozens and dozens of letters for the benefit of his people, only to confront constant backlash and challenges to his "pine tree" status. The main criticism: Brant had become too great a man. And further: Why were the people not sovereign over their own enormous territory – in the way Brant told them Britain had promised? People in the settlement blamed Brant for just about everything. But Brant could not perform a miracle – his people, scattered hither and thither, suffered from diminishing clout with colonial authorities. (See Chapter 2, "Mother," in Culture Clubs: The Real Fate of Societies.) Post 1815, Britain didn't really need the warriors anymore. The Haudenosaunee had no physical clout. That left wealth.

But winding back to the period before the War of 1812, the problems kept mounting. Brant understood the Indigenous population issue was especially salient because the Haudenosaunee's Upper Canadian territory, the Haldimand Tract, was far larger than a small number of displaced persons and refugees could control, or patrol. To protect the idea of the confederacy's sovereignty on the Grand River, Thayendanegea was relentless in seeking ways to make alliances to increase the people's influence if not their critical mass. Historian James Paxton describes the prescient Brant as a "Canajoharie Mohawk." A Canajoharie Mohawk understood what the people were about to face: eventually Europeans were going to swamp them. Brant was ever on the alert for ways to increase the settlement's population. Arising from his leadership experience of the German Palatines of the Mohawk Valley during the revolutionary war, he felt grateful to the non-Indigenous volunteers, who fought with him and granted them territory in much the same way the British granted territory to their soldiers. Brant was kind to his own loyalists, even though many were "white" and not from the people. Brant was a visionary. Yes, Brant's cure (for the doomsday he foresaw) backfired. Brant was also a man of his time. He was an Anglican Christian. (See Chapter 3, "Love is God," in Culture Clubs: The Real Fate of Societies.) Brant owned Black and red enslaved people. Brant allowed Black and white non-Indigenous followers to settle within the Haldimand tract. Brant encouraged "intermarriage." Among today's First Nations, Métis and Inuit, just about all of the things Brant allowed to happen within the Haldimand Tract are frowned upon.


Times change. Never mind today's cancel culture, though. Amazingly astute in his day, Thayendanegea, by allying with the English, tried to forestall the mess that awaited a fractured Native American diaspora, a cultural mess, which the revolution had created and that was bigger than any one person. At least Britain had made the right promises – those were the promises the Crown denied. But Brant kept trying to make the Crown's colonial proxies honour the agreements. Even as late as 1800, as the causes of the War of 1812 were becoming obvious and Britain needed the warriors to stay on side, Brant believed the people had residual clout: The Crown wanted the Mohawk to keep polishing the covenant chain – keep maintaining their alliance. Brant, for his part, still wanted sovereignty for the territory. As a Canajoharie Mohawk in BNA, Brant believed Haudenosaunee sovereignty on the Grand River, just as it had done in the Mohawk Valley, could oversee the territory and unify diverse cultural groups. Haudenosaunee sovereignty could readily accommodate and bring under manners an ethnically varied but law-abiding citizenry – Blacks included. (*Refer to Angela Files, African Hope Renewed.) To alert colonial officials, the Six Nations needed to grow, and grow fast. Brant sought ways to give the Grand River confederacy some bargaining clout. But how could Brant re-rebuild fractured, independent communities to make them large, strong and united?


The Six Nations – Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and some Delaware – never got along all that well. And now they had to be powerful enough to challenge the Crown's authority and the Crown's history of reneging on promises, (to say nothing of the latter's criminal negligence). For securing the Mohawk's vital help in helping England hold part of the continent, Britain had made promises about sovereignty in the upper country (above the Niagara escarpment). But when the time came to stand up for the promises, Britain did not even acknowledge its allies. Not in the Treaty of Paris, 1783, as noted, nor in the Treaty of Ghent, 1814. By 1820, British intransigence and the Crown's diplomatic duplicity were becoming famous. When you believe you're too big to fail, as the Crown obviously did feel despite the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, you ride roughshod over smaller herds. Why not? No one can or will stop you.


In life before the revolution, though, the Haudenosaunee held sovereignty over the Mohawk Valley. For Thayendanegea, therefore, it stood to reason: A significant population size was the primary move in the people's gaining sovereignty over the Grand River Valley in BNA. To make any noise, the settlement needed people, people, more and more people. Until there was a large "united" population, the Six Nations couldn't threaten or disobey the traitorous Crown, a Crown, by 1820, operating at full throttle – more determined than ever to control if not sweep aside all depleted Indigenous nations living within BNA-claimed territory. For the Crown, the situation was looking more and more straightforward. The Crown's behaviour perfectly illustrated the child's game of "make me." No united Indigenous threat? No need to keep a promise. Unifying nations against a common foe, be they First Nations European or Indigenous, was always hard to do. It took serious chutzpah. Indigenes just couldn't form a pan alliance, not one that would stick.

​Back in 1805, while the task of quickly bumping up Grand-River-Settlement numbers was looking desperate, Brant relied on prestige. Prestige is another marker of clout. Brant's "mansion," much noted and maligned, gave the Haudenosaunee prestige, a place for the old leader, an important diplomat, to greet guests and potential allies who might be inclined to put in a good word for the people. In fairness to Brant, "mansion" hardly describes his large frame house. I've been in the replica. His home must have been nice but it's no mansion. Two minutes of scrolling through the Internet turns up much larger and more mansion-y Upper Canadian homes being built around the same time. Ruthven Hall, now, that's a mansion. David Thompson 1 built Ruthven Hall (1845-46) with Grand River Navigation Company money, which was Haudenosaunee money. Nonetheless, in 1800, an "Indian," a "savage," "an inferior being," was supposed to be unwelcome in heaven and, in Presbyterian eyes, necessarily poor. Being of the "elect" was all about predestination. Indigenes were not predestined to be rich, and needless to say, "Indians" were not of "the elect." The cosmologies of people of different hues and cultures were a horror to strict protestants, the same protestants who defended chattel slavery. Rich Indians? Impossible! The "poor Indian" die was cast. "Indian" and "prestigious" were oxymorons. Brant's home and the effrontery of his being a wealthy Anglican "Indian," hailing from from a wealthy community, inspired derision in white and Indigenous alike. After the War of 1812 (Thayendanegea died in 1807), internal matters among the nations, already fractious, worsened with bad gossip. An early instance of fake news taking over the airwaves.

Time moves on. More settlers arrived and at once (1830s) the post-nominal letters UEL ("we came here first") took on additional prestige, especially in imperialistic Toronto. Late loyalists (Quakers and Anabaptists), Americans, refugees from the British Isles, and other Europeans arrived by the thousands. Against waves of foreign settlement, a divided Indigenous community's chances of keeping and protecting the Grand River territory proved futile. Though long deceased, eighteenth-century Brant, more often than not, took the blame for nineteenth-century land scoops, in which Haudenosaunee chiefs, duped or panicked, surrendered land to the greedy, land-grasping Crown. But one can be absolutely certain of this: In the immediate aftermath of the Treaty of Paris, which ignored promises made to him, Brant cared little about being any part of Britain's united empire. Brant was not a loyalist. If, later in the nineteenth century, the UEL tag added cachet to subsequent members of the Haudenosaunee (like, say, Shakoyen·kwaráhton John Smoke Johnson), we can be sure the honour was a late add. Thayendanegea, stung by the Crown's treaty-making duplicity, would have resented the categorization. Circumstances forced Brant to be an ally. At the end of Brant's life, at least according to his neighbour Asahel Davis, Brant was the same man he had always been – a man still trying to find a way to gain clout for his people.

For residents of Canada West (1845–1846), ongoing socio-cultural events brought individuals and peoples into conflict and exacerbated many feuds. The spirit of Thayendanegea hovers in the background of the Mohawk trilogy. What gives a culture enough club clout to tackle its enemies? Size, for sure. Also, knowledge (intel and spies).


Military readiness. Oh, and yes: Money. A robust economy. Wealth.


In the early nineteenth-century, did the Grand River Haudenosaunee have money? Oh yes. The confederacy was rich. Filthy rich. Richer than anyone. How rich? Rich enough to finance an entire canal system. Did the Crown's colonial governance take care of Haudenosaunee's riches? Did it ever. Thayendanegea would have wept. On behalf of the Six Nations, John Brant, Ahyonwaeghs, tried to question the "Crown's investment of Six Nations' funds" in the Grand River Navigation Company. But no. Determined (corrupt? conflicted?) colonial authorities (Lieutenant-Governor John Colborne - first Baron Seaton; and, Receiver-General John Henry Dunn) knew the Crown would win either way, would win whether an Indigenous-funded canal system worked, or didn't work. Sadly, in 1832, Joseph Brant and Catharine Croghan's son, John, died in the cholera epidemic, which also killed Peter the Runner and his son Peter Davis, ancestors of this writer. As for the Navigation, optimistic or perhaps gullible persons, both white and Indigenous, jumped on board with the canal project. They joined sharpers like David Thompson 1 and Barton Farr. The canal system didn't work. Not well enough to turn a profit. But the system worked well enough to impoverish the wealthy confederacy. No money. No more clout. No more respect. Nothing was left for the people but horrific poverty, the protestant frame. For the Crown, a great success. The Iroquois League was finally broken; according to Sally Weaver and John Noon, in-fighting and finger-pointing within the territory were endemic. For years afterward, death and poverty overwhelmed the reserve. Another victory for white-skinned Orange Protestants (anti-Indian, anti-Irish Catholic, and anti-French Catholic), in soon-to-be Ontario (1867). Queen Anne's communion silver aside (1712), why some first nations in Canada still want to appeal for help to an Anglican English queen or king is beyond me. Again, it's hard to tell the gullible from the optimistic.


The Crown had finally vanquished all Indigenous markers of clout. The Haudenosaunee lost the game: The confederacy lost population, territory, lumber, minerals, and squandered its substantial fortune in the ill-fated canal system – lost every last dime. In his must-read book, The Grand River Navigation Company, Bruce E. Hill laments that, by 1845, the confederacy landed in debt to the Receiver-General.


For a colossal Indigenous travesty, which was the Navigation, a newly impoverished, fractious, furious settlement could not reasonably pin the blame on Joseph Brant, on he who paved the way for the acquisition of the Six Nations' riches. In 1800 Brant built a "mansion" to illustrate the confederacy's wealth: The Six Nations were very rich and Brant understood the first principle of clout: when one wants to defy authority, one needs “hand,” and sometimes one’s obvious wealth will do the trick. (See Chapter 1, "Setting the Course," in Culture Clubs: The Real Fate of Societies.) The Crown didn't want to deal with a confederacy with "hand." The Crown had good reason to want an impoverished Grand River Settlement. The people were too smart for comfort; there was no need for them to be too rich too. So, in forty plus years a turn of the tide was inevitable and yet almost unbelievable. By 1846 the wealthy confederacy was poor. Broke. A backwater. Never a culturally united Indigenous community and now no longer a financial threat, the Haudenosaunee on the Grand remained stuck in time and place. Recovery was slow. But steady.

In contemporary Canada, though, the memory of Joseph Brant has almost disappeared. Except for citizens of the Grand River settlement (many of whom didn't and still don't like Brant) and except for areas within or near the Haldimand Tract, the name Thayendanegea has fallen into an historical sinkhole. Another British victory: Anglo Canada can ignore the allies who gained it a nation. Not provoked into action by his own people, Canada ignores Brant. The fair-minded note the good and the bad. Britain and the UEL turned English-speaking BNA into a White man's country, fawning over Britain's colonial authorities, trying to sound kind of upper crust (just listen to Catherine O'Hara, as Schitt's Creek's Moira Rose, mock the faux clipped speech of the Torontonian establishment), and in general just aping English manners – making Upper Canada into an imitative Great-Gatsby-like cultural mess, a copycat culture club, which inventive Québécois and Québécoise have forever denigrated if not outright despised. For a snapshot of fin-de-siècle life in southern Ontario, read Sara Duncan's The Imperialist and Cousin Cinderella. There are, however, some great things Canada inherited from the British Isles, chief among them are the common law, the Westminster Parliamentary system, Irish self-denigrating humour, and Scottish belief in a universal, egalitarian, general education. ​

Notwithstanding the Mohawk war chief's timely alliance with the Crown, notwithstanding his vital contribution to the British side in the revolutionary war, notwithstanding his numerous exotic portraits (Gilbert Stuart, George Romney, Ezra Ames, etc.), and ultimately, notwithstanding his serving the cause of the Haudenosaunee in British North America/Canada rather than the United States, the man is largely forgotten. If you hate Canada, the matter is moot. If you seek to understand the complexity of contemporary Canada, you soon come to realize why the Canadian public should know the name Thayendanegea Joseph Brant. With all his warts and brilliance. Whatever good/bad the American public believes about Brant's primary foe, George Washington, most recognize Washington's name. In twenty-one years of teaching at the University of Alberta, many of those years in Canadian Studies, I frequently asked about Brant but few had heard of him, some said he must have been white, some said he was Métis, and one spark wanted to talk about Davy Crockett. 


Could things be better for contemporary Indigenous nations? Certainly. In the eighteenth century, with only two reasonable wartime options to choose from, could Thayendanegea have made a better choice than allying with the English? Doubtful.


History is complex, and often a rock and hard-place squeeze. A person's courageous reaction to nearly impossible circumstances cannot be reduced to a bunch of wash-rinse-repeat cyber memes. Facts should not be rewritten and certain leaders forgotten just because some of you don't like them – indeed, it may be because one does not like the cold hard facts, one ought to feel obliged to remember them. Individuals, as they seek to survive in the face of contemporary affordances, should be judged in perpetuity less by the prisoner's dilemma and more by their worldview. AI can give you the math behind Thayendanegea Joseph Brant's decisions when he faced a no-way-out, zero-sum scenario. Did he try to reach critical mass to gain prestige for his people? He did. Did he gain wealth for the people? He did. Was he responsible for the travesty that was the Navigation? No. Are there records showing Brant's kindness to others – red, white and Black? There are. A child understands you can't escape the prisoner's dilemma, but the brave among us, just like Jiminy Cricket, don't give up: “I tried my best, because that's the best anyone can do.” 

bottom of page