The Tomahawk Marks


Johnson Hall

Although the postcard above shows little appearance of any tomahawk marks on the stairway (either scanned or in real life), the item description of this Ebay item states the following:

" Johnson Hall - Johnstown NY - Tomahawk Marks... The tomahawk marks on the stairway railing were made by JOSEPH BRANT - MOHAWK INDIAN to tell others that the Johnson family was under his protection ... "

Without any further qualifications (or any prior knowledge), this statement could just as easily be taken for fact as fiction.

In George Beaver's book, 'Mohawk Reporter : The Six Nations Columns of George Beaver' (Irocrafts �1997, ISBN-0-919645-24-0 ; ISSN-0714-7848), the author pays tribute to Joseph Thayendanegea Brant and recounts the following reaction of Thayendanegea as he awaits the decision of the Confederacy Chiefs on whether or not to enter a revolution not of their own design:

" .... The Confederacy Chiefs could not agree whether to go to war or to stay neutral.   Those who favoured neutrality looked at this as a white man's war.  On the other hand, the Mohawks felt duty-bound to help their allies, the British.  Besides, it appeared in 1776 that the British could easily put down the American rebellion.  Then Six Nations lands, which the Americans were already coveting, would be much safer.

When the council ended with no decision to go to war on behalf of the British, Joseph Brant, their war chief, was bitterly disappointed.  According to oral tradition, as he climbed the stairs at Johnson Hall, he angrily chopped marks into the wooden railing with his tomahawk. "

Myths and legends are too often mixed with fact and become 'facts' unto themselves.  In yet another version of the tomahawk marks, the following explanation is provided after General Schuyler's troops seized Johnstown and Sir John Johnson abandoned Johnson Hall:

" Before they fled, Brant left on the stair rail at Johnson Hall the marks of his hatchet as a sign to the Indians that the house was to be spared. The hatchet marks are still deeply cut in the mahogany banister rail, and though the town was burned, Johnson Hall was spared. " (link)

After almost 230 years, the emotions and motivations of the key figures of the Loyal faction may have been skewed to the point where an act of altruism has evolved into a fit of rage... or vice versa.  Regardless of intent, the fact that Thayendanegea made these marks appears to be valid.

And as a descendant of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant - even two centuries after the fact - I'm able observe his personal handiwork.

  The undisturbed stair railing at Johnson Hall  -  Johnstown, New York

Imagine if you will, if Johnson Hall had no special status which preserved its historical identity and the property were to be placed up for sale to the highest offer.  And imagine if the property were to be sold to an individual whose intention was to 'restore' and 'update' the house to current housing codes ���� la This Old House-style.  Imagine a gouged and sliver-prone stair rail were to be replaced with a stunning oak rail and code-complying spindles due to the new owner's lack of knowledge (or interest) in whoever made the marks.

It happens all the time.   In an attempt to preserve the past, we destroy the past... and the end result is a very nice replication (or interpretation) of history which is void of character despite the most intense attention to detail.   In it's own way, this is another form of revisionist history.

In the hypothetical scenario of the replaced Johnson Hall stair rail, a bit of history is lost and never can be duplicated.  A link to the past has been severed and a connection for Thayendanegea's descendants has been permanently denied.

Fortunately, thanks in no small part to the efforts of historians, volunteers and heritage groups such as the UELAC, Johnson Hall and other historically significant buildings and locations have guardians which see that historical integrity is every bit as important as structural integrity.

Today's UEL's yearn to make a connection with their ancestors in a variety of ways; visiting the sites of ancestral homes, paying respect by defending and maintaining ancestral burying grounds, securing antiquities such as deeds and land titles which allude to their family's past or by observing overt signs of their Loyalist ancestor's life... such as marks made in a wooden staircase.

For some, these vestiges of the past are visible reminders of the lives and loyalties from a turbulent time.  UEL's are moved to leave their own 'marks' in the form of roadside markers, plaques on or in buildings or through the printed word.  They may be as much a reminder for future generations as a tribute to past generations.

In a world where change and adaptation are the keys to survival, it's critically important to pause and remember what sort of 'marks' our future generations may find while researching the present generations.  We are the ancestors of the unborn generations and there's every reason to believe at some point, those yet to be born will have as much curiosity about our lives as we have for those who've passed before us.

In Native culture, decisions are often made with the Seventh Generation in mind.  What impact will our decisions have on those, our future generations?  Will our decisions be lookedupon with gratitude... or scorn?  Will our descendants be proud of us... or will they quietly relegate our names to obscurity out of a sense of shame or embarrassment?

What will be our 'marks' for them to see?  An act of defacing a private home may not be the most appropriate manner in which to leave a legacy, yet even as the motivation and rationale of such a display is lost to the ages, it's an overt sign of a Loyal Brant ancestor for all his descendants to view.

Bernice Wood Flett UE, Chair of Project 2014,  addressed  the National UEL Conference of 2003 with the following advice:

" ... We want the world to know that our ancestors were here and that what they did will live in memory forever.    We want to preserve our history and leave behind Inukshuks which will point the way for future generations to follow (so that) ' Now the people will know we were here.' "

Clearly, this is forward-thinking in its purest form as not only are we leaving our own 'marks', we're doing so with deliberate intent.  Thayendanegea may not have had the intent of leaving behind a physical sign of his life for his descendants, yet his action somehow narrows the generational divide which grows wider as each year passes.  His life becomes more than mere academic study; it takes on a very real quality which could never be realized regardless of how many books had been written.

As a UEL, I'm extremely fortunate... as well as proud... to be a descendant of such a luminous figure in the Loyalist movement.  There are a wealth of documents and publications which have been written about the life of Joseph Thayendanegea Brant... even a city and county bear his name... yet for all the scholarly studies and writing, little can compare to witnessing the physical manifestations of a man who chose to remain Loyal to an ideal.

So it is with the present generations.  What will we leave for our Seventh Generation to witness and (hopefully) admire?  What sort of evidence will our Seventh Generation find about our lives?  Granted, we may not have the fame or notoriety of a Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, but what legacy or artifact will be left for our descendants to discover?

I believe the Native value of honouring  past generations with a keen eye on those yet to be born is a pragmatic approach of ensuring the values, history and beliefs of a unique culture is maintained and preserved.  In a society where 'new and improved' is embraced with the same fervor of a fundamentalist religious belief, it's never been as important to make every effort to  not only defend and preserve the past, but to leave a lasting token of our existence for the future.

Simply put: it is our obligation to leave 'marks', Inukshuks or plaques which another time and people may view with curiosity or wonderment.  Some UEL's write books, some create heirlooms, some compile family documentation - yet the critical aspect to be remembered is there is some conscious intent to ' let people know we were here ' and to provide some sort of physical artifact by which our future generations may connect with us, their ancestors.

As we scrutinize every detail of our ancestors, we might be well advised to imagine what sort of 'marks' we would like to find of their lives.  It may be nothing more than a hand-written letter, yet each of us would jump at the chance to obtain such an item from our families' past.  It's with this conviction that we need to pay heed to those descendants who might yearn to have such an artifact of our lives long after we've departed this world.

Technically speaking, it's anyone's guess whether some storage medium such as a computer CD - which to us, is a fairly permanent record - will even be usable in twenty to thirty years.  Technological advances see as many 'old' products being retired as there are new products to replace them.  But for the moment, the CD is perhaps the best standard device which is available to many of us to compile, store and share family history and images.

In the not-so distant future, concepts and ideas which we can't even imagine will be ascommonplace as a VCR is today and a CD-R might be viewed with as much amusement as an 8-track tape.   Yet there's never been as many methods of preserving past and present artifacts and memories as we have at our disposal.  We no longer need to rely on pulling out a shoebox or album of photographs as the soul source of connecting with generations past... a single CD-R can store a bookcase of photo albums with far less chance of being forever  lost in the event of a fire or flood.

Memories may be permanent but heirlooms, photographs and... yes, even tomahawk marks... are subject to being permanently lost or destroyed.

It is incumbent upon us to ensure a lasting personal symbol or token... other than a gravestone... be left for those future UEL's to know who we were and what values and principles we held as priorities in our lives.

The Seventh Generation's requests are in front of us today.  Just as we seek and cherish artifacts of Seven Generations past, the same expectations will be made Seven Generations henceforth.

Our obligations and duties are as clear as a tomahawk's mark on a staircase. 

Let us regard our descendants with as much reverence and respect as we do our ancestors.


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