- Historic Sites
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
Molly Brant was the most enduring attachment of Johnson’s domestic life. According to legend, he fell in love with her at a militia-day muster when he saw her, slim and casual, hop onto the crupper of an officer’s horse as a lark. Molly had charm and intelligence as well as beauty, and she knew how to manage this white man almost twice her age without constraining him. She was his hostess, called Miss Molly, and he allowed no one to show her any discourtesy. It was she who nursed him in his illnesses. When he died and she returned to her people, there were eight of her children still living.
Molly was the older sister of Joseph Brant, the tribal statesman and feared valley raider of the Revolution, perhaps the ablest Amerind that America produced. He was at one time a secretary to Johnson. There has been a tradition that Brant was one of Johnson's Indian children, though it can never be proved one way or the other. Only it must be admitted that in courage, energy, decision, and even physical appearance, Brant much resembled Johnson.
War parties ranging from Canada down the Mohawk Valley were a constant threat to both Indians and whites. In King George’s War (1744–1748) the Six Nations were increasingly angered and dismayed by the laxity of colonial assemblies in taking measures against the depredations of the French. Even Oswego on Lake Ontario—trading center, observation post, and sole English port along the French chain of waterways—would have been lost through neglect in 1746 but for Johnson’s exertions. The Mohawks gave their unquestioned blood allegiance to Johnson, but the other five nations were turning sullen, disgruntled by the illicit trade of the Albany merchants with Canada that was bypassing and impoverishing them, uncertain of English efforts and half of a mind to deal with the French or at least remain neutral.
It was at the Albany Indian conference of August, 1746, that Johnson emerged as something more than a wealthy trader and prosperous landlord. Since France and England were again at war, the Indians of the covenant wanted to know what they might expect from the English in the way of support, and it was to Johnson that they turned. Dressed in the deerskins of a war chief he led his Mohawks to the capital at Albany in the locust-shrill summer heat. The stolid but astonished Palatines turned out to watch the stocky plumed figure among the lither Indians, his blue eyes in curious contrast to his painted face as he led his adopted warriors along the river trail now flowering with boneset and joe-pye weed.
The braves of the other five nations, still disgruntled, followed independently. Johnson, armed with Governor George Clinton’s promises, did succeed at Albany in welding the Six Nations into a fighting force ready to take the warpath to Canada. The Governor then made him colonel of the Indian detachment he had raised. Subsequently he appointed him colonel of the Albany county militia. The pseudo-peace of 1748 came before Johnson could take field but it left him in command of the whole northern department of the state’s military establishment, the most important man in the Mohawk Valley.
In the uneasy interlude between King George’s War and the French-Indian War, French advances and Céleron de Bienville’s threat to the Ohio alarmed both the Six Nations and the colonists. It was in this atmosphere of hesitancy and doubt that in 1754 the Albany Congress was called; there the seven colonies of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland tried to work out some system of uniting to regulate Indian affairs. Benjamin Franklin, outstanding among the twenty-four commissioners present, offered his own plan of union derived from the Iroquois’ Great Binding Law, but it did not prove acceptable to the colonies. Johnson, as one of the commissioners, demonstrated again his unrivaled control over the Indians. One result of this conference, at least, was that he was finally made Superintendent of Indian Affairs by royal warrant, thus making him independent of the vacillations of colonial legislators.
The cold war grew hot again a month later when a raiding party of Canadian Indians slipped down the valley and laid waste the Dutch town of Hoosick, only forty miles from Albany. Vast as North America was, it had been clear for a long time that it was still not big enough to contain both French and English interests. Led by such energetic amateurs as Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, the colonies finally began their preparations for what they hoped would be the last stage of the inevitable conflict.
A three-pronged drive was planned, with Braddock’s regulars and the Virginia militia advancing to secure the forks of the Ohio, Governor Shirley taking the field against the key point of Niagara, and Johnson commanding a New England militia contingent in a subsidiary effort against Crown Point on Lake Champlain, where the French had recently constructed the threatening Fort St. Frédéric. Johnson and his way of life were not thought well of in New England, and it shows the winning nature of his personality that he, a green commander, was so able to impress the xenophobic Yankees assigned to him.
Dr. Thomas Williams, surgeon and brother of the colonel of a Massachusetts regiment, wrote of Johnson during the campaign: