Mary (“Molly”) Brant was one of the most influential people in the American Revolution because of, not in spite of, her being a woman. Bridging two cultures as distinct as the European and the Mohawk of the Six Nations Iroquois, Koñwatsi’tsiaiéñni forged between her people of upper New York and the British a consensus that altered the destinies of both peoples. While her younger brother, Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), was admired and mythologized for his urbane acculturation and zealous support for the British during the Revolution, Molly Brant enjoyed a higher status as the relict of a powerful British land baron and Indian agent, and as a diplomat and stateswoman at the head of a society of Six Nations matrons who wielded immense power and authority in traditional Iroquoian government.
Six years older than
her famous brother Joseph (1742/43-1807), Molly Brant was married by Mohawk
rites to Sir William Johnson, colonial baron, whose leadership in upper
New York state made him an influential voice throughout the Mohawk Valley.
Following Sir William's death in 1774, Molly wielded considerable influence
over the Iroquois Confederacy. Whenever their loyalty wavered, Koñwatsi’tsiaiéñni,
as she preferred to be called, was able to convince the Confederacy to
continue their support for Britain throughout the American Revolution.
Because of their loyalty, the Six Nations Confederacy was dispossessed
of its extensive lands following the Treaty of Paris (1783). The Iroquois,
including Molly Brant and her seven children, were consequently forced
to flee as refugees with some 7,000 other U.E. Loyalists to Quebec, (divided
into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791), a British colony that rejected rebellion
during the American Revolution.
|This Canada Post stamp, issued in 1986, commemorates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Koñwatsi’tsiaiéñni. [Photo, courtesy Canada Post Corporation]|
Mary Brant was probably born in 1736 of mixed Onondaga and Wyandot parentage in the Upper Mohawk castle of Canajoharie in New York where the Mohawks controlled the river of the same name. The Mohawks, the easternmost nation of the Six Nations Iroquoian Confederacy, had strong connections with former Dutch and English trading partners. Molly married, in "the custom of the country," Sir William Johnson, a greatly admired landowner and the first superintendent of the northern Indians of British North America. From their alliance at least seven children were born at Johnson Hall. Although his will when he died in 1774 recognized her only as a “prudent faithful housekeeper,” she was left a legacy of land, money, and a black female slave.
The American Revolution
forced the Iroquois to take sides and the Brants argued persuasively that
the Six Nations would best be served by the British. Molly was highly esteemed
in the Six Nations Confederacy as the head of a society of matrons who
influenced councils of war and young warriors. While living in the Mohawk
Valley she aided other Loyalists taking refuge, and in August of 1777 successfully
warned the British of an advancing American army later defeated at the
Battle of Oriskany. Members of the Six Nations who sided with the Americans,
especially the Oneida people, enacted revenge on Molly by sending her fleeing
with her family to other Six Nations com- munities and finally to Canada
— first to the Niagara area and later to Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island
in the St. Lawrence River.
|The home of Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) is an historical landmark in upper New York state. Molly Brant, Sir William's wife, was responsible for the management of Johnson Hall which entertained, as illustrated in this E.L. Henry painting, large numbers of Iroquois and other guests who lodged there for extensive intervals until 1777 at which time she fled the baronial estate, and her ancestral lands, for Canada. [Photo, courtesy Albany Institute of History and Art]|
Indian agent Daniel Claus commented in 1779, “One word from her goes farther with them (the Iroquois) than a thousand from any white man without exception who in general must purchase their interest at a high rate.” Alexander Fraser, commanding Carleton Island in 1779-1780, declared that the Indians’ “uncommon good behaviour is in a great measure ascribed to Miss Molly Brant’s influence over them, which is far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together.”
The war had inconvenient
consequences for the Loyalists who became refugees in a new land, and tragic
consequences for the Loyalists Iroquois who were forced to give up ancestral
lands because of their loyalty to the British. Following hostilities, Sir
Frederick Haldimand as governor of Quebec made arrangements for Molly that
included a house built at Cataraqui (Kingston) in 1783 as well as an annual
pension. She also received compensation for her great losses. These material
gains never came close to making amends for the sense of dispersion and
displacement experienced by her people. When she returned to her beloved
Mohawk Valley in 1785, she could not be enticed to stay. Eventually she
was buried in 1796 in St. Paul’s Anglican churchyard, Kingston.
|As wife of Upper Canada's first Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Simcoe sketched scenes between 1792-96 of Upper Canada which today are invaluable historical documents. This sketch of Kingston, U.C., in 1792, is where Molly Brant lived out the last days of her life and where she was buried in 1796. [Photo, courtesy Macdonald Stewart Foundation, Montreal]|
Historian Barbara Graymont wrote that Molly Brant was “a woman of high intelligence and remarkable ability who was at ease in two cultures. Mary Brant personified the dignity and influence accorded to respected mothers among the Iroquois people.”