As consort of Sir William Johnson, Mary Brant's (1736-1796) influence with Indian leaders helped Johnson to pacify the Indian nations he dealt with as a representative of the British government. After his death, she was able to influence the Iroquois toward alliance with the British during the Revolutionary War.
Molly Brant is considered the most influential Mohawk woman in the New World from 1759 to 1776. She and Catherine Brant (her younger brother's wife) are the only women of the period on whose lives any extended documentation has survived. Brant was born in 1736 to "Margaret" and "Peter, " Canajoharie Mohawks registered as Protestant Christians in the Anglican chapel at Fort Hunter. Some reports do not list the names of her parents, but simply say she was the daughter of a sachem (chieftain), and came from Canajoharie, a Mohawk (Iroquois) village located in New York. Molly is said to have received her surname from her stepfather, Nickus Brant, a European thought to be part Dutch. He was a close friend of William Johnson, a British official responsible for maintaining Indian relations in the colonies during the time of the American Revolution. Brant is believed to have been a strong European influence on Brant and her younger brother Joseph. Active and gregarious, she is said to have become the object of Johnson's attention when in 1753, she accepted a British officer's challenge to participate in a horse riding competition between the British and the Mohawks. She later married Johnson in a Mohawk ceremony.
A time of great upheaval and cultural change took place among all the Iroquois tribes during the eighteenth century, most markedly during the later half of the century, when colonials sought independence. Perhaps the Mohawks stood out as more notable recipients of cultural change because they were known for their aggressive resistance to European occupation. With the loss of their land along the Mohawk river in eastern-central New York, there was immense pressure on the Mohawk to culturally assimilate in order to survive. European culture was most visibly different with regard to relationships between the sexes, and this succinctly cut at the basic fabric and structure of Iroquois life. For this reason, Molly Brant's life with Johnson, a powerful British official presiding over the British Indian Department's northern district, became a living illustration of acculturation. In her Ontario History article "Molly Brant, Catherine Brant, and Their Daughters: A Study in Colonial Acculturation, " Gretchen Green terms Molly and Catherine's "individual marital conflicts" as reflections of "the larger cultural struggle, so that Molly and Catherine Brant serve as microcosms of the Mohawk people during the trying times of the late eighteenth century."
Before the advent of the Europeans, the Mohawk were a matrilineal society, deriving the identity of their kinship ties through women. Relationships between the sexes were marked by a more equal distribution of power and validation for contributions made to the needs of the community. Primarily through their agricultural achievements and role as provider, Mohawk women were able to exert a greater degree of influence upon men's decisions than their European counterparts, and thus assertion of male dominance was met with resistance by Mohawk women. By withholding food, making their opinions known at village meetings, and utilizing their appointed clan positions in choosing the village chief/sachem, women banded together to get their agendas met in a way wholly unfamiliar to women in European culture.
Because British law did not recognize the Mohawk marriage of Johnson and Brant, she is said to have been the "common-law" wife of Johnson. She is considered by some sources to have been his mistress. Having married during the Seven Years War, Green states that Johnson is thought to have married Brant out of a desire to gain stronger and more influential political connections. Their marriage took place "when Johnson was desperately seeking Iroquois support for the war effort against the French." He learned the Iroquoian dialects, adopted several Mohawk customs, but reportedly did not choose to live among Natives. Explaining his close relationship to Joseph Brant, Johnson said, according to Green, that he "expected the young Mohawk would prove useful among the Indians because of his 'connection and residence.' It seems reasonable to assume that his relationship with Joseph's sister was in part similarly motivated, for it was said of Molly that 'one word from her [was] more taken Notice of by the Five Nations than a thousand from any white man without exception."'
Brant had been well known and was politically active in her village before joining Johnson at either Fort Johnson or at Johnson Hall, his residence located near Schenectady, "on the edge of Mohawk territory." From 1754 to 1755, she is recorded as having accompanied to Philadelphia a delegate of elders to address Iroquois land conflicts. Other than these highlighted features, relatively little is known about her life in the village during her early years. Her correspondence, written in a clear and legible script, indicates that she may have attended the English school at Canajoharie as a child.
Unlike her predecessor Catherine Weissenberg who bore three children by Johnson, Brant's eight (some sources say nine) children received Johnson's surname. It is unknown whether any of the children were christened. Weissenberg, a German indentured servant, was Johnson's housekeeper at Fort Johnson. Whereas Johnson regarded Weissenberg beneath him in status, and her role in his household was kept to a minimum, it is noted that Molly Brant accepted no such strictures upon her role. She refused to do housework, leaving such chores to the servants and slaves, and in Johnson's absence, she is said to have controlled the affairs of the estate. There is some suggestion that in doing so, she also supervised the daily operations of the Indian Department, of which Johnson was superintendent.
Johnson Hall was elegant and considered plush by frontier standards. Brant was highly admired among Johnson's peers as a model hostess. She was mentioned warmly in correspondence and was as generous with her own people living in the village as she was with European guests. Using Johnson's position and line of credit with merchants, records indicate she made large purchases of blankets, clothing and alcohol, which she gave away to various Iroquois people. Traditional Iroquois custom entailed utilizing economic gain for the good of the community by distributing wealth during a ceremonial give away. The more one gave away, the more one rose in honor and prestige within the group. Brant participated in this practice with such purchases, in addition to distributing cash and providing meals. By so doing she gained increasing influence and thus became, in Green's words, "the most influential Mohawk woman in the valley."
After Johnson's death in 1774, Brant was turned away from his estate and she returned to Canajoharie, taking expensive clothing and luxury possessions with her. There she lived primarily on credit, engaging in commerce with the villagers. Because conflicts were rising between the Loyalists and Patriot colonials, Brant's influence among Indians was increasingly instrumental to the British. Both sides attempted to rally the support of the Six Nations, and Patriots regarded Brant as a threat to their interests. She, unlike most Mohawk, felt strongly that the interests of her people would be best served by an alliance with the Crown. Despite her tremendous popularity and respect among her people, she was unable to sway significant numbers toward action, for most preferred not to take sides in the British-American conflict.
Brant herself took an active Loyalist stance, housing Loyalist refugees, providing weapons, and infiltrating intelligence activities where possible. During 1777 she reportedly engaged in spy activities, which were instrumental in the British gaining military ground. As a result, American colonials and Oneida Iroquois Patriots exacted revenge by driving her from her home. Angered, she fled in exile into Canada, where she fiercely resumed Loyalist activities as a liaison among the Iroquois while residing at the Niagara garrison.
She was considered controversial because she advocated for both the British as well as for the Iroquois, even when to outward appearances, the interests of these groups were in opposition. Brant spoke only her native tongue, styled her wardrobe after Mohawk tastes, and encouraged her offspring to do the same. She was an active dissident, remaining loyal to the preservation of her people, yet, she was criticized for involving them in a dispute that wrested their lands from them and left them subjugated and dispossessed. Molly Brant could not have known the outcome of the wars she attempted to influence. It may be only hindsight that her actions were considered contradictory, for she was behaving in accordance with the laws of her people, attempting to maintain progressive negotiations and an alliance with those she perceived as the greatest allies to the Iroquois.
The British supported her Loyalist endeavors, giving her provisions and doing what was necessary to foster her activism. As a political instrument among the Iroquois, she was unequaled. After the American Revolution, the British generously provided her with a pension, land in the area of her choosing, and an English home for her service to the Crown. In addition to this she received a substantial inheritance from Johnson's estate. Retiring from political affairs, Brant finally settled in Kingston, Ontario, near three of her daughters. She died in 1796 of unknown causes.
Native American Women, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, New York, Garland, 1993; 36-37.
Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detroit, Gale, 1994; 1020.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, New York, Facts on File, 1990; 43.
Green, Gretchen, "Molly Brant, Catherine Brant, and Their Daughters: A Study in Colonial Acculturation, " Ontario History, 81, 1989; 235-250.
Gundy, H. Pearson, "Molly Brant—Loyalist, " Ontario History, 14, 1953; 97-108.