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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 their fortress.

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

 

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