Father To The Six Nations


Of Johnson’s life before he arrived in America there are few known facts. He came to New York by way of Boston, a gay and confident young man, without money but with his powerful uncle in the background. For a few months he stayed in New York with the De Lanceys, living pleasantly in that closely knit provincial city. Then, as if he could no longer postpone his destiny, he set off with a load of supplies up the Hudson to Albany and thence forty miles overland to his homesite in the Mohawk country. Accompanied by his cousin “Mick” Tyrrell, who later returned to a naval career, he set himself up as a trader on the south side of the Mohawk River at Warrensbush, the present South Amsterdam.

Here just before winter he ran up a board shack and opened a general store and trading post. In two sod-banked rooms with plugged deal walls and a clay-patched chimney he and Mick spent the frigid months of their first winter, their only contacts the small garrison at nearby Fort Hunter, the Palatine German settlers along the banks, and Douw Fonda’s Dutch tavern across the river, and of course the Indians. These latter soon became aware that this little post, resembling so many others along the frontier, was nonetheless different—in one important respect.

Unlikely as it seemed in the light of their previous experience, here was a white man to be trusted. For their furs they received from him those European artifacts that had now become necessary to their lives—nails, fishhooks, pots and pans, blankets, calico and gartering, gimps and shags, combs, bullets, gunpowder and rum—at reasonable prices and a fair fixed rate of exchange. Johnson liked the Indians from the start. In any case, he would have been too proud to cheat them, nor did he feel demeaned by their company. Word soon spread to the long house of the Mohawks, and the Iroquois tribes beyond. Soon the bulk of the Indian trade turned to young Johnson.

Within a few years he had become the largest trader in the Mohawk country, a wholesaler now with branch posts scattered at strategic points in the wilderness and overseas connections in London. Everybody going up and down the Mohawk Trail stopped off at Johnson’s for food, for drink, for goods, for news, or just for nothing. Indians clustered there like flies.

The year after his arrival, Johnson bought the indenture of Catharine Weissenberg, a fair-haired, eighteen-year-old German bond servant of the neighboring Phillipses. The buxom pink-and-white Catty lived with him, consoled him in the wilderness, and before she died bore him two daughters and the son who was to become his heir. No doubt he loved her in his way. To comfort her, according to valley tradition, he went through a death-bed marriage ceremony performed by an Anglican priest from Fort Hunter, and years later he recalled “my beloved wife, Catharine” in his will. But an eighteenth-century Irishman did not hurry into a marriage below his station, and on the frontier one did not hurry at all. Nevertheless, this liaison was the probable cause of a long estrangement between Johnson and his family back in Ireland.

Soon he was prosperous enough to start out on his own. He bought land across the Mohawk and four years later moved to this more advantageous location. Uncle Peter objected, since this independence in an obligated nephew was not quite what he had bargained for; and there is a certain asperity in his subsequent letters, Nephew William did not neglect his uncle's interests, but one can scarcely say that they were paramount. For himself, and for Catty and the children, he built Mount Johnson, a pleasant sunny house near the river on a square mile of ground looking down the long valley. It was the first stage of his landed proprietorship.

After Catty’s death Molly Brant, the brown “Lady Johnson,” made herself mistress of the Johnson household. Probably he married Molly according to the tribal rite, for this connection was in the nature of an alliance, cementing still closer the ties between Johnson and his Mohawks. In their eyes he had become one of them, in speech and manner and address, at festivals and in times of mourning. This blue-eyed Celt was their delegated chief, to speak for them before assemblies and governors. To him they looked for justice, for protection against the land-hungry whites, for the honoring of treaties.

After he had built his second house—a solid stone residence named Fort Johnson after the victory at Lake George—the Mohawks moved their council fire, the most sacred symbol of their tribe, there. His hospitality they took for granted, and informally they appointed themselves his bodyguards. Indians wandered in and out of Fort Johnson at will, sometimes by scores, sometimes by hundreds. In later years, when Johnson had become Superintendent of Indian Affairs, young Ensign Gorrell noted in his journal: “Dined with Sir Wm. at Johnson Hall. The office of Superintendent very troublesome. Sir Wm. continually plagued with Indians about him—generally from 300 to 900 in number—spoil his garden and keep his house always dirty.”