Historians generally accept that Mary Brant was born in 1736. They suggest two possible birthplaces: her family’s home, the upper Mohawk village of Canajoharie near Little Falls, New York, or the Ohio Valley where her parents lived for a while. Her brother Joseph (Thayendanegea) was born at Cayahoga near Akron, Ohio.
Brant’s parents were Margaret Onagsakearat and Peter (Tehowaghwengaraghkwin) (1707–1743), who were registered as Protestants in the chapel at Fort Hunter, New York, the lower village. After Peter died while the family was living on the Ohio River, Margaret returned to Canajoharie with Mary and Joseph.
Margaret then married Nickus Brant Canagaradunska, a Mohawk believed to be part Dutch, who lived and dressed in European style. Therefore, Mary was well-educated in European ways of life.
Among the Mohawks, the Brants were a family of distinction. Margaret was reportedly a granddaughter of Mohawk chief Hendrick (Theyanoguin, also known as King Hendrick, Hendrick Peters, or White Head).
Education and Leadership
Mary Brant likely attended one of the Church of England mission schools in the Mohawk Valley. Some sources say she learned to speak and write English well while others assert that she was only semi-literate.
In her late teens, Mary Brant accompanied a delegation of 12 Mohawk elders to Philadelphia in 1754–55 to discuss speculators’ fraudulent land transactions.
As an adult, Brant received the Mohawk name Degonwadonti or Tekonwatonti, which means “many opposed to one.” She dressed in traditional Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) clothes. In her Mohawk matrilineal culture, she led a society of Six Nations (Iroquois Confederacy) matrons and wielded economic power and special influence among the Iroquois warriors, able to veto their decisions.
Sir William Johnson, first superintendent of the northern Indigenous peoples in British North America, fell in love with Mary Brant during her 1755 return trip from Philadelphia. The Six Nations honoured him as a good friend and adviser.
The couple cohabited with no legal marriage (in the European tradition), although they may have been married according to Mohawk tradition. Johnson treated Brant with tremendous respect, and she enjoyed upper-class comforts and luxuries. During her husband’s frequent absences, Brant ably managed Fort Johnson, his estate in the Mohawk Valley, and later, his newly built mansion Johnson Hall.
Peter, their first child, was born in 1759. In that same year, Catherine Weissenberg, Johnson’s previous common-law wife, died. Peter likely received his early education in the Mohawk Valley. In 1772, he went to Montreal for further schooling and the next year, apprenticed in Philadelphia to become a dry goods merchant. Peter died in Philadelphia in 1777 while serving with the 26th Regiment of Foot during the American Revolutionary War.
The couple had seven more children, one son and six daughters. All of Brant’s daughters married prestigious non-Indigenous men except one, who remained single. For many years, her other son, known as “Big George,” farmed and taught at a day school near what is today Brantford, Ontario.
After Johnson died in 1774, Brant and her brother Joseph remained committed Loyalists (see Loyalists in Canada), devoted to the British Empire. A devout Anglican, Brant regularly attended services at St. George’s in Cataraqui (today’s Kingston, Ontario).
Wartime Influence with the British and Iroquois
During hostilities between Great Britain and the American colonies (the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775), Mary Brant remained a staunch Loyalist to Britain and proved valuable to the British cause during negotiations with the Iroquois. She fed and helped Loyalists and sent ammunition to the King’s supporters. In August 1777, the Loyalists and their Indigenous allies successfully ambushed the Americans at Oriskany, New York, largely because Brant had sent a warning that a large American militia was approaching.
In revenge, the Oneida (perhaps joined by other Indigenous peoples) attacked and ruined Canajoharie and Fort Hunter. Brant and her family lost most of their possessions. They took refuge at Onondaga near Syracuse, New York, the capital of the Six Nations Confederacy.
Brant moved to Cayuga, New York, where she had distant relatives, and encouraged her Indigenous allies to remain loyal to the King. She won unanimous council support after publicly criticizing Kaieñˀkwaahtoñ, the Iroquois Confederacy’s leading war chief, for recommending peace with the Americans. Deputy Secretary of Indian Affairs Daniel Claus described her influence with the Iroquois: “One word from her is more taken Notice of by the five Nations than a thousand from any white Man without exception.”
In the fall of 1777, Brant moved to Niagara, a key military base near Youngstown, New York, where she served as an important diplomat, helping the British by advising and interceding with their Indigenous allies. She cautioned the latter not to make rash proposals to the fort commander.
In 1779–80, Brant’s strong leadership helped keep a large Six Nations settlement at Carleton Island, New York, from revolting against King George III. Commander Alexander Fraser attributed the group’s “uncommon good behaviour” to “Miss Molly Brant’s Influence over them, which is far superior to that of all their Chiefs put together.”
In 1783, at the end of the American Revolutionary War, Brant and her family fled to Upper Canada and settled in Cataraqui (now Kingston, Ontario). The British Crown granted her land and a large military pension for her wartime service and loyalty, as well as free education for her children. At one hundred pounds per year, Brant’s pension was a considerable sum for its day and the largest ever paid to an Indigenous person.
Until her death, she played a prominent role in the Cataraqui community and her Mohawk culture. In fact, Mary Brant helped found St. George’s parish in Kingston in 1785. She was the only woman among the 54 original founders of St. George’s, now the oldest Anglican parish in Ontario.
DID YOU KNOW?
Mary Brant befriended Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and his wife Elizabeth when they arrived in Upper Canada. When Simcoe became gravely ill, Brant made him medicine from the root of a traditional wetland plant acorus calamus (sweet flag). In her diary, Elizabeth Simcoe wrote that her husband responded well to the cure “in a very short time” (see also Indigenous Peoples' Medicine in Canada).
Mary Brant died on 16 April 1796 and was buried in the Anglican cemetery in Cataraqui (now St.Paul’s churchyard in Kingston).
Knowledgeable in European ways, Mary Brant also held rare cross-cultural status and power with both the powerful Iroquois Six Nations (see Haudenosaunee Confederacy) and the Loyalists. Her diplomatic skills held huge sway during the American Revolutionary War, encouraging the Six Nations to keep their alliance with England.
Honours and Awards
In 1986, Canada Post honoured Brant with a stamp designed by Sara Tyson. Ten years later, the city of Kingston proclaimed 25 August Molly Brant Commemoration Day and unveiled a bust of her and an historic plaque at Rideaucrest Home. Ontario Heritage recognizes Brant with a plaque in a Kingston churchyard at Queen and Montreal Streets.
In 1994, Brant was designated as a National Historic Person by the federal government’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (see Historic Site). Brant’s plaque, which was unveiled in Kingston, reads “A Mohawk woman of great diplomatic skill, Molly Brant exerted an extraordinary influence on the powerful Iroquois confederacy… Brant's tireless efforts helped preserve Canada from American conquest.”
The Molly Brant Foundation, which conducts Indigenous research in the Kingston area, was established in 2005 (it was dissolved in 2015). In 2016, Molly Brant Elementary School opened in Kingston.