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Across the Sea

Before many suns had set, this company of dusky warriors had brought their canoes to shore near the swift rapids which run by Montreal. The news of their coming was received with enthusiasm by the officers stationed at this place. Every friendly addition to the British ranks was of value now that war had begun. Sir Guy Carleton, the governor of Canada, was especially delighted that these bronzed stalwarts had made their appearance. He prized the abilities of the Indians in border warfare, and their arrival now might be of importance, since the local Canadian militia had not responded to the call to arms. The French seigneurs and clergy were favorable to the king's cause, but the habitants on the whole were not interested in the war, and Carleton's regular troops consisted of only eight hundred men of the Seventh and Twenty-Sixth regiments.

No time was lost by the governor in summoning the redskins to an interview. Chief Brant, it appears, was the leading spokesman for the Indians on this occasion, and a sentence or two of the speech made by Carleton has been preserved by Brant himself. 'I exhort you,' was Carleton's earnest request of the Indians, 'to continue your adherence to the King, and not to break the solemn agreement made by your forefathers, for your own welfare is intimately connected with your continuing the allies of his Majesty.' In reply the Indians asserted once more their ancient pledges. 'We acknowledged,' said Brant, 'that it would certainly be the best in the end for our families and ourselves to remain under the King's protection, whatever difficulties we might have to contend with.'

In order that he might render due service to the army, Brant was put under military discipline, and was given a captain's commission in the king's forces. He was in Montreal when Ethan Allen, a colonial adventurer, made an unauthorized attempt (Sept. 24, 1775) to surprise and capture the city. Carleton had been apprised of Allen's project; the plan miscarried, and Allen, along with other members of his band, was sent to England as a prisoner of war. Meanwhile General Montgomery had been advancing from the south, and, in September, he laid siege to Fort St John, the English stronghold on the Richelieu river. This post was stoutly defended by Major Preston with a force of regulars until Fort Chambly, near by, fell into the enemy's hands, and further resistance was useless. Whether Brant's services were employed in or about either of these forts cannot be ascertained, but we know that he had left the neighborhood and was on his way to England before Montreal capitulated on November 17.

Brant's visit to Montreal had no doubt an important influence on his career. This was perhaps the first time he had ever seen a sea-port.1 At this time Montreal had some five or six thousand inhabitants and was a walled town of growing commercial importance. It had several commodious religious houses, some large, well-built churches, and a number of handsome residences. As Brant stood on the river's bank, he saw a medley of craft afloat in the current: ships of the fur traders laden with peltry; transports coming and going with food for the garrisons, or new men for the service; sloops-of-war, lying at anchor with their complement of guns, grim and menacing.

All this gripped as with an iron hand the imaginative nature of the Mohawk chief. The spirit of romance was aglow within him, and he had a wondering desire to see the lands that lay beyond the ocean. He would sail upon the high seas; he would stand in the presence of the Great King. How beautiful was this land called England! and how powerful were its army and navy! Doubtless Guy Johnson and other officers at Montreal encouraged Brant to undertake the journey which he fain would make. It may be that it was they who first showed him how such a journey was possible. At any rate, before the ice had begun to lock the green waters of the St Lawrence, in the year 1775, he had passed through the Gulf and was tossing on the billows of the deep Atlantic. Towards the end of the year he arrived, along with Captain Tice, in the English metropolis. London had altered greatly since the days of Queen Anne more than half a century before, when his grandfather had been there. It had become a greater market for trade, and the common people had been elbowing their way to the parts where only fine residences had once stood. Two kings of the House of Hanover had in the meantime reigned and died, and now King George III, another of that line, sat upon the throne.

On reaching London Chief Brant was escorted to a small hostel of not very imposing appearance called 'The Swan with Two Necks.' It was intended that he should soon be taken to other lodgings that would be more in keeping with his rank; but the innkeeper and others were so kind to him that he was loth to leave, and could not be coaxed to other quarters during his whole stay in London. In the streets he was accustomed to dress like the Europeans of the day, but on state occasions he wore a gala costume, his head crowned with waving plumes and his body decked with those fancy ornaments that pleased the proud Indian. On the burnished tomahawk that glistened in his belt was traced the initial 'J,' followed by his Indian title, 'Thayendanegea.'

Brant appeared at court and had audience with the king, for whose person he felt a sacred reverence. He loved freedom, but at the same time he always had a great respect for authority. A story is told of the pointed answer he made to his old instructor, Dr Wheelock, who, thinking to draw Brant over to the side of the colonists, or at least to keep him neutral, had written him a long and earnest appeal. The Mohawk chief replied in a kindly fashion, referring to the pleasant hours he had spent at the school. He remembered especially the prayers that were said in the household, and one prayer in particular that had been repeated over and over again; as they bent their heads in entreaty before the Maker of all things, the request had ever been 'that they might be able to live as good subjects, to fear God and honor the King.'

Not only did high officials in London treat Brant with consideration, but men of learning, as well as of social position, vied with one another to make his visit interesting and pleasant. Among those who entertained him was James Boswell, who knew all the gossip of London society and was a man of rare talents. He took a peculiar liking to the bronzed chief of the Six Nations and persuaded him to sit for his portrait. The Earl of Warwick also wished to have Brant's picture, and the result was that he sat for George Romney, one of the most famous artists of the day. This portrait was probably painted at the artist's house in Cavendish Square, and we may accept it as a good likeness of Brant as he appeared at this time. With head erect, the strong-knit figure of the chief stands at repose. The eyes are mild and wide-set and about the lips a smile is playing. In the portrait we see, too, the resolute heart, the thoughtful mind, and the restless energy that made Joseph Brant a ruler of the native races.

On being asked as to the help he might render to the English arms in the New World, Brant asserted strongly that he and his people were loyal. He said that, as War Chief, he would lead three thousand of his warriors into the struggle, and that they would fight manfully as subjects of the king. He knew full well how desperate the contest was going to be, and wishing to have some article on his body that would identify him in case of death, he bought from a London goldsmith a ring, in which he had his full name engraved. This he wore through the vicissitudes of many a long year.

Before the winter was over Brant was anxious to return to his tribes, for he knew that when the hatchet was whirling the wigwam was more fitting for him that the palaces of London. Accordingly, in the spring of 1776, he set out for his western home.


1 It is thought possible that he had gone down the St Lawrence as far as Montreal with Sir William Johnson in 1760.


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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