People, Sources, and Counterrevolution: Or, What to Do with Molly Brant

One of our seminar meetings last semester featured Kathleen DuVal, Amy Freund, and Emma Rothschild, who all shared work dealing with different aspects of “people and revolution.” In introducing her work, Kathleen DuVal spoke of the intrinsic appeal of biography when attempting to understand a significant event. By focusing on people, we can attempt not only to understand the event itself, but also to glimpse how people lived within that event – how they responded to it, how they influenced it, or simply how they coexisted with it. DuVal argued that the Age of Revolution was particularly ripe for a biographical approach to the study of events, in large part because the Enlightenment accentuated a focus on the individual, and on his or her perceptions of both their exterior and interior worlds. She then introduced her concept of “slightly important people” – individuals who have received little or no attention from historians, but who nevertheless allow us some new insight into the people and events that populated and punctuated their lives. They may be “slightly important” because of their occupations, because of the people with whom they interacted, or because of their accomplishments. But DuVal also suggested that this importance is largely connected to sources. People become “slightly important” when they leave behind a written record, allowing historians access to a life and an experience that would otherwise remain unknown.

But what happens when the sources just aren’t there? How else might an individual – slightly important or otherwise – enter into historical memory? This question has been on my mind for some time now, so I was delighted when the topic of people and absent sources entered into the discussion at our latest seminar meeting. The topic, counterrevolutions, also introduced the theme of people and counterrevolution, and we were tremendously lucky to have scholars Ada Ferrer, Marie-Hélène Huet, and Phillip Gould as our guests. All three challenged us to think more critically about our sources – to place them into a complex and evolving transatlantic context, to think about one piece in relation to an individual’s canon of work, and to interrogate the evolution of literary styles and symbols. But it was Ferrer’s work on the revolution in Cuba in 1812 that introduced me to the fascinating questions that can be asked – and in some cases, answered – when the source base is problematic. Or, as Ferrer demonstrates with the case of rebellion leader José Antonio Aponte’s book of drawings, when a key source may be missing altogether.

What, then, is a scholar to do? In the case of the Cuban rebellion, the absence of Aponte’s sketchbook does not mean that Aponte himself has been absent from the historical record, and it does not mean that he has been left out of (recent) historical inquiry. There are descriptions of the drawings, from Aponte himself, because Aponte was interrogated about his book before he was executed (though Ferrer points out that this source is far from unproblematic – with questions answered under duress, and a scribe mediating Aponte’s words). But the fact remains that historians have never seen the book – a fact that is inherently frustrating, but is at the same time (for me, at least), galvanizing.

Which finally leads me to a most intriguing – yet source-poor – counterrevolutionary figure: Molly Brant, a Mohawk woman who aided the British as an informant, most notably assisting in the British victory at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. Using DuVal’s terminology, Brant could certainly be considered slightly important. She had influential family connections: she was the sister of war hero Joseph Brant, and the wife of Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Northern Indian Affairs. She lived in significant places, moving from her Mohawk village of Canajoharie (in present-day upstate New York), where her family hosted several important colonists, including Johnson, to Fort Niagara, where she helped maintain relations between the British military and the Iroquois. And without a doubt, Brant seized the possibilities the revolution provided her, transforming herself into a valuable, if unconventional, diplomat for Loyalist forces. Yet this slightly important woman produced no documents of her own. Like Aponte, she was important enough for her contemporaries to mention her, which has certainly helped carve out a (small) place for her in historical memory. In many ways she fits DuVal’s biographical imperative: she helps fill in the meaning of revolution, she allows us to understand war from another perspective, and most importantly, she provides insight into the opportunities that the American Revolution – or, perhaps, the rebellion – could create for an individual. And she fits nicely into Ferrer’s methodology, which refuses to be cowed by the absence of sources.

But what can we really do with Molly Brant’s obscure biography? If we are to accept that the lives of individuals can help us better understand the experience of (counter)revolution, then Molly’s role as a cultural and political go-between, representing both Mohawk and Loyalist interests, can give important insight into how the war allowed – or perhaps required – groups and individuals to reconstitute their alliances, and it demonstrates in particular how the Mohawk negotiated a changing political and strategic landscape. Through Brant we also see the opportunities that war could provide for women. But what else can Molly Brant do for us? What other questions should we be asking? How else can we mine sources, or constructively interrogate their absence? How can we rise to the challenges that she – and countless others – present?

Plaque in Ontario honoring the Loyalist Molly Brant.  Despite her "slight importance," there are no visual representations of her.

Plaque in Ontario honoring the Loyalist Molly Brant. Despite her “slight importance,” there are no visual representations of her.

About Cassandra Berman

I am a PhD student in the History Department at Brandeis University. My primary research interests include women, gender, and print culture in early America.
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3 Responses to People, Sources, and Counterrevolution: Or, What to Do with Molly Brant

  1. Jeanna Kadlec says:

    This was such an awesome post, Cassandra. Connecting the concept of “slightly important people” to the concept of absence and memory offers such fertile ground for all of us to just sit in, and has left me with questions about the importance of leaving a written record and exactly how we qualify/quantify historical memory. There are actually a number of connections with the post I just wrote – it seems we are of a similar mind on this issue of the importance of a written record, perhaps especially for women.

    I am also really intrigued by the concept of the absent source. Aponte’s book seems usable in scholarship because it is referenced by multiple sources, because he described it in such detail (even in such compromising circumstances, as you describe). But I also think of how many books, diaries, and papers have been “rumored” to exist, and never found – mentioned but assumed to be apocryphal tales. Is it because we have Aponte’s detailed description that Ferrer can build a methodology around the absent source? Also, are there are other historians who, like Ferrer, are building methodologies around absence?

  2. Haram Lee says:

    Thanks for an interesting post, Cassandra. The question you raise with fascinating examples, it seems to be, are concerned with, at least, three related issues: the amount of the sources that remain; the creator or producers of the sources; finally, the forms in which the sources have existed. While your post mainly addresses the first two issues, for me, the last issue is no less interesting than others. That is, ‘what kind of sources count as materials for historical writings’ might be a question as crucial as ‘how much sources exist now’ and ‘who produced them.’

    The problem of the forms (or, one might say, genres) of the sources seems particularly crucial because, I think, it directly raises a question about historiography itself. I am thinking about Jeremy Popkin’s piece we read for the last session—about the Haitian revolution’s impacts on the revolutionary historiography. When he mentions that, for Haitians, history of the Haitian revolution has existed not only in textbooks but also in voudou rituals, songs, and oral history, he seems to make quite a radical suggestion: historiography can be based on other types of sources than the ones that the Western historiography regards as the ‘sources,’ that is, written documents that are generally thought to convey facts, such as newspapers, diaries, government papers, and so on. From this perspective, the difficulty of writing history of the people may arise not just from the lack of the sources but rather from the way in which one defines the ‘lack’—from the criteria by which one chooses materials to write history with.

  3. Jane Kamensky says:

    I wonder, in fact, if Brandt is all that obscure, especially if we’re willing to credit familial power. Maya Jasanoff does quite a bit with her in Liberty’s Exiles. and Kirk Swinehart has been working for a long time on a study of the Revolution centered on the Johnson family (see this early piece from it http://www.common-place.org/vol-02/no-03/lessons/). There’s nothing, at least so far as I know, that survives from Molly Brant’s hand. But one of the ways she stretches us as historians is not only toward reflections about loyalties and identities, but also toward more capacious definitions of life-writing.

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