Koñwatsi’tsiaiéñni, or Mary (Molly) Brant (c.1736 – April 16, 1796) was, arguably, the single most influential advocate among the Mohawk Nation for keeping her people aligned with the British Empire.
Born in the village of Canajoharie in the Mohawk Valley in 1736, she grew up Anglican and was likely baptized at Fort Hunter. Her family moved west to the Ohio Country early in her life, but upon the death of her father, they moved back to Molly’s native village. In 1753, her mother married Brant Kanagaradunkwa, a sachem (chief) of the Turtle Clan.
Canajoharie being a sizeable and important Mohawk village, General Sir William Johnson, Superintendent for Northern Indian Affairs, often visited, always staying at the home of his friend, Brant Kanagaradunkwa. After the death of Johnson’s common-law wife, Molly Brant moved into Fort Johnson with Sir William. The two became intimate, and Molly gave birth to a son in September 1759. After 1763, with the British victory in the French and Indian War, she moved into Johnson’s personal residence of Johnson Hall. Through her personal charisma and Johnson’s influence, she kept four of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) loyal to the British Crown.
As Sir William’s consort, Molly Brant managed household purchases, oversaw the female servants and enslaved workers, and presided when entertaining. During Johnson’s long and frequent absences, she was head of the household. She and Johnson had nine children together, eight of whom survived. At Canajoharie in 1769, Johnson built the Indian Castle Church on land given by Brant and her brother Joseph. It is now the only building left standing form the days when Canajoharie was a Mohawk village.
Upon his death in 1774, Johnson left Johnson Hall to his son by his former consort, Catherine Weisenberg, and to his children with Molly Brant he left thousands of acres of land and one-quarter of their enslaved people and livestock.
During the American War for Independence, Brant helped loyalists escape from New York to Canada. She warned the British laying siege to Ft. Stanwix of the approach of a colonial militia sent to relieve the fort. In retaliation, the colonists and their Haudenosaunee allies, the Oneidas, burned Canajoharie. Molly fled with her children to Onondaga, the most prominent and central village of the Six Nations Confederacy. Onondaga being where the council met, Brant used the opportunity to shore up flagging support for the British after their defeat at the Battle of Saratoga.
Brant relocated to Niagara in 1777 to continue working as intermediary and liaison between the British and the Haudenoshaunee. The British valued her abilities so highly that in 1781 they built her a house on Carleton Island, where many Iroquois had fled for refuge from the predations of the colonists. Brant lived there with her children and four enslaved workers for the remainder of the war.
When the British withdrew from Carleton Island in 1783, Brant moved to Cataraqui (now Kingston, Ontario.) There the British government again built her a house and allotted her a pension, generous for the time, of £100. They also granted her a farm lot.
Hoping to make use of her influence as the British had, the new American government offered to compensate Brant if she would return to the Mohawk Valley. She refused, and the New York legislature soon ruled that Brant and her children, being Indians, could not legally own the 15,000 acres of land bequeathed to them by Sir William Johnson. The property reverted to the state of New York, who sold it to settlers and speculators.
Brant remained in Kingston for the rest of her life, a respected member of the community and a founding member of the local Anglican Church.
Now, if you’re like me, you may be thinking at this point, “That’s all very interesting—but why is Molly Brant remembered in our calendar? Her life was certainly impressive, but was it, in the usual sense, saintly?”
After much thought, I have come to the conclusion that churches have always made a distinction between Christians whose service was of a conventionally “religious” nature—missionaries, teachers and preachers, founders of religious orders and the like, whom it generally honors with canonization—and those whose service was, like Molly Brant’s, secular in nature. Many parish churches have a fellowship room or dedicated chapel or altar named for the church’s founder—generally a wealthy man who either donated land or financed the building of the church—and plaques or other memorials for people like Brant, who rendered extraordinary service to the community.
Like Saint Patrick, Molly Brant was born into a privileged family that owed its social position to collaboration with foreign occupiers. She has been criticized for supporting the British at the expense of the Haudenoshaunee. But she always identified first as Mohawk, and always did what she believed necessary for the preservation of her people. If we seek a conventionally “religious” warrant for remembering her, and people like her, perhaps we will find it in these verses from Ecclesiasticus 44.
Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations…
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
rich men endowed with resources,
living peacefully in their homes—
all these were honoured in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
[Image Credit: Public Domain painting by Edward Lawson Henry via Wikimedia Commons]
Who are other saints on our calendar honored for their secular service?