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The Indian Department and Six Nations Martial Tradition
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The Indian Department and Six Nations Martial Tradition

The historian Robert Muir summarised well the beginning of a military presence in the Brant County area when he wrote,

"The military history of Brant County may be said to have commenced in the year 1784 when Thayendanega, (Joseph Brant), the great war chief of the famous Iroquois Confederacy, with his trained bands of seasoned warriors, veterans of a hundred fights, came sailing up the 'Riviere Grand' (so called by the French) in their birch bark canoes."

Muir was referring to the coming of the Six Nations Indians to their new land, granted to them by Sir Frederick Haldimand in 1784. After the revolutionary war, during which they sided with the British, the Six Nations were no longer welcome on American soil. Six miles on either side of the Grand River was eventually granted to them from its mouth to its source for their patriotic service to the British Empire.

The early history of the Six Nations has been well documented in many volumns, but the military system and traditions that developed because of their relationship with the British Indian Department could be more fully described and are very interesting.

The Indian Department was Britain’s keystone policy for controlling and manipulating the Six Nations and other aboriginals living in the North American wilderness. It was initially founded in 1755 under Sir William Johnson while the Six Nations were still living in New York. General Braddock appointed him Indian Superintendent under the authority of His Majesty George the 2nd, with the rank of Major General. He held this position up to his death in 1774. Johnson was a prosperous Irishman who had considerable influence with the aboriginal tribes. He offered invaluable assistance during the French and Algonquin wars and was given the aboriginal name, Warraghiyagey (He who does much business).

From its beginning in 1755 up to 1830 the relationship between the Government and the Six Nations was almost exclusively one of cultivating their friendship as a valuable military ally and deterrent to the northern march of American Republicanism. The military connection was emphasised throughout this period. The Indian Department was actually under the control of the British Military Commander of the Forces and was paid for out of the military budget.

In 1830 Sir George Murray, Secretary of State for War, put an end to this military style system. He separated the Indian Department into two sections, one for Upper Canada and one for Lower Canada. He then placed them under control of the Civil Government as a branch of the Public Service. The old utilitarian approach, where aboriginals were assisted because they helped protect British interests, began to recede into the background. In its place was put a new native policy that by 1829 was being explained as an attempt to bring Christianity and Civilisation to, “Her Majesty’s Red Children of the forest.”

The Indian Department Superintendents had military rank, were entitled to wear a uniform and received the same pay and allowances as a regular Officer in Her Majesty’s Service during times of war. Their principle duties in times of peace were to arrange for the distribution of ‘Presents' to the Indians and attend the ceremony with as much military pomp and display as the occasion would allow. Presents meant useful items like buttons, broad cloth, blankets, needles, broaches, beads, thread, guns, Cod hooks and feathers.

The Indian Department with its military orientation proved itself very effective during the American Revolutionary War, The War of 1812 and the 1837 Mackenzie Rebellion organising the tribes to defend aboriginal and British interests. Warriors would serve and fight under the leadership of officers of the Indian Department.

Joseph Brant was an officer in the Indian Department and served during the Revolutionary War. His son John led warriors during the War of 1812 and became the Indian Department Superintendent of the Six Nations in 1828. During the Mackenzie Rebellion William Johnson Kerr, a Six Nations Mohawk, led warriors with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the Six Nations.

The one day of the year that reminded warriors of their military partnership with the British Empire and developed, as a martial tradition was the May Day celebration. Similar to the Annual Muster of the sedentary militia, the Annual Field Day amongst the Six Nations was held on May 1st. May Day was an early medieval celebration originally intended to ensure fertility to crops, cattle and humans. Sir William Johnson had encouraged the May Day celebration when the Six Nations were still living in the Mohawk Valley in the United States and Joseph Brant continued the festival after the move to the Grand River valley.

Brant's May Day celebration contained elements of ancient Indian traditions, parts of the white settler's country fair and elements of Sir William Johnson's old militia days. Aboriginals would come from miles around and camp along the Grand River with both whites and aboriginals welcome at the celebration. They sang songs, danced their stirring war dances and played games such as ball, races and wrestling. Oxen and venison would be roasted whole over a fire and served with large trays of sweetmeats. At the appropriate time the militia march past would take place reminding aboriginals of their military partnership with the British Crown.

The first annual Six Nations field day mentioned in documents about the Brant area was on May 1, 1799, held by Chief Joseph Brant. The document says that the field day was already an established annual custom by then and was described by the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Sir John Johnson, in the following words,

"We arrived at Captain Brant's the last of the month On the first of May according to an Annual custom he had all the warriors of the Village drawn out, with a company of militia of the neighborhood, they went through some part of the manual exercise, and fired three rounds, when they very handsomely repeated their unshaken attachment to the King's Person and Government, and offered their services whenever required."

The Mackenzie rebellion of 1837 was perhaps the last time the warriors of the Six Nations were mobilised as a separate body of troops, under Indian Department officers. Under William Johnson Kerr, Grandson of William Johnson and son-in-law of Joseph Brant, the Six Nations mobilised in December 1837 and served with Sir Allan MacNab as he swept into Oakland during the first movement against the western rebels under Charles Duncombe. Six Nations warriors were mobilised many times from 1837 to 1839. In December 1838 to January 1839, the Six Nations mustered over 500 warriors to serve in defence of Canada.

We are very fortunate a description of the annual field day of the Six Nations warriors was preserved for 1861 by John Smith, sr. By this time the annual field day was being held on the Queen's birthday, the same day the annual muster of the sedentary militia was held. He described it in the following words,

"The Queen's Birthday among the Six Nations Indians. We found the Indians assembled on a gentle, rising ground nearly opposite the village of Middleport. The, tout ensemble, presented from this side of the river a gay holiday appearance. From many a point the proud old Union Jack spread its folds to the breeze, here a band of Indian musicians discoursed a sweet melody, white knots on the grass, watching the evolutions of their countrymen, as formed into companies they went through the drill. Having crossed the river we found the braves and warriors of the Six Nations to the number of 100 foot and 100 mounted militia going through the tactics incident to a proper acquaintance with the science of war...Chief G.H.M. Johnson, (father of Pauline Johnson) had the general command of this body ably assisted by Chiefs Beaver, Clinch, Powlas and some others whose names we did not catch. The training closed with a sham fight got up in excellent style."

In 1862 the Six Nations made what appears to be their first attempt at raising a unit to serve within the ranks of the conventional militia. William John Simcoe Kerr, commonly called Simcoe Kerr, was the Captain. He was born in 1840, the youngest child of Chief (and Colonel) William Johnson Kerr, well known as leader of the warriors at the Battle of Beaver Dams during the war of 1812, and Elizabeth Brant daughter of Joseph Brant. His aunt Catherine, according to Mohawk tradition, named him Tekarihoga, (hereditary chief of the Mohawk), succeeding the deceased John Brant.

A Service roll with the names of 64 prospective militiamen was submitted to the Militia Department. He had discussed with the Brigade Major, Colonel Light, the possibility of raising a militia unit of battalion strength amongst the Six Nations and the Colonel was aggressive about doing this. Captain Kerr prudently suggested waiting to see how the first company worked out.

Though the company was short lived, this signaled the end of the old system of warriors serving under Indian Department officers. It began the present tradition of aboriginals serving as a fully integrated part of the Canadian military establishment. In the former and present systems of military service, they have proved themselves courageous warriors in defence of home and country.


Endnotes 1. Brantford Expositor, March 17, 1923.

2 RG10, Vol. 715, Pg. 1.

3. The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 7, Pg. 969, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1993.

4. Kelsay, Isabel Thompson, Joseph Brant, 1743 - 1807, man of two worlds, Pgs. 532-533, Syracuse University Press, 1984 and Robinson, Helen Caister, Mistress Molly, The Brown Lady, Portrait of Molly Brant, Pgs. 7-10, T. H. Best Printing Company.

5. Cruikshank, E.A., (Editor), The Russell Papers, Vol. 219, Published by the Ontario Historical Society, Toronto, 1936.

6. Brantford Expositor, May 31, 1861.

7. Sharpe, Roger, Soldiers and Warriors, The Early Volunteer Militia of Brant County, 1856 – 1866, Canadian Military Heritage Museum, Brantford, Ontario, 1998.

8. library and archives canada, RG9 1C1, Vol. 190, #1958.

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