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The Young Mohawk

A group of huntsmen were camping on the Ohio river. The foliage swayed in the night wind, and the argent light of the moon ran in fleeting bars through the dim recesses of the forest. From the ground arose a ruddier glare. High and dry, fires had been built and the flames were darting and curveting among the trees. In the weird light the hunters were clustered about in squads, silently stripping their prey or preparing their weapons for the morrow's chase. In the background were the women, moving here and there in the dancing shadows. One was bending low over a newborn infant, and as she uttered his name in the stillness of the evening it blended with the music of the tree-tops.


The name was taken from the great book of nature. It was a birth-name of the Mohawks meaning two sticks of wood bound together, a sign of strength; and the woman hoped that her tiny child might one day be a man of valor among the Mohawks. Could she have but known it, her desire was to be more than realized, for in vigor of mind and body he was destined to surpass all the offspring of his race.

So it was, in the pear 1742, in the reign of King George the Second, that Thayendanegea was born among the Mohawks on the banks of the Ohio. To the untaught savage this sluggish stream was a thing of life, and he called it the 'River Beautiful.' The Ohio valley was at this time the favorite hunting-ground of the Indian peoples. Because this valley was rich in game and comfortable to dwell in, it had been a scene of bitter strife. The problem of rule on the Ohio was of long standing. For a whole century Delaware and Shawnee and Wyandot and Six Nations contended for the territory; tribe was pitted against tribe, and then at last the answer was given. The Iroquois confederacy, or Six Nations,2  whose villages lay by the Hudson river, united, determined, and vengeful, had gained the ascendancy; from the banks of the Hudson to the seats of the stranger beside lake Erie the lands belonged to them; and other tribes to the east and west and north and south paid them tribute. The Mohawks were the mightiest of the Six Nations; in the confederacy they were chief in council; from their ranks was chosen the head war chief, who commanded on the field of battle; they took the first-fruits of the chase, and were leaders in everything.

Some time was to pass, however, before Thayendanegea could understand that he was sprung from a race of conquerors. As yet he was but a simple Indian babe, with staring brown eyes and raven-black hair. Of the mother who cared for him history has practically nothing to say. She may have been a Mohawk, but this is by no means certain. It has even been hinted that she came from the Western Indians, and was a damsel of the Shawnee race who had left the wigwams of her people. At all events we may be sure that she had the natural instincts and impulses of a forest mother; that she knew where the linden grew high and where the brown-red sycamores clustered thick by the margin of the stream. It may be supposed that when the sun mounted high she would tie the picturesque, richly ornamented baby-frame containing her boy to some drooping branch to swing from its leathern thong in the cooling breeze. We may imagine her tuneful voice singing the mother's Wa Wa song, the soft lullaby of the sylvan glades. Thayendanegea's eyes blink and tremble; he forgets the floating canopy above him and sleeps in his forest cradle.

The hunting excursion to the Ohio came at length to an end, and then the Mohawks started for their lodges in the far north-east. Up the broad river sped the strongest canoe-men of all the peoples of the forest, with Thayendanegea stowed snugly in the bottom of some slender craft. Over the long and weary portages trudged his mother, her child bound loosely on her shoulders. Their route lay towards Lake Erie, then along the well-trodden trail to the Mohawk river; and the baby was for the first time among the fertile cornfields and the strange Long Houses of his people. At this period the Mohawks lived farthest east of all the tribes of the Six Nations. Their main settlements were along the Mohawk river in what is now the state of New York, but they claimed authority over the region stretching thence towards Montreal. They had three settlements on the Mohawk, the central one of which, called Canajoharie Castle, was the home of Thayendanegea's parents. Near by lived the celebrated William Johnson, His Majesty's representative for Indian Affairs in the colony of New York, who some years later became sole superintendent of 'the six united nations, their allies and dependents.'

When Thayendanegea grew stronger he began to romp with the other boys of the village. With them he followed the women down to the river's brink, picking up shiny pebbles from the sand, or watching the minnows dart about in the sunlight. With them, when the days were long, he crawled through the brambles, looking for luscious berries, or ran with the wiry Indian dogs into copse and brushwood. Then he learned to swim, to fish, and to dip his paddle noiselessly in the stream. Like every red child, Thayendanegea listened rapt in wonder to the tales that were told him. The Mohawks had a storehouse of fable, and he soon became versed in the lore of the forest. Perhaps, too, he sat beside his wrinkled grandfather, who was a sachem,3 or petty king, of the Six Nations, and heard the old man tell the romantic story of his trip to England in the pear 1710, when Anne was sovereign queen; heard how five sachems at this time had gone on an embassy for their people and were right royally entertained in the city of London; how, as they passed through the streets, the little children flocked behind, marveling at their odd appearance; how at the palace they appeared in garments of black and scarlet and gold and were gladly received by the queen, whom they promised to defend against her foes; and how, after seeing the soldiers march, and after riding in the queen's barge and enjoying various amusements, they returned to their own country.

There is some obscurity surrounding the identity of Thayendanegea's father, but it is generally agreed that he was a full-blooded Mohawk and a chief of the Wolf clan.4 By some writers it is said that he bore the English name of Nickus Brant. Others say that Thayendanegea's father died while the son was still an infant and that the mother then married an Indian known to the English as Brant. By and by, as Thayendanegea mingled with the English, he acquired the name of Joseph, and so came down through history as Joseph Brant; but whether he acquired this name from his father or from his step-father we cannot tell, and it does not really matter. We shall know him hereafter by his English name.

In the traditions of the Mohawk valley it is told how one day a regimental muster was being held, in Tryon county, in the colony of New York, at which William Johnson was present. Among the throng of those who were out to see the sights was Molly Brant, Joseph's elder sister, a lively, winsome girl of sixteen years. During the maneuvers a field-officer rode by, mounted on a spirited steed. As he passed, Molly asked if she might get up behind. The officer, thinking it a bit of banter, said she might. In an instant she had sprung upon the crupper. Away went the steed, flying about the field. Molly clung tight to the officer, her blanket flapping in the breeze and her dark hair floating wide. Every one burst into merriment, and no one enjoyed the spectacle more than Colonel William Johnson himself. A flame of love for Molly was kindled in his heart, and, being a widower, he took her home and made her his bride after the Indian fashion. It would seem quite natural, then, that the superintendent should be interested in the career of Molly's brother Joseph. Born, as the young redskin was, of princely stock, he might, with such an advantage, be expected to attain to honor and dignity among the people of the Long House. There was, however, one obstacle; although Joseph's father was a chief, he did not inherit rank, for it was the custom of the Six Nations to trace descent through the blood of the mother, and his mother, who had brought him over hill and water from the banks of the Ohio, was of humble origin. If Joseph wished, therefore, to rise among his fellows, he must hew out his own path to greatness. By pluck and wisdom alone could he win a lasting place in the hearts of his people. As we tell his story, we shall see how he gathered strength and became a man of might and of valor.

1 Pronounced Tai-yen-da-nay-geh.
2 Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora.
3 That Thayendanegea was the grandchild of one of these sachems who were so honored appears from information given in an article published in the London Magazine; of July 1776. The material for this account of him is supposed to have been supplied by the famous author James Boswell, with whom, while on a visit to England in that year, he was intimate.
4 The Mohawks were divided into three clans--the Tortoise, the Bear, and the Wolf.

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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