Mary "Molly" Brant was born c. 1736 in the Mohawk valley of the [then] Province of New York. She spent the first twenty-two years of her adult life acting as housekeeper, concubine and bearer of nine children to Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs.
As stepdaughter of influential Mohawk sachem[chief] Brant Canagaraduncka and "wife" of Mohawk honorary sachem, and Superintendent of Indian Affairs William Johnson, Molly was a natural to become one of the Clan Mothers of her people. In matrilineal Iroquois society, Clan Mothers wield a great deal of power since it is they who appoint and fire war and religious leaders.
As Sir William's housekeeper, Molly Brant handled the accounts and did the purchasing and, according to the records, spent a great deal on clothing, blankets, and rum. Much of this, along with sums of money, went to the Iroquois people as gifts and Molly's influence increased in proportion to her generosity to such an extent that she soon became the leader of the Mohawk Clan Mothers. As one of her biographer put it, Molly "was as highly respected by the Indians as was her husband, and she was as versatile. He could dance, painted and naked except for a breach clout, around a fire with his native friends, and she could entertain the cream of white society graciously and properly in the grand rooms of Johnson Hall, with their Chippendale furniture and fine china."
In 1774, as tension mounted between Britain and her thirteen colonies, Sir William tried his best to keep the Iroquois loyal to the British Crown. It was while addressing an Iroquois council assembled at Johnson Hall that year that he collapsed and died. Molly and her children moved back to her home village of Canajoharie where she opened a store with money Sir William had left her in his will.
Less than a year later, the Revolutionary War broke out. It was a bitter conflict, as much civil war as revolution, with neighbour fighting against neighbour and brother against brother. At first, the Iroquois remained neutral. But Molly felt, as had Sir William, that the Iroquois should naturally side with the British against the Americans who were intent on robbing them of their land. She began to exert her influence with the Mohawk to keep them loyal to the British. She gathered information about the activities of the rebels on behalf of the British. She provided shelter for Loyalists fleeing from bands of zealous Patriots. She even supplied arms and ammunition to Loyalists engaged in the fighting. Acting on information she'd gathered, Molly's brother Joseph at the head of over 400 Iroquois warriors and some white Loyalists, ambushed and killed the greater part of a band of 800 Patriots at the Battle of Oriskany, thereby ending all semblance of Mohawk neutrality. With the exception of the Oneidas and some of the Tuscaroras who sided with the Rebels, the Iroquois were now openly pro-British, thanks in no small part to Molly's own efforts.
The Patriots, however, wanted revenge and George Washington dispatched an army of 11 regiments to chastise the Iroquois. The Mohawks, Molly included, were forced to flee north. Nevertheless, Molly continued to work hard for the rest of the war to keep the Iroquois and other First Nations loyal to the British. When news of the peace treaty arrived in 1783, Molly and her people were rightfully incensed: the First Nations had been left out of it entirely. The boundary was to be the centre of the Great Lakes and all the Iroquois land to the south went to the Americans. But there could be no turning back for Molly, who moved with her children into the house the British built for her at Cataraqui (Kingston) and accepted the yearly 100 pound pension awarded her, "In consideration of the early and uniform fidelity, attachment and zealous services rendered to His Majesty's Government by Mrs Brant and her Family." Her brother Joseph and the Mohawks settled at Grand River in Canada.
Later, as an Indian war loomed in the Ohio Valley, the American government, aware of her influence with her people, tried to entice Molly back to the United States by her offering sums of money that she contemptuously refused. Nevertheless, she and her brother Joseph tried to persuade their western brethren to negotiate with the Americans rather than fight. But in the end, the Ohio Indians fought and lost the Battle of Fallen Timbers against "Mad" Anthony Wayne in 1794.
A late eighteenth century visitor to Kingston left us a glimpse of Molly:
Though she died over a decade before its outbreak, Molly Brant nevertheless played an important role in First Nations' participation in the War of 1812. Her own people, the Grand River Mohawk, under the nominal leadership of her nephew John Brant, were often able to tip the balance of early battles in favour of the British.