Joseph Brant

Because it’s better to celebrate a life of courage than to criticize a life one hasn’t lived . . .
Who is Mohawk Pine Tree Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), and why should Canada know him? In twenty-one years of teaching some very savvy Canadian Studies students, I find not one young person – from either the mainstream culture or prairie First Nations – has ever heard of Joseph Brant.
In his day, Brant is a “rock star” but so, in his day, is John A Macdonald. So is George Washington. (Why does chocolate-covered Laura Secord loom larger in our collective Canadian consciousness than Thayendanegea?) Students may have heard about the martyrs. Odawa Pontiac. And Shawnee Tecumseh. But a hundred-and-fifty miles outside of Brant’s home base, Canadian students are ignorant.
Joseph Brant was a fact. He is a fact. And he belongs to us, to our complicated Canadian history. American writers have written with fascination about Brant, beginning with William Leete Stone. (Life of Joseph Brant-Thayendanegea: Including the Border Wars of the American Revolution and Sketches of the Indian Campaigns of Generals Harmar, St. Clair, and Wayne. And Other Matters Connected with the Indian Relations of the United States and Great Britain, from the Peace of 1783 to the Indian Peace of 1795). 
Other Americans have chipped in but, in my opinion, James Paxton is the only Canadian to give a realistic cultural frame to the life of Thayendanegea – where Brant was from and what he tried to recreate, and how Brant and his “volunteers” (unpaid regimental unit) and John Butler and Butler’s Rangers did the lion’s share in preserving British North America. 
For the people, Joseph Brant was the one who secured the stunning Grand River valley. Brant tried, and failed, to get sovereignty for the Haudenosaunee.
Brant was not perfect. No one is. But he was amazing, nonetheless. Some nations and sour individuals in the Grand River settlement make it their ongoing mission to resent him, and unfairly. In our ever-increasing secular culture, the umbrella-power of 18th-century Christianity is hard for anyone to imagine. You’ll hear mutterings about Brant as Christian, a land-fritterer, and a slave-owner but mutterings need context. One can tell from reading the recollections and wishes of Sophia Pooley and Prince van Patter that the people’s 18th-century idea of slavery was fluid, and not the same as Europeans’. Brant had an uncanny talent for leadership and with his version of Christianity he did a great deal more than the Crown (to create a place in the sun for the disappointed and betrayed people of the diaspora), but, sadly, the Crown and Canada and the Six Nations were not/are not as noble as the man.
After the Sullivan-Clinton campaign,* Brant might have guessed the end of the story.  No matter how well or  badly the Crown might fare in the revolutionary war the people were in big trouble. Here, telling a similar story, is Dave Roos on the fall of the Aztecs: “Even after Montezuma’s death in 1520, the Aztecs fought the Spanish for another year. But once the Tlaxcalans and other indigenous groups joined the Spanish, the Aztecs’ fate was sealed. Tenochtitlán was razed to the ground and countless Aztecs died from European diseases, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Those Aztecs who survived the fall of Tenochtitlán were forced to make peace with the new reality of colonial rule. Like the authors of the Nahuatl history, they bent to the will of their Spanish overlords while retaining the language and stories that tied them to their once-rich culture. ‘The Aztecs were conquered,’ writes Townsend in Fifth Sun, ‘but they also saved themselves’.” Brant wanted the First Nations, at the very least, to save themselves and, to that end, he worked tirelessly on his people’s behalf.
Did Brant pick the wrong side?
It’s as though there is a negative and appalling quid quo pro going on between the Six Nations and settler society: you took our sovereignty; we’ll take your hero.
Reporter John Bkila quotes Dr Rick Monture, Associate Professor of English and Cultural Studies (McMaster), who says, “[Brant is] over-romanticized by the white people and harshly criticized by our people. But I think he was somewhere in the middle, a man who was caught up in this big cataclysmic change (the American Revolution)” (We Share Our Matters: Two Centuries of Writing and Resistance at Six Nations of the Grand River). What romanticize? This must be a joke.
No one glorifies this stranger. We can’t mythologize what we don’t know. Notice Monture’s doublespeak. Whites “romanticize.” The people “harshly criticize.” Does Monture mean the people “demonize” Brant? I believe that’s exactly what he means.
In any case, Dr. Monture skirts a national reality. Few outside of ethnocentric Southern Ontario understand Joseph Brant’s significant contribution to the survival of British North America. First Nations may wish for “no BNA,” and “no Canada.” “No USA.” “No Christopher Columbus.” “No heavy-handed Christian sects.” “No residential schools.” That’s all understandable. At many inflection points, Thayendanegea and the ancient Haudenosaunee would have wished it. One of Brant’s biographers, Isabel Thompson Kelsay, hints that, as Brant lay dying, he wondered about his choice of religions. But the clock doesn’t turn back, and the best a courageous man could do in a losing battle was to continue to fight for the people and the people’s sovereignty, which was what Brant did.
Joseph Brant should be part of the mainstream education curriculum in every province. Outside of the mini-golden triangle, there’s nary a whisper about Brant, neither accomplishments, nor failures. Dr. Monture speaks to the choir. When it comes to Joseph Brant, Thayendanegea, there is plenty of local demonizing. Very little national romanticizing. The upshot is very little Canadian remembering.
During his lifetime, Brant played his hand for maximum gain and minimum loss, but this game was truly rigged, and there is evidence for this – lots. His nations’ partner (the Crown) betrayed the Haudenosaunee time and time again. In 1783, 1814, and post 1832 (in the Grand River Navigation Company’s scandal), the Crown took the Haudenosaunee to the cleaners. Losses in the upper millions are yet unresolved. Haudenosaunee blame Brant. It was all Brant’s fault, right? Brant turned into the original Canadian-Indigenous “blame” figure, one Rumpelstiltskin, a demon bargainer, the devil who got no payout. What Brant got was a one-way trip back to the deep forest, a trip to national oblivion. It’s actually shocking.
Another American sets the record straight on Brant. Professor Alan Taylor writes, “Brant acted as a tireless negotiator for the Six Nations to control their land without crown oversight . . .. He used British fears of his dealings with the Americans and the French to extract concessions. His conflicts with British administrators in Canada regarding tribal land claims were exacerbated by his relations with the American leaders. Brant was a war chief, and not a hereditary Mohawk sachem. His decisions could be and were sometimes overruled by the sachems and clan matrons. However, his natural ability, his early education, and the connections he was able to form made him one of the great leaders of his people and of his time. The situation of the Six Nations on the Grand River was better than that of the Iroquois who remained in New York.” Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution
“Alan Taylor’s new book is one of several titles to revisit this terrain, and it is the most significant of the bunch. To its credit, it does not linger on the battles of the war years. Instead it focuses on the post-revolutionary dispersal and dispossession of the Iroquois [sic] on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Taylor correctly sees that the decline of the Iroquois had far more to do with International politics of the post revolutionary settlement between Britain and the United States than with the war itself . . . the more lasting devastation came after the peace, when private and public agents used all sorts of arm-twisting and legal chicanery to push the [American] Iroquois off their homelands and onto tiny reservations.” Thayendanegea argues for Haudenosaunee sovereignty and secures the Haldimand Deed (see James Paxton). Review of Taylor’s book: Shannon, Timothy J. The New England Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 3, 2007, pp. 524–526. JSTOR,
*The 1779 Sullivan Expedition, also known as the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition, or Sullivan Campaign was an extended systematic military campaign during the American Revolutionary War against Loyalists (“Tories”) and the four Nations of the Haudenosaunee, which had sided with the British. It has been described by some historians as a genocide[1] due to the magnitude and totality of its violence towards and destruction of the Six Nations
Brant Bashing from Outside SN

Quill and Quire should better vet the books they review. And Iroqrafts is complicit. Tom Longboat catches the eye of a certain Jack Batten (Tom Longboat: The Man Who Ran Faster Than Everyone). Notwithstanding the timely acknowledgement of Tom Longboat’s fabulous runs (for several years Longboat was undisputed champion long-distance runner of the world), no contemporary, respected historian lowers the bar to this level on Brant. 

Batten spews slander: “[Brant] was just the sort of Native [sic] whom the British wished all Natives to be like.”

In fact, Brant irritated the British colonial administration. Administrators came openly to dislike him for thwarting their expansionist plans.

“. . . Brant’s persistence in encouraging Indian unity and in maintaining contacts with the other Indian nations became a source of annoyance and suspicion to the British government and to administrators such as Dorchester in the Canadas, who tried to keep the Indians divided, dependent, and subservient. Whereas they had once fostered an Indian confederacy and had encouraged Brant’s leadership, they now tried to discourage his diplomacy, undercut his influence, and redirect his activities to his own settlement. Brant was not one to be easily deterred, and the resulting controversy caused tension for many years.” Barbara Graymont

“[Brant’s] lifelong mission was to help the Indian to survive the transition from one culture to another, transcending the political, social and economic challenges of one the most volatile, dynamic periods of American history. He put his loyalty to the Six Nations before loyalty to the British. His life cannot be summed up in terms of success or failure, although he had known both. More than anything, Brant’s life was marked by frustration and struggle.” Alan Taylor

. . . and look at this nasty little gem from the outrageous Mr. Batten:

“In 1879, the Canadian federal government had arrived at a scheme for turning heathen [sic] Native children into a semblance of Christian boys and girls; they moved them from reserves, and in the expectation of creating thousands of little Joseph and Josephine Brants [sic], they drilled them in white man’s ways at church-run boarding schools designed specifically for Native children.” 

Batten’s offhand slur is deeply offensive to Brant’s memory. It’s racist. Moreover, it’s disingenuous.

Mid 18th-century Brant turned Anglican – likely for political as much as spiritual reasons. After all, reformed substance-abuser Handsome Lake (Seneca) had a pseudo-Christian vision in 1799 (although he warned his people against mixing with whites). In 1761, over thirty years before Handsome Lake had his vision, Brant went to Eleazar Wheelock‘s “Moor’s Indian Charity School” in Connecticut. Like Handsome Lake, Brant believed the people needed cohesion – except Brant wanted to bring them, spiritually and politically, into a broader, apparently allied, and more “modern” camp. 200-plus years ago, the spiritual Brant tried to create a cohesive community out of a heartbreaking diaspora. For education, religion and support, Brant got the people some much needed financial help from the New England Company. Moreover, Brant wanted to get the men accustomed to the folkways of the swamping culture – for instance, in colonial Canada men as well as women ploughed the fields. Were he alive today, Brant would not believe how savagely his conversion backfired.

One cannot say exactly why Brant converted to Anglicanism but context was surely important. At least one reason is clear. The “monster” moniker haunted him. Nothing Brant and his people did could shake the “savage” label. Savages. Heathens. Pagans. Inferiors. Monsters. Europeans and Americans said such things, nonstop.

Thomas Campbell’s less than sublime muse was at work when Campbell penned “Gertrude of Wyoming.” Campbell referred (poetically, of course) to “the Monster Brandt.” Brant wanted First Nations’ voices to be heard among the relentlessly devout “white” Christians, not the least to get whites to put a cork in the “savage” and “heathen” and “pagan” business. Thanks to the efforts of Ahyonwaeghs, John Brant, and the Brant family’s renowned Anglicanism, Campbell later apologized.

In present day. Where are the Haudenosaunee and Canada’s apologies for condoning the likes of Jack Batten? After all, Brant died in 1807 – sixty years before the Christian-schools horror stories. Indian residential schools operated in Canada between the 1870s and the 1990s. Batten’s ignorant dig at “little Joseph and Josephine Brants” is grossly inappropriate, and ought to be insulting to the intelligence of the People of the Longhouse. Where would Batten get the confidence to make such derogatory statements? Surely not from anyone living in Ohsweken on the Grand River? (However, my books about the Grand River Navigation Company’s swindle of the Haudenosaunee are not-for-sale at Iroqrafts. Batten’s book is.)

In the following, there is a recent sample of the incorrect assessment of allies in the American Revolution: “Most of the Six Nations made the mistake [sic] of backing the British.” This sentiment is, for instance, Charlotte Gray’s opinion, as expressed in Flint And Feather: The Life and Times of E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake. 

Let’s be reminded of the truth: “The situation of the Six Nations on the Grand River was better than that of the Iroquois who remained in New York.” Alan Taylor 

Let us also be reminded. Had Joseph Brant joined with Samuel Kirkland and the Oneida in allying with the American patriots, we would have no Canada; furthermore, the trail of tears (1822) would have devastated even more of the Haudenosaunee. (Check out the history of the New-York and Wisconsin Oneida in the USA. “Our Nation is originally from upstate New York. After the Revolutionary War, we lost nearly 5 million acres of our original homelands to the birth of the United States and the state of New York. Our people began to relocate to Wisconsin. In 1838, the Treaty with the Oneida established the 65,400-acre Oneida Indian Reservation along Duck Creek.”)

Nonetheless, Canada today is nervous nation with citizens poorly educated in hegemonic history and properly terrified to take a peek at First Nations’ history. The Haudenosaunee’s Joseph Brant is almost a pariah. Perhaps that is the reason Oneida Graham Greene agrees to play Shylock at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. 

“Monster Brandt” – Masons contribute to the damage

Brant’s gravesite at the Mohawk Chapel in Brantford is in uninspiring condition.

But here is the very worst thing: Masons put up a plaque on Brant’s tomb so far short of the real story of Thayendanegea as to be breathtaking. People who know about this plaque could easily have it corrected but they have not bothered.  The plaque should come down or at least be superseded by an accurate assessment. Thanks, Masons – but no thanks. Joseph Brant would not have considered himself a “fellow subject” of the Crown. One is sore mistaken to call Brant a United Empire Loyalist. How can the confederacy let this insult stand? It’s tantamount in today’s context to calling a Canadian a Martian. It makes no sense. But students and tourists read this nonsensical stuff. And believe it. And no one from SN bothers to right the wrong.

To recognize persons have value to nation(s) is not to romanticize them as immortals, like, say, Robin Hood or King Arthur or Charlemagne or Leif the Lucky or Aiionwatha (Hiawatha). But, on the other hand, my goodness, why not? This unromantic Calvinistic country, more than any other, could use a hero. Poet Tekahionwake Pauline Johnson’s face probably will grace a five-dollar bill before Thayendanegea Joseph Brant gets even a half-decent write-up in the (oddly formatted) online Canadian Encyclopedia. As hope for the reconciliation of nations, we could have our own Hiawatha peacemaker symbol, reminiscent of the Great Law but the Haudenosaunee and Canada have relegated Thayendanegea/Rumpelstiltskin to the dark side. Farewell to the peacemaker, the real Joseph Brant.




Thayendanegea as Rumpelstiltskin   

For a tally of Brant’s remarkable and tireless activities on behalf of his people during and after the revolutionary war, see readings.

So. Where to begin the story of Brant’s downfall? Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin’s initial bargain is a good place. The “art of the deal” is fraught with danger. You may pick the wrong prize. You may make a deal with the wrong person(s). You may wager the wrong amount and lose more than you can afford. The wrong partner may trick you. A bad bargain is awful enough. But what happens when you are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, and you cannot make the good bargain? The answer is archetypal. When you don’t get what you bargained for, you get vilified. You have failed and no one likes you. Not your own people. Not non-Indigenous people, who are too polite to disagree with your people. You turn into a devil. Just like that devil Rumpelstiltskin. You are unheralded and unloved. You are hated.

In 1783 Brant desired sovereignty for his people, but his demand was “too much” for the shifty royal –in this case a king, not a queen. Of course, back in 1775, when there appeared to be little choice and the Crown needed Brant’s help, the Crown agreed to the deal. From 1784 to 1815, 90 000 American-born land-seekers headed north. Some squatted within the Haldimand Tract. Early on, at the first sign of a population shift in critical mass from Indigenous to European, the Crown, just like the miller’s daughter in the fairytale, shrugged off the original bargain. The Crown cancelled the deal and added no caveat. There would be no sovereignty for the Six Nations. In early land disputes the colonial courts inevitably declared for the settlers. The story is grim.

Flip the narrative – see Raven Shire Blog by Ty Hulse. What have we done to to punish our former hero? Handsome Rumpelstiltskin bargains for us. Who are we? We are the sturdy and intrepid people who dwell in the woodland. We battle invaders. We strike the hard bargain. We spin the gold (collect the furs, fight in the strangers’ wars, suffer the consequences after invaders steal our land and property), all for a greedy imperial parent. Why do we do it? Why do we form an alliance with the devil? We are desperate. We are caught in a no-way-out. We want the baby (our sovereignty). We need the baby. The baby is us and our nation and our future. “Our home and native land.” In the end we lose. Why? We are never out-played or out-witted; we are simply swamped, out-settled and out-lawed.

Have we bargained with the wrong partner? Have we wagered more than we can afford? Our past and future lives are at stake. Do we ask for too much? No. But our business with the foreign kingdom(s) is difficult because our correspondent constantly insults our speech and our religion and our intelligence and our motives and our looks. Worse, with a winner’s perspective, our correspondent writes about our leaders as though we are Rumpelstiltskins. We, however, do not see ourselves as a team of lascivious, naughty, child-like, power-hungry, greedy, sub-human, inferior and psychopathic demons sans mercy – see the fairytale below. We see ourselves as us. We the people. The chosen ones. What about Rumpelstiltskin the devil, though? Might we have misinterpreted the fairy tale? “Rumpelstiltskin is the spirit of a conquered people or one of their gods. In this possibility, Rumpelstiltskin might be after a mixture of revenge or is attempting to help his people rise up to their former glory by raising the future king of the land.” 

In 1775 on the eve of the American Revolution, European historians divided North America into blocks of European colonial footholds. French-French were out. French-Canadians, post Evangeline and the Acadian diaspora, lived in Quebec and the Maritimes. The Iroquois Confederacy in New York found itself stuck in the middle of American patriots, British military, and wagon loads of American settlers moving north and west. All Christians, by the way.

All three forces had put the squeeze on the owners of the beautiful Mohawk Valley. As the revolution burst into flames, warriors did not know where to turn to strike the most favourable alliance for post-war consideration. Treaties of non-encroachment (see the Treaty of 1763) appeared to mean nothing to avaricious settlers, who, with the determination of fire ants, were on the move. Should the warriors of the Eastern woodland have stayed neutral? Should they have sided with United States? Or England?

In the end Thayendanegea and several of the chiefs (thanks in large part to the memory of William Johnson and the influence of Johnson’s widow Molly Brant) did not trust the patriots. They instead struck a bargain with the Crown. Brant would lead his unit into battle against the United States. In exchange, should the allies lose the Mohawk Valley, the Crown promised equivalent restitution: to hive out sovereign territory for the Six Nations and their allies in the upper hunting grounds (Quebec, post 1791, is called Upper Canada. See Professor Gary Warrick for the extent of Iroquoian territory). The deal was made. 

As we know, the American revolution ruined the Mohawk Valley. Without mercy and undertaking a scorched-earth policy, the American patriots (the Sullivan-Clinton expedition), under the direction of George Washington, seized and devastated the ancient homeland of the Haudenosaunee.

Now, displaced at Niagara, Brant and Brant’s warriors and volunteers were keen to collect “the baby.” They wanted a county for their nation(s), and land for their homes.

Enter the still powerful losing team – militarily and financially over-taxed. Enter BNA’s colonial government and colonial court and the British Privy Council. They were devilish.

From the First Nation’s perspective the English parent was both hideous and unpredictable – as hideous as the miller’s daughters father and king. As awful as the stone giants. The saviour figure – the Haudenosaunee’s Thayendanegea – was a gentleman who kept his word and fought, often brilliantly, on the side of the English. Why? “The queen (king) promised him the baby.” Thayendanegea tried to minimize reality but the truth, as he saw it (and told John Norton), was going to be hard to bear. Sovereignty would not happen. Not soon.

Brant’s people were vulnerable. The Pine Tree Chief well understood George Washington and the United States would never readily agree to the independence of a “savage” peoples. For First Nations’ nationhood and sovereignty, the English held the only hope (faint) because of their initial promises. But what a narrative switch, post revolution. The “gnomes” were handsome. The “parents” were ugly. The “tricksters,” i. e., the courts and the colonial government,” hailed from the larger, foreign kingdom and they had natural biases, which of course, favoured their own agendas and settlers.

An interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin with handsome gnomes? With ugly mothers and fathers? With cruel foreign courtiers instead of lovely Portia and the brave huntsman? Where is there such a topsy-turvy cosmological viewpoint? 

A description of Joseph Brant, the former hero, as a conquered Rumpelstiltskin is alluring. The people’s resurgence would make a great ending for Thayendanegea’s own personal wartime leadership and desperate bargaining. But no. Once a proud leader of his people and a valuable partner to allies, Thayendanegea is the monster Brandt. He is the loser devil. Many of his own people turn against him. Could he have expected that? Whatever. It’s a cruel and unfair turnaround.

Looking through the archival material, one sees it’s not as though Thayendanegea was naive about the Crown’s capacity for double-dealing. Or that he overlooked the colonial court’s penchant for dirty tricks. Or believed he had no enemies among his own. But at the very least Brant dared hope he and his stubborn persistence might make the allies stick to the bargain they agreed to when they were desperate for Indian assistance. 

Shock and Betrayal

One cannot imagine the frisson of shock, which must have bolted through Brant and his volunteers, when they learned of the treaty between the United States and Great Britain, 1783. The actual document of the Peace of Paris remains a study in arrogant Eurocentric thinking. There was no mention of the North American allies. No acknowledgement of their crucial help in saving British North America. Nothing.

For this reason alone, and to right the original treaty’s wrong, we should remember the name, Thayendanegea, Joseph Brant.

By 1784, displaced peoples had a stronger presence in Niagara than the military. Angry warriors threatened the Crown’s security and residual land claims. Their anger pushed Sir Frederick Haldimand, Carleton’s successor, into recommending that the Crown take some kind of action. General Haldimand finally got the nod. The British did owe reparations to Brant and his volunteers. After negotiations, the British military surrendered the Haldimand Tract to the Haudenosaunee. 

But peace was bad news for First Nations. Peace was at hand. The United States and Great Britain signed their final peace treaty. On December 24, 1814, in the city of Ghent, United Netherlands, the second Anglo-American war came to a close, although the news of peace took time to reach the warring parties. Again, there was no remedy for First Nations. In 1815, Thayendanegea could NOT help the cause of the once-again-forgotten Indian allies. He died in 1807.

After Brant’s death in 1807, what happened to Canada’s folkways? 

 Late loyalists (1790-1815), including many American pacifist sects, moved into Canada. Very few English “highbrow” settlers emigrated to Canada. Toronto’s “Englishness” and hyper-loyalism was received, not organic.

The colonies took in labourers and farmers – Irish, Scots, Yorkies and Americans. A cultural war ensued between followers of rabid United Empire Loyalism (pro-English Anglicans) and a ho-hum kind of loyalism (pro-Presbyterian, Quaker, and Mennonite egalitarians). By and large, ho-hum loyalism won.

Brant was Anglican. United Empire Loyalists subsumed Brant’s real identity with an insulting and bogus UEL-ism (see the plaque of the Masons). 

Today’s hegemonic folkway – our Canadian inheritance from various Calvinist sects – is our growing secularism. Secularism is not something Brant could have imagined in 1761. 

The Canadian middle-class carries serious disdain for elites, wealth and prestige, which, along with the current mood of anti-intellectualism and cancel culture, does not do Brant’s present-day reputation much good

Demonization is harmful. Demonization defies simple fairness. Demonization makes demonizers appear ignorant.

After 1814, Thayendanegea’s vision of a Canajoharie-type sovereignty for the Six Nations evaporated along with the remains of the martyr Tecumseh. A pan-Indian state was not a possibility. First Nations could not trust the tricky Portia-like colonial courts – not ever. Brant, the great Mohawk negotiator, and Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader, were done. Neither was around to broker, on the ground as it were, a decent peace treaty for the first peoples. Betrayal. Great Britain failed to stand by the nation’s Indigenous allies who helped them, yet again, throughout the war of 1812.

In 1784, to American patriots, Thayendanegea was the monster Brandt [sic]. In 1800, to the British military, Captain Joseph Brant’s usefulness passed its best-before date. To the land-hungry, bigoted, colonials, Chief Brant was too ambitious, too grand, too eager to rise above the Haudenosaunee’s innate “inferior” capacity and limited prestige (see the many references to Brant’s “mansion.” See also the history of numerous sneering commenters who have believed the military and political genius, one Joseph Brant, must have been “white”). To the United Empire Loyalists (and the either sly or foolish Masons), Brant was a mere UEL and a British subject. Among the confused and furious Haudenosaunee, especially those who had no idea what Brant was up against and who still don’t appreciate his doggedness and skill in procuring the land on the Grand River, Thayendanegea was/is le vendu – the sell-out. 

As time goes by, the national reputation of the capable chief shrinks like plastic wrap around a hot poker. In the 21st century, Thayendanegea stands pretty much alone. Suddenly, despite the statue in Brantford’s Victoria’s Park (1886) and Brant Avenue and a hospital and a small museum, all which bear his name in Brantford/Hamilton/Burlington, Joseph Brant is disturbingly singular –  just a name, like that unknown person whose elementary school you attended. (Who, really, was Major Ballachey?) Google Joseph Brant and you’re more likely to hit the hospital than the man.

For some time many historians have known the real Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, under terrible circumstances, was a devoted leader of his people. He was forced into being an ally of Britain (NEVER a United Empire Loyalist) and he became one of the most prominent saviours of British North America. Without Brant, it’s likely neither the Haudenosaunee nor the British could have claimed a space to grow, not in Canada.

Thayendanegea, a contemporary leader of his people, was “later derided as a devil by later people.” Joseph Brant arouses the ire of Haudenosaunee, many of whom on this very day claim (falsely) he cheated them, and let them down. For years, researchers have studied records and documents looking for evidence of the chief’s malfeasance. There is none. Time and again what happens? Historians inevitably dig up another pro-Brant story and, notwithstanding reports of his drinking in later years, the skeptics return with more anecdotes and reluctant admiration for Brant’s stamina and purpose, his charisma and intelligence.

“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.” Barbara Graymont, “Thayendanegea,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003.

Brant is Rumpelstiltskin. Brant is nowhere. He may be lauded by a few local (fairly silent) elders, or by some of his and Peggy and Catherine’s descendants, or by a handful of devotees of William Stone’s Life of Joseph Brant Thayendanegea. Brant may be discussed in Ohsweken and Brantford and Hamilton/Burlington. But, elsewhere in Canada, the situation is different. Crickets.

From American historian Brady Crytzer: “Upon St. Leger’s arrival on the shores of Lake Ontario, the whole of the Mohawk Valley was put on notice. Shortly after their landing, some 800 Iroquois warriors led by Joseph Brant, known amongst the Mohawk as Thayendanegea, greeted the British commander in a show of support. Brant had proven to be a loyal ally and vital asset to the royal war effort on the frontier, and his cooperation would be equally vital during the Saratoga campaign. Joined by other sachems from across Iroquoia including Cornplanter, Guyasuta (sometimes Kiasutha), and Sayenqueraghta, the expedition was a microcosm of the British Empire’s overall imperial vision. To the romantic onlooker, St. Leger’s column was precisely the multicultural, multiethnic response force desired to suppress the rebels that menaced their American colonies. While Albany was always the final rallying point, the post of Fort Stanwix was squarely in St. Leger’s proverbial crosshairs; recently captured by New York Patriots and presumptuously renamed “Fort Schuyler” after the commander of the Northern Department of the Continental army, the British were anxious to reclaim the site. By July 14 St. Leger began to assemble his column at Oswego, and on July 26 his awesome force began their march eastward.”


10 Demonized Indian devils   11 Haudenosaunee/Oneida actor Graham Greene playing Shylock at Stratford Ontario (2007)

Cautionary tales about bargains and losers are as old as sand. In The Metamorphoses the Roman poet Ovid relates the Hellenistic tale of tricky Dionysus and Midas. Christopher Marlowe pens The Tragic History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Eight years later Shakespeare creates the jurist, Portia, in The Merchant of Venice to outwit the Jew who dares to strike the hard bargain with the Christian. Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust appears in 1808. Americans are not immune. Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824) and Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) are Rumpelstiltskin stories. A knowledgeable person could likely dig around to find a Rumpelstiltskin-type fable in the Haudenosaunee’s oral “storehouse” but I don’t know one, or even where to find one. Still. Bad-bargain stories are timeless.

In their 1812 publication Kinder- und Hausmärchen – ‘Children’s and Household Tales’ – the Brothers Grimm include Rumpelstiltskin. Raven’s Shire blog gives us the provenance: “According to Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehran’s research, the Rumpelstiltskin stories are likely over 2500 years old, and possibly as old as the Indo-European’s life on the Steppes 6000 years ago.” In Grimms’ tale of Rumpelstiltskin, the beautiful queen pulls off a fast one to quit the hard bargain. Illustrators variously capture her triumph. The queen solves the zero-sum-game puzzle, a foolish addendum to the original contract, and defeats Rumpelstiltskin. The devil gnome is never seen again. Back to the forest! Good riddance. Baby and mother cannot be separated. A misshapen old fellow with knobby knees and Hobbit-like extremities should not get the best of them.


Nor should Rumpelstiltskin get the better of the miller’s daughter. In (2) Rumpelstiltskin is a lascivious and scheming red devil who preys upon a working-girl of the sweet apple-cheeked variety.


In (3) we see the bad child who is no match for the mother queen. Rumpelstiltskin exhibits the inferior intelligence and the behaviour of a naughty boy. The queen guesses his name and he has a temper-tantrum – a great ugly childish fit.


Perhaps none too scary as a naughty boy, Rumpelstiltskin does better as a full-out monster. A grinch-like Rumpelstiltskin cannot break the most sacred human bond, which exists between a mother and her child. In (4) the court-jester-preying-mantis loses the game and the bargain is off. This Rumpelstiltskin is pure devil and the medieval queen saves her beloved offspring who kisses her hand – such is the child’s relief.


In (5 & 6) Rumpelstiltskin is a devious black-hatted gnome dressed like a Renaissance banker or a businessman. He materializes after it is clear that pure greed will factor into resolving the plot. Wanting a baby does not play into the banker’s motives. No. This bad fellow wants ransom power. To get power he will kidnap the king and queen’s heir unless the queen can stop him.


The miller’s daughter is beautiful. She is us. If not us she is a person like us. We are a good-looking people. We are honest souls. Occasionally we may have cruel leaders and silly fathers, but we are loyal to our community. We follow the rules – except when we’re threatened with the immediate extinction of our lineage.

Enter the trickster. Fear of her father makes the miller’s daughter vulnerable to the devil’s wiles and she agrees to the hard bargain. But there’s a greater fear to come. Fear of suffering a forever loss of her child makes the miller’s daughter, now the Queen, desperate to find a way out of the hard bargain. In the various illustrations Rumpelstiltskin gets no respect. And no sympathy. Which, considering how the wretched miller pawns off his daughter to a grasping king, must be the real joke.

Whatever Rumpelstiltskin’s stake is in the game (and in Grimm’s version of the story we don’t know why the gnome wants the queen’s baby), we believe he asks for “too much.” A mother’s child is no bargaining chip. Rumpelstiltskin is audacious in adding a win-or-lose puzzle to the existing bargain. Hubris marks his downfall. The same kind of audacity marks Shylock’s bargain. In wanting a pound of flesh, which would mean the death of Antonio, Shylock asks for too much. To negate the too-hard bargains, Grimm’s queen and Shakespeare’s indebted merchant must find loyal tricksters to cheat the respective demons out of their prizes. 


Who wouldn’t agree it’s better to trick and humiliate demons than to try to kill them? Better to make the Rumpelstiltskins look the fools (and have following generations forget all  about them) than turn them into martyrs who might gin up the base now and forever. In Merchant a disguised Portia (7), clearly acting in conflict-of-interest, solves the legal conundrum with some fancy hair-splitting for the benefit of her kindly husband, Bassanio, and his best friend, the very foolish Antonio. Says Portia, Shylock may have his pound of flesh but he may spill no blood in the process.

In Rumpelstiltskin the queen’s loyal huntsman wanders about the densely forested kingdom. Deep in the woods, the home of devils, the huntsman overhears the hubristic gnome chanting his own name. The huntsman gives the terrified queen the answer to the devil’s puzzle, which will release her from the bond’s addendum. Neither the queen nor the merchant can wriggle out of commitments without their caring, loyal helpers – the puzzle-solvers. The adjudicators. The courts.

The queen and Antonio are us and our loyal teams, whereas Shylock and Rumpelstiltskin and Joseph Brant are them, a.k.a, the others. Antagonists pit their tribe’s evil magic against our loyal forces and our love for our children. Consequently our team’s cheating ways lie beyond reproach. After all the gnome stands poised to steal our queen’s baby. And the stubborn Jew, Shylock, will have his pound of our Christian’s flesh, which effectively will kill our gullible Antonio. Brant claims sovereignty over territory desired by the English. American settlers hate the “savage” Indigenous. A person without feelings of mercy is inhuman, intones Portia, and that person deserves his comeuppance. We demonize the Indigenous by concluding we have finer feelings than they. Comeuppance for the lonely devil, the one who asks for “too much,” is best served through tricks and cunning and exile and demonization and dismissal rather than open enmity and violence, which gets employed only as a last resort. 

There was once a miller who was poor but he had a beautiful daughter. Now it so happened that he came to speak with the king, and to make himself seem important he said to him: “I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold.” The king said to the miller: “That’s an art much to my liking; if your daughter is as skilful as you say, bring her to my palace tomorrow and I will put her to the test.” Now when the girl was brought to him he led her into a room that was filled up with straw, gave her spinning-wheel and reel, and declared: “Set to work at once, and if by morning you haven’t spun this straw into gold, you shall die.” Then he locked the room himself, and she was left there alone.

The poor miller’s daughter sat there, and for the life of her she didn’t know what to do; she had no idea how you could spin straw into gold, and she grew more and more afraid, so that in the end she began to cry. Then all at once the door opened and a little manikin stepped inside, saying: “Good evening, Miss Miller, why are you crying so much?” ‘Oh dear,’ replied the girl, “I’m supposed to spin straw into gold, and I don’t know how to do it.” Said the little man: “What will you give me if I spin it for you?” “My necklace,” said the girl. The little man took the necklace, sat down at the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times the thread was drawn – and the bobbin was full. Then he put on another, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times the thread was drawn – and the second one was full; and so it went on until morning, and there was all the straw spun and all the bobbins were full of gold. As soon as the sun rose the king came, and when he saw the gold he was astonished and delighted, but his heart grew still more gluttonous for gold. He had the miller’s daughter taken to another room full of straw – one that was much bigger – and he commanded her to spin that overnight as well, if her life was dear to her.

The girl didn’t know what to do and began to cry; then the door opened again and the little manikin appeared, saying: “What will you give me if I spin the straw into gold for you?” “The ring on my finger,” answered the girl. The little man took the ring, began whirring again with the wheel, and by morning he had spun all the straw into shining gold. The king was delighted beyond bounds by the sight; but he still did not have his fill of gold, but had the miller’s daughter taken to an even bigger room full of straw, and he said: “You must spin this yet again tonight: but if you get it done, you shall become my consort.” Even if she is a miller’s daughter, he thought, I shan’t find a richer wife in the whole world. When the girl was alone the little man came again for the third time, saying: “What will you give me if I spin the straw for you this time too?” “I have nothing more I can give you,” answered the girl. “Then promise me, when you are queen, your first child.” “Who knows how things will turn out?” thought the miller’s daughter, and in her distress she had no idea what else she could do; so she promised the little man what he desired, and in return the little man once again spun the straw into gold. And when the king came in the morning and found everything as he had wished it, he celebrated his wedding with her, and the beautiful miller’s daughter became a queen.

A year later she brought a beautiful child into the world, and she no longer gave a thought to the little man; then suddenly he stepped into her chamber, saying: “Now give me what you promised.” The queen was stricken with fear, and offered the little man all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her child with her. But the little man said: “No, I would rather have a living creature than all the treasure in the world.” Then the queen began to weep and wail so sorrowfully that the little man took pity on her. “I’ll give you three days,” he declared, “and if by that time you know what my name is, you shall keep your child.”

All night long the queen called to mind all the names she had ever heard, and she sent a messenger far and wide throughout the land to find out what other names there might be. The next day, when the little man came, she began with Kaspar, Melchior, Balzar, and listed all the names she knew, one after another, but at each one the little man declared: “That’s not what I’m called.” The second day she inquired all round the neighbourhood to find out what names people were called there, and recited the strangest and most peculiar names to the little man. “Are you called Skinnyribs perhaps, or Sheepshanks, or Pegleg?” But each time he answered: “No, I’m not.” On the third day the messenger came back and told her: “I couldn’t find out a single new name, but as I came upon a high mountain round the forest corner by the back of beyond, I saw a little house, and in front of the house a fire was burning, and over the fire the funniest little man was leaping and hopping on one leg and crying:

‘Today I’ll bake, tomorrow I’ll brew,

The next I’ll fetch the queen’s new child;

Still no one knows it just the same,

That Rumpelstiltskin is my name.'”

You can imagine how glad the queen was when she heard the name, and when soon afterwards the little man stepped in and asked: “Well, Lady Queen, what’s my name?” she asked first of all: “Is you name Tom?” “No.” “Is your name Dick?” “No.”

“Might your name perhaps be Rumpelstiltskin?”

“The devil told you, the devil told you,” shrieked the little man, and in his anger he stamped his right foot so deep into the earth that he sank down as far as his waist; then he seized his left foot with both hands in a rage, and tore himself right down the middle into two.

Translated by Joyce Crick

[When the dwarf came to the queen on the third day and she revealed his name, Rumpelstiltskin lost his bargain. In the 1812 edition of the Brothers Grimm tales, Rumpelstiltskin then “ran away angrily, and never came back”. The ending was revised in a final 1857 edition to a more gruesome version where Rumpelstiltskin “in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.” Other versions have Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again. In the oral version originally collected by the brothers Grimm, Rumpelstiltskin flies out of the window on a cooking ladle (Heidi Anne Heiner).]

Stylized European-looking Brant by Charles Wilson Peale 1797; 1 Warwick Goble; 2 & 3 unknown artists, vintage drawings of Rumpelstiltskin;  4, Warwick Goble (Mediaeval queen faces off with Grinch); 5 & 6, ©Paul O Zelinsky (queen and nurse and the banker);   7 Portia at the Trial, The Merchant of Venice; 8 Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, artist George Romney 1776;  9 Baba Yaga mother-figure, unknown artist; 10 Deviant Art, biased justice who peeks at “English” newspapers 11; demon Indians, 12 Graham Greene as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Feature image, Joseph Thayendanegea Brant by Gilbert Stuart.


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