Historian says revisiting Joseph Brant’s legacy important to Burlington and Ontario


Staff member
Feb 15, 2004
The Beach Strip
Posted with permission from the Hamilton Spectator.

Mohawk military and political leader settled in Burlington Bay area in early 1800s

Burlington Post
By John Bkila
Feb.27th, 2017

An associate professor of Indigenous Studies at McMaster University says revisiting the legacy of Mohawk military and political leader Joseph Brant can be essential in teaching residents about the relationship between Canada and its native people.

Brant, also known as Thayendanegea (pronounced, Tai-yen-da-nay-geh) settled in what is now known as the Burlington Bay area in the early 1800s.

A replica of his home in Burlington is a museum dedicated to him and he has a hospital, street and local neighbourhood (Tyandaga) bearing his name as well — not to mention the City of Brantford (in southwestern Ontario) and County of Brant (southwest of Burlington).

“Brant does deserve a re-examination of his impact on this area because I think most people in Burlington drive by the hospital, his old home and don’t pay a whole lot of attention,” says Rick Monture.

“(They) don’t really examine what he was about and what he represented and how we can think of his legacy in this era of Truth and Reconciliation and all these issues that are emerging weekly on the news — these are things Brant himself had been engaged in 200-plus years ago…. He was at ground zero, if you will, of the things taking place.”

Monture is also an associate professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster and is a member of the Mohawk Six Nation, Turtle Clan.

He has been studying Brant for nearly 20 years and wrote about him in his 2014 book, We Share Our Matters, a literary history of Six Nations from their migration to Canada starting in 1784 to present day.

More than 'a man of two worlds'

Monture says he thinks there’s more to Brant than his traditional description as “a man of two worlds.”

“I think he was a very forward-thinker, thoughtful gentleman who understood the world was changing around him… I think he tried to broker and mediate peaceful relations amongst the people of Six Nations and the British and Americans — it was a very tough time,” he notes. “He understood the overarching philosophy of our people is built upon peace and peaceful relations, not just amongst our own, but others as well.”

Brant was someone who could move easily between his native family, friends and neighbours and British royalty, says Monture.

Describing him as “a bit of a rock star” to the English, he says Brant was in the highest circles of government and politics, in England and America as well, and knew of all the major players at the time.

Born in 1742, in what is now Cleveland, Ohio, Brant was a member of the Mohawk Wolf Clan and would eventually reach Burlington Bay, where he died in 1807.

He was married to three women during his lifetime and had several children.

Shortly after his birth, his family migrated to the Mohawk Valley (around Amsterdam, N.Y.) where, after his father’s death, his mother remarried a Mohawk whose Christian name was shortened to Brant — Thayendanegea was Christened as a young boy and given the name Joseph. He was an Anglican and a Freemason, too.

During the French-Indian War, around 1757, Joseph Brant became mentored by Sir William Johnson and would eventually join the British army as a “war chief” and captain.

Friendly to both British and Americans

Johnson took Brant under his wing and the two became close friends, according to Monture. This relationship would see Brant sent to what is now Dartmouth College (where he’d learn to read and write in his late teens, early 20s) — it would also allow him to become aware of British colonial affairs and customs.

Becoming friends with Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin, would expose Brant to the ideas of democracy.

“Brant was friendly to both sides, but when push came to shove, his friendly relations with Johnson and the British tilted him heavily towards (that side) and over time, he convinced most of the Six Nations to side with the British during the American Revolution,” says Monture.

“He wanted to stay neutral as much as possible… but when the war started taking place in our backyard, upstate New York, we (Six Nations) sided with the British because we had a longer history of nation-to-nation dealings and we didn’t know what a new American government would look like.”

Monture notes the British had promised Brant and the Six Nations they would end on the same footing prior to the war and lose nothing — that didn’t happen.

After the Treaty of Paris (1783), the Six Nations lost millions of acres of land, essentially most of New York state, from the Hudson to Niagara rivers.

“Now refugees, Brant felt a deep responsibility, since he largely convinced the Six Nations to side with the British…,” says Monture. “He was embarrassed, angry humiliated, and so he lobbied the British to make good on their original promises and they did.”

Bringing the Six Nations to Upper Canada

In 1784, the land in Upper Canada was surveyed along the Grand River, about six miles on either side, notes Monture, and given to the Six Nations — an order signed by British General Sir Frederick Haldimand on behalf of King George III.

In the spring of 1785, about 2,000 Six Nations people began their migration from New York to Ontario, says Monture, however, some communities stayed behind and were able to broker deals with the U.S.

“He’s (Brant) 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) for our people,” explains Monture, noting Brant left behind a big legacy.

With the consent of the people, Brant sold off the upper reaches of the Grand River track, around what is now Elora and Fergus, to generate funds to buy materials and build a new infrastructure, farm implements, livestock and seeds, says Monture.

It’s what he did in Brantford, where he lived a number of years.

Brant built an Anglican chapel, which still sits there today and where he is currently buried — he was originally buried in Burlington, but his remains were moved to Brantford in 1850.

Since he had a rank in the British military, he was given a land grant in Ontario for his services in the revolution, where he would eventually build his “retirement” home around Burlington Bay.

Monture says Brant’s significance to Upper Canada is an important one as he was seen as a “very respected and amicable host,” a politician, spokesman and leader.

“He was a man who kind of mediated that transition and introduced a lot of British to native customs and ways, and taught them a kind of respect for how we did government, how we did social well-being and took care of our people — probably more than the written record shows,” adds Monture. “Brant initiated a long tradition of Six Nations being allies of the British Crown.”

John Bkila is the City Hall reporter for the Burlington Post. He can be reached at jbkila@burlingtonpost.com . Follow him on Twitter and the Burlington Post on Facebook.

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