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by Maeve Kane
The home of Konwatsi’tsiaenni Molly Brant at Canajoharie, New York, was robbed in the fall of 1777. Just after the British surrender at Saratoga and a little over a year after the Declaration of Independence, the thefts from Brant’s home had deep political significance. In a terrifying nighttime attack, the local Committee of Safety raided the homes of Brant and other Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) families known or suspected to have ties to the British, long-time Haudenosaunee allies.
The chairman of the local Committee of Safety, Peter Dygert, said the raid was retaliation for Continental losses at the Battle of Oriskany earlier that summer. Brant had played an instrumental role in the outcome of the battle, having sent a warning to British forces of the approaching Continental force, resulting in a devastating British ambush. Dygert told an Oneida ally that the goal of the raid was that ”where we lost one cow, ox, horse, hog, sheep &c. that we should take two in lieu thereof.”
The raid was not about livestock. It was about inflicting terror and asserting American ownership of what had become New York State. During the early days of the Revolution, Committees of Safety filled the void of civil governance created by the upheavals of the American Revolution and the collapse of British governance in the colonies. Committees of Safety also interrogated, detained, and forcibly disarmed suspected Loyalists; monitored dissidents; and suppressed internal dissent. The presence of British-allied or even nominally neutral Mohawks and other Indigenous nations within the territory claimed by New York posed a deep existential threat to the new American nation. Most immediately, Brant and other Mohawks’ ability to pass intelligence to British and Indigenous forces posed a military threat, but the continued presence of sovereign Indigenous nations also called into question the validity of American claims to the territory of New York.
With faces painted black under cover of night, Brant’s German, Dutch, and English neighbors stole silver candlesticks, clothing, cash, window glass, and prayer books from Brant’s home and the home of Mohawk neighbors. The Committee raiders also dug up the graves of recently buried Mohawk men and stole their blankets and coats. These grisly and intimate thefts invaded the domestic spaces of Mohawk homes to inflict terror, and asserted white control of Mohawk homes and bodies by removing symbols of consumer respectability from their living and dead Indigenous owners. In the aftermath of the raid, many Mohawk families fled to the safety of Onondaga and, later, British-held Niagara and Canada, where Molly Brant and her children would spend much of the duration of the war.
The thefts at Canajoharie were so extensive that the Continental Congress dispatched former fur trader Jelles Fonda to investigate the flight of Mohawk families from the area. Fonda had deep ties to the Mohawk Valley, having lived and worked among the Mohawk and white families involved on both sides for several decades prior to the Revolution. (He is also an ancestor of Henry, Peter, and Jane Fonda.) Fonda had been a fur trader near Albany, Canajoharie, and the town of Fonda that now bears his name, and sold everyday necessities to both white and Indigenous customers.
At the time of the Revolution, many Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee families lived in homes that blended traditional bark longhouse architecture with elements like glass windows and panel doors with iron hinges, and wore a blend of Indigenous clothing like leggings, wrap skirts, and breechclouts with European-style linen shirts and men's coats. Molly Brant was exceptional in many ways, dis-
tinguished by her family's long involvement in Anglo diplomacy, her brother Joseph Brant’s widely-known anti-American stance from early in the war, and her marriage to the late British Superintendent for Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. But the range of objects stolen from Brant's home and what they symbolized were common among her Mohawk neighbors. For both Indigenous and white consumers in early New York, clothing and other material goods signaled a shared understanding of community identity and con-nection to wider global markets.
Fonda’s Mohawk customers purchased many of the same materials and fabrics as their German, Dutch, and English neighbors—fabrics like sturdy oznabrigs, fine linen, woolen fustian, and bright calicoes. Fonda often made notes about what the raw cloth yardage was intended for, and customers often bought items from him like buttons and lining necessary to finish garments. From these notes and purchases, it is apparent that the bright calicoes and fustians bought by Mohawks were used to make Indigenous clothing items such as leggings, wrap skirts, and blankets. When Fonda’s white customers bought cloth yardage, they also purchased linings, buttons, and thread to make the cloth into coats, breeches, and gowns. Fonda’s Haudenosaunee customers bought no buttons or linings, and rarely thread. The premade clothing items that Haudenosau- nee consumers did buy from Fonda were items specifically made for Haudenosaunee consumers: breech clouts, leggings, colored calico shirts, and moccasins. They did not purchase the felt hats, hard-soled shoes, or tailored coats that their white neighbors bought from Fonda. Using imported and purchased clothing, Fonda's Haudenosaunee customers maintained a very distinctly Haudenosaunee identity separate from their white neighbors who also bought from Fonda.
Fonda's white and Mohawk customers lived and worked together in the decades before the Revolution, sometimes living within sight of one another’s homes. Fonda often noted that a white customer paid a debt with cash from helping a Mohawk neighbor clear a field, or a Mohawk customer paid with cash from helping a white neighbor cut hay. The custom-ers knew what their neighbors bought, wore, and used. This knowledge formed the basis for the very pointed thefts at Canajoharie.
When conflict boiled over between their British and American neighbors, Haudenosaunee communities faced hard choices. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is composed of six independent nations—the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora—and at the time of the Revolution each nation and community made its own deci-sions in conversation with the others, but not bound by the decisions of the others. Many Haudenosaunee leaders argued for neutrality, calling the war a fight between a British father and American children that the Haudenosaunee had no involve-ment in. Some Oneidas saw alliance with American neighbors as their best hope to secure recognition of title to their lands, promises that had been made but often not kept by Molly Brant's late husband William Johnson. Some, like Brant's brother Joseph, saw continued alliance with the British as the best way to retain sovereignty over their territories. The American Revolution was, in many ways, a civil war for Haudenosaunee people like Joseph Brant and Peter Dygert's Oneida ally Tewahongarahkon Hanyary, who found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict at the Battle of Oriskany in the summer of 1777.
In his investigation of the chaos caused by the Committee of Safety raid, Fonda took affidavits from white families who wit-nessed the raid and its aftermath. Fonda wrote that it was “impossible for me to make an inventory of all the goods taken from the Indians as I can’t find out from any of [the white deponents] the whole that is missing.” Dygert took from Brant’s home cash, silver shoe buckles, jewelry, and “several silk gowns which has [sic] been seen on the aforesaid Peter Dygert's Daughter.” Dygert and other members of the Committee of Safety took objects that were most legible as symbols of European-style feminine virtue and respectability, denying Brant access to those symbols and claims to feminine respectability. More than a military attack, the 1777 Canajoharie raid was both per-sonal and targeted at material objects that had come to symbolize the cultural identity and enduring sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee.
In the years that followed, American attacks against indi-vidual Haudenosaunee women and their property escalated, culminating with the Sullivan-Clinton campaign in Seneca and Cayuga territory in 1779. Many of these attacks focused on destroying Haudenosaunee women's fields and orchards, as well as clothing and material property, as at Canajoharie. Together, these attacks on objects denied Haudenosaunee women's traditional claims to spiritual and political authority in their own communities and denied them access to symbols of domestic femininity that both Indigenous and white commu-nities understood would protect women from harm during war. As the attacks on objects esca-lated, rumors grew that Brant, a Seneca woman named Esther Montour, and other Haudenosau- nee women had participated in the torture of American prisoners at Oriskany, Wyoming, and elsewhere. When the Sullivan campaign put hundreds of thousands of bushels of corn to the torch and destroyed decades- old peach and apple orchards in Seneca country, one Continental soldier wrote that "I really feel guilty as I applied the torch to huts that were Homes of Content until we ravagers came spread-ing desolation everywhere."
Home and the feminine domestic sphere of home were a central part of how Americans understood the American Revolution. The last grievance against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence was that the Crown had allowed “merciless Indian Savages” to attack white women and children. This was listed last among the many American grievances because it carried the most sig-nificant emotional weight as a fundamental wrong that many white Americans felt the British Crown had allowed. Thefts of objects and attacks against Indigenous homes paved the way for dehumanizing rhetoric that positioned women like Brant as merciless torturers and not part of a sovereign nation with a pre-existing claim to the territory that became New York State. The intimacy of the thefts was made possible because of a long-shared history of purchas-ing and self-definition through clothing and objects that white settlers and Indigenous people understood to define their communities.