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Trouble in the colonies – the life and times of Joseph Brant


Born in modern-day Ohio, Joseph Brant (1742–1807) – or Thayendanega – was a Mohawk leader, whose stepfather had close ties with the British. This connection was reinforced when Joseph’s sister, Molly, married the British Superintendent for Indian Affairs, William Johnson, who subsequently sponsored Brant’s college education. Brant learnt to read and write English, took to wearing European clothes and even became an Anglican and Freemason, but he had another life too, odd-jobbing as a member of Mohawk war parties. By the mid-1760s, Brant had established himself as a farmer in New York State and was so well regarded by the British that, in 1776, they took him to London, where he was presented to King George III and became something of a celebrity, the subject of a string of official portraits. In each of them, Brant is shown in a mix of European and aboriginal gear – typically, he carries a tomahawk and has a Mohawk hairdo, but wears a dress coat with a sash – an apt reflection of his twin loyalties. Duly impressed by the power and wealth of the imperial capital, Brant remained loyal to the British during the American War of Independence, his repeated, large-scale raids – and alleged savagery – earning him the soubriquet “Monster Brant” among the colonials.

After the war, when neither the British nor the Americans felt militarily secure, both sides tried to woo Brant, who became adept at playing the whites off against each other; despite his blood-curdling reputation, he was even invited to Philadelphia to meet President Washington in 1792. From the British, Brant secured a sizeable chunk of land beside the Grand River in modern-day Brantford, where his followers moved in 1784, but back in the US he was unable to protect his aboriginal allies from further American encroachment. Sensing failure, Brant withdrew to Burlington, near Hamilton, to live the life of a gentleman farmer (complete with servants and slaves) and it was here he died. In 1850, Mohawks carried Brant’s coffin the 55km from Burlington to Brantford’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks.

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