Isabel Thompson Kelsay’s Joseph Brant 1743-1807: man of two worlds

To date Isabel Thompson Kelsay has written the definitive study of Joseph Brant.  (See, however, James Paxton’s brief and shiny tome Joseph Brant and his world: 18th century Mohawk warrior and statesman for a better thesis than Kelsay’s on Brant’s view of a sovereign Grand River territory. Paxton’s book reviewed elsewhere on this site.)

Kelsay’s research is comprehensive. Her style is readable. She answers the big question about Brant’s parents (who are Indigenous, perhaps Huron/Wyandot), and place of birth (Ohio). Brant’s year birth year is uncertain – either 1742 or ’43. Anyone interested in Brant is grateful to Kelsay. The jacket says she took years to amass the documents, and so the reader believes. Determination is the hallmark of the great investigator and Kelsay is that. Brant comes across as an intelligent and intuitive leader and a complex human being. The two worlds of the title refer to transplanted European culture and Indigenous North America.

We can find the more worlds of Joseph Brant on continental North America. Thayendanegea has practically no reputation (who?) in Canada, and only a lingering, usually bad reputation (“the monster Brandt”) in the United States. Another title could read: Joseph Brant, Man lost in two worlds.

The failure of John Graves Simcoe to understand Thayendanegea’s aims:

In the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography, S. R Mealing writes: “When [Simcoe] arrived, the border posts on American soil were still held by British garrisons, and British diplomacy was briefly pursuing the chimerical [sic] prospect of an Indian buffer state. Simcoe exerted himself, as an agent of that diplomacy and subsequently, to maintain British influence with the Ohio valley Indians, both to keep their claims as a counter in Anglo-American negotiations and to avoid their resentment if abandoned [my italics]. He put as many difficulties as he could in the way of American commissioners seeking an Indian treaty and counted their failure his success. With Alexander McKee*, deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs, he gave the Ohio tribes expectations of British support that exceeded his instructions and bore no relation to the changing objects of imperial policy. His concern for the Indians within Upper Canada, particularly the Six Nations, was limited to the same military context. He had some success in dealing with them [sic]: during his administration, one purchase of Indian lands was renegotiated and four others were arranged with more clarity than had been usual. He did not know what to make of Indians who did not conform to his expectations of their present support and ultimate removal [?]; hence the mutual distrust that developed between him and Joseph Brant [Thayendanegea]. While he sought direction, American troops imposed their own solution on the Ohio Indians, in August 1794, at the battle of Fallen Timbers (near Waterville, Ohio).”

John Graves Simcoe

In the main Isabel Kelsay is fair to Brant but occasionally she is unnecessarily hard-nosed. In the wrong places. For the wrong reasons. Dr Robert W. Venables insists Kelsay fails to grasp the matrix of the man but Venables may go too far. However, Paxton also believes the issue of Six Nations sovereignty is forever front and centre in Brant’s post-war diplomacy. Venables condemns Kelsay’s ethnocentric word choices because they reveal – without accompanying analysis on her use of irony vis-a-vis her sources – a bias and narrative inconsistency. For instance, Indians “thirst” for revenge but General John Sullivan’s patriot army of 1779 collects “impedimenta” and not “war trophies.” If Kelsay intends to draw us to the disconnect between colliding cultures, she is too coy. Or too ethnocentric.

Brant is Joseph. Referring to Englishmen and Americans, Kelsay uses surnames. Using Joseph instead of Brant suggests intimacy and/or the 18th century mode of addressing an Aboriginal man but the narrative superiority grates. The condescension is rampant. Britain’s officers don military finery for official interactions but Brant, er, Joseph, the Indian, has a penchant for luxury when he buys a new coat for international negotiations. 

Kelsay reports that critics call his house a mansion. A mansion? Not so. The roomy two-story frame home on Burlington Bay is imposing in its day but hardly a mansion. Certainly Brant’s house is the home of the well-to-do. In the era, many notables in the local communities – Hamilton, Toronto, Brantford – build homes just as large. For an Indian man at the opening of the 19th century, being well-to-do will never do. Jabs at Brant’s “mansion” come at Brant from all sides, from within both settler and Aboriginal societies. In reality the house of Brant is less mansion-like than the grand Johnson Hall of William Johnson. Or the Greek Revival villa of David Thompson. Less architecturally striking than Ojibwe Methodist minister Peter Jones’ sturdy Echo Villa. In building his house Joseph wants his settler neighbours not to fear him, nor the People of the Longhouse, but to admire the new, progressive, Indigenous, British North American who lives and struggles for sovereignty within the overarching British “claim.” But settler neighbours and jealous compatriots gossip. Settlers have land-grabbing in mind and will hate (demonize) whomsoever they wish to hate, whenever hating serves their greater territorial and sovereign purposes.

original Brant homeEcho Villasir_william_house_02 (1)RUTHVEN

The William Hamilton Merritt and David Thompson 1 and the Grand River Navigation steal the financial lifeblood from the Six Nations and tar Joseph, the progressive. Although canals have nothing whatsoever to do with him, Brant is the scapegoat, who picks up a share of the Six Nations’ money woes, posthumously. C’est la vie. In any case, Venables accuses Kelsay of picking up sources with no disclaimer as though inter-cultural diplomatic complexities are too difficult to spell out, which they are not. Presents (meaning payment) that the Six Nations’ allies receive from the Crown are not high-brow social irritants like, say, the dole. They are an obligatory return for service and future loyalty. Even Paxton gets muffled on this point.

Kelsay notes how Indigenous demands for recompense annoy the easily annoyed English. For a better understanding of presents Dr Venables suggests we read Wilbur R Jacobs’ Wilderness politics and Indian gifts. But I find Jacobs is more ethnocentric than Kelsay. To understand presents from a First Nations cultural perspective one would value an Indigenous voice in the conversation. Jacobs, like S. R. Mealing, is still the voice of Europe in America.

Post-war Pine Tree Chief Joseph Brant wants the Confederacy to take charge of its own future and form an independent state in the upper country. Wherein (to Brant) fee simple or in contemporary terms, lease, means that individual registered land in the Indian nation belongs not to the Crown but to the people’s sovereign state. After years of living at Canajoharie and listening to the patriots complain about the Crown’s ownership of all land in America, Brant well knows both the British and American models of land title. But Kelsay citing pre-contact history and wampum belts doesn’t seem to get it. Even in 1784 Brant’s motives are to seek nothing less than First Nations statehood for the Grand River Territory. Their lands are leased to people loyal to the Six Nations.

In a community divided between holders of the old ways and progressives, Brant is a progressive. Kelsay often assumes Indian traditions are artifacts and the First Nations stand united. She sounds as though they do not want, or worse, do not understand the right to have their own modernity. A gross condescension. First Nations may not agree on power structures and governance but they have always understood plenty about human universals like politics and group affiliations. The biggest cultural loss to the First Nations after Europeans dominate North America is not the loss of all ancient traditions (no culture or language exists frozen in time) but the loss of select “keeper” traditions upon which to build their modern manners and customs.

Nonetheless, Kelsay roots for Brant. Her affable perspective helps the reader. And her. Or so one suspects because, quite frankly, few academics want to spend their entire careers researching a man who constantly disappoints. Kelsay herself is likeable and a quibbler quibbles. Original documentation Kelsay cites is mountainous. And inclusive. And informative. 

For instance, Thayendanegea does not participate in the Wyoming massacre of 1778. Post revolution Brant fights on. Loyalist historians of Upper Canada often mention Brant’s ambition as though it were a personal vendetta but Kelsay shows Brant has honest, good and many reasons to disdain Upper Canada’s loyalist administrators (and historians) and their underwhelming vision for the future of the ancient indigenous Confederacy. Kelsay painstakingly illustrates her belief that there is much to like in Brant.

In the Grand River settlement, Brant tries to herd cats. Infighting among the People of the Longhouse is bad but oh so convenient for the colonials. Squabbles suit Britain and the Family Compact just fine. They play Indigenous factions against each other. Among the people Brant worries about being hated for acting like too great a man. Fears play out. Kelsay writes, “for many years [after his death in 1807] there were wild dissensions on the Grand River as Brant-party and anti-Brant party fought their continuing battles,” which alas continue into the 20th century. See Sally M Weaver’s Medicine and politics among the Grand River Iroquois: a study of the non-conservatives. Or John A Noon’s Law and Government of the Six Nations Iroquois. In any case a united cultural front has never been an Indigenous long suit. So what? Holding it together is not easy for Europeans or Americans or Canadians.

Kelsay and Brant’s Sophia Pooley testify to how strenuously Brant tries to make peace but matters grow worse and the situation gets out of control as the military prowess of the Confederacy wanes.

Unidentified woman. Sophia Pooley? Nellah Golden inspiration

Unidentified woman. Sophia Pooley? (Nellah Golden inspiration)

Haudenosaunee/Rotinonhsyonni in the diaspora grow bitter from loss of respect. England reneges on promises in 1763, 1783 (and will again in 1814). Post revolution the Crown invites American farmers from her former enemy the 13 Colonies to settle inside the Canadas. The very farmers whom Joseph Brant and company fight against pop up as their unfriendly and land-hungry neighbours. Barbara Graymont believes Great Britain, despite vague assurances to the contrary made during wartime, never has any intention of allowing two sovereignties within its “claim.” For Brant the Grand River settlement goes sour and he moves to Burlington. He feels the desperation. He is right. As the 18th century turns to the 19th things look bleak for the People of the Longhouse. Indians of the Confederacy are loyal subjects (and later wards) of the Crown rather than the Crown’s loyal allies and the furious cats are at each others’ throats. Joseph Brant makes an easy target for general unrest.

mohawk-chapel-by-frances-mitchell-photo-by-john-ecker713_001 (1)

Brant lives into his 60s. Long enough to collect powerful enemies and attract myth-busters. Both European and Indigenous. But the Haudenosaunee/Rotinonhsyonni absolutely do enjoy their existence beside Simcoe’s Ouse/Grand River (notwithstanding land claims and court battles they long since initiated against the Canadian government) and for that alone they must thank Brant’s status and diplomacy. 

The Grand River valley is lush – resplendent in autumn with the vibrant shades of Carolinian forest and covered in spring with beautiful trilliums and tobacco sprouts. Thayendanegea lives longer than Tecumseh the Shawnee folk hero. And Brant, Kelsay’s “hero,” ruffles feathers in the diplomatic quest for an Indian country, which in a mere three-score lifetime one man cannot achieve. Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, the man of two worlds, makes land deals the weakened Confederacy cannot possibly defend against an organized civil enemy. And the dissenters pounce.

Optics versus reality. Let’s not forget how the Crown and the Family Compact and the Grand River Navigation Company royally swindle the residents of the Grand River settlement. Still many say let’s blame Joseph Brant–not for the good he did but for the good he could not do. And for the evil he did not forestall

Should Kelsay’s sympathies persuade you, you may agree she illustrates Brant’s intrinsic nobility and genius in the time of war and his unflagging efforts for the people in the time of peace. Old Brant turns the reins over to young John Teyoninhokarawen Norton. Norton is a good choice but not a popular one. Critics then and now deride Norton’s lineage and finally defame him. At the time Norton expresses frustration. The old Pine Tree Chief might sympathize. Optics versus reality. 

John Norton

The entry on Joseph Brant in the Canadian Encyclopedia is severe. And in its severity, mistaken. The entry minimizes Brant’s contribution to the British war effort during the revolution of 1776 and calls him a Mohawk “loyalist.” Here also is a reference to Brant’s “magnificent house.” And the murmur repeated, no more than hearsay, about the iffy disposition of the money from early land sales. One should note Kelsay’s exhaustive documentation indicates no impropriety on Brant’s part but Thayendanegea’s enemies do whisper. The author of the article mentions Brant’s Anglicanism.  Not likely as a sign of his progressiveness regarding Indian statehood but probably as code for Brant’s having succumbed to the ways of the white man. The blurb ranges from incorrect to suggestive and needs updating to meet the standard of  Graymont’s article in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. 

Graymont says Brant was true to his matrix:  “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.”

Mohawk Village, as sketched by Elizabeth Simcoe c 1893

House of Thayendanegea Burlington c 1800. Peter Jones’ Echo Villa c 1851. Sir William Johnson’s Johnson Hall c 1777. David Thompson’s Ruthven Hall 1845. Allan Napier MacNab’s Dundurn Castle c1830.

St Paul’s Chapel of the Mohawk. Painting Frances Mitchell; photo John Ecker. Longhouse c 17th century

John Teyoninhokarawen Norton, painted by Mather Brown (1761 – 1831)

Barbara Graymont, Thayendanegea – online Dictionary of Canadian Biography