See biographies by J. W. Jakes (1969), H. C. Robinson (1971), and I. T. Kelsay (1984).
His mother Margaret, or Owandah, the niece of Tiaogeara, a Caughnawaga sachem, took Joseph and his older sister Mary (known as Molly) to Canajoharie, on the Mohawk River in east-central New York, where they had lived before her family moved to the Ohio River. His mother remarried on 9 September 1753 in Fort Hunter (Church of England) a widower named Brant Canagaraduncka, who was a Mohawk sachem. Her new husband's grandfather was Sagayendwarahton, or "Old Smoke," who visited England in 1710.
The marriage bettered Margaret's fortunes and the family lived in the best house in Canajoharie, but it conferred little status on her children. Mohawk titles and leadership positions descended through the female line. Brant's stepfather was also a friend of William Johnson, who became General Sir William Johnson, Superintendent for Northern Indian Affairs. During Johnson's frequent visits to the Mohawks, he always stayed at the Brant's house. While visiting the Mohawk ancestral homeland in western New York, Brant's half sister married Sir William Johnson. Johnson was an agent for the British and a highly successful trader. The wealth of Johnson’s home impressed young Brant so much that twelve-year-old Brant decided to stay with his half sister and Johnson.
Starting at about age 15, Brant took part in a number of French and Indian War expeditions, including James Abercrombie’s 1758 invasion of Canada via Lake George, William Johnson's 1759 Battle of Fort Niagara, and Jeffery Amherst's 1760 siege of Montreal via the St. Lawrence River. He was one of 182 Indians who received a silver medal.
In 1761, Johnson arranged for three Mohawks, including Joseph, to be educated at Eleazar Wheelock's Moor's Indian Charity School in Connecticut. This was the forerunner of Dartmouth College. Brant studied under the guidance of the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock. Wheelock wrote that Brant was "of a sprightly genius, a manly and gentle deportment, and of a modest, courteous and benevolent temper". Brant learned to speak, read, and write English. Brant met Samuel Kirkland at the school. In 1763, Johnson prepared to place Brant at King's College in New York City, but the outbreak of Pontiac's Rebellion upset these plans and Brant returned home. After Pontiac's rebellion, Johnson thought it was not safe for Brant to return to the school.
In March 1764, Brant participated in one of the Iroquois war parties that attacked Delaware Indian villages in the Susquehanna and Chemung valleys. They destroyed three good-sized towns, burning 130 houses and killing the settlers' cattle. No enemy warriors were even seen.
On July 22, 1765, Brant married Peggie (also known as Margaret) in Canajoharie. Peggie was a white captive sent back from western Indians and said to be the daughter of a Virginia gentleman. They moved into Brant's parents' house. When his stepfather died in the mid-1760s, the house became Brant's. He owned a large and fertile farm of 80 acres near the village of Canajoharie on the south shore of the Mohawk River. He raised corn, and kept cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs. He also kept a small store. Brant dressed in "the English mode" wearing "a suit of blue broad cloth". With Johnson's encouragement, the Mohawks made Brant a war chief and their primary spokesman. In March 1771, his wife died from consumption.
In the spring of 1772, Brant moved to Fort Hunter to live with the Reverend John Stuart. He became Stuart's interpreter and teacher of Mohawk, collaborating with him to translate the Anglican catechism and the Gospel of Mark into the Mohawk language. Brant became a lifelong Anglican.
In 1773, Brant moved back to Canajoharie and married Peggie's half-sister Susanna.
Brant spoke at least three and possibly all of the Six Nations languages. He was a translator for the department of Indian affairs since at least 1766. In 1775, he was appointed departmental secretary with the rank of Captain for the new British Superintendent Indian warriors from Canajoharie. They went to Canada, arriving in Montreal on July 17. His wife and children went to Onoquaga. On November 11, 1775, Guy Johnson took Brant along with him when he traveled to London. Brant hoped to persuade the Crown to address past Mohawk land grievances. The British government promised the Iroquois people land in Canada if Brant and the Iroquois nations would fight on the British side in what was shaping up as open rebellion by the American colonists. In London, Brant became a celebrity and was interviewed for publication by James Boswell. While in public he carefully dressed in the Indian style. He also became a Mason, and received his apron personally from King George III.
Brant returned to Staten Island, New York, in July 1776. He participated with Howe's forces as they prepared to retake New York. Although the details of his service that summer and fall were not officially recorded, Brant was said to have distinguished himself for bravery. He was thought to be with Clinton, Cornwallis, and Percy in the flanking movement at Jamaica Pass in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. This helped create a lifelong friendship with Lord Percy, later Duke of Northumberland, the only lasting friendship Brant shared with a white man.
In November, Brant left New York City and traveled northwest through American-held territory. Disguised, traveling at night and sleeping during the day, he reached Onoquaga where he met up with his family. At the end of December he was at Fort Niagara. He traveled from village to village in the confederacy urging the Iroquois to abandon neutrality and to enter the war on the side of the British. The Iroquois balked at Brant's plans.
The full council of the Six Nations had previously decided on a policy of neutrality and had signed a treaty of neutrality at Albany in 1775. They considered Brant a minor war chief and the Mohawks a relatively weak people. Frustrated, Brant freelanced by heading in the spring to Onoquaga to conduct war his way. Few Onoquaga villagers joined him, but in May he was successful in recruiting Loyalists who wished to strike back against the colonists. This group became known as Brant's Volunteers. In June, he led them to Unadilla to obtain supplies. There he was confronted by 380 men of the Tryon County militia led by Nicholas Herkimer. Herkimer requested that the Iroquois remain neutral while Brant said the Indians owed their loyalty to the King.
In July, Brant led his Volunteers north to link up with St. Leger at Fort Oswego. In August 1777, Brant played a major role at the Battle of Oriskany in support of a major offensive led by General John Burgoyne. After St. Leger's retreat, Brant traveled to Burgoyne's main army and told him the news of St. Leger's retreat from Fort Stanwix. Burgoyne's restrictions on native warfare caused Brant to depart for Fort Niagara, where he spent the winter planning the next year's campaign. His wife Susanna likely died at Fort Niagara that winter.
In April 1778, Brant returned to Onoquaga, becoming the most active partisan commander. He engaged in raids chiefly with his Volunteers on the colonists in the Mohawk Valley, stealing their cattle, burning their houses, and killing many. On May 30, he led an attack on Cobleskill (Battle of Cobleskill) and in September, along with Captain William Caldwell, he led a mixed force of Indians and Loyalists in a raid on German Flatts.
In October, 1778, Continental soldiers and local militia attacked Brant's base of Onoquaga while Brant's Volunteers were away on a raid. The American commander described Onoquaga as "the finest Indian town I ever saw; on both sides [of] the river there was about 40 good houses, square logs, shingles & stone chimneys, good floors, glass windows". The soldiers burned the houses, killed the cattle, chopped down the apple trees, spoiled the growing corn crop, and killed some native children they found in the corn fields. On November 11, 1778 Brant was a leader in the attack in the Cherry Valley massacre.
In February, 1779, Brant traveled to Montreal to meet with Frederick Haldimand, who had replaced Carleton as Commander and Governor in Canada. Haldimand gave Brant a commission of Captain of the Northern Confederated Indians. He also promised provisions, but no pay, for his Volunteers. Haldimand pledged that after the war had ended, the Mohawks would be restored, at the expense of the government, to the state they were before the conflict started.
In May, Brant returned to Fort Niagara where, with his new salary and plunder from his raids, he acquired a farm on the Niagara River, six miles (10 km) from the fort. To work the farm and to serve the household, he used slaves he had captured on his raids. Brant bought a black slave, a seven-year-old African-American girl named Sophia Burthen Pooley; she travelled with him and his family for many years before he sold her to an Englishman for $100. He built a small chapel for the Indians who started living nearby. He started living with Catherine Adonwentishon Croghan, whom he married in the winter of 1780. She was the daughter of the prominent American colonist and Indian agent, George Croghan and a Mohawk mother, Catharine Tekarihoga. Through her mother, Catharine Adonwentishon was head of the Turtle clan, the first in rank in the Mohawk Nation. Her birthright was to name the Tekarihoga, the principal sachem of the Mohawk nation.
Brant's honors and gifts caused jealousy from rival chiefs, in particular Sayenqueraghta. A British general said that Brant "would be much happier and would have more weight with the Indians, which he in some measure forfeits by their knowing that he receives pay". In late 1779, Haldimand decided when a commission for Brant as a colonel arrived from Lord Germain, to pocket it and not tell Brant.
In early July, 1779, the British learned of plans for a major American expedition into Seneca country. In an attempt to disrupt the Americans' plans, John Butler sent Brant and his Volunteers on a quest for provisions and to gather intelligence on the Delaware in the vicinity of Minisink. After stopping at Onaquaga, Brant attacked and defeated the Americans at the Battle of Minisink on July 22, 1779. Brant's raid failed to disrupt the American expedition, however.
In the Sullivan Campaign, the Americans sent a large force deep into Iroquois territory to defeat the Iroquois and to destroy their villages. The Iroquois were defeated on August 29, 1779 at the Battle of Newtown. The American colonists swept away all Indian resistance in New York, burned their villages, and forced the Iroquois to fall back to Fort Niagara. Brant was wintering at Fort Niagara in 1779-80.
Brant resumed small-scale attacks on the Mohawk Valley. In February, 1780, he and his party set out and in April attacked Harpersfield. In mid-July, 1780 Brant led an attack on the Oneida village of Kanonwalohale. Some of the Oneida surrendered, but most took refuge at Fort Stanwix. Brant's raiders destroyed the Oneida houses, horses, and crops. They then went to the lower Mohawk where they attacked Canajoharie and Fort Plank. On their return they divided into small parties to attack Schoharie, Cherry Valley, and German Flatts. They then took part in a third major raid on the Mohawk Valley with Butler's Rangers and King's Royal Regiment of New York. Brant was wounded in the heel at the Battle of Klock's Field. He burned his former hometown of Canajoharie because it had become inhabited by American settlers.
In April, 1781 Brant was sent west to Fort Detroit to help defend against an expedition into the Ohio Country to be led by the Virginian George Rogers Clark. In August 1781, Brant completely defeated a detachment of Clark's army, ending the threat to Detroit. He was wounded in the leg and spent the winter 1781-1782 at Fort Detroit. From 1781 to 1782, Brant tried to keep the disaffected western tribes loyal to the Crown before and after the British surrender at Yorktown.
In June, 1782 Brant and his Indians went to Fort Oswego, where they helped rebuild the fort. In July, 1782 he and 460 Iroquois left for a raid on Fort Herkimer and Fort Dayton, but they did not accomplish much. Sometime during this raid, a letter from Frederick Haldimand arrived recalling the party and asking for a cessation of hostilities. Brant denounced the defensive policy as a betrayal of the Iroquois and urged the Indians to continue the war, but they were unable to do so without British supplies.
In the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the war, Britain and the United States ignored the sovereignty of the Indians. They determined that the sovereign Six Nations lands would become part of the territory of the United States. Promises of protection of their domain had been an important factor in inducing the Iroquois to fight on the side of the British. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) served as a peace treaty between the Americans and the Iroquois.
In 1797, when Brant traveled through New York, the governor provided him with a bodyguard because Brant's life had been threatened.
In 1783, he was sent to Montreal for discussion with Haldimand in order to get him away from Fort Niagara. At Brant's urging, British General Sir Frederick Haldimand made a grant of land for a Mohawk reserve on the Grand River in Ontario in October, 1784. (Haldimand Proclamation, see also Six Nations of the Grand River). In the fall of 1784, at a meeting at Buffalo Creek, the clan matrons decided that the Six Nations should divide with half going to the Haldimand grant and the other half staying in New York. Brant built his own house at Brant's Town which was described as "a handsome two story house, built after the manner of the white people. Compared with the other houses, it may be called a palace." He had about twenty white and black servants and slaves. Joseph thought the government made a ridiculous fuss over the keeping of slaves. He had a good farm and did extensive farming, and kept cattle, sheep, and hogs.
In the summer of 1783, Brant initiated the formation of the Western Confederacy consisting of the Iroquois and twenty-nine other Indian nations to defend the Fort Stanwix Treaty line of 1768 by denying any nation the ability to cede any land without the common consent. In November, 1785 he traveled to London to ask for assistance in defending the Indian confederacy from attack by the Americans. Brant was granted a generous pension and an agreement to fully compensate the Mohawk for their loses (this in contrast to the Loyalists, who only received a fraction of their losses) but no promises of support for the Western Confederacy. He also took a trip to Paris, returning to Canada in June, 1786.
In 1790, after the Western Confederacy had been attacked in the Northwest Indian War, they asked Brant and the Six Nations to enter the war on their side. Brant refused, he instead asked Lord Dorchester for British assistance for the Western Confederacy. Dorchester also refused, but later, in 1794, did provide the Indians with arms and provisions. In 1792, Brant was invited to Philadelphia where he met the President and his cabinet. The Americans offered him a large pension, and a reservation in the United States for the Mohawks to lure them to the United States. Brant refused, but Pickering said the Brant did take some cash payments. George Washington told Knox in 1794, "to buy Captain Brant off at almost any price". Brant attempted a compromise peace settlement between the Western Confederacy and the Americans, but he failed. The war continued, and the Indians were defeated in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The unity of the Western Confederacy was broken with the peace Treaty of Greenville in 1795.
In early 1797, he traveled to Philadelphia where he met the British Minister, Robert Liston and United States government officials. He assured the Americans that he "would never again take up the tomahawk against the United States". At this time the British were at war with France and Spain, and while Brant was meeting with the French minister, Pierre August Adet, Brant stated: "he would offer his services to the French Minister Adet, and march his Mohawks to assist in effecting a revolution & overturning the British government in the province". When he returned home, there were fears of a French attack. Russell wrote: "the present alarming aspect of affairs - when we are threatened with an invasion by the French and Spaniards from the Mississippi, and the information we have received of emissaries being dispersed among the Indian tribes to incite them to take up the hatchet against the King's subjects". He also wrote Brant "only seeks a feasible excuse for joining the French, should they invade this province." London ordered Russell to not allow the Indians to alienate their land, but with the prospects of war to appease Brant, Russell confirmed Brant's land sales. Brant then declared: "they would now all fight for the King to the last drop of their blood".
In late 1800 and early 1801 Brant wrote to Governor George Clinton to secure a large tract of land near Sandusky which could serve as a refuge should the Grand River Indians rebel, but suffer defeat. In September, 1801 Brant is reported as saying: "He says he will go away, yet the Grand River Lands will [still] be in his hands, that no man shall meddle with it amongst us. He says the British Government shall not get it, but the Americans shall and will have it, the Grand River Lands, because the war is very close to break out. In January, 1802, the Executive Council of Upper Canada learned of this plot which was lead by Aaron Burr and George Clinton to overthrow British rule in cooperation with some inhabitants and to create a republican state to join the United States. September, 1802, the planned date of invasion, passed uneventfully and the plot evaporated.
Brant bought about from the Mississauga Indians at the head of Burlington Bay. Simcoe would not allow such a sale between Indians, so he bought this track of land from the Mississauga and then gave the land to Brant. Around 1802, Brant moved there and built a mansion that was intended to be a half-scale version of Johnson Hall. He had a prosperous farm in the colonial style with of crops.
Brant was a war chief, and not a hereditary Mohawk sachem. His decisions could 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. His 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.
During his lifetime, Brant was the subject of many portrait artists. Two in particular signify his place in American, Canadian, and British history:
With Catherine Crogan he had seven children: