The ability to have influence in two distinct cultures is a rare gift. It is a skill prized by diplomats today, but would it have been appreciated 250 years ago if the person engaged in negotiation and diplomacy was an Indigenous woman? I happily discovered that, in the case of Molly Brant, the answer is “yes”. After the American Revolutionary War, the British government recognized her war-time contribution and gave her an annual income of £100 (a considerable sum at the time), a house and 116 acres of land. She was able to send her children to private schools in Montreal.
I became interested in knowing more about this Indigenous woman last year when a friend showed me the commemorative bust of her on the land that she was granted. I had first heard of Molly Brant when I was a public school student growing up in Kingston. At that time, my understanding was limited to what was the standard teaching of the day; namely, that Brant helped the British when the Americans fought for independence from Britain. Teachers and students alike were unaware of the colonial bias in the textbooks of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, while some summaries still describe her as a collaborator with a colonial regime, other research emphasizes her independent role as a female Indigenous leader. In this blog, I’m focusing on her ability to bridge two cultures, something that I see as a strength in an individual.
From my perspective (a white, female settler), the history of Brant’s formative years is interesting. Born in 1736, Brant came from a prominent Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) family within the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy She grew up in the Ohio Valley. Through the influence of her step-father, Nickus Brant, she was educated within the European tradition, learning English customs and the English language. At the same time, within the matrilineal Kanyen’kehà:ka culture and community, she held significant influence. She was introduced to political activity at the age of 18 when she accompanied a delegation of Kanyen’kehà:ka elders to Philadelphia where they had arranged meetings to discuss fraudulent land transactions.
In her early twenties, she became the wife of Sir William Johnson, who was the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies. Like the wife of any prominent official of the day, she was skilled in entertaining. She was also responsible for overseeing their large property and managing the servants. The oversight and management functions came naturally to her, having been raised in a matriarchal society where women enjoyed power.
It was during the American Revolutionary War that Brant rose to particular prominence. The war began in 1775, a year after Sir William Johnson died. At that start of the war, Brant was living with their eight children in the small community of Canajoharie, between Albany and Syracuse. She chose to be active in the war by conveying intelligence to the British military and encouraging the tribes in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to remain loyal to the British. In August 1777, when she notified the British of approaching American troops, the British and their Haudenosaunee allies were successful in ambushing the American forces at Oriskany, New York. Brant was also engaged in sending ammunition to the British and sheltering Loyalists.
Even after Brant left northern New York state in 1777, she continued working with the British. She travelled extensively between Niagara, Montreal and Carleton Island in the St. Lawrence River. It was on Carleton Island, near Wolfe Island, where she put her diplomatic skills to greatest use. Bridging the British and Indigenous cultures, she was effective in strengthening the loyalty of Kanyen’kehà:ka warriors that were stationed at Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island. The Commander of the fort, Alexander Fraser, wrote that “Miss Molly Brant’s influence… [was] far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together.”
In 1783, when the border between British and American territories was drawn, Carleton Island was on the American side, forcing the Loyalists stationed at the fort to move once again. Brant moved to Ka’tarohkwi (Cataraqui), now Kingston, where she received a grant of land, a house and an annual pension. This land is now the site of Rideaucrest, a long-term care home owned by the City of Kingston and it is the location chosen by the City to commemorate her. A bust, unveiled in 1996, depicts her looking out over the Cataraqui River, a view that she would have enjoyed.
When the war was over, Brant’s diplomatic skills continued to be useful. She used her contacts with the British military to ensure that the indigenous people who had fought with the British and had lost land in the United States were able to get new land in what is now Canada. Settled in Kingston, she chose to retain her native heritage and dress in Kanyen’kehà:ka clothing. At the same time, she supported the Church of England and is the only woman listed as having contributed funds for Kingston’s first church, St. George’s – at that time, a wooden building. Writings from an anonymous traveller make mention of her at a service in the church in 1790. When she died at the age of 60, she was laid to rest in the burial ground of St. George’s Church (where St. Paul’s Church now stands at the corner of Queen Street and Montreal Street), although records of the exact location no longer exist.
Brant was honoured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1986. The drawing shows three facets of her life: Kanyen’kehà:ka heritage, European influences, and her chosen role as a Loyalist, encouraging the tribes of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to fight against the American revolutionary forces in an attempt to protect their lands and their way of life. Her success in ensuring that these Indigenous Loyalists received lands in Canada after the war was a testament to the negotiation skills she had honed and the respect she had earned. In my view, her upbringing in matriarchal culture gave her the leadership skills she needed, which, when combined with her knowledge of the English language and customs, allowed her to play the role of a skillful diplomat. This is a skill set worthy of attention.
For further information on Molly Brant, an excellent source is The Cataraqui Archaeological Research Foundation.