James Paxton on Joseph Brant Thayendanegea

There is much to love in James Paxton’s Joseph Brant and His World: 18th Century Mohawk Warrior and Statesman (2008) – exceptional writing and heart-rending illustrations and even the book’s silky pages.

More to love is Paxton’s thesis: Thayendanegea Joseph Brant was an 18th-century Mohawk warrior and Pine Tree Chief who understood as well as any modern Canadian the necessity of valuing ethnic diversity. Without being backed by sufficient critical mass, Brant had the nerve to seek a free state for his people anyway. Paxton calls Brant a Canajorharie Mohawk.

Paxton makes ethnocentric assumptions, though, and that’s annoying, and they interfere with the great strides he makes in understanding Brant, and Brant’s motivations. Paxton implies the types of houses and lifestyles readily available to settlers shouldn’t be available to members of First Nations. Whiffs of colonial and Euro condescension, and a modern cultural purity test, cast a shadow over Paxton’s narrative.

Let there be no doubt, however, that Paxton is bang-on when he argues for historical revision: Thayendanegea is a Father of Canada (British North America, a.k.a. BNA). Are Canada and the Haudenosaunee ready to acknowledge an Indigenous parent of the modern Canadian nation? Are we, the Canadian nation, such a virtuous cancel culture we cannot take into account 18th and 19th century affordances? Does Joseph Brant fade into history because of real and perceived imperfections (“slave owner,” “too great a man,” and his “half-European” wife?).

Fact: Joseph Brant and his “volunteers” and John Butler and Butler’s Rangers hold territory for the Crown, 1776-1783.

As well as Paxton, for a record of Brant’s life, one can read Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground; Colin G. Calloway’s The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities; Isabel Kelsay’s Joseph Brant 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds; and Barbara Graymont’s “The Iroquois in the American Revolution.”  Paxton, I believe, gets it (mostly) right.

Historians, those among us who dig out facts on the ground, discover in Brant a complex, imperfect, but remarkable and prescient commander, who makes a gold-medal contribution both to his people and to British North America. In the American Revolution (1775-1783) Brant secured the Grand River Valley for the Haudenosaunee (at least for those who wished to join him). He was foremost among those who secured BNA for the Crown. No one was more dedicated to his own people. No one  could have done more for allies. With little in fact to support them, many Haudenosaunee at the Grand River dislike Brant; therefore, the Rest of Canada (RoC) allows its communal settler guilt to muffle Indigenous history (see the Grand River Navigation Company’s scandal). No one would be less surprised about Brant’s contributions being forgotten and his land decisions, misinterpreted, than Brant himself. From 1800 to about fifty years ago, racism prevented Brant’s achievements from being nationally applauded; recent cancel culture will finish the job.


Brant is Canajoharie.

Paxton uses Canajoharie as a political designation, which is familiar to us in the 21st century. Being Canajoharie means favouring inclusion – allowing different lineages to live within and under a “constitutional” sovereignty (much like the modern Canadian state). The new Canajoharie state would certainly not be British, but Haudenosaunee. In the 18th-century Mohawk valley, the Kanien’kehá:ka, a. k.a., the Mohawk people, ruled such a state. Canajoharie was the centre. Chiefs gave the yea or nay on “foreign” settlement within their borders. Councils, for instance, agreed to allow many desperate Palatine Germans to live in their valley, and rule-of-law worked well for the mixture of lineages under Indigenous governance. Except for troubles with ‘that old rogue George Klock,‘ in Canajoharie life ran smoothly for Thayendanegea. Being Canajoharie meant embracing a model of peaceful diversity within, in this case, Indigenous controlled, sovereign territory.

Paxton argues Brant seeks to reestablish the Canajoharie political paradigm in 1784 at the Grand River – and Paxton’s argument is convincing.

After the American Revolution, a percentage of People of the Longhouse settled in their northern hunting grounds, some at the Bay of Quinte under Chief John Deserontyon John, more at the Grand River under Brant. Brant tried every diplomatic manoeuvre, plus his wartime influence, to try to build up the settlement’s population to get to the British Crown to keep its big promise. The Crown promised Brant’s allied people full reparations for losses in the Mohawk valley, if necessary. Reparations turned out to be necessary.   

Worried, indeed frightened, colonial officials in Canada, the likes of George Graves Simcoe, continued to promise the warlike Haudenosaunee more than faraway England ever planned to give. When the time came to pay up, as it were, the Crown picked a tried and true imperial strategy – delay, delay, delay. The Colonial Office changed colonial governments. The new officers started a brand new page – all old promises were conveniently forgotten. Immigration into British North America proceeded apace. By the War of 1812, critical mass in BNA changed from Indigenous communities to the “American-born” settlements. Because of the war, Britain’s regular forces in Canada and homegrown Canadian units, and not the Indigenous warriors, were the top military dogs. American settlers, many of them purely racist and Indian fighters, continued to pour across the Canadian-American border, eager for free Crown land. Within thirty years Brant’s Canajoharie vision turned out to be impossible even to imagine.

Dead, dead and dead. Brant died in 1807. His dream of integrated sovereignty under the control of the Haudenosaunee was dead by the end of the War of 1812. Outside of communities adjacent to Six Nations, e.g., Brantford, Burlington and Hamilton, Brant’s memory was all but dead by the end of the 19th century.

The final insult to Brant’s reputation was Ontario’s loyalism. In the 19th century the “smothering” hand (Paxton, 86) of Victorian clap-trap snuffs out homegrown achievements. Loyalism was and is loud and relentless. United Empire Loyalists subsumed and rearranged Joseph Brant’s memory, painting him as a loyalist and a loyal “British” subject instead of an exceptional “common” warrior, elected by the Longhouse mavens to see the Haudenosaunee through times of trouble.

The historical re-working of the Mohawk’s reputation leads to a grave injustice. Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, who sought merely to have promises kept, is demonized in his home settlement for his failures, and ignored in RoC for his ethnicity and his “flaws.” Colonialism, jealousies, racism and UEL trash Brant’s reputation and stomp on the memory of the Canajoharie paradigm. 

As stated, Paxton’s main thesis is utterly convincing. Brant’s vision of a Six Nations/Haudenosaunee state ruling over and leasing/taxing properties within an Indigenous state put Brant far ahead of his time. Backlash inevitably arose – on all fronts. Surviving two centuries of colonial and Canadian betrayal, many First Nations currently scoff at the thought of their nations’ openly embracing multi-lineage/multicultural roots. First Nations cannot and will not support massive Indigenous immigration into their territories – let alone welcome other, non-Indigenous lineages. (See for instance, “Mohawk man’s house targeted in Kahnawake because of non-Indigenous wife.” National News | May 3, 2015 by Tom Fennario). 

Paxton writes, “In 1886, [Brantford] erected a massive bronze-and-granite monument honouring the Mohawk [sic]. Anglo-Canadian society has embraced Brant more completely and warmly than have the Haudenosaunee” (85). The whole of Canadian society should embrace Thayendanegea but, because of Haudenosaunee in-fighting (see Sally Weaver and John A Noon), silence is golden. Paxton is wrong. There is no Anglo-Canadian embrace of the real Brant.

To this day, Haudenosaunee of the Grand River shrug off Brant as “controversial.” After coyly assessing Brant’s intentions (offering no proof of gross malfeasance to explain his “therefore Brant is controversial” assessment), Rick Monture plays to his own Grand-River audience. Monture does not challenge his people on the facts, saying only: “Two hundred years after his death, Brant therefore remains something a controversial figure at the Grand River.” (Rick Monture, Teionkwakhashion Tsi Niionkwariho:ten We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Residence at Six Nations of the Grand River.)

So why is that? Why is Brant controversial? Who cares? Canada doesn’t care. Officials are too polite to argue with Monture and any Indigenous cultural group over what the group perceives is their history and their old quarrels – even when half of the nonsense they believe is simply incorrect. If Thayendanegea remains “controversial” by the firesides of the Haudenosaunee, Canada is happy to agree. Too controversial to defend. Amen. Brant’s national reputation and his memory go up in pipe smoke. 

There’s one issue, which connects to optics and money and prestige (and who should have it), a minuscule matter in itself, but one that bothers me about Paxton, Calloway, Kelsay, et al.  All of the aforementioned make constant and, I believe, ethnocentric reference to Joseph Brant’s “mansion.”

After leaving the Grand River Settlement, Brant builds a large frame house at Burlington Heights – around 1802. I have been in the museum replica. It’s a large house indeed – not as large as a longhouse castle – but large. It is as large as many other substantial houses of the era (see below). 

Houses in Ontario c 1800-1835

1 2




1       Ontario stone farmhouse, c 1800

2       Unknown. Stone farmhouse, c 1800, Cornwall USA 

3      D’Arcy Boulton’s house, The Grange c 1817

4      Joseph Brant’s frame house, c 1802 

5      Allan Macpherson’s frame house, Napanee, c 1826

6      Hector McKay, Stonegate, Dundas Ontario, c 1800

7      Dundurn Castle, completed 1835

8      First brick home in Toronto, 1806

Back in the day, Brant may have been pleased to hear his new home called a “mansion.” Perhaps not. Colonials and UEL and jealous locals were busy bruiting about suggestions of malfeasance, and making snide comments about Brant’s likely corruption and his certain overreaching. . . “for an Indian.”

Many sites dedicated to listing the grand old homes of Ontario mention nary a word about Joseph Brant’s “mansion.” Collectors of photos of vintage homes of Ontario do not consider Brant’s “mansion” particularly memorable. If Brant’s home is so impressive, why don’t any of the Ontario mansion-collectors collect it? 

On one awful site, I saw First Nations’ homes referenced as teepees – end of story. Conclusion must be this: if Brant’s house, er, “mansion,” made an impression on colonials and settlers, the impression was not a good one. A mansion? How dare he? He must be crooked. Big houses are for important white people like us, not you.

Historians, such as Isabel Thompson Kelsay, who insist on calling Brant’s house a mansion should have the courtesy of giving the mansion-claim some early-1800s context: though large, Brant’s house was in no way exceptional for a notable personage of the era. Isn’t Captain Joseph Brant, Pine Tree Chief and erstwhile leader and current diplomat, commander of the famed Iroquois warriors and volunteers in the American Revolution, a notable personage in 1802? Without offering contemporary context for Brant’s Burlington home, historians who use the phrase Brant’s mansion appear racist and snide. And I’m sure James Paxton, to name one, is neither.

Most historians, Canadian and/or American, agree, post 1783, Indigenous in Canada fare better than their counterparts in the United States of America. Paxton seems uncertain on this point but he (Paxton) does agree Brant gets less public notice in Canada than the ‘unsuccessful’ warrior-rebels, martyrs Pontiac and Tecumseh.

Unlike Pontiac and Tecumseh, Brant was not safely gone in the midst of battle, ensuring his martyrdom. Brant had a life. And at times, feet of clay. He drank. He could not mollify critics. He spent too much. He had slaves. But there is no proof whatsoever he was dishonest on the issue of the settlement. Could Brant foretell the lies our teachers would tell us about his goals and strategies and his endless efforts to make peace among the people, he might have wished someone had shot him. Brant was as keen on the people’s unification and sovereignty as Tecumseh and Pontiac were. If, once, Brant believed he could make a deal with Great Britain . . . well, haven’t we all occasionally been overconfident and trusted someone who let us down? Caught in the prisoner’s dilemma, Brant discovered there was no way out.

In the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Barbara Graymont enters a most kind assessment: “Brant was a noble figure who dedicated his whole life to the advancement of his people and who struggled to maintain their freedom and sovereignty. His major failure was his inability to understand the nature of British imperialism and to comprehend the fact that the British would not permit two sovereignties to exist in Upper Canada. The Indians were manipulated and exploited by the British government to serve the purposes of the empire; they were encouraged to cede their land in time of peace, pressured to become military allies in time of war, ignored in the treaty of peace, urged to form an enlarged confederacy as a barrier between the British and the Americans, and coerced to abandon the confederacy when the British had composed their differences with their enemy and growing Indian power threatened to rival their own. British colonial agents were then urged to foster jealousies and divisions among the Indian nations in order to keep them in a state of continual dependency upon the British government. Nor did Brant really understand how dependent the Indians had become in their new environment close to their white neighbours. Even land sales by the Six Nations, which Brant supported for immediately practical reasons, would eventually attach them irreparably to the surrounding white economy as Indian land holdings diminished. Only Brant’s larger vision of Indian unity, had it been achieved, would have succeeded in maintaining Indian sovereignty for a longer period and slowing white expansion. In this plan he was defeated by jealousies and divisiveness among the confederated Indian nations, and by American and then British successes in undermining the general confederacy. When Tecumseh revived the concept of a confederacy in the next generation, it was already too late.”

To know Joseph Brant’s story is to understand colonialism and Canada and the Indian Act of 1876 at their worst. To know his story is to understand the political vice squeezing Indigenous nations, east and west, as they find a way to cope with a settler tsunami. Thayendanegea takes issue with terms of Peace of Paris, 1783. He engages in ongoing disagreements with Governor Simcoe and Peter Russell and William Claus. William Claus is bad news. Claus incites the ire of Brant’s first cousin, upper Mohawk Chief Thomas Davis, by his reneging on a promise to repay Chief Thomas for his wartime (1812-14) contributions. William Claus and his self-serving reports muddy the waters, especially when they are about Brant. Brant’s failure to get sovereignty for the people points straight as an arrow to the inevitability of an upcoming colonial boondoggle in 19th-century Ontario: the Grand River Navigation Company versus the Haudenosaunee. 

Paxton’s conclusion (about Brant’s sterling reputation among Anglo-Canadians) is not as strong as his thesis. Outside of Brantford and Hamilton/Burlington, few in Canada remember Joseph Brant. Canada’s ignoring Thayendanegea’s spectacular achievements, and overlooking colonial prejudices and political reasons for his spectacular failures, does not help us on the road to reconciliation. There is much good in Canada. But there’s a long road ahead.



feature image courtesy Darren Morris @FunSSresources

(1) Thayendanegea by Gilbert Stuart





Elements:, , , , , , ,