Next on our list of extraordinary women of history is Molly Brant. Brant was an influential Mohawk woman in the American Revolution. Spy, loyalist, and diplomat, and a clan matron, Brant straddled two worlds. But she kept her native heritage in her speech and dress throughout her entire life.
Brant’s native name was Konwatsi’tsiaienni (also spelled Gonwatsijayenni) which means “someone lends her a flower.“ The daughter of a sachem (chief), she was probably born in Canajoharie, a barricaded long house village on the south bank of the Mohawk river, in about 1736. Her mother was Margaret Sahetagearat Onagsakearat. The man assumed to be her father was Peter Tehonwaghkwangeraghkwa. Both of them were Mohawks of the Wolf clan.
The Mohawks were members of the Iroquois Confederacy (native name: Haudenosaunee Confederacy), a political union of six different Indian nations in the northeast. The Iroquois were a matrilineal society. They passed property and responsibility from mother to daughter. Iroquois women controlled land and wealth and had influence over policy issues. Learn more about the Mohawks.
Peter died in the 1740s, leaving Margaret destitute. She had a brief second marriage to a War Chief who was killed in a raid. She married for the third time in September 1753. Most sources say she married Brant Kanagaradunka, a wealthy Mohawk sachem from the Turtle Clan. Molly’ and her brother used their stepfather’s name as their surname.
We know little about Molly’s childhood through her teens. Brought up as an Anglican, she was likely educated in an English mission school. She spoke and wrote English well.
Love and Politics
As a teenager in 1754, Molly accompanied a delegation of Mohawk elders to Philadelphia. This was probably part of her training to become a clan matron. The elders discussed fraudulent land transactions.
About this time, Molly met Sir William Johnson, hero of Crown Point in the French and Indian War and superintendent of Indian affairs for the northern colonies. Mohawks respected Johnson for his honest dealing with them and his mastery of their language. Johnson was a successful colonial trader and one of the richest men in the colonies.
Molly became Johnson’s common-law wife. Some records claim there is no record of a marriage. Others claim they were married in a traditional Mohawk ceremony. Molly was about 23 years old. Johnson was 44. Each of them gained something through their marriage. Molly’s prestige among both settlers and her own people grew. Soon she was a clan mother, responsible for the welfare of her clan. Eventually she became the leader of the group of clan mothers.
Despite being a clan matron, spy, Loyalist, and diplomat and the wife of a prestigous war hero, there are no known photographs of Molly at any age. This may a reflection of the societal attitudes of that period. They saw her, a Native American, as inferior.
The couple had at least nine children. Eight of their children, two sons and six daughters, survived. Molly managed his household, which included a cook, a gardener, a secretary, and several slaves. She and Sir William entertained constantly. They entertained many distinguished Native American, colonial guests, political, military, and businessmen.
Sir William died at the outbreak of hostilities in July 1774. Molly relinquished control of Johnson’s estate to his eldest son and heir from his previous marriage. She, her children, and four slaves moved back to Canajoharie and her own people.
She lived near her mother and her brother Joseph and ran a store that sold supplies to the villagers. And she became a vital political link between the British and Iroquois Confederacy. Molly provided food and ammunition to the Loyalists and hid them in her house.
The American Revolution brought an end to the thousand year old Iroquois Confederacy.
The Mohawks sided with King George III. Molly spied on rebel activities from her home in Canahoharie. In October 1777 she warned the British of the approach of an American force. The Patriots discovered she’d sent the Loyalists information about their troop movements. Twice they came in the night to search her home.
She and her children fled to Onondaga, the Iroquois capital. Her people had lost warriors and possessions. Many doubted the wisdom of fighting. Molly reminded them that the King deserved their loyalty because he had tried to protect their land.
In late 1777, Colonel Butler of Fort Niagara needed Molly’s help. Thousands of homeless Iroquois had been arriving at the fort. Molly and her children moved to Niagara where she lobbied for their welfare and encouraged the Iroquois continue to support the King.
In 1778, the British built a house for her on Carleton Island. After that, they expected her to use her influence over the Mohawk warriors. She used the colonial administration to increase her own political power and to promote the interests of her people, and they used her as an instrument of political control. Throughout the war, she steadied the warriors, boost their morale, and strengthen their loyalty to the King.
The winter of 1779-1780 was one of the most severe on record. But the war raged on. Native, loyalists, and patriot settlements were attacked and burned.
Thousands more starving and ill Iroquois fled to Fort Niagara.
After the war, the British reneged on their promise to address native grievances in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The British still saw Molly as an indispensable native leader. The Iroquois, who had lost their ancestral homeland, received Canadian land grants and financial compensation. But to her people, Molly was a pariah.
Carleton Island, Molly’s home, was now located on the American side of the new border.
A New Town
In 1783, Molly decided that the site of the old French fort at Cataraqui, near Kingston, Ontario, would be a good place for herself and the other Loyalists to settle.
The government built a large house for her. She also received 100 pounds per year and a supplement of twelve hundred pounds for her property losses in the war. She’d lost more than property in the war. Her eldest child, Peter, died in the fighting.
She and the other loyalists refugees founded the town of Kingston. Spy, Loyalist, and diplomat Molly lived there for the rest of her life. Five of Molly’s daughters married Canadians. Her surviving son, George, worked for the Indian department. She died in 1796 at the age of 60. They buried her in the burial ground of St. George’s Church. A plaque in her memory stands nearby; another is on an interior wall of St. George’s Cathedral.
Molly Brant was an extraordinary woman—a Mohawk clan matron, spy, Loyalist, and diplomat. She persuaded most of the Iroquois nations to fight for the King. Poised, persuasive, she was a strong woman. As an American, I had never heard of Molly Brant before. Had you? If you like stories of strong women, you’ll want to read my past posts commemorating women of history, another spy, and an extraordinary doctor who helped the blind see. And read about strong fictional women in my novel, My Soul to Keep.