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Father To The Six Nations
Only Sir William Johnson, living among them in feudal splendor, won and kept the confidence of the Iroquois.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Warraghiyagey, He-Who-Does-Much, was the name the Iroquois gave to this Mohawk Valley immigrant whom they came to love as a father and trust even beyond the grave. William Johnson justified and returned their love. While the common attitude of eighteenth-century America toward the Indians was one of fear and contempt, seasoned by covetousness, Johnson fearlessly mixed with them as equals, spoke their language, ate their food, wore their clothes, mated with their squaws, stamped and danced with the braves about their campfires, and learned to hold forth in the endless flowery speeches of their powwows.
In 1738, as a young man of 23, he arrived in the Mohawk country to manage his uncle’s land and set up a trading post. During the 36 years he lived in the valley of his adoption he was to become a fabled figure—the wealthiest colonial of his day, lord of a domain of hundreds of thousands of acres, casual dispenser of a feudal munificence at Johnson Hall, sole successful military commander in the disastrous year of Braddock’s defeat, major general of militia, His Majesty’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a Mohawk war chief, the second baronet to be created in America.
He was indeed one of the great men of his time. History, usually unkind to lost causes, has obscured his portion. For he was a king’s man. Like his rival, Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, he died on the eve of the Revolution and, like him, he would have kept to the old allegiance had he lived. But for the Revolution he might have become as myth-cloaked a figure as Washington, for the Mohawk Valley was a gateway, the key to the West, and through his Indians Johnson held the key in his hand. By his blood brotherhood with the Mohawks he controlled the other five nations of the Iroquois—the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora—in their at-times hesitant loyalty.
No other man in America ever had such influence with the Indians. In King George’s War and in the French-Indian War he kept the frontier between the French and the English intact. The Iroquois, most able and ferocious of the North American tribes, lay athwart the vital empire-valley. More than a hundred years earlier Champlain, with his Huron allies, had turned them into vindictive enemies by his early-morning massacre at the Ticondcroga promontory, and the Iroquois, temporarily shattered, had allied themselves with the Dutch, and later with the English, nor could the French ever after break that allegiance.
Yet it was William Johnson’s devotion that preserved this covenant in the eighteenth century. He was the champion of Indian interests, their Warraghiyagey, the one white man whom they could trust without limit and who returned their faith with love. But for Johnson the Iroquois might have stood passively aside.
To his contemporaries Johnson’s way of life was puzzling. He was as alien in mentality to the Yankee trader as he was to the moral Puritan or the frontier land-shark. At his small trading post in the Mohawk Valley he first astonished everyone by treating the Indians fairly. It was his nature to deal honestly with his inferiors without regard to their inferiority, to mix with them and assume their ways, and yet never by this familiarity to forfeit their respect or their sense of his leadership. But even a historian like Francis Parkman, writing years later, could not conceal his distaste for Johnson’s intimacy with the Indians and their squaws.
Though Johnson came to possess vast acres, he was not a land speculator. It was his boast that he had bought land from whites, not stolen it from Indians. His largest single holding, the Canajoharie Indian tract of almost 100,000 acres, was given to him by the Canajoharie Mohawks in trust, to protect their hunting grounds from the encroachments of other whites. His attitude was more feudal than national, and it is this archaic outlook that explains much of Johnson’s character. Toward the Indians he felt a liege bond.
He was born in Ireland, a loyal servant of the English Crown, and the untidy prodigality of Johnson Hall, swarming with Indians, was essentially that of an Irish country house set down on a frontier. Johnson cared for his acres like a careful husbandman and conscientious proprietor, not like a land-jobber. His easy self-assurance was innate. His loyalties, foibles, and abilities were characteristic of the Anglo-Irish caste, that gifted race within a race that has been so prolific of leaders, soldiers, and administrators. Transposed to the forest world of the Mohawk Valley—with its hard clarity of light, its blue air, and savage shifting seasons—he remained an Irishman always, creating where he could the remembered pattern of the blurred, dovegray landscape he would never see again.
It was Johnson’s uncle, Admiral Sir Peter Warren, who gave his nephew the first step forward in America. Warren, at that time only an untitled captain, was even then a cosmopolite. He had married an American from the De Lancey clan; his New York town house was the finest in the city; he owned a country place in Greenwich—afterward Greenwich Village. With a Celtic regard for relatives he brought his nephew from Ireland to manage 13,000 acres of Mohawk Valley land that he—always the astute businessman—had bought on the cheap from the widow of the late Governor William Cosby.