Brant, Mary "Molly"

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Mary "Molly" Brant

Born c. 1736
New York
Died April 16, 1796
Kingston, Ontario

Mohawk tribal leader

Her influence over the Indians of the Mohawk Valley was "far superior to that of all the Chiefs put together."

British Colonel John Butler

Mary "Molly" Brant, a Mohawk Indian, was one of the most powerful women in the New World in the eighteenth century. She played a major role in helping her British husband maintain good relations with Native Americans in the Mohawk Valley region. After her husband's death, she influenced several tribes to unite around the cause of the British during the Revolutionary War (1775–83).

The time at which Brant lived—the middle of the eighteenth century—was a time of great upheaval for the Mowhawk people, who fiercely resisted European settlement of their land. The Mohawk was one of six tribes (Mohawk, Oneida [pronounced oh-NEYE-duh], Onondaga, Cayuga [pronounced KEYE-you-guh], Seneca, and Tuscarora) that lived peacefully among themselves and belonged to the Iroquois (pronounced IR-uh-kwoy) Confederacy (union). Members were sometimes called "Iroquois" instead of by their tribal name. Many Iroquois, including Molly Brant's parents, were converted to Christianity by missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and were given Christian names.

Brant was named Mary at birth by her father, a Mohawk tribal chief named Peter, and her mother, a native woman named Margaret. Mary was also known by her Indian name, Degonwadonti (pronounced Duh-GONE-wuh-DON-tee). Because she wrote English well, it is thought that as a child she may have attended the British school in Canajoharie, New York, where her family lived.

After the death of her first husband, Brant's mother married a man named Nicklaus Brant, who was part Dutch as well as part Native American. Nicklaus Brant sparked in Mary and her brother, Joseph, an interest in European culture, and gave Mary the English nickname "Molly." She grew up in the house her family owned in the Mohawk Valley, where the Brants were a well-respected family.

Marries British hero and has many children

In the late 1750s, Molly Brant met her stepfather's wealthy friend, Sir William Johnson. Irish by birth and a soldier in the British army, Johnson was the superintendent of Indian affairs for Great Britain. In this position, he was to ensure that American colonists did not trespass on land set aside for the Indians west of the Appalachian Mountains, including the Mohawk Valley region.

Johnson probably first noticed Molly in 1753, when the seventeen-year-old young woman took part in a horse riding competition between some British soldiers and Mohawks. After the death of Johnson's first wife, Molly Brant married the soldier—who was twenty-one years her senior—in a Mohawk ceremony (British law did not recognize their marriage as legal). Molly Brant bore Johnson eight or nine children, and Johnson's wealth provided the children with many advantages. For example, the children had fine clothing and other possessions that other children of the time could not afford. Johnson was also in a position to finance his eldest son Peter's education. Peter Johnson was sent to Montreal, Canada, to study business.

A charming hostess and influential leader

Mohawk women were very involved in tribal decision making and had a much more important role in Mohawk society than did women in white society. The equality between men and women practiced among the Indians caused much conflict in the Brant-Johnson union—Molly was far less submissive than the women Johnson encountered in British society.

Johnson pleased Brant by learning the Mohawk language and taking part in various tribal customs. He became a close friend of her brother, Joseph Brant see entry, perhaps partly because Joseph's friendship could prove useful to the British. Gaining the support of Molly Brant would also have been a benefit to Johnson: Her opinions carried much more weight among the Indians than did those of any white men.

Brant lived with her husband at Fort Johnson, New York, and later at his elegant estate, Johnson Hall, in the Mohawk Valley. Brant managed the household workers, raised the children, and entertained guests, who included both whites and Indians.

Johnson's outstanding military record earned him the title of "Sir" from the British government; Brant, then, was known as "Lady Johnson," though she remained "Miss Molly" to her old friends. She was widely praised by both whites and Indians for her dignity, charm, and hospitality. She was also well respected and held great influence among the people of the Iroquois Confederacy.

Moves to hometown after husband's death

Brant was very generous with her fellow Indians. Using credit extended to her because of her husband's wealth and good reputation, she purchased blankets, clothing, and other supplies for Iroquois people who were poor and needy. She also distributed cash and provided meals for people. In doing this she was following an old native custom of wealthy tribal members sharing their goods with those less fortunate. Traditionally, the more a person gave to others, the more the person rose in honor and prestige within the group. In performing these charitable acts, she became one of the most influential women among the Mohawk.

Brant's husband, Sir William Johnson, died in July 1774, and her way of life soon changed. She was pressured to give up her home, Johnson Hall, to John Johnson, William's eldest son by his first wife. (It was customary in England and among some families in America that the property of the father should go to the oldest son.) Using some of the money she inherited from her husband, she and her children then moved to a farm near Canajoharie, where they lived comfortably but not in luxury. With some of her inheritance, Brant opened a store, at which she sold rum and other items. A year after her husband's death, the American Revolution began. Because of her ties to the Mohawk tribe, Molly Brant found herself caught up in the war.

Influences Indians to ally with British

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War (1775–83), the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy decided it was best for them not to take sides in the conflict between Great Britain and the American colonies. As the war continued, the British tried hard to gain the Indians' support. The British wanted the two thousand warriors of the Confederacy to attack the American settlers on the frontier and make the colonists' fight more difficult.

A year after the war began Brant became involved in an effort to rally support for the British among her people. She took the side of Great Britain in part because King George III see entry had attempted to protect Indian lands from American settlers, who were pushing deeper and deeper into Indian territory. Brant was unable to persuade two of the six Iroquois peoples, the Tuscarora and Oneida, to support the British, but the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and her own Mohawk people followed her recommendations. Ferocious fighters, they proved a tremendous asset to the British.

Angry patriots drive Brant from hometown

In 1775 Brant's son Peter helped capture the American patriot Ethan Allen see entry in Montreal, Canada. Her brother, Joseph Brant, led Indian forces in a number of Revolutionary War battles and became the war's most famous Indian warrior.

Early in the war, Brant herself sheltered British soldiers at her home near Canajoharie and provided them with weapons. She occasionally spied on their behalf, informing them of American troop movements in the Mohawk Valley. In time, American colonists and Indians who sided with them took revenge by driving Brant and her family out of their home.

In 1779 a Continental (American) army unit led by General John Sullivan swept through Pennsylvania and northern New York State, burning Indian villages. The unit defeated Brant's Mohawks. In time many of them retreated to Canada along with other native people. Soon the Iroquois Confederacy fell apart.

Spends later years in Canada

When Brant and her children fled from Canajoharie, they lived for a time in the area of Fort Niagara, New York, a British stronghold. Later, Brant moved to Canada's Carleton Island on the St. Lawrence River, where for the duration of the war the British commander-in-chief of Canada provided her with a house and garden, food, and other supplies.

Brant loved the Mohawk people and actively worked for the preservation of their culture. In her later years she was to experience widespread criticism for involving the Iroquois peoples in the Revolutionary War. Her critics claimed that because the Indians had supported the British, the American government took away much of their lands in punishment. But supporters pointed out that Brant had only followed the tribal teaching that Iroquois people should side with their strongest ally.

The British government was grateful to Brant for her help during the war. In 1783 they granted her some land in Kingston, Ontario, along with an English-style house and a pension consisting of the highest rate of annual payments awarded to an Indian at the time. That, along with her inheritance from the Johnson estate, meant that she could live out her remaining years in comfort. She settled among other Loyalists (people who had remained loyal to England) in Kingston, where she resided for the rest of her life.

Several of Brant's daughters married Canadian army officers and became respected members of their community. In her later years, Brant withdrew from tribal affairs and devoted herself to her daughters, who lived nearby. She also joined the local Episcopal Church. Brant died on April 16, 1796, of unknown causes, and is buried in what is now St. Paul's churchyard in Kingston.

For More Information

Allen, Robert S. "Molly Brant" in American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 431–33.

Bataille, Gretchen M., ed. Native American Women. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 36–37.

Booth, Sally Smith. The Women of '76. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1973, pp. 153–55.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula K. Byers, eds. "Mary (Molly) Brant." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 501–03.

Clyne, Patricia Edwards. Patriots in Petticoats. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976, pp. 35–40.

Dockstader, Frederick J. "Molly Brant" in Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977, pp. 45–47.

Hamilton, W. Milton. "Molly Brant" in Notable American Women, edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1971, pp. 229–30.

Malinowski, Sharon, ed. "Molly Brant" in Notable Native Americans. Detroit: Gale, 1995, pp. 54–56.

McHenry, Robert, ed. "Mary Brant" in Liberty's Women. Springfield, MA: G & C Merriam, 1980, pp. 49–50.

Waldman, Carl, ed. "Molly Brant" in Who Was Who in Native American History. New York: Facts on File, 1990, p. 43.

Williams, Selma R. Demeter's Daughters, The Women Who Founded America, 1587–1787. New York: Atheneum, 1976, pp. 244–45.

Zeinert, Karen. Remarkable Women of the American Revolution. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996, pp. 50–51, 53.

Lydia Darragh, Spy for the Continental Army

Like Molly Brant, Lydia Darragh (pronounced DARE-uh) acted as a spy during the Revolutionary War. But unlike Brant, Darragh acted on behalf of the Continental army. Darragh was born in Ireland, where there was a long history of mistreatment of the Irish by the British. She married a Quaker minister named William Darragh, and the couple moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The couple had five children who grew to adulthood. The family came to love their adopted country.

Lydia Darragh was a midwife (a person who helps women bring their babies into the world). Around 1766 the hardworking woman added to her sources of income by opening a funeral home. When the American Revolution began, her family lived in a fine neighborhood in Philadelphia, across the street from the headquarters of General William Howe, commander-in-chief of the British forces.

The war placed the Darragh family in a painful position. They had to reconcile their religious beliefs with their patriotism (Quakers, members of the Society of Friends, are opposed to war). One of Lydia Darragh's sons, Charles, would quit the Quaker Church in order to become a soldier. Lydia Darragh managed to find a way to help the American cause without giving up her church: she would become a spy.

According to one famous tale, Darragh devised a clever way to pass along information about the British to the Continental army. After she gathered the information, her husband wrote it in code on tiny pieces of paper that were hidden behind the buttons on the coat of their fourteen-year-old son, John. Under the pretense of doing an errand, John then left the city and delivered the message to his brother, Charles, who had become an officer in the Continental army and who was stationed at White Marsh, Pennsylvania.

Another famous tale tells of the time Darragh's house was taken over by the British, who used part of it as a conference area. As the story goes, on the evening of December 2, 1777, the Darraghs were ordered to go to bed early, close the doors to their rooms, and stay there until morning. Long after the Darraghs had gone to bed, the British held an important meeting in their house. Lydia Darragh, suspicious, listened to their conversation through the keyhole and learned that General Howe was preparing to leave Philadelphia to launch a surprise attack on the colonial forces of General George Washington see entry. She hurried back to bed, pretending to be asleep when the commanding officer knocked on her door to say that the soldiers were leaving.

Realizing that the situation was critical, the next morning Lydia Darragh asked the British for a pass so that she could leave the city and go to a mill at nearby Frankford to pick up some flour. Stories differ as to whether she passed the information along to another female spy to take to the American military or delivered it herself to her friend, a Continental army officer, who passed it along to General Washington.

The message convinced Washington to move more American troops to the area of White Marsh. When the British marched there, expecting to surprise the Continental soldiers, they met with an American line of defense they could not break through. The British returned in defeat to Philadelphia, where they set up winter quarters. George Washington and his troops then marched on to their famous and difficult winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

When the British learned that Washington had been tipped off, they brought Lydia Darragh in for questioning. She was released for lack of evidence. Later Darragh was turned away by the Quaker community for taking part in activities of a "war-like" nature. She nonetheless continued with her spying activities and was never caught. Always a good businesswoman, Darragh left behind a sizable estate after her death around the age of sixty in 1789.