Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 27, 2019

Joseph Brant: the Mohawk who fought with the British against George Washington

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

I was astounded to learn in Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General John Sullivan who was directed by George Washington to annihilate Mohawk villages for supporting the British. The Mohawk were led by Joseph Brant, whose birthname was Thayendanegea.

The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois confederation that included the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, the Oneida and Cayuga. The failure of the six nations to reach an agreement about supporting the British led to strife and the eventual collapse of a confederation that Benjamin Franklin lauded as a model that the colonists could emulate after becoming independent. Despite the use of the term “Ignorant Savages” that was meant more as a dig at his colleagues, it was clear that Franklin considered the Iroquois to have achieved a model state, even if on a small scale:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book in 1877 titled “Ancient Society” that also viewed the Iroquois confederation positively. His work had a major influence on Frederick Engels who cited it at length in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Although he did not use the term, he was describing what is commonly known as “primitive communism” and taken as proof by Marxists that humanity can live in a classless society:

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

My interest in the indigenous peoples of New York State was kindled initially by learning that the Munsee Indians were dominant all through the Catskills. Since I have begun a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills”, I was committed to telling their story. After I learned that my home county was named after a military officer who ethnically cleansed the state of Mohawks, I decided to look more deeply into their story as well, even if technically speaking they were to the north of the Catskills.

Since my film is both a series of interviews and a collage of pre-existing films, including “Last of the Mohicans” that did feature a tribe native to the Catskills, I decided to track down any films about Joseph Brant. I was able to discover the two above and was not surprised to discover that both are deeply flawed but worth watching.

“Divided Loyalties” is by far more grounded in Joseph Brant’s real history and the internecine divisions within the Indians, the British and the colonists. Essentially, Brant threw in his lot with the British because the colonists were far more of an immediate threat to Mohawk interests. As occurred throughout the New World, settlers impinged on native lands, even when a treaty should have protected their claims. In 1768, the Iroquois and the British signed a treaty at Fort Stanwix that would protect the Six Nations territory. Sir William Johnson, an Irish official of the Crown assigned to Indian affairs, was instrumental in drafting the treaty that met the expectations of the Indians—at least based on the wording. Johnson was the common-law husband of Joseph Brant’s sister Molly and sympathetic to Iroquois interests, even to the point of learning the Mohawk language and customs. In both films, he is a major character and the relationship between Brant and Johnson drives the narrative forward.

The British exploitation of the Mohawks as a military asset is reminiscent of Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore promised to free any slave who fought for the Crown. In a 2013 post, I cited Gary B. Nash, a “revisionist” whose take on the American war of independence is decidedly devoid of the patriotic junk we all learned in high school and that the Communist Party sadly dispensed when Earl Browder was the CPUSA’s chairman and infamous for declaring that Communism was 20th century Americanism:

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

It is clear from both films that the British were unreliable allies. They did little to protect the Six Nations from settler encroachment and likely would have allowed it to continue if they had defeated George Washington. That being said, the Mohawk had every reason to ally with the British who never were as open about killing indigenous people as the Founding Fathers.

Don’t ever forget what Thomas Jefferson, whose name adorned the CPUSA’s school for many years in New York, said: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Meanwhile, George Washington’s orders to General Sullivan included this: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

And even Ben Franklin, who extolled the democratic character of the Iroquois confederacy, came up with this in his autobiography: “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”


  1. Speaking of Lewis Henry Morgan, he probably would never have been able to embark on his second career as an anthropologist had it not been for his friendship with Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, and a very remarkable man in his own right. Parker came from a family that was prominent in the affairs of the Seneca Nation. As a young man, Parker decided that he would attempt to make his way within the white man’s world. First, by trying to become an attorney, but in the end he failed to do so because being an Indian, he was not considered to be a US citizen and so disqualified from entering the bar. Then, with Morgan’s help, he gained admission into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he trained to be a civil engineer. He then had a successful engineering career, working on many large projects in the Northeast and then the Midwest. There, he befriended a store clerk, Ulysses S. Grant, a former army officer. A few years later the Civil War broke out, and Grant returned to military service. Parker sought out an officer’s commission in the Union Army, and once again faced the obstacle that as an American Indian he was not regarded as being a US citizen and so not qualified to become an officer. However, Grant was able to pull strings and get Parker his officer’s commission. Parker then served as an aid to Grant, and he himself eventually became a brigadier general, making him one of the two American Indians who served as generals in that war (the other being a Cherokee who became a general in the Confederate Army). Later when Grant became president, he appointed Parker commissioner of Indian affairs, making him the first Native American to serve in that post. He was eventually driven out of that post as the Grant Administration began to suffer serious political problems. Some Congressional figures accused him of abuse of office. Sick of Washington politics. Parker first contemplated returning to engineering but he decided that his skills in that field were now obsolete. He then embarked on a Wall Street career. He was at first quite successful and made large fortunes. Later, his luck turned for the worse and he lost all of his money. He was eventually forced to take a job with the Board of Commissioners of the NYPD Committee on Supplies and Repairs. By this time, he had become active in various veterans’ organizations and was a frequent speaker at their events. He eventually died in Connecticut after having spent his last years in poverty.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — April 28, 2019 @ 12:11 pm

  2. Don’t know how relevant it is, but earlier Mohawks sided with the settlers against the allied tribes, bringing King Philip’s war to a decisive conclusion.

    On Sat, Apr 27, 2019 at 5:00 PM Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist wrote:

    > louisproyect posted: “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVJX2VtQbRc > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTsoxaD6ON8 I was astounded to learn in > Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the > Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General Joh” >

    Comment by jeffreymarlin — April 29, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

  3. You might find this novel about Brant interesting. It has been translated and released in English by Verso.


    Comment by Richard Estes — April 30, 2019 @ 11:24 pm

  4. Thanks, Richard. I will track it down.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 1, 2019 @ 12:04 am

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