Brant, Molly (c. 1736–1796)
Brant, Molly (c. 1736–1796)
Mohawk clan mother whose diplomacy and intelligence-gathering during the American Revolution made her a power broker among both the Iroquois nations and British government officials in Canada. Name variations: Mary Brant; (in Mohawk) Koñwatsi'tsiaiéñni (meaning "someone lends her a flower"). Pronunciation: Gon-wat-si-jay-en-ni. Born around 1736 in the Mohawk village at Canajoharie near Little Falls, New York; died on April 16, 1796, at Kingston, Ontario, Canada; daughter of Margaret and Peter (Christianized Mohawks of the Six Nations Confederacy); granddaughter of Sagayeeanquarashtow, Iroquois representative to the English court; sister of Joseph Brant (c. 1742–1807); married Sir William Johnson, c. 1759 (his second marriage); children: Peter (b. 1759); Elizabeth (b. 1761); Magdalene (b. 1763); Margaret (b. 1765); George (b. 1767); Mary (b. 1769); Susanna (b. 1771); Anna (b. 1773) and one unnamed baby who died shortly after birth.
Accompanied Mohawk delegation to Philadelphia to protest fraudulent sales of tribal lands (1754–55); marriage to Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies placed her in charge of the Johnson household and estate, and, from time to time, the Indian Department itself (1759–74); as Johnson's widow and a powerful clan mother, persuaded her nation toally with the Crown during the American Revolution (1775–83); credited with saving St. Leger's Loyalist forces besieging Fort Stanwix from surprise attack by an American relief militia (1777); forced from her Mohawk Valley home by invading rebel colonists, spent most of the war at Fort Niagara and on Carleton Island, New York, negotiating the Crown's interests with other displaced Iroquois; at war's end, resettled her family at Cataraqui (Kingston) Canada.
Early one August morning in 1777, the American General Nicholas Herkimer's young Oneida wife opened her front door to find an angry, threatening Mohawk Loyalist on her doorstep. General Herkimer had been observed leading the entire Tryon County, New York, militia off on a secret mission, and "Mistress Molly" Brant of the Six Nations Confederacy demanded to know where he was bound.
While most of the Iroquois nations supported the British cause in the American Revolution, the Oneidas had sided with the rebels, a fact which infuriated the head of the Six Nations Society of Matrons. After all, was it not backcountry colonists, now in rebellion against the Crown, who pillaged Indian lands and murdered innocent villagers? And was it not British officials who had tried to keep the peace and protect Indian rights? Molly's own husband, Sir William Johnson, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, guaranteeing Iroquois sovereignty over their hunting grounds on the Ohio and limiting colonial expansion into Indian country. And now this Oneida traitor dared to defy her. "Where has your husband gone?" Brant repeated menacingly. "And remember, I am a clan mother—do not even think of lying to me!" Shaking with fear, the young woman blurted out what she knew. With that information, Molly Brant succeeded in saving her brother's Iroquois warriors and their British allies from annihilation.
Born in 1736 into the Mohawk nation of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora tribes), Molly Brant probably spent some of her childhood years at Cuyahoga in the Ohio hunting grounds of the Mohawk, for it was there that her younger, equally famous brother, "Chief" Joseph Brant, was born in 1742. Details of her parentage and early life are obscure. Some sources assert that her father Peter (who died when she was a child) was a notable warrior, and that her mother Margaret was a granddaughter or possibly niece of the great Mohawk chief Theyanoguin (also known as King Hendrick). Others state that Molly's parents were of humble origin and that
Margaret's subsequent marriage to a prosperous mixed-blood, Nickus Brant, elevated her family to prominence within the Mohawk community. Molly's early life at Canajoharie, located in the thriving Mohawk River Valley, may have included some formal education, as in later life she could read and write English fluently—though she preferred to speak Mohawk.
Her political activity seems to have begun in 1754 when she accompanied 12 Mohawk leaders (including King Hendrick) to Philadelphia to complain to Pennsylvania officials about unscrupulous Connecticut land speculators operating in Mohawk territory. Her presence in such a delegation was not unusual. Tribes of the Six Nations Confederacy were not merely matrilineal; Iroquois women customarily exercised considerable economic and political power. They controlled the fields, selected peace chiefs and religious leaders, decided the fate of captives, and commanded—usually through the Clan Mothers' Council—a voice in tribal policy-making. No treaty was considered valid without their assent, and no war could be prosecuted without their permission, for they supplied the food and extra moccasins for war parties. Molly Brant's subsequent influence over restless young warriors during the American Revolution derived not only from her own talents but also from long-standing traditions of matriarchal authority among the Iroquois.
In 1759, Molly Brant became the common-law wife of Sir William Johnson, the most substantial European settler in Mohawk Valley. An Irish merchant and land developer, Johnson had come to the valley some 20 years earlier to manage his Uncle Peter Warren's North American estates. In time, Johnson's adept handling of his frontier neighbors—Indian and European—elevated him to superintendent of Indian Affairs for His Majesty's Northern Colonies; military successes and valor during the French and Indian War (1756–63) earned him a baronetcy. The famed Covenant Chain of friendship between the Six Nations Confederacy and the British Crown owed much to his honest and affectionate dealings with the Iroquois. The Mohawks especially considered him their trusted friend and patron. Long acquainted with the Brant family, and now a widower with three teenage children, Sir William brought Molly into his home as housekeeper, hostess, and mistress. Although no record can be found of a legal marriage or an Indian ceremony, Brant remained his sole consort until his death in 1774; their eight surviving children bore Sir William's name and were, like their mother, well provided for in his will.
You have great influence with your people, Miss Molly. Your word is law to them.
—Colonel John Butler
Just as Johnson's marriage to a well-connected Mohawk cemented his ties to the Confederacy, Brant likewise used her position to augment her influence among the Iroquois. She supervised a large household of servants, slaves, and children, first at Fort Johnson on the Mohawk River, and then at Johnson Hall, the baronial mansion he built in 1763 near Johnstown, New York. Records reveal that Brant even directed the routine business of the Indian Affairs Department during her husband's frequent absences on business and military matters. She purchased large quantities of trade goods which she distributed to Iroquois sachems, gift-giving being a much-honored practice among Eastern Woodlands tribes. She entertained peace chiefs, governors, and hundreds of important British visitors at Johnson Hall. "When treaties and purchases were about to be made," reported one observer, "she often persuaded the obstinate chiefs into compliance with the proposals." In due course, Molly Brant became the most influential Mohawk matron in the valley.
Joseph Brant (also known as Thayendanegea) clearly benefitted from his older sister's union with Johnson. A promising young warrior at age 16—he fought under Johnson in the successful 1759 campaign against the French at Fort Niagara—Joseph now became Johnson's much-favored protégé. Sir William educated his young brother-in-law at his own expense and personally trained him in the art of diplomacy during vacations from boarding school. Joseph enjoyed all the privileges of a son and, like Molly, found himself utterly charmed by the Irish chieftain of Johnson Hall.
Sir William's untimely death in 1774 left Brant a widow at age 41, but in no way diminished her status among either the Iroquois or British officials. Johnson Hall passed into the hands of her stepson, Sir John Johnson, while Brant established a spacious home for her children and servants on land she inherited near Canajoharie. There she continued to influence decision-making among her clan, little suspecting how completely her family's comfortable existence would be shattered by the coming war.
As revolutionary fervor mounted among the rebel colonists, the Six Nations Confederacy faced its most serious crisis in decades. The Iroquois Confederacy had built and maintained its power in North America by remaining united, and by playing off one enemy against another. The Covenant Chain of friendship with the Crown—based as it was on trade and peaceful co-existence—was one thing; involving themselves in the White Man's internal conflicts, quite another. Even the Mohawks, the most pro-British tribe in the Confederacy, preferred to stay neutral. But Molly Brant and her family were staunch Loyalists. She and Joseph used all their powers of persuasion to swing the Six Nations to the Crown's side. In the end, most of the Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas backed the British and chose Joseph Brant as their war leader; most of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras threw in their lot with the Americans. Tragically, this split ultimately proved fatal to the Iroquois people on both sides.
Molly and Sir William's 16-year-old son, Peter Warren Johnson, became a lieutenant in the British army, where he distinguished himself in September of 1775 by capturing the patriot leader, Ethan Allen, at Montreal. Soon Joseph headed to England to negotiate a formal alliance with the Crown, while Molly, at considerable risk to her personal safety, did everything she could to feed, clothe, and arm Loyalist refugees of both races in Mohawk country.
In August of 1777, she rendered her most dramatic service to the Loyalist cause. As British and Iroquois forces led by Matthew St. Leger and Joseph Brant lay siege to Fort Stanwix (Rome, New York), Molly observed her former neighbor, Nicholas Herkimer, march away from Canajoharie at the head of a sizable rebel militia. Seizing Herkimer's Oneida wife, and threatening her as only a Mohawk clan mother could, Molly pried out of the terrified woman details of Herkimer's plan to attack the Loyalists outside Fort Stanwix. Brant sent Indian runners to her brother, who then arranged a successful ambush of Herkimer's army at Oriskany, New York. More than any other participant, Molly determined the course of military events that month in the region, but she paid dearly for her partisan deed: her home was ransacked and destroyed by revenge-minded rebels, and she and her young children were forced to flee for their lives.
Taking refuge first in Onondaga, the Six Nations capital, and then among her Cayuga relatives, for the next several weeks Brant continued to urge all out war against the Americans. When British General John Burgoyne's disastrous surrender in October caused some of the chiefs to waver, Brant used her standing as Johnson's widow to force their continuing loyalty. In one critical council, when a leading Seneca war chief urged peace, she publicly rebuked him for daring to break the Covenant Chain and desert the ideals of his old friend, Sir William. Her oratory prevailed, and the council of chiefs stuck to their alliance with the British. Johnson's son-inlaw, Colonel Daniel Claus, admitted to General Frederick Haldimand (later governor-general of Canada): "One word from her is more taken notice of by the Five Nations than a thousand from any white man."
For nearly two years, Brant lived at Fort Niagara, summoned there by Colonel John Butler, who thought her political activism essential to maintaining the Iroquois alliance. By September of 1779, however, Fort Niagara was bulging with loyalist refugees, and General Haldimand invited her to safer, more comfortable quarters in Montreal. After settling her older children in boarding school there, she hastened back towards Fort Niagara, alarmed by news of British defeats and further rebel depredations in Iroquois country. She got only as far as Carleton Island, New York, a forwarding post in the St. Lawrence River. There she found a large Indian population, angry and resentful over Britain's failure to protect their villages. Officials feared the younger warriors might turn on their British allies. For the remainder of the war she lived at Carleton Island, asserting her authority as head of the Society of Six Nations Matrons. A grateful Commandant Alexander Fraser wrote to Haldimand in 1780: "[The Indians'] uncommon good behaviour is in great measure to be ascribed to Miss Molly Brants influence over them, which is far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together." On a brief visit to her children in Montreal that summer, Brant received the bitterest news of all: her older son, Peter, had died in action four years earlier at Philadelphia. He was just 17.
At war's end (1783), Molly Brant did not know with whom she was angrier: the Americans who had driven her people from their homeland and killed her son, or the British, for handing over all Iroquois lands to the new American government and abandoning their Six Nations allies in the peace agreement. Now she and her brother faced the daunting task of resettling the survivors in Canada. In 1785, Joseph negotiated from the Crown a large land grant on the Grand River in Upper Canada where he set about reconstructing, at least partially, a fractured Iroquois Confederacy. Brantford, Ontario, and the Six Nations Reserve stand as living testimony to his determination to create a new life out of the ashes of war and betrayal. Molly Brant and other Mohawks at Carleton Island chose to accept land across the bay at Cataraqui (soon to be renamed Kingston). In consideration for her services to the Crown, Governor Haldimand awarded her a pension of £100 per year (the highest paid to any Native American) and compensation for some of her wartime losses. The Canadian government built her a comfortable residence, as well as a second dwelling to accommodate Joseph's frequent visits.
When in 1785 Molly returned briefly to her old home in the now-devastated Mohawk Valley, the American government tried to lure her back to the New York frontier permanently. Hoping that she might act as a calming agent among tribes to the west, officials offered financial compensation for her confiscated lands. Contemptuously, she rejected what she saw as a naked bribe. Five of her daughters were now married to Englishmen of distinction, three of them living at Kingston; her surviving son, George, farmed and taught school near Brantford; and the Bay of Quinte Mohawk community still sought her advice and counsel. Canada was to be Brant's home for the rest of her life.
Little is known of her later years, except for an occasional glimpse provided by travelers to Kingston. A devout Anglican, Brant regularly attended St. George's Church where it was reported that she "sat in an honourable place among the English." When Indian delegations arrived to confer with government officials, Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe always invited "Miss Molly" to attend. And in 1795 she gave Simcoe an Indian remedy for his persistent cough, which cured him "in a very short time." Molly Brant died in 1796, aged 60. She was buried in St. George's Church cemetery at Kingston.
A controversial figure because she was both pro-British and pro-Iroquois, Molly Brant strode with authority in both worlds. Tall, high-spirited and resolute, she asserted her will with Indian chiefs and Anglo officials alike. She nearly always wore traditional Mohawk dress, even at Johnson Hall, and spoke and wrote primarily in Mohawk rather than English. Yet, her nearly 20-year association with Sir William Johnson had taught her the wisdom of pragmatic accommodation. She saw to it that her children acquired a white world's education and advantages, for at the end of the 18th century, the old Indian ways that had empowered her were fading away. The strength and unity that once made the Iroquois peoples feared and honored were gone now, eclipsed by Euro-American civilization whose agents evidenced little appreciation for Iroquois custom and culture. Molly Brant was an extraordinary woman by any standard, but she was also the last Mohawk woman to wield such far-reaching influence over individuals and events.
Graymont, Barbara. "Koñwatsi'tsiaiéñni," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979, pp. 416–419.
Green, Gretchen, "Molly Brant, Catherine Brant and Their Daughters: A Study in Colonial Acculturation," in Ontario History. Vol. 81. September 1989, pp. 235–250.
Gundy, H. Pearson. "Molly Brant—Loyalist," in Ontario History. Vol. 45, 1953, pp. 97–108.
Hamilton, Milton W. Sir William Johnson: Colonial American, 1715–1763. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1976.
——. "Sir William Johnson's Wives," in New York History. Vol. 38, 1957, pp. 18–28.
Flexner, James Thomas. Lord of the Mohawks: A Biography of Sir William Johnson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1979.
Kelsay, Isabel Thompson. Joseph Brant, 1743–1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984.
Merritt, Susan E. Her Story: Women from Canada's Past. St. Catharines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing, 1993.
Brant Manuscripts, Draper Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Haldimand Papers, National Archives of Canada; and Sullivan, James (ed.). The Papers of Sir William Johnson. 14 vols. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1921–1965.
Constance B. Rynder , Professor of History, University of Tampa, Tampa, Florida