Davis Swinehart, assistant professor of history, has been spending most of his
time in the 18th century with an Irish knight and a Mohawk woman.
Swinehart’s research and teaching focus on events from the period just
before and leading up to the American Revolution. He has also done extensive
research on the New World soldier-adventurer Sir William Johnson (1715–74) and
his families, Irish and Mohawk, both of which fought for Britain during the
American Revolution. Funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Faculty Career
Enhancement Grant, Swinehart will spend next year finishing his
book on Johnson and his Mohawk common-law wife Molly Brant.
William’s story is easily one of the eighteenth century’s most seductive—a
story of setting out and making good, a story reenacted for centuries
throughout the British Empire,” Swinehart says. “Monarchical, rich, and
sexually corrupt in the eyes of a fledgling nation, this unlikely couple
represented all that America struggled to define itself against after
winning independence from Britain.”
Swinehart’s book, tentatively titled “Molly’s War,” is a narrative that
recounts an intimate history of the Crown’s uneasy military alliance with
the Mohawk Indians of central New York. The story chronicles Sir William
Johnson’s 20-year relationship and domestic life with Brant (1736–96), a
powerful Mohawk woman who struggled to maintain the Mohawks’ allegiance to
George III after Johnson’s death.
book is under contract with Houghton Mifflin in North America and Hodder
Headline in the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth.
Swinehart’s “Molly’s War” derives its narrative verve from the events and
places that shaped Brant and Johnson’s lives: their childhoods in the New
and Old Worlds; the circumstances of their meeting and subsequent two
decades together; the building of the estate they shared uneasily with their
eight children and with Johnson's three white children; and the two decades
Brant spent without Johnson, waging war and living as a single mother
confronted with heartbreaking blows.
written about Johnson since his death in 1774 but too often he has been
depicted as a caricature of the British colonial official. Swinehart says
his research, conducted in British and American archives--including the
the Public Records Office in London, and in Sir William's own published
papers--suggests a more complicated portrait than the ones offered by
previous biographers and scholars. Swinehart says Johnson was a
devoted father, a great lover of fun, and a man of tremendous intelligence
and empathetic powers.
complement his research, Swinehart spends time in physical locations where
Johnson and Brant lived. He has spent extensive time at the house they
shared, Johnson Hall, which still stands, 45 miles northwest of Albany. This
summer, he’ll be in London, searching for the family’s banking records, and
in Dublin, visiting Johnson’s childhood house.
Swinehart’s interest in Johnson and Brant dates back six years. After
earning a master’s degree from the University of Delaware, where he studied
American decorative arts, he pursued a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale
University. While at Yale he studied with prize-winning colonial historian
John Demos, who changed forever how Swinehart writes history. That is when he
began his doctoral dissertation on Johnson.
“Writing narrative history is for me a way of enriching our sense of the
eighteenth century,” Swinehart says. “So, too, is reconciling the history of
early America with the history of the British Empire.”
Swinehart says he hopes to spend his life doing work that combines scholarly
rigor and accessibility in equal measure, inside the classroom and on the
page. Students, he finds, learn best about early American history when
people and life stories are placed front and center: when enormous social
and economic changes can be discerned in the life of a James Boswell or a
Benjamin Franklin or a Molly Brant.
Wesleyan, Swinehart has taught all self-designed courses. These include the
survey of early American history, narrative nonfiction and historical
biography and the British Empire, a seminar on the Puritans, and another on
early American furniture and art.
“I believe in reaching intelligent, curious people, in opening up
worlds to people who may never become scholars but who — if you can persuade
them of a book’s capacity to transport and transform — may become discerning
adult readers of serious literary nonfiction,” Swinehart says. “It’s always
a marvel to watch young readers connect for the first time with people who
lived over 200 years ago."
addition to the Mellon Foundation Career Enrichment grant, Swinehart is the
recipient of a Yale College Teaching Prize and of fellowships from the
University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the
Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, and
the New York Public Library. Prior to coming to Wesleyan in 2002, he was
the Mellon Research Fellow in American History at the University of
my vocation,” he says. “To reach those who will never become professional
historians, teach them that reading books is a lifelong pleasure — and the
cheapest vacation they’ll ever take.”