“Canajoharie Joseph Brant” and Thayendanegea’s mansion

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 diversity when you seek sovereignty in a global community. What bugs me is Paxton (and Isabel Thompson Kelsay’s) implication that the type of house readily available to settlers shouldn’t be available to Thayendanegea. Little whiffs of condescension cast a shadow over an excellent narrative.

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 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 to keep their big promise. To get allies to fight with them in the revolution, the Crown promises Brant’s people a sovereign territory in the upper country equal to the one they have lost 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 strategy – delay, delay, delay. Or the Colonial Office changes colonial governments and starts a brand new page – promises are conveniently forgotten. After all. Immigration into British North America proceeds apace. Critical mass in BNA changes from Indigenous to the “American-born” British settlements. Because of the War of 1812, Britain’s regular forces, and not the Indigenous warriors, are the top military dog in BNA. American settlers, many of them purely racist, continue to pour across the Canadian-American border, eager for free Crown land. Brant’s Canajoharie vision becomes impossible even to imagine. Brant dies in 1807. His dream is dead and forgotten by 1815. In Canada, Brant’s memory is as good as 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 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 a warrior chief of the Longhouse. 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 in ROC for his ethnicity. Colonialism, racism (on both sides) and UEL trash Brant’s reputation and kill 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, the city [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, for instance, Sally Weaver and John A Noon), silence is golden (the Demonization of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant on the website).  Grand River Haudenosaunee shrug off Brant as “controversial” and say not much more on the subject.

We are too polite to argue with an Indigenous group over what they perceive is their history – even when they get things wrong. Rick Monture’s We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations takes a brave stab at setting records straight. Still. If Thayendanegea remains controversial at the firesides of the Haudenosaunee, Canada is happy to think of him likewise. Too controversial to defend. Amen. Brant’s national reputation and his memory go up in pipe smoke. Sadly, one takes issue with Paxton’s assertion. The Rest Of Canada 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, Joseph Thayendanegea Brant remains more or less an unknown figure in this country. 

Are Butler’s rangers known? Perhaps. Joseph Brant and Brant’s Volunteers? Hardly. What a shame. George Washington? Indeed. John A Macdonald? Sure – usually. Canadian kids might want to admit they owe a little homage to Queen’s Rangers, Brant and Brant’s Volunteers and John Butler and Butler’s Rangers for securing the upper country (Québec, before Upper and Lower Canada are created) for Great Britain – and clearing the way for British North America and eventually the Canadian nation.

In their turn, 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 can sound naive and uninformed, as anyone who reads about the Grand River Navigation Company’s scandal will soon realize.

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, condescending 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 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 the man’s probable corruption and certain overreaching. . . for an Indian. I would make no more of this issue except for one thing: many sites dedicated to listing grand old homes of Ontario mention nary a word about Joseph Brant’s “mansion.” Collectors of photos of vintage Ontario homes do not consider Brant’s house particularly memorable because of its size. 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 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. 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. He has a life. Could Brant foretell the lies our teachers will tell us about his goals and strategies, he might have wished someone shot him. Brant is as keen on unification and sovereignty for his people, as Tecumseh and Pontiac are for theirs. 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?

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, few in Canada remember Joseph Brant. Canada’s ignoring Thayendanegea’s spectacular achievements, and overlooking the reasons for his spectacular failures, merely perpetuates our own failure to acknowledge Canada’s ongoing betrayal of Indigenous nations. 

feature image courtesy Darren Morris @FunSSresources

(1) Thayendanegea by Gilbert Stuart





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