The foundations of the success of the “Great League of Peace and Power” were centred on a unified vision of cooperation and neutrality. From the early days until the mid 18th century the Haudenosaunee, proved adept in using their network of alliances to expand their territory and influence their neighbours.
When the Europeans had grown stronger. It had become obvious to the leaders of the League that they must not allow themselves to get embroiled in matters of no concern to them. Therefore they retained their powerful position and remained aloof while the French and British manoeuvred to gain influence over them.
As long as this status quo continued it seemed as if the Iroquois might survive as a nation, they were still expanding, and European trade was profitable. The “French and Indian War” changed everything. With the two great foreign powers locked in a death struggle for control of America, the Iroquois were inevitably drawn into the conflict. In this war they chose the winning side, mostly because the Mohawks respected William Johnson.
After the war and Pontiac’s failed uprising, the League tried to go back to its former course. However their strong policy of neutrality was gone, and they now had bonds of alliance and obligations to Britain, meaning that if there was another war they would get sucked into it again. Between 1758 and 1770 things went along peacefully for the Haudenosaunee. Men hunted and traded and went on raids, women farmed, oversaw things in the longhouse and had babies, winter turned to spring. Everything seemed normal, even if there was a war, there was no reason to think it would change anything. The British had beaten the French, and no one imagined another war on that scale occurring again. Few could have realised what was to come. Joseph Brant in many ways encapsulates the story of the Iroquois during this time. A legendary figure, still labouring under the stigma of Patriot propaganda, he was central to the Indian story of the American Revolution. For more on the rise of the Iroqouis please read my blogs on the subject by following the links above.
From Canjoharie to Johnston Hall.
Brant was born in 1742 to a Canajoharie Mohawk man and his wife. Mohawks had always been the closest supporters of the British so perhaps it was fate . The Indians of the north East had always been keen on unpronounceably long names and Joseph’s father was no different, sporting the tongue twisting Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa, Joseph’s elder sister Mary’s (born in 1736) Mohawk name was Degonwadonti (Several against one) and he himself had Thayandenagea (Two wagers “Sticks” joined together). Their mother was a Mohawk too called Margret, but despite this they did not grow up with the tribe, it is likely that they were seen as outcasts because, Margaret and Peter were both of the Wolf clan and marriage between members of the same clan was illegal in Iroquois society. Instead they lived amongst the Mingo of Ohio, a group of diverse Iroquois protectorate tribes, Delawares, Shawnees, Munsees and French allied groups who lived in independently to the confederation and were viewed with suspicion by the Europeans. Peter of the long surname died and Margret took her children back to her mothers longhouse at Canajoharie and married again. She was widowed once more but resourcefully tied herself to a friend of William Johnson called Brant Kanagaradunkwa in 1753 and they had a child together. Her new husband was from a good family. His grandfather was Old Smoke, one of the sachems who had visited England in 1710, and his friendship with British Indian agent and honorary Mohawk, William Johnson would prove fateful.
Many Mohawks at this time where Christians and had Christian names, like Joseph, Mary and Margaret. Indeed this period is remarkable for the inroads made by American and British missionaries to the tribes of the Confederacy, the result of this was that because religion went hand in hand with the garnering of influence, it allowed the southern half of the league to drift closer to the 13 Colonies. It all seemed harmless at the time, but the reality was that the confederation was already secretly divided, and under pressure it would be fatal.
Margret’s existing children now took her new husband’s name of Brant for their surname. Around 1754- 55 her daughter “Molly” became William Johnson’s mistress and was commonly identified by Indian’s as his Wife. She became very influential, as Iroquois women tended to become, their society being based on a number of matrilineal clans ensured that a woman like Molly if married to an Englishman of consequence, would result in her wielding a great deal of influence in most spheres of life.
Johnson and many others became devoted to the beautiful Miss Molly. It was she who pointed out her young brother to Johnson. William had probably met young Joseph already, he was his friend’s stepson after all. But when he came to live at Johnson Hall, he had recently been appointed Indian Agent to the Iroquois and saw not only a spark in his young brother in law, but also a chance to influence future Iroquois affairs by having a close relative from the tribe on his side.
Joseph Goes to War.
War had broken out, and Johnson was desperate to win over the confederacy to the British cause. His best chance was to gain the Mohawks, but they themselves were split in their loyalties, between Canajoharie and Caughnawaga. In this he had an ally in an influential Sachem of the Bear clan called Hendrick Theyanoguin. Johnson had gathered together a small army of 1,500 militia at Lac St Sacrement, which he had renamed Lake George, and Hendrick loyally brought 200 Iroquois volunteers from Canajoharie to join his projected advance to take Fort St Frédéric at Crown Point. One of the young men with him was a 13 year old Joseph Brant. In September Baron Dieskau left Crown Point to intercept Johnson with 1,500 men. His move brought him past Fort Edward, making Johnson send out 1,000 militia and Indian allies to reinforce it. Dieskau blocked the portage road with 220 regular grenadiers and prepared an ambush. The Massachusetts and Connecticut militia and their allies walked straight into it, Hendrick and the Militia commander Colonel Williams were killed in the first fusillade. The French regulars now marched forward and engaged the beleaguered militiamen who broke and ran for Johnson’s camp, which if nothing else alerted him to his danger and allowed him to dig in. Young Joseph had survived the initial ambush, though seeing his friends and elders shot down around him by the French Canadians and their Abenaki and Caughnawaga Mohawk allies, was a harrowing experience. Now the Iroquois and 100 remaining militia under Pomeroy and Whiting, formed a rearguard and cooly retreated, shooting down the overconfident enemy “Like Pigeons”, killing the leader of the French allied irregulars, the much respected Jaques Legardeur.
This made the pursuit falter, and indeed the Caughnawaga’s now refused to attack a fortified position held by their kinsmen and the Abenaki’s would not attack without them, the Canadians refused to advance without the Indians, and in an instant this removed 1,300 men from the battle. Despite this Dieskau imprudently lead his 220 Grenadiers six abreast down the Lake road to storm Johnson’s hasty barricade of wagons, trees and overturned boats.
The fight was bruising for both sides, Johnson’s 3 guns galled the French infantry, who nevertheless reached the barricade, now held of course by less than 400 men, and wounded Johnson. In this brief and violent exchange of gunfire by the lakeside, Dieskau was mortally wounded and his men then disintegrated and withdrew, pursued by the Iroquois. The French retreated in good order but walked straight into ambush from the garrison of Fort Edward, which decimated them, turning a nearly disastrous day into a decisive victory for the Anglo Americans.
It was one of the events that would help get the league committed to the defeat of France. And Joseph having proved his courage, continued to fight bravely with increasing numbers of Iroquois warriors, right up to the French defeat. He is known to have been amongst the 900 plus warriors who participated in the Siege of Niagara in 1759, an event interesting for Joseph as one of the Sachem’s preset there was Old Smoke, who turned on the British in Pontiac’s war and defeated them at Devil’s Hole, he buried the hatchet in 63, and would be a key player in later events.
In 1760 the 18 year old Joseph was sent to finish his education, so rudely interrupted by the war at Eleazar Wheelock’s Indian school in Connecticut. As far as this went his studies were entirely successful. He learned the classics, and all the traditionally cultured subjects that made a gentleman intelligent in conversation. Joseph therefore represented a sort of Renaissance Man, like many men of his generation, he had a European education, he had been raised as a Christian, his mother had done Catholic penance at the chapel at Canajoharie, yet in general he also exhibited the main characteristics of his people and respected the old traditions which 15 years later he would be fighting to defend.
Canada and London.
The Iroquois excluding the pro American Ondeida who were under the influence of a US missionary, took up the hatchet against the colonies after a meeting with the British at Oswego in
1777. Sachem’s like Old Smoke and other wise heads had argued fervently for a posture of neutrality when Britain’s American colonies rebelled. This measure had seemed unanimous when early in 1775 they met with the U.S. congress in Albany and secured an agreement of non aggression.
For Joseph Brant however, now a dignified and respected 33 year old, proven in war and in peace the war started much earlier. He had served as secretary to Sir William and by 1775 he had the local rank of Captain. By now Sir William’s son Sir John Johnson was head of the house and Joseph was encouraged to support the British by ties to his extended family & Governor of Quebec, Guy Carleton.
Sir William’s nephew, Guy Johnson left the valley for Canada in 1775, under orders of General Gage, he took Joseph with him along with Molly’s son Peter Johnson and 120 white volunteers and Indians. Old Smoke was disapproving of these sorts of volunteer missions and actually went to dissuade others going to join the Loyalist Butler brothers. Joseph and Peter fought during the Canadian campaign of 1775, Peter distinguished himself during the American invasion and captured Ethan Allen. In November most of the party travelled to London to ask for assurances of safety for their women and children and to get Guy’s position of Indian superintendent confirmed, which it was. Brant surprised the Londoners and officers at home by his gentle demeanour and good manners, and was made a captain by George III indeed he disappointed James Boswell who had hoped for the “Ferocious dignity of a savage leader”.
While they were away things were happening that would eventually split the Confederacy. In 1776 the Rebel New York Legislature targeted the Johnson’s, in accordance with the act of attainder, a law created to punish loyalists to the crown, his land was seized and he was put under house arrest by Phillip Schuyler for suspicion of preparing to raise an army. Sir John Johnson abandoned his home to the enemy and fled to Canada. Unfortunately his family were taken prisoner and held in Albany. This seizure shocked the Iroquois confederacy, the Johnson’s were considered allies of the confederation if not full Mohawk Iroquois, and felt that it violated the agreement of neutrality they had decided on with the US Albany congress early in 1775.
The confederacy split in two, Mohawks, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga veering towards the British, the Oneida and half hearted Tuscarora who were geographically closer to the colonies and tied at the hip Because Oneida sponsored Tuscarora for entrance into the Confederacy towards the Americans. The next year, the four pro British tribes met their allies at Oswego, and took up the hatchet against the colonies.
Saratoga and the 1778 Campaign.
In July 1776 Guy returned and Brant came with him, they found out what had happened and they quickly became the scourge of the frontier. The Americans were terrified that the British were prepared to use Indians against them, even using the deployment of Indian warriors as a reason to break with Britain in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore Joseph, largely due to propaganda, became known for savagery and depredation across the north east, he was been implicated with atrocities at Wyoming, Kingston, Pennsylvania and Cherry Valley, Otsego County, New York.
In 1777 Brant took part in the early stages of the Saratoga campaign, organising Iroquois involvement in St Leger’s attempt to secure the Mohwak Valley. Over 1,000 warriors joined him personally. The campaign was a strategic failure in a campaign of disaster, culminating in the battle of Oriskany. This little known action marked the disintegration of the Six Nations, for during it the Oneida joined the Americans in fighting their way out of the British ambush, and nation fired upon nation. Here there was none of the hesitation shown at Lake George in ’55 about firing on friends, at Oriskany things began to get personal. Amongst the Mohawk was Old Smoke and his son who was killed during the fierce fighting to prevent the relief of Fort Stanwix, once and for all embittering the old chief against the Americans and their allies.
In 1778 July Butler lead his Tory rangers, Johnson’s “Greens” and an equal number of Iroquois from Oswego to raid the Wyoming Valley. Defeating a large militia force at Wyalusing commanded by Zebulon Butler (no relation). The militia were annihilated, forcing the women and children to run from their homes into the wilderness were many perished. At the same time Brant was operating from a base at Unadilla, and sacked Andrustown, then moving like lighting he rushed down the upper Delaware to raid Minisink two days later, ambushing a relief column on the 22nd of July.
As part of a extremely successful campaign, in September Brant and John Butler joined forces at Unadilla and raided German Flats. The settlers got warning and escaped to forts Stanwix and Dayton but when they came out their livelihoods had gone up in smoke. Many fled into Schenectady and Albany were they suffered from diseases in camp. In retaliation Continentals and Militia used Oneida guides and attacked Unadilla in October but it had been abandoned. Shifting his weight Brant struck at New York state in November with Walter Butler, from a new base at Chemung. At Cherry Valley many non combatants were slaughtered, however hostages were taken to secure the release of his relatives, and other loyalist women prisoners, from Albany. This campaign was typified by the kind of low level brutality that was so common on the northern frontier and in the south. Though Joseph was not responsible for it all, in war his good nature gave way to a stony hardness to suffering. War to the Iroquois had always been war.
The Sullivan Expedition.
After this Brant, Butler and Johnson became notorious figures of fear and terror, barley human, and because Joseph was an Indian he was especially easy to paint as such. General Washington was a practical man and likely took note of the lists of destroyed property and letters sent to him from terrified locals demanding protection, rather than lurid handbills. In 1779 Washington authorised General John Sullivan to march from Easton (2,500 NJ, NH and Pen Continentals) and James Clinton would go from Fort Dayton Mohawk Valley (1,500 NY) join up at Tioga and from there invade Iroquois territory.
Washington ordered “The total destruction and devastation” of their settlements and for them to take “As many prisoners of every age and sex as possible” diversions were mounted against Niagara and Onondaga from the Mohawk. Then the armies went in from the south heading for the large Seneca town of Genessee, comprising 128 long houses, Iroquois and loyalists under Brant and the Butler bros had 1,000 men to oppose 4,000. They fell back before the enemy to Chemung were they held a conference. Though Brant & Butler reasoned with cold logic to retreat and leave Genesee to its fate, Old Smoke dug in his heels. Therefore they distributed their men amongst the forest on the high ground hoping to ambush the American advance guard. Unfortunately sharp eyed American riflemen recognised a trap when they saw it, and alerted Sullivan, who brought up his artillery and launched a multi pronged assault which successfully drove the Indians and their allies from their positions, forcing them to retreat. The nature of the fighting was at points inhuman, with two of their number being mutilated afterwards. As the enemy approached Genesee Brant was unable to stop them, a minor skirmish Resulted in a small victory and some prisoners to execute and torture in retaliation (one an Oneida marksmen) but Genessee was burned to the ground and Sullivan turned his attentions to the Cayuga and Onondaga. He destroyed the towns of Canandaigua and Kanadeaseaga then divided his command into three and burnt everything he found along the two largest lakes and rejoined at the head of lake Seneca. Onondaga and four other townships were burned, 160,000 bushels of standing corn was torched and countless orchards were uprooted. The Senecas where forced back to Fort Niagra and the fractured confederacy was smashed to pieces.
The Last Mourning War.
After the defeat the Mohawks where lead by Brant to safety in Canada on the shores of lake Erie. From where he descended in vengeance during the winter and burned Oneida Villages for their support of the Americans. The Oneida fled to Schenectady were they were treated with disrespect by their American allies, and the Great League of Peace and Power was dissolved in the last great Mourning War.
After the disasters Brant went to Quebec to get assurances that his people would be provided for because they had stayed loyal and then returned to the fray. Though the league was dead the threat posed by the remaining Iroquois tribes was not diminished. In May 1780 Sir John Johnson and brant lead 500 regulars, Indians and rangers in a revenge raid into their old lands.
As has been seen Joseph was no more a monster than anyone else, but frontier war was ghastly in its operation, and there can be no doubt he played a part.
The raid was successful but bittersweet as they were bringing war to their old home. They spread out and struck hard and mercilessly at the villages along the Mohawk river, scalping and killing many of the inhabitants and burning and looting houses and taking prisoners. Even old Johnson Hall was plundered by orders of its owner and 40 knapsacks of plate were taken out and marched back to Montreal.
On 2nd April 1780 Brant lead his Indians and loyalists against Harpersford and sacked it, then sacked Minisick again two days later. In August he hit his own former home at Canajoharie and then joined Johnson’s second 1780 raid out of Oswego which tore through he Schoharie valley, destroying a militia force and fighting one to a standstill, they returned with huge amounts of plunder having burned 200 dwellings, and 150,000 bushels of wheat. In the fighting against the Americans on the frontier of Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, Brant fought alongside John Johnson and the rangers of John and his son William Butler. Through the war from 1777 to 1780 This mixed force of 1,000 Indians and 500 irregulars laid waste to some 50,000 miles of colonial land between the Mohawk and Ohio rivers. The Johnson’s, Mohawks and Highland immigrants reminded their enemies that mourning war was not forgotten. The eye had been exacted for the loss of an eye. But in the end what did it accomplish. In all senses the Iroquois had lost, they had lost twice what the British had lost once. They had strayed from the law of Deganawidah and split apart, taking sides with the whites, their unity broken falling into war again they had fought one another and in doing so lost the land that both were fighting for. The peace ignored all Iroquois interest, having lasted for 300 years the league was split and broken apart in civil war, the council longhouse of Onondaga was broken in two, with one new league at Grand River and the other at Buffalo Creek.
After the war Brant attempted to form a new confederacy out of the tribes of the lower great lakes. Centred around his base at Grand river he managed to gather a community of 1,850 people. He was the vital hinge and focus for the dispossessed and shattered confederacy as they tried to recover from their expulsion from New York and was fundamental to their recovery as a nation. In 1802 or 3 he left Grand River for Burlington Bay on Lake Ontario where he lived comfortably in the European style and talked of learning Ancient Greek to translate the scriptures into Mohawk, succeeded in translating Mark and oversaw a new edition of the prayer book and psalms in Mohawk to which he added his own work, he continued to be an influence over his people, though he has been criticised for conveying tracts of land on the Six nations reserve to whites until 1807 when he died and is buried in the Mohawk chapel near the city (built 1785) that was named after him “Brantford”.
Amazingly this isn’t where the story ends, and in the last part of my Iroquois series we’ll see how the league recovered and made its way through the 19th century. See you again for another Adventure in Historyland. Josh.
Rebels and Redcoats Hugo Bicheno.
Redcoats and Rebels Christopher Hibbert.
Crucible of War. Fred Anderson.
Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy. Michael Johnson.
White Savage. Fintan O’Toole.
A few Bloody Noses: Robert Harvey.
Saratoga 1777. Brendan Morissey
Uniforms of the American Revolution.
Don Troiani’s Soldiers of the American Revolution: Don Troiani Steven L Kochan