On Aug. 1, 1761, three teenaged Mohawk boys arrived on horseback at Moor’s Charity School in Lebanon (now Columbia), Conn. Two, Nickus and Senter, wore practically no clothes. The third, Joseph Brant, wore full Indian dress – probably a white tunic shirt, leggings, breechcloth and moccasins. All three were dirty from their trip from New York and covered with lice.
Their headmaster, Eleazar Wheelock, found them remarkably backward. Only Joseph spoke English, and just a little at that. The boys sat on the ground like children, and they cared for cleanliness as much as children. They had no concept of English furniture and utensils, and thought a wineglass as durable as a hand iron. “They are as unpolished & uncultivated within as without,” wrote Wheelock.
Lebanon was just a wide place in the road in 1761, and Moor’s Charity School just a couple of houses. But two years at the school gave Joseph Brant the tools he needed to move comfortably in elite European circles. What he learned in Lebanon would serve him well as a Mohawk leader navigating a place for his people in the changing transatlantic world.
In 1769, Moor’s Charity School removed to Hanover, N.H., and became Dartmouth College. Generations of uncouth boys went to Dartmouth (and the other Ivies, for that matter) for the same reason Joseph did. They sought the education, polish and social connections that would help them succeed in life.
Young Joseph Brant
Brant was born somewhere along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio in March 1743. His name was Thayendanegea, which in the Mohawk language means, “He places two bets together.”
He belonged to the Six Nations confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee people.
He had Iroquois Christian parents named Peter and Margaret Tehonwaghkwangearahkwa. His father died when he was young, and his mother moved with him and his sister Mary, or Molly, to Canajoharie, a Mohawk village on the Mohawk River in New York. Margaret gathered and sold the ginseng that grew there, for export to Europe and China.
Canajoharie then was a frontier town, but a multicultural one where Mohawk families coexisted with German and British immigrants. As a boy, Joseph hunted and fished with English boys his own age. His family had ties to William Johnson, a wealthy Irishman and nephew of naval hero Peter Warren. Johnson built a mansion along the Mohawk River and served as Britain’s superintendent of Northern Indian Affairs.
When his older sister Molly became William Johnson’s common-law wife, Joseph moved in with them.
In 1758, 15-year-old Joseph followed Johnson into action during the French and Indian War. He served as a scout during the assault on Fort Carillon (renamed Ticonderoga) and watched the French rout the British. He joined Johnson in the Battle of Fort Niagara in 1759 and Jeffery Amherst‘s expedition to Montreal. The British gave Joseph a silver medal for his military service.
And so 18-year-oldJoseph Brant rode up to Moor’s Charity School as a decorated military veteran.
Moor’s Charity School
Seven years earlier, the Puritan minister Eleazar Wheelock had started Moor’s Charity School, a free school for Indian boys. He aimed to turn out Indian missionaries who would Christianize the American Indians. The Boston board of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge paid for their schooling.
Only a few Indian students lived at the school when Joseph arrived: a Mohegan, a Montauk and some Delawares. Some white boys, intent on going into missionary work, also attended the school. The sight of the Indians shocked one white boy.
“I was struck with horror at the sight of these wild indians, a sight of one I had never seen before,” he wrote. Some, like Joseph, were nearly grown men, others were his own age, he noted. “These last could not speak a word of english and still had on their indian costume, from my first sight at these indians it gave me such a shock that I determined that I never should be willing to spend my life with such people as they were.”
Upon the arrival of the three Mohawks, Wheelock immediately gave them each a pair of English pants and a shirt. He thought Joseph came from noble birth, because William Johnson – now a baronet known as Sir William – had gotten him the place at the school. So Wheelock gave Joseph a better shirts and a pair of pants with checks on them. Joseph liked those pants and took good care of them. Wheelock also gave each of the boys a book – Joseph’s cost more – and combs. Joseph got his own, but the others had to share one.
Wheelock at first found Joseph a bit sulky—not surprising that an 18-year-old Mohawk fresh from the battlefield would chafe at the strict Puritan regimen. But plentiful food improved Joseph’s mood. Lunch, for example, consisted of boiled meat, Indian pudding, bread, milk and sweet cakes.
The students slept and studied on the second floor of Wheelock’s home. They had to have wakened and dressed by six when Wheelock prayed over them on the first floor. Then breakfast and free time until 9:00.
In the schoolhouse next door, they learned reading, writing, English, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, along with civility and good manners. Then lunch, and then more lessons from 2 pm to 5 pm. They said prayers at the end of the school day and at sundown, then they studied until sleep time.
Wheelock liked Joseph, calling him a “considerate, modest and manly spirited youth.” He let Joseph, Sander and Nickus go home for a visit in November. Joseph returned to the school the next month, but Sander died and Nickus stayed behind to get married.
At Moor’s Charity School, Brant learned to speak English, to read and to write with a decipherable hand. He could read the New Testament and discuss Homer’s Odyssey. He also developed a preference for English clothes, which he wore except when posing or portraits.
“Brant’s ability to move between communities is key to his career,” wrote historian Elizabeth Hutchinson.
Wheelock wanted to send him to Princeton to study with one of his proteges, but he couldn’t get permission from Joseph’s family quickly enough. Sir William wanted to send him to Columbia (King’s College), but Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out. Joseph had to leave school to fight another war.
The Rest of the Story
He worked as a translator and for British officials, including his brother-in-law, Sir William Johnson. He also translated a catechism and the Gospel of Mark into Mohawk.
In 1775, Joseph Brant joined Sir William’s nephew, Guy Johnson, on a trip to London to seal his appointment as his uncle’s successor as superintendent of Indian affairs. Brant pledged Haudenosaunee support for the British during the American Revolution. In exchange, the British agreed to compensate the Iroquois for property taken, both in the past and future. He made a splash in London society and with King George III, who invited him to join the Masonic brotherhood. Though he usually wore English clothes, he wore Indian garb to have his portrait painted by the English portrait painter George Romney.
He served as a captain in the British Army during the Revolution, and after the war emerged as an Indian leader. He negotiated for land for the Haudenosaunee along the Grand River in Ontario, and he helped form the Western Confederacy of Indian tribes.
For the rest of his life Joseph Brant worked to preserve and protect Six Nations control over Iroquois lands.
The Haudenosaunee people have conflicting views of his legacy. Some say he bargained away Indian land for his own purposes and helped destroy the traditional culture by espousing Christianity. His legacy is also tarnished by his ownership of black slaves.
But others say his negotiating ability gave his people sovereignty over their own land.
He died after a short illness in his home in Burlington, Ontario, on Nov. 24, 1807 at the age of 64. Legend has it that he said to his nephew while on his deathbed, “Have pity on the poor Indians; if you can get any influence with the great, endeavor to do them all the good you can.”
With thanks to Elizabeth Hutchinson in “The Dress of His Nation”: Romney’s Portrait of Joseph Brant in Winterthur Portfolio, Summer/Autumn 2011. And special thanks to Joseph Brant, 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds By Isabel Thompson Kelsay. This story last updated in 2021.
Images: Fort Johnson By Webmasteratfort at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Matthiasb using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6840563.