Iroquois Chief Brant: Native American Biography
We propose briefly to notice the series of these biographies in their order of publication. In his first work on Brant, he has presented, in living colors, the great Mohawk of 1776, who rose up to crush that confederacy which Washington and his compeers had pledged their lives to maintain. Brant was a man of power and capacities, mental and physical, beyond his tribe; and was so situated, in the actual contest, as to throw a greater weight into the scale against us, than any other, or all of the hostile chiefs of the Red Race put together. If he could not, like Ariel, call up the "spirits of the vasty deep," he could, at his bidding, summon together the no less malignant spirits of the woods, who fell upon our sleeping hamlets with the fury of demons. And whether at Johnson Hall or Niagara, at Cherry Valley or Schoharie, on the waters of the Oriskany or the Chemung, he was the ruling and informing spirit of the contest. Such was the power he wielded as commander of a most effective body of light troops (for such are all Indian warriors), who were supported by large and well appointed armies, that, like the electric flashes of the boding storm, he preceded the heavier outbreak by sounding aloud the wild notes of terror and dismay. It was in this manner that his name became a talisman on the frontiers, to conjure up deeds of evil, and in this way also, doubtless, it became loaded with reproaches, some of which, as the author has denoted, were due to other actors in the contest. It is difficult, however, to disturb the judgments of a preceding age, on the character of individuals who have long passed off the stage of action, whether those judgments be favorable or unfavorable; and it is, in fact, impossible to reverse them. It is only necessary to glance backward a short way, on the track of biography, to perceive that posterity never revises the opinions once put on individual character, heroic or literary. It tries to forget all it can, and every body it can, and never remembers a long time any name which it is possible to forget. It is willing, we should infer, to concede something to the great men among barbarian nations, whose names have often burst upon civilized society with the fearful attractions of the meteor, or the comet, producing admiration in the beholders, without stopping to inquire the true cause. Such were the Tamerlanes, and the Tippoo Saibs of the eastern world, of a prior age, as well as the Mehemet Alis and Abdel Kaders of the present. And such were, also, with reduced means of action, numbers of the American aboriginal chiefs, who, between the days of Manco Capac and Micanopy have figured in the history of the western world. Most of these men owe their celebrity to the mere fact of their having dazzled or astounded, or like Brant himself, excited the terror of those who opposed them. In the case of the latter, a change of opinion in those particular traits which affect his humanity, is less readily made, from the fact, yet generally remembered, that he had received a Christian education; that he was, while a mere boy, received into the best society, acquired the English language, and had been instructed, first at a New England academy, and afterwards at one of its most practically efficient colleges. Posterity holds the Mohawk chief responsible to have carried the precepts thus obtained into the forest, and to have diffused their blessings among those who had perhaps his bravery, without his talents or his knowledge. Those who fought against him were ill qualified, we confess, to be his judges. He had not only espoused the wrong cause, wrong because it was adverse to the progress of national freedom and those very principles his people contended for; but he battled for it with a master's hand, and made the force of his energy felt, as the author has more fully indicated than was before known, from the banks of the Mohawk and the Niagara, to the Ohio, the Miami, and the Wabash. Yet, if there was error in the extent to which he failed to carry the precepts of civilization and Christianity, it was meet it should be pointed out, although it will also be admitted, the public have a right to look for the strongest of these proofs of a kind and benevolent feeling towards his open enemies, out of the range of his domestic circle. His family had carried the incipient principles of civilization, which he gave them, too high—they had exhibited to the next age, a too prominent example of cultivation and refinement in every sense—not to feel deeply the obloquy cast upon his name, by the poetic spirit of the times; and not to wish that one who had, in verity, so many high and noble qualities, both in the council and the field, should also be without a spot on his humanity. We deem the feeling as honorable to all who have the blood of the chieftain in their veins as it is praiseworthy in his biographer. We cannot, however, consent to forget, that historical truth is very severe in its requisitions, and is not to be put off, by friend or foe, with hearsay testimony, or plausible surmises.
Brant cannot, like Xicotencal, be accused of having joined the invaders of his country, who were recklessly resolved upon its subjugation; but he overlooked the fact, that both theinvader and the invaded in the long and bloody border warfare of the revolution, were, in all that constitutes character, the same people. They were of the same blood and lineage, spoke the same language, had the same laws and customs, and the same literature and religion, and he failed to see that the only real point of difference between them was, who should wield the sceptre. Whichever party gained the day in such a contest, letters and Christianity must triumph, and as the inevitable result, barbarism must decline, and the power of the Indian nation fall.
In Brant, barbarism and civilization evinced a strong and singular contest. He was at one moment a savage, and at another a civilian, at one moment cruel, and at another humane; and he exhibited, throughout all the heroic period of his career, a constant vacillation and struggle between good and bad, noble and ignoble feelings, and, as one or the other got the mastery, he was an angel of mercy, or a demon of destruction. In this respect, his character does not essentially vary from that which has been found to mark the other leading red men who, from Philip to Osceola, have appeared on the stage of action. Like them, his reasoning faculties were far less developed than his physical perceptions. And to attempt to follow or find anything like a fixed principle of humanity, basing itself on the higher obligations that sway the human breast, would, we fear, become a search after that which had no existence in his mind; or if the germ was there, it was too feeble to become predominant. We do not think it necessary, in commenting on his life, to enter into any nice train of reasoning or motives to account for this characteristic, or to reconcile cruelties of the most shocking kind, when contrasted with traits of mildness and urbanity. They were different moods of the man, and in running back over the eventful years of his life, it becomes clear, that civilization had never so completely gained the mastery over his mind and heart, as not to desert him, without notice, the moment he heard the sound of the war-whoop. The fact that he could use the pen, supplied no insuperable motive against his wielding the war club. His tomahawk and his Testament lay on the same shelf. The worst trait in his character is revealed in his tardiness to execute acts of purposed mercy. There was too often some impediment, which served as an excuse, as when he had a ploughed field to cross to save Wells and his family, or a lame heel, or gave up the design altogether, as in the case of Wisner, whom he construed it into an act of mercy to tomahawk.
That he was, however, a man of an extraordinary firmness, courage and decision of character, is without doubt. But his fate and fortunes have not been such as to give much encouragement to chiefs of the native race in lending their influence to European, or Anglo-European powers, who may be engaged in hostilities against each other on this continent. Pontiac had realized this before him, and Tecumtha realized it after him. Neither attained the object he sought. One of these chiefs was assassinated, the other fell in battle, and Brant himself only survived the defeat of his cause, to fret out his latter days in vain attempts to obtain justice from the power which he had most loyally served, and greatly benefited. Had he been knighted at the close of the contest, instead of being shuffled from one great man to another, at home and abroad, it would have been an instance of a noble exercise of that power. But George III. seemed to have been fated, at all points, neither to do justice to his friends nor his enemies.
Such was Brant, or Thayendanegea, symbolically, the Band of his tribe, to whose lot it has fallen to act a more distinguished part in the Colonies, as a consummate warrior, than any other aboriginal chieftain who has arisen. And his memory was well worthy of the elaborate work in which his biographer has presented him, in the most favourable points of view, amidst a comprehensive history of the border wars of the revolution, without, however, concealing atrocities of which he was, perhaps sometimes unwillingly, the agent.
A word, and but a word, will be added, as to some points connected with this chief's character, which are not in coincidence with the generally received opinion, or are now first introduced by way of palliation, or vindication. We confess, that so far as the presence or absence of the Great Mohawk in the massacre of Wyoming, is concerned, the statements are either inconclusive, or less satisfactory than could be wished. There was quite too much feeling sometimes evinced by his family, and particularly his son John, to permit us to receive the new version of the statement without some grains of allowance. An investigation is instituted by Col. Stone as to the immediate ancestry of Brant, and much importance is attached to the inquiry, whether he was descended from a line of hereditary chiefs. We think the testimony adverse to such a supposition, and it affords no unequivocal proof of talents, that notwithstanding such an adventitious circumstance, certainly without being of the line of ruling chiefs, he elevated himself to be, not only the head chief and leader of his tribe, but of the Six Nations. Courtesy and popular will attach the title of chief or sachem to men of talents, courage or eloquence among our tribes generally; and while mere descent would devolve it upon a chiefs son, whatever might be his character, yet this fact alone would be of little import, and give him little influence, without abilities: whereas abilities alone are found to raise men of note to the chieftainship, among all the North American tribes, whose customs and character are known.
It has constituted no part of our object, in these general outlines, to examine minor points of the biography or history, upon which the information or the conclusions are not so satisfactory as could be wished, or which may, indeed, be at variance with our opinions. One fact, however, connected with this name, it is not deemed proper to pass sub silentio. Brant is made to take a part in the Pontiac war, a contest arising on the fall of the French power in Canada in 1759, and which closed in 1763. Brant was at its close but twenty-one years of age, and had not, it is probable, finally returned from his New England tutors. At any rate, there is no reason to suppose, that, at that early period of his life and his influence, he could have had any participation in the events of that war.