Published on January 20, 2011 by Casey
Molly Brant (c.1736 – April 16, 1796), also known as Mary Brant, Konwatsi’tsiaienni, and Degonwadonti, was a prominent Mohawk woman in the era of the American Revolution. Living in the Province of New York, she was the consort of Sir William Johnson, the influential British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, with whom she had eight children. Joseph Brant, who became an important Mohawk leader, was her younger brother.
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After Johnson’s death in 1774, Brant and her children returned to her native village of Canajoharie on the Mohawk River. A Loyalist during the American Revolutionary War, she fled to British Canada, where she worked as an intermediary between British officials and the Iroquois. After the war, she settled in what is now Kingston, Ontario. In recognition of her service to the Crown, the British government gave Brant a pension and compensated her for her wartime losses.
Since 1994, Brant has been honored as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada. She was long ignored or disparaged by historians of the United States, but scholarly interest in her increased in the late 20th century. She has sometimes been controversial, criticized for being pro-British at the expense of the Iroquois. A devout Anglican, she is commemorated on April 16 in the calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada. No portraits of her are known to exist; an idealized likeness is featured on a statue in Kingston and on a Canadian stamp issued in 1986.
Little is known for certain about Molly Brant’s early life. Named Mary, but commonly known as “Molly”, she was born around 1736, possibly in the Mohawk village of Canajoharie, or perhaps further west in the Ohio Country. Her parents were Christian Mohawks.She may have been the child named Mary who was christened at the chapel at Fort Hunter, another Mohawk village, on April 13, 1735. If so, her parents were named Margaret and Cannassware.Most historians believe, however, that her father was named Peter. Joseph Brant, born in 1743, was Molly’s brother or half-brother.
One of Molly’s Mohawk names, perhaps her birth name, was Konwatsi’tsiaienni, which means “Someone Lends Her a Flower”. Her other Mohawk name, given to her at adulthood, was Degonwadonti, meaning “Two Against One”. Her Mohawk names have been spelled in a variety of ways.
The Mohawks are one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League, who at the time lived primarily in the Mohawk River valley in what is now upstate New York. At some point, either before or after her birth, Molly’s family moved west to the Ohio Country. After Molly’s father died, her family moved back to Canajoharie. On September 9, 1753, Molly’s mother married Brant Kanagaradunkwa, a Mohawk sachem of the Turtle clan. Possibly to reinforce their connection to Brant Kanagaradunkwa, who was a prominent leader, Molly and Joseph took their stepfather’s name as a surname, which was unusual for that time.
Molly Brant was raised in a Mohawk culture that was highly anglicized. In Canajoharie, the Brants lived in a substantial colonial-style frame house and used many European household goods.The family attended the Church of England. Molly was fluent in Mohawk and English. It is not clear whether she was formally educated or whether she could read and write. There are several letters signed “Mary Brant”, but these may have been dictated by Molly and written by someone else. A letter from 1782 is signed with “her mark”, indicating that she may have been only semi-literate.
In 1754, Molly accompanied her stepfather and a delegation of Mohawk elders to Philadelphia, where the men were to discuss a fraudulent land sale with colonial leaders. The party then traveled to Albany, where an English officer, Captain Staats Long Morris, nephew of Governor Lewis Morris of Pennsylvania, met and fell in love with Brant.She was then about nineteen years old and described as “pretty likely”, meaning “good looking”.
When General Sir William Johnson, Superintendent for Northern Indian Affairs, visited Canajoharie, he always stayed at the house of his friend, Molly’s stepfather Brant Kanagaradunkwa. Johnson and Molly Brant became intimate; in September 1759, she gave birth to his son, Peter Warren Johnson, named for Sir William’s early patron, Admiral Sir Peter Warren.Brant lived with Johnson at Fort Johnson, and then Johnson Hall after 1763, becoming effectively Sir William’s common-law wife. The couple had nine children together, eight of whom lived past infancy.
In Johnson’s will Molly is referred to as his “housekeeper”, which at the time meant that she ran the household, served as hostess, and supervised the female servants and slaves. According to historian Barbara Graymont, “Mary Brant presided over Johnson’s household with intelligence, ability, grace, and charm, and she effectively managed the estate during Johnson’s many and prolonged absences.”Johnson and Brant’s relationship was public; she received gifts and thank-you notes from prominent visitors such as Lord Adam Gordon.Johnson used his connection with Brant to further his public and private dealings with the Iroquois.Brant’s role as Johnson’s domestic and political partner was well known. “Before the age of forty,” writes Feister and Pulis, “she was already a legendary figure….”
William Johnson died in July 1774. In his will he left land, money, and slaves to Brant and her children;Johnson Hall was left to John Johnson, Sir William’s eldest son by his first common-law wife. Molly returned to Canajoharie with her children, personal belongings, and slaves. There she lived a comfortable life in a large house, prospering as a trader.
Brant supported the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War. From her home in Canajoharie, she provided food and assistance to Loyalists who were fleeing from New York to Canada. Despite harassment from local Patriots, she remained at Canajoharie for the first two years of the war.
A turning point came in 1777 when British forces invaded New York from Canada and laid siege to Patriots in Fort Stanwix. In August, when Brant learned that a large body of Patriot militia was on its way to relieve the fort, she sent Mohawk runners to alert the British commander of the danger.This information enabled a British, Mohawk, and Seneca force to ambush the Patriots and their Oneida allies in the Battle of Oriskany. After this battle, in which Iroquois warriors fought on both sides, the war in the Mohawk Valley became particularly brutal.The Oneidas and Americans retaliated against Brant by pillaging Canajoharie. Brant fled with her children to Onondaga, the Iroquois capital. Her departure was so precipitate that she had to leave most of her belongings behind.
At Onondaga, the Iroquois held a council to discuss what course to take. Most Iroquois favored assisting the British, but after the Battle of Saratoga, it seemed unlikely that the British could win. Sayenqueraghta, a Seneca chief, urged the Iroquois to withdraw from the war. Brant criticized Sayenqueraghta’s advice, invoking the memory of Sir William to convince the council to remain loyal to the Crown. According to Daniel Claus, a British Indian agent and Sir William’s son-in-law, Brant was “in every respect considered and esteemed by them as Sir William’s Relict [i.e. widow], and one word from her is more taken notice of by the Five Nations than a thousand from any white man without exception”.
Much of Brant’s influence came from her connections to Sir William Johnson and her stepfather Brant Kanagaradunkwa. Additional influence came from the fact that women in matrilineal Iroquois society had more political input than women in patriarchal societies. Because Brant’s ancestry is unclear, historians have apparently disagreed about whether she was born into an influential matrilineage. Brant has been described as the “head of the Six Nations matrons”, although historian Robert Allen writes that “there is no substantive evidence to suggest that Molly was ever a clan matron or mother within the Iroquois matrilineal society”.Fiester and Pulis write that “although not born to the position, she became one of the Mohawk matrons”.
In late 1777, Brant relocated to Fort Niagara at the request of Major John Butler, who wanted to make use of her influence among the Iroquois.At Niagara, Brant worked as an intermediary between the British and the Iroquois, rendering, according to Graymont, “inestimable assistance there as a diplomat and stateswoman”.Meanwhile, in November 1777 Brant’s son Peter Johnson was killed in the Philadelphia campaign while serving in the British 26th Regiment of Foot.
In 1779, Brant visited Montreal, where some of her children attended school, but headed back when the Americans began their invasion of Iroquoia that year. Because of the war, she could only get as far as the British post at Carleton Island, where many Iroquois refugees had fled from the Americans. There she continued her work as an intermediary. The British commander considered Brant’s influence “far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together”.Brant was unhappy with having to live in an army barracks with her children. Hoping to keep her favor, the British built her a house on the island in 1781, where she lived with her children and four slaves for the remainder of the war.
When Carleton Island was largely abandoned in 1783, Brant moved to Cataraqui, now Kingston, Ontario, where the government built her a house and gave her an annual pension of £100. Brant and her family received compensation from the British government for their losses in the American Revolution. Hoping to make use of her influence, the United States offered Brant compensation if she would return with her family to the Mohawk Valley, but she refused.
Brant lived in Kingston for the remainder of her life, a respected member of the community and a charter member of the local Anglican Church. Her son George Johnson, known as “Big George” among Natives, married an Iroquois woman and became a farmer and teacher; her daughters married prominent white men. She died in Kingston on April 16, 1796, at about age 60, and was buried at St. George’s Church, now known as St. Paul’s Anglican Church. The exact location of her grave is unknown.
Brant’s legacy is varied. Since 1994, she has been honored as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.Brant was long ignored or disparaged by historians of the United States, but scholarly interest in her increased in the late 20th century. The Johnson Hall State Historic Site in New York now interprets her public and private roles for visitors. She has sometimes been controversial, criticized for being pro-British at the expense of the Iroquois. According to Feister and Pulis, “She made choices for which she is sometimes criticized today; some have seen her as having played a large part in the loss of Iroquois land in New York State.”
Brant is commemorated on April 16 in the calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada.No portraits of her are known to exist; an idealized likeness is featured on a statue in Kingston and on a Canadian stamp issued in 1986.