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Brant Meets Herkimer

When the ship on which Brant was a passenger touched the shores of America, he was landed secretly somewhere near New York city. He was now face to face with the difficulty of reaching his friends--a task that called forth all his alertness. He was in a hostile country, a long way from the forests of the Mohawk valley lying above Albany. But he was a wily redskin, too clever to be caught, and after adroitly evading many dangers he eventually reached the border country and crossed over safely into Canada.

In July 1776, several weeks before his arrival, the colonists had declared their independence. The language of the Declaration of Independence was confident, but soon after it was uttered the colonists suffered a series of defeats. Arnold was beaten by Carleton on Lake Champlain and Washington was forced to retreat until he had crossed the Delaware. It has been said that Brant took part in the Battle of the Cedars, where, on the north bank of the St Lawrence, Captain Forster overpowered a body of four hundred Americans; but this occurred in May 1776, and since Brant's ship did not arrive until July he could not have been one of the combatants in this engagement. What Brant was doing during the greater part of the year following his arrival in Canada has not been recorded. In the spring of 1777 we are able to pick up his trail again. While the armies were preparing for another summer campaign, Brant returned once more to his old haunts near the frontier of the colony of New York, taking up his position at a place called Oquaga on the Susquehanna river, south of the Mohawk valley. This was a favorite resort of the Indians, and Brant was well aware that from this point he could carry on to advantage a guerrilla warfare against the rebels and their sympathizers.

His coming sent a shiver of dread through all the neighboring settlements. Hitherto this part of the colony had been remote from the main theatre of the war, but now that Brant was there any moment might bring an attack, and the inhabitants began to make ready their defenses. More particularly were steps for protection taken in Cherry Valley, a rich and fertile area stretching up towards the Mohawk. Because of its strength and situation, the house of Colonel Samuel Campbell, one of the prominent farmers in the valley, was selected for a fortified post, and logs and earth were banked about it and the two adjoining barns. Thither from all sides the people collected, thinking that at any moment the chief of the Mohawks might pounce upon them.

Brant did, indeed, intend to assail this fortress, as it contained many of the leading rebels of that district, but a strange incident deceived him with regard to the strength of the place and made him change his purpose. It was not a common thing for him to make errors of judgment, but for once he was misled--hoodwinked--in a very simple manner. Like a wise commander he had set out to reconnoiter the enemy's position, and proceeded in the direction of Campbell's house with a small body of men. When about a mile away, he concealed himself behind some thick shrubbery on the crest of a hillock. As he peered through the tangled foliage his view was obscured, and he descried what seemed to him to be a battalion of troops marching near the house. This was nothing more than a number of boys with wooden guns in their hands playing at soldiers and parading in great glee upon the grassy sward beside the fortified house; but so well did they perform that Brant imagined they were soldiers training for active service in the war. 'Colonel Campbell has got his house well guarded, I perceive,' he said, turning about and addressing his followers. Thinking that it would be folly to venture near the spot with his slender force, Brant decided to retire and he took the road leading towards the Mohawk river. The same evening, as he lay in wait with his men behind a large boulder, two horsemen approached. One was an officer named Wormwood, the other a settler. Without having suspected an ambush, they suddenly found themselves in the clutches of an enemy. In the struggle Lieutenant Wormwood met his death, much to Brant's sorrow, as they had been good friends before the war. After this event the chief returned to Oquaga.

As the weeks passed, his following on the Susquehanna grew apace. The name of the great War Chief had a charm about it that drew to his command warriors from every part of the forest. Little wonder that the settlers became more and more alarmed. At length they resolved to try to negotiate peace with him. One of their number, Nicholas Herkimer, decided to go to the Susquehanna and there have an interview with the chief himself. Herkimer was a citizen noted for his integrity and had been made a brigadier-general in the provincial army. He had formerly lived three miles from Brant, when his home was on the upper Mohawk, and knew him well. Nothing has ever been said to show that Herkimer lacked courage. But he was vain enough to think that a few words from him might weaken Brant's steadfast loyalty. Furthermore, like too many frontiersmen of his day, he held the Indian race in little esteem and, as we shall see, he did not scruple to treat them with the basest kind of treachery. The plea may be made that he was apprehensive of duplicity on the part of the Mohawk chief, but this does not wholly excuse his conduct.

After duly making his plans, Herkimer invited Brant to meet him at Unadilla, on the Susquehanna, higher up than Oquaga. He arrived at this place in the month of July with three hundred and eighty militiamen, but had to wait a week before Brant put in an appearance. The fact that he came with such a numerous escort was well fitted to cause suspicion. Captain Brant also came with a large contingent of warriors, pitched his camp at some little distance from the Americans, and sent a runner to ask the general why he had been honored with this visit. Herkimer replied that he merely wished to have a talk with his brother Brant and that would be all. The runner said he would bear the message back, but first asked slyly whether all these men were anxious to talk with the War Chief also. Before departing, Brant's messenger signified that the colonials must not trespass upon the field that stretched away towards the Indians' camp. About half-way between the two parties a shed was now put up, large enough to seat two hundred people. It was agreed that each side should send a deputation to this hall, where a meeting would be held. On no account, however, were any firearms or other weapons to be brought from the camps.

Upon the day appointed Herkimer was the first to reach the spot, while Brant arrived a little later. The Indian chief had scented danger and was strictly on his guard. With him were two pale-faces, a Mohawk chief, about two score warriors, and an Indian woman. It was the custom in such a parley to draw a circle on the ground and for the leaders to stand or sit within this. Herkimer and two officers entered the circle, while Brant was accompanied by the inferior chieftain. Brant was all the time watching the general like a hawk and again asked him what was the meaning of his visit. Herkimer repeated that it was only for the sake of good fellowship.

'And all these have come on a friendly visit too?' asked Captain Brant. 'All want to see the poor Indians; it is very kind.' Unaffected by Brant's irony, Herkimer next referred to the troubles between England and the colonies, and tried to draw out Brant. The chief was slow and taciturn in answering, but at last burst forth in no uncertain language. He said that 'the Indians were in concert with the King, as their fathers had been; ... that General Herkimer and his followers had joined the Boston people against their Sovereign.' For all that, he had no fear of the result and knew 'that although the Boston people were resolute, yet the King would humble them.'

The meeting did not break up before there were signs of coming violence, but finally better feelings appeared to prevail and they decided to assemble again on the following morning.

In the interval Herkimer is said to have devised one of the vilest schemes that has ever been charged against a man of his rank. He selected a settler, named Joseph Waggoner, and three other trusty men as his accomplices. These persons were to assist him in a conspiracy against Brant's life that was simply an attempt at murder. The details of the plot were furnished in a confession made afterwards by Waggoner. As the parties stood in the circle, the four accomplices were to take a cue from Herkimer and shoot the Indians down without warning. But Herkimer was reckoning without his host. Joseph Brant was far too shrewd to walk headlong into such an open snare. It is plain that he had come to suspect the intentions of his adversary. Next morning, as he stepped into the circle, he assumed a grave and dignified mien. Addressing Herkimer, he spoke in stern accents:

'I have five hundred warriors with me, armed and ready for battle. You are in my power; but as we have been friends and neighbors, I will not take advantage of you.'

As he ended, a great band of redskins advanced from the engirdling forest, and the war-whoop rent the air. Backed by his faithful warriors, the War Chief could speak in tones of authority to his foe. He did not forget to thank him for his coming, but bade him direct his steps once again towards his home on the Mohawk. Thereupon Brant turned about and strode away among the trees. Just then thick clouds blotted out the sky; a terrible storm swept in violence across the land, a fitting presage, as men thought, of the scourge of war that must now bring ruin and havoc in its wake.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The War Chief of the Six Nations, A Chronicle of Joseph Brant, 1915

 

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