Molly Brant, Mohawk Clan Matron Remained True to Her Heritage
Molly Brant and her husband, Sir William Johnson, worked to keep peace between Colonists and natives. A Loyalist, Molly and family fled to Canada in 1777.
“Her features are fine and beautiful; her complexion clear and olive-tinted… She was quiet in demeanor, on occasion, and possessed of a calm dignity that bespoke a native pride and consciousness of power. She seldom imposed herself into the picture, but no one was in her presence without being aware of her,” a woman acquaintance said of Molly Brant, quoted by Ian E. Wilson in Molly Brant: An Appreciation.
Molly Brant was born to prominent Mohawk parents in about 1736, given the Indian name of Konwatsi’Tsaienni and Degonwadonti, meaning “Someone lends her a flower”. It seems she and her brother Joseph Brant were well educated, both well-spoken in English and their native tongue. The family moved to Canajoharie in the Mohawk River Valley, in what is now central New York State.
Molly Brant Married Sir William Johnson
Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for New York, married Molly in 1759 when she was 23 years old; he was approximately 35. Born in Ireland, Johnson trained as a lawyer and came to New York in about 1737 to manage the estate of his uncle, Admiral Peter Warren. Living in Mohawk/Iroquois territory, Johnson learned the native language and customs, and became an intermediary between the British and the natives. As Superintendent with power and great diplomacy between peoples, Johnson excelled in his work and received thousands of acres of land and other wealth. Sir Johnson was a widower with several children; Molly accepted the children into her home, caring for them as well as the eight more, two sons and six daughters, she and Sir Johnson had together.
As Sir Johnson’s wife, Molly acted as hostess for meetings and political events between the British and the Indians. She was comfortable in both worlds. The Johnsons lived a large home with a gardener, cook and slaves to help run the house, a definite change from the Indian village. The Johnsons were able to encourage the Iroquois nation to remain loyal to the British during battles with the French. Though well prepared for her role as wife of a British Baronet, Molly did not immerse herself in the English culture. She remained true to her own heritage, wearing traditional native clothing and footwear, and maintaining the hairstyle of the Mohawk women.
Brant and Johnson Calmed Uprisings
On several tense occasions, Sir Johnson and Molly were called upon to prevent war between the Indigenous and the British. The “whites” encroached on native territory, taking land without rights. Meetings of hundreds to thousands of natives were held by Sir Johnson. “There were good white men and bad white men, [Johnson said], just as there were good and bad natives,” said Earle Thomas in “The Three Faces of Molly Brant,” and “The unprincipled men they complained of would be punished, and they must punish their men who had been guilty of mischief.”
Over time, the articulate Molly became an influential woman of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, reaching the leadership position of Clan Matron. (Women were viewed as equal to men and leaders in the native tradition, their opinions valued and followed.) All of her strength was required when Molly’s dear husband became sick and died on July 4, 1774 at an Indian conference. Funeral ceremonies were performed by both the British and the Iroquois in honour of the beloved man.
Loyalist Molly Brant Fled to Canada
Hearing of an American colonist plan to ambush the British troops in 1777, Molly sent a messenger to warn the force at Fort Stanwix, the British post. The American revolution changed the tenor of Molly’s life. Remaining loyal to the British and facing abuse and threats, she packed up her children and her staff and, with her brother Joseph Brant and his family, fled across the border to Niagara in Canada. The New York land bestowed upon Sir Johnson and Molly by the Mohawks was lost and all possessions, gone. But, her loyalty to the British was to be rewarded.
In Canada, Governor Frederick Haldimand ordered a pension of $100 a year for Molly for her dedicated service to the British, and large, beautiful homes built on the bank of the Cataraqui River for Molly and Joseph at Cataraqui (now Kingston, Ontario). Molly continued her work with the
British, participating in native discussions and attending governmental events. (She dined with Governor Simcoe and his wife, Elizabeth, and on one occasion provided a native medicine to cure Governor Simcoe’s chest ailment.) Molly made certain her children received good educations, and they melded into the British colony. The Joseph Brant family stayed in Cataraqui for a while then moved to southern Ontario. The City of Brantford is named in Joseph Brant’s honour.
Belated Recognition for Molly Brant
Molly Brant died at Cataraqui on April 10, 1796. She was buried in St. George’s church cemetery, her resting place not exactly known. (The church is now St. Paul’s Anglican.) There are several plaques in downtown Kingston recognizing her tumultuous and inspiring life and work. There is also a bust representing what she may have looked like, since there were no pictures of the great Molly Brant.
Canada Post recognized the significant part Molly Brant played in the early development of Canada with a 34-cent stamp in 1986. Portraying three faces, the image represents Molly as loyal wife of Sir William Johnson, a loyal member of the Mohawk nation and as Loyalist to the British Crown.
The Three Faces of Molly Brant: A Biography, by Earle Thomas, published by Quarry Press, Kingston Ontario 1996.
Molly Brant: An Appreciation, by Ian E. Wilson, Historic Kingston, Volume 24, published by the Kingston Historical Society, Kingston Ontario 1976, pg 55-58.
This article first appeared on Suited101.com in April 2010. Copyright Susanna McLeod