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Fighting on the Frontier
Brant was now regularly in the pay of the British,
and until the close of the war he was to be employed actively in
weakening the colonists by destroying their settlements intervening
between the populous centers of the Atlantic states and the borders
of Canada. In this unhappy fratricidal war each side used the
Indians to strike terror into the hearts of its enemies, and as a
result, in the quiet valleys lying between the Hudson and Ohio and
the Great Lakes, there was an appalling destruction of property and
loss of life. Brant proved himself one of the most successful of the
leaders in this border warfare, and while he does not seem ever to
have been guilty of wanton cruelty himself, those under him, on more
than one occasion, ruthlessly murdered their foes, irrespective of
age or sex. That he tacitly permitted his followers to murder and
scalp unarmed settlers shows that he was still much of a savage. As
one historian has written: 'He was not a devil, and not an angel.'
It is true, as we shall see, that on several occasions he intervened
to save Tory friends and acquaintances, but these are isolated
examples, and his raids were accompanied by all the horrors of
Indian warfare. The only excuse that can be offered for him is that
he was no worse than his age, and that the white loyalist leaders,
such as the Butlers, as well as the colonial commanders of the
revolutionists, were equally callous regarding the destruction of
property and life.
Brant appears to have spent the winter of 1777 and 1778 in Canada,
but with the opening of military operations in the spring he was
again at Oquaga and Unadilla. One of his first exploits of the year
1778 was at Springfield, a small settlement lying some miles beyond
Cherry Valley at the head of Lake Otsego. When news of Brant's
approach reached this place, a number of the men-folk fled for their
lives. Those who remained were taken prisoners. The chief gathered
the women and children into one house and set the torch to all the
other buildings in the settlement. Brant's care for the weaker sex
and the children during this expedition shows that he had a
tenderness of heart unusual among the red men of his time.
During the hay-making season the chief was reconnoitering in the
Schoharie district, which was situated some distance west of Albany
and south of the Mohawk river. The scythe had been at work in the
tall grass, and a farmer's lad was busy in a sunlit meadow raking
hay. As he dragged the loose bundles over the stubble, he heard a
footfall in his rear. Turning about he saw that a sturdy Indian
dressed in warrior's garb had stolen upon him. The boy involuntarily
raised his rake as though to strike.
'Do not be afraid, young man,' the intruder said in good English; 'I
will not hurt you.'
The warrior then asked the youth in friendly terms where a Mr
Foster, a loyalist, had his dwelling. He went further and asked the
lad his name.
'I know your father well,' said the redskin, when the boy had
answered his questions; 'he lives neighbor to Captain McKean. I know
McKean very well, and a fine fellow he is too.'
The boy was now quite reassured that the Indian would do him no
harm, and boldly inquired who his interrogator might be.
'My name is Brant,' answered the redskin, although he pondered for a
moment before replying.
'What! Joseph Brant?' said the youth, as a sharp thrill went
coursing through his veins.
'No!' answered the warrior, 'I am a cousin of his'; but a smile lit
up his dark countenance, and the boy knew that his denial was just a
bit of native humor. Thereupon Brant disappeared in the direction of
Foster's house. The boy at once rushed from the field to the
fortified post near by to tell his story, and a hue and cry was soon
raised. A party hurried to the loyalist's house to seek Brant, but
he was not there. Foster said that he had never come and that he
knew nothing of him. So, checkmated in their search, the group of
would-be captors had to wheel about and go back disappointed to
Brant was fast gaining an unsavory reputation which he but partly
merited. Owing to the character of the country in which he was
fighting, and to the lack of discipline in the force under his
command, destruction of property and plunder were certain to occur.
Brant, as we shall see, did little to discourage this among his
warriors. His argument was that his antagonists had taken up arms
against their lawful king. As rebels, their lands and property were
forfeited to the crown and were justly liable to seizure by the
king's forces. To the settlers on the border, however, Brant was
looked upon as a ruthless marauder, thirsting for blood. Whenever
acts of wanton cruelty took place, the blame was generally laid at
his door. This explains the bitterness of their attitude to him both
during and after the conflict and the singular fear which his name
inspired among them.
At Unadilla Brant had begun to fortify an area which lent itself to
defense, and thither the tribesmen flocked from the surrounding
districts. So determined were the settlers to capture him that they
offered a reward to any one who would bring them any knowledge of
his movements. Even men like Captain McKean, whom Brant had
mentioned so kindly to the farmer's boy, were hot upon his trail.
This officer set out with five other men in order, if possible, to
effect Brant's capture. While on their quest the little party came
one night to the house of a Quaker. To their great delight, the
Quaker told them that Brant had been at his place during the day and
would come back. He warned them, however, that Brant was prepared to
meet them, and that if he returned suddenly their lives would be in
danger. McKean, however, was stubborn in his resolve to stay.
'Your house, friend Sleeper,' he said, with a show of bravado,
'shall be my fort to-night.'
But the Quaker would have none of them, and sent the searchers on
their way. Then Captain McKean wrote a letter to Brant. Placing this
in a stick, he cast it on an Indian path, where it was soon found by
a redskin and carried to the War Chief's wigwam. In the letter
McKean arraigned Brant for the ferocious manner in which he was
fighting, and dared the Mohawk chief to single combat, or to send a
chosen body of men to meet him in fair field against an equal
number. If he showed his face in Cherry Valley, threatened McKean,
'they would change him from a Brant into a Goose.'
Brant knew the impulsive nature of McKean and took this amusing
letter for what it was worth. Yet the letter was not without its
effect upon him. They had dared him; they had taunted him with
threats; he would show them that Joseph Brant would have a day of
reckoning and that right early. 'Cherry Valley people,' he wrote in
the postscript of a short note sent to an ardent loyalist, '[are]
very bold, and intended to make nothing of us; they call us wild
geese, but I know the contrary.'
Early in July a bloody engagement had occurred in the valley of
Wyoming, an extensive region in Pennsylvania on the north branch of
the Susquehanna river. For many years after the encounter it was
commonly believed that Brant was the leader of the Indians who took
part in it. The valley of Wyoming had once been a possession of the
tribes of the Six Nations but, in 1754, they had been ousted from
their inheritance by a colonizing company. When the Revolutionary
War began it was already well peopled with settlers. Naturally eager
for vengeance, the dispossessed Indians invited the co-operation of
Colonel John Butler and his rangers in a raid. Butler accepted the
invitation, and the Indians and rangers to the number of five
hundred made a swift descent of the Susquehanna and invaded the
valley. Their approach, however, had been discovered, and the entire
militia of the district, mustering eight hundred, advanced against
them. In the battle which followed, the defenders were defeated with
great slaughter and many scalps were taken. Older American
historians misrepresented the fight as a cruel massacre of
non-combatants and asserted that Brant was present. British writers,
following them, fell into the same error. Thomas Campbell's poem,
'Gertrude of Wyoming,' written in 1809, gives a gruesome picture of
the episode, telling of the work which was done by the 'monster
Brant.' During his visit to England in 1823, the War Chief's
youngest son, John Brant, vindicated his father in a letter to
Campbell, and showed that the reference to his father in this poem
was based on false information. He declared that 'living witnesses'
had convinced him that his father was not in the neighborhood of
Wyoming at the time of the so-called massacre; testimony has been
forthcoming to support the claims which John Brant then made. It has
been shown that the tribesmen of the Six Nations whom Butler had
with him were Seneca, while the rest were Indians from the western
tribes, and that Brant's tribe, the Mohawks, were not present.
Nevertheless the Wyoming slaughter differs only in degree from other
scenes of bloodshed and plunder in which Brant took part. In the
month, indeed, in which the vale of Wyoming was being bathed in
blood, he swept down on the little hamlet of Andrustown, and,
bearing away a few captives and much booty, disappeared with his
followers in the surrounding forest.
It was now nearing the time of harvest, and in the Mohawk valley the
grain had ripened to a golden brown. Even amid the din of war men
must live, and so the settlers began to garner the season's crop.
Nowhere on the river were there fuller barns than in the populous
district that went by the name of the German Flatts. Bordering the
Mohawk river on either side, it stretched for ten miles along the
valley, rich in soil, and with broad green pastures and plenteous
herds. The settlers knew that the enemy was not far off, and they
grew more afraid of attack with each passing day. They had two
strongholds to which they could flee in case of trouble, Fort
Herkimer on one bank of the river, Fort Dayton on the other; but
these would be of little use to the settlers if they had not
sufficient warning of the approach of the enemy. Mindful of this,
they sent four of their number to act as scouts and to warn the
settlement of any danger. While on this mission three of the party
met with death at the hands of their adversaries, but the fourth
escaped and hastened back to the German Flatts. One evening, just
before sunset, he arrived with the fearful tidings that Brant was
moving up the river with a large band of Indians and would soon be
upon them. The alarm was spread through the valley, and men, women,
and children gathered up what articles of value they could take with
them in their hurried flight, and rushed pell-mell to the forts.
During the evening some carried off a portion of their household
effects in small boats. In the meantime Caldwell, commanding a party
of rangers, with Indians under Brant, had come to the outskirts of
the settlement. Then, even before the first gleam of daylight had
begun to slant across the valley, the Indians were flitting like
ghostly specters in and out among the buildings. Almost at the same
moment flames arose in every direction, flashing and darting against
the morning sky. Powerless to stay the destruction, the settlers,
huddled behind their defenses, witnessed a melancholy sight. Houses
and barns, everything that could be given to the fire, were soon a
heap of smoking embers.
Caldwell had no means of laying siege to the forts, as he was
without cannon; so he made no effort to effect their capture. But he
did not check his warriors from roaming at will over the valley.
Running down the slopes into the pasture land, they rounded up the
horses, the herds of black cattle, and the browsing sheep; and,
having collected these together, they drove them from the meadows
and disappeared with them among the trees. Before sundown they were
many miles away, leaving behind desolation and blank dismay.
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
Chronicles of Canada