by Julie Falkner
The knocking was loud and insistent, disturbing the night. Molly hesitated momentarily then, whispering a hasty prayer for the safety of her sleeping children, opened the door. “We’re looking for Captain Joseph” was the frightening greeting of the men on her doorstep. “And we’ll search this house until we find him!” Children could no longer sleep in peace and neighbors could no longer trust each other: this was the American Revolution.
A Mohawk Valley Childhood
Molly Brant was a Mohawk and her people were a member of the Iroquois Confederacy, a political union of six different Indian nations from the northern part of what is now the state of New York. The Iroquois were a matrilineal society, which means that property and responsibility were passed from mother to daughter. Iroquois women had real power: they controlled land and wealth, and were consulted about policy issues.
Molly, also known as Konwatsi’tsiaienni (meaning “Someone lends her a flower”), was born in a village called Canajoharie, on the south bank of the Mohawk river, in about 1736. At that time about 500 Mohawk people lived in the Mohawk valley, surrounded by about 4500 Dutch and German settlers. Mohawk society was undergoing great change as the Europeans exerted an ever greater influence. Christianity was slowly becoming accepted, and Molly was brought up as an Anglican. The Mohawk were discarding their traditional bow and arrow in favor of the gun, and hunting was becoming less important because farming now supplemented the food supply.
Sir William’s Consort
When Molly was about two years old, William Johnson arrived in the Mohawk valley. He had been born and raised in Ireland, and trained as a lawyer. He came to America to manage his uncle’s large estates on the Mohawk river. He was extremely capable and in time was appointed the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the area.
In 1759, when Molly was 23, she moved in to Sir William’s home and became his companion. Although there is no record of a religious ceremony ever being performed, the Iroquois regarded her as Sir William’s wife. For Molly, the change in lifestyle was dramatic: suddenly she was in charge of a busy household which included a cook, a gardener, a secretary, and several slaves. But she adapted quickly, becoming both a gracious hostess and an efficient manager of the estate.
The partnership brought advantages to both Sir William and Molly. Through Molly, Sir William gained a family connection to the powerful Iroquois, which helped him in his role as superintendent. Through Sir William, Molly acquired prestige among both the settlers and her own people. Soon she was a clan mother, responsible for the welfare of her clan, and eventually she became the leader of the group of clan mothers. She also raised two sons and six daughters.
The American Revolution Begins
After Sir William died in 1774, Molly had to leave her comfortable home at Johnson Hall. She returned to Canajoharie together with her eight children and four black slaves. With them went their possessions, which included three side-saddles, two scarlet cloaks, one quilted white ball gown, and a violin.
Molly was now once again among her own people, with her mother and brother Joseph nearby. She set up a store, selling supplies and probably also liquor to the villagers. She might have settled happily into the quiet life of the village, but another major disruption was on the horizon: the Revolution.
Molly and Joseph immediately became Loyalists. For Molly, the choice was clear: still mourning Sir William, she was loyal to his memory and knew without a doubt what he would have done. While Joseph went off to fight she quietly became a spy, gathering information and passing it on. She also hid Loyalists when necessary, and provided them with food and ammunition.
Soon the Patriots became suspicious. Finally, after the Battle of Oriskany in 1777 they discovered that she had sent the Loyalists information about their troop movements. After Patriots twice came in the night to search her home, Molly decided to flee.
Onondaga and Niagara
Molly took her children first to Onondaga, the Iroquois capital. Here she found her people close to despair; they had lost both warriors and possessions at Oriskany, and many doubted the wisdom of fighting on. At a council meeting, Molly drew on all her natural diplomatic skills to encourage them, reminding them that the King had tried to protect their land from the encroaching settlers and therefore deserved their loyalty. One observer wrote, “One word from her goes farther with them than a thousand from any white Man without Exception…”
At the request of Colonel Butler of Fort Niagara, Molly and her children traveled to Niagara late in 1777. Many Iroquois made homeless by the war had been arriving at the fort, and the colonel needed Molly’s assistance to help manage them. Once again she was a diplomat, encouraging the Iroquois to stand firm while also persistently lobbying for their welfare. She also kept an open house for all the important representatives of her people. Later she performed a similar role at the British post on Carleton Island, when the war was going badly for the Loyalists and everyone was becoming frustrated.
After the Revolution
When the Revolution finally ended, large tracts of Iroquois land went to the Americans. Molly’s people were naturally shocked and furious. They had believed that fighting for the King would protect their land, and now it seemed that the King had forgotten them, and had given away land that was not his to give. Molly may have acted as a calming influence at this difficult time.
Eventually the Iroquois were granted financial compensation and new land in Canada. In recognition of her services, Molly was given an annual pension and a house in Cataraqui (now Kingston, Ontario), then a collection of about fifty homes and storehouses. She had lost her eldest child Peter in the fighting, but her other children all survived. Molly died in 1796.
A Vital Link
Molly Brant was a woman of dignity and influence who was comfortable in two very different cultures. She was a vital link between the Iroquois and the representatives of the British government. Her words carried real weight because of her strong personality and the prestige that she had acquired, and it is largely due to her that five of the six Iroquois nations supported the Loyalists.
The American Revolution, which led to the migration of many Iroquois and other Loyalists, had an important influence on the development of Canada. For her strength in a time of turmoil, her unwavering loyalty, and her role as leader and counselor to her exiled people, Molly Brant is remembered with pride in Ontario.
Julie Falkner is a New Zealander now working as a freelance writer and editor in Canada. She loves to read, to travel, and to explore history.