Joseph Brant, his mansion and his slave, Sophia Pooley

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: Joseph Brant is an 18th century Mohawk warrior and Pine Tree Chief who understands as well as any modern Canadian the necessity of valuing ethnic diversity when you seek sovereignty in a global community.

What angers me about Paxton (and Isabel Thompson Kelsay) are implication that the type of house and lifestyle 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 (Ontario). Is Canada ready to acknowledge an Indigenous parent?

Joesph Brant and his volunteers and John Butler and Butler’s Rangers save the day for the English/British Crown in North America in the American revolutionary war of 1776.

As well as Paxton, for a record of Brant’s life, one might 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, imho, 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 genius. So what? The Haudenosaunee at the Grand River tend to be gossipy and divided by old grievances; The Rest of Canada (RoC) allows its communal guilt to muffle history (see the Grand River Navigation Company’s scandal). No one would be less surprised about Brant’s being forgotten and his decisions, misinterpreted, than Brant himself. Paxton does much to help us reposition the warrior and statesman in our history but even Paxton falls into some old Euro condescensions.

 James Paxton

Brant is Canajoharie.

Paxton uses Canajoharie as a political designation, which is familiar to us in the 21st century. Being Canajoharie means that over a single ethnic/lineage state, one favours  diversity, which allows different lineages to live within and under a “constitutional” sovereignty (much like the modern Canadian state).

In the 18th-century Mohawk valley, the Kanien’kehá:ka, a. k.a., the Mohawk people, rule such a state. Canajoharie is the centre. Chiefs give the yea or nay on settlement within their borders. Councils, for instance, agree to allow many desperate Palatine Germans to live in their valley, and rule-of-law works well for the mixture of lineages under Indigenous governance. Except for troubles with ‘that old rogue George Klock,’  Canajoharie life runs smoothly for Thayendanegea. Being Canajoharie means embracing a model of peaceful diversity within, in this case, Indigenous controlled and sovereign territory.

Paxton declares Brant seeks to reestablish the Canajoharie political paradigm in 1784 at the Grand River.

After the American Revolution, a percentage of People of the Longhouse settle in their northern hunting grounds, some at the Bay of Quinte under Chief John Deserontyon John, more at the Grand River under Pine Tree Chief Joseph Thayendanegea Brant.

Brant tries to use his wartime influence to force the British Crown to keep its big promise. To get allies to fight with them in the revolution, the Crown promises Brant’s people reparations for losses, if necessary. Reparations turn out to be necessary. The Crown’s worried minions in North America promise Brant a sovereign territory in the upper country equal to the one they lose in the Mohawk Valley.

Worried, indeed frightened, colonial officials in Canada, the likes of George Graves Simcoe, continue to promise the warlike First Nations more than faraway England ever plans to give. When the time comes to pay up, as it were, the Crown picks a tried and true imperial strategy – delay, delay, delay. The Colonial Office changes colonial governments. The new officers start a brand new page – all promises are conveniently forgotten. Why not? Immigration into British North America proceeds apace. Critical mass in BNA changes from Indigenous communities to the “American-born” British settlements. Because of the War of 1812, Britain’s regular forces in Canada, and not the Indigenous warriors, are the top military dog. American settlers, many of them purely racist and Indian fighters, continue to pour across the Canadian-American border, eager for free Crown land. Within thirty years Brant’s Canajoharie vision becomes impossible even to imagine.

Dead, dead and dead. Brant dies in 1807. His dream of integrated sovereignty under the control of the Haudenosaunee is 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 is dead by the end of the 19th century.

The final insult to Brant’s reputation is Ontario’s loyalism. The “smothering” (Paxton, 86) clap-trap of English loyalism is loud and relentless. United Empire Loyalists subsume and rearrange 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 them through times of trouble. The historical re-working of the Mohawk’s reputation leads to a grave injustice. Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, who seeks merely to have promises kept, gets demonized in his home settlement for his failures, and ignored in RoC for his ethnicity. Colonialism, racism and UEL trash Brant’s reputation and stomp on the memory of the Canajoharie paradigm. 

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 puts Brant far ahead of his time. Backlash inevitably arises – 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. 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. (See the Demonization of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant on the website).

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 [sic] remains something a controversial figure at the Grand River.” (Rick Monture, Teionkwakhashion Tsi Niionkwariho:ten We share out 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 what 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. Sadly, one takes issue with the Monture-Paxton assertion. RoC does not embrace Brant! Misguided UEL enthusiasm for Brant as a member of the United Empire Loyalist’s club, and Brantford’s substantial statue in ‘Victoria’ park, notwithstanding, outside of Brantford, Burlington and Hamilton, Joseph Thayendanegea Brant remains an unknown figure. In my career no student I taught knew who Joseph Brant was.

Haudenosaunee kids might want to appreciate Thayendanegea for securing for them the beautiful Grand River Valley. Indigenous voices blame Brant for the loss of their territory and monies. These voices are generally uninformed, as anyone who reads about the Grand River Navigation Company’s scandal soon realizes. In 1832 the Grand River Haudenosaunee have money, bags of money, but the money is kept away from them, hidden in England in inaccessible general revenue and English bonds. 

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 farmhouse, c 1800

2       Unknown. Stone farm house, c 1800, Cornwall USA 

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

4      Joseph Brant’s house, c 1802 

5      Allan Macpherson’s 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,” little suspecting that colonials and UEL actually might be implying something about his probable corruption and certain overreaching. . . “for an Indian.”

I would not make so much of this issue except for one thing: 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 were so impressive, why do the Ontario mansion-collectors not notice 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,” makes an impression on colonials and settlers, the impression is 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 is 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 famous and notable personage in 1802? Without offering context, 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 is not safely gone in the midst of battle, ensuring his martyrdom. Brant has a life. And at times, feet of clay. He drinks. He cannot mollify critics. He spends too much. But there is no proof whatsoever he is dishonest. Could Brant foretell the lies our teachers will tell us about his goals and strategies and his endless efforts to make peace among the people, he might have wished someone shot him in 1783. Brant is as keen on unification and sovereignty for his people, as Tecumseh and Pontiac are. If, once, Brant believes he can make a deal with Great Britain . . . well, haven’t we all occasionally been overconfident and trusted someone who let us down? In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, there’s no way out.

In the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Barbara Graymont says it best: “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 Six Nations Confederacy/Haudenosaunee. Paxton’s conclusion 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 the 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.

Former slave Sophia Pooley, Queen’s Bush, on the character of Joseph Brant. Interview conducted by editor, Benjamin Drew, The Refugee: a north-side view of slavery. Excerpted in Sky Walker Tehawennihárhos: the Battle of Vinegar Hill

“[Joseph] Brant was a good-looking man–quite portly. He was as big as Jim Douglass who lived here in the bush, and weighed two hundred pounds. [Brant] lived in an Indian village–white men came among them and they intermarried. They had an English schoolmaster, and English preacher and an English blacksmith. When Brant went among the English, he wore the English dress–when he was among the Indians, he wore the Indian dress, broadcloth leggings, blanket, moccasins, fur cap. He had his ears slit with a long loop at the edge, and in these he hung long silver ornaments. He wore a silver half-moon on this breast with the king’s name on it, and broad silver bracelets on his arms. He never would paint but his people painted a great deal. Brant was always for making peace among the people; that was the reason of his going about so much. I used to talk Indian better than I could talk English. I have forgotten some of it–there are none to talk with now.

Brant’s third wife, my mistress, was a barbarous creature. She could talk English but she would not. She would tell me in Indian to do things, and then hit me with anything that came to hand, because I did not understand her. I have a scar on my head from a wounds gave me with a hatchet. The skin dropped over my eye. A white woman bound it up. [B.D. The scars spoke of were quite perceptible, but the writer saw many worse looking cicatrices of wounds not inflicted by Indian savages [sic], but by civilized (?) men]. Brant was very angry, when he came home, at what she had done, and punished her as if she had been a child. Said he, “you know I adopted her as one of the family and now you are trying to put all the work on her.”


feature image courtesy Darren Morris @FunSSresources

(1) Thayendanegea by Gilbert Stuart





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