Father To The Six Nations


The following summer, after two years of unofficial fighting in North America, war was formally declared between England and France. The brilliant Marquis de Montcalm succeeded Dieskau in the French command. England sent over the ponderous James Abercrombie—called derisively by his troops “Nabbycromby”—and Lord Loudoun, the commander in chief, of whom it was said he went into winter quarters in August and emerged in June. The results were what might have been expected: Abercrombie’s bloody repulse at Ticonderoga, Montcalm’s capture of the key post of Oswego and then of Fort William Henry, built on the site of Johnson’s battle. Oswego’s fall shook the Indian alliance, and the western Iroquois—the Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas—began to have second thoughts about the French. Johnson in distress called a Six Nations council at the Fort. Masking his inner doubts with outward confidence, he did his easy best to reassure the Indians and hold them to the old covenant, though the most he could then accomplish was to bind the wavering tribes to neutrality.

The turn of the tide came with Colonel John Bradstreet’s unexpected capture of Fort Frontenac, across Lake Ontario from Oswego. Bradstreet, an old Louisbourg campaigner, destroyed French shipping on the lake by this bold counter-stroke and broke communications between Montreal and the West. But it took another year before the dreary Loudoun and Abercrombie were recalled. Command was then put into the capable hands of General Jeffrey Amherst, and the final drive against Canada was set in motion.

Amherst planned to move through Crown Point to Montreal while James Wolfe attacked the citadel of Quebec and that able soldier Brigadier John Prideaux, with a lighter force, marched against Niagara. Amherst called on Johnson to recruit his Indians for the Niagara campaign, and, quickly sensing the turn of the tide, they flocked to join him. It was the largest Indian column ever mustered in North America.

Niagara, strong and protected, could not be taken by direct assault. In the ensuing siege Prideaux was killed, and command devolved on Johnson as the senior colonel. Competently and vigorously he directed operations until the French surrendered. Nothing would ever again equal the golden moment of this summer triumph at Niagara. At 44, he had reached the peak of his life in energy, initiative, and spirit. The remaining dozen years would mark a slow decline of his powers.

In the peace that followed, Johnson could have become governor of New York, but he preferred now to live on his Kingsborough domain in a manner that recalled the County Meath of his youth. Nine miles from palisaded Fort Johnson, where six Indian trails crossed, he commenced the construction of Johnson Hall, his supervising architect being Abercrombie’s engineer, Samuel Fuller. Less massive, more elegant in its Georgian symmetry than Fort Johnson, it was modeled after the pattern of an Irish estate. Half a mile away Sir William began a dependent village called Johnstown that was to have its domed courthouse, its jail, the first free school in the country, its established church and yellow-painted residences. Not far away he would build the even more elegant Guy Park for his daughter and her husband, Guy Johnson, his Irish-born nephew and secretary. The more utilitarian Fort Johnson went to son John, that haughty young man, who occupied it with his mistress.

Before Sir William could assume life as master of his acres, however, there was trouble again with resentful Indians, particularly those of the West who felt themselves in no way obligated to submit to British rule. So, though his health was troubling him—the old wound and chronic dysentery—he forced himself to make the journey to Detroit in 1761 for a grand council of the nations, the weightiest gathering of Indians yet to take place in British North America. Five hundred sachems and warriors represented seven western tribes plus the Six Nations. Here, it was hoped, the status and allegiance of the Indians would be settled once and for all.

Probably Johnson met Pontiac, the Ottawa chief, here, although there is no formal record of the latter’s having attended. Johnson in his opening speech to the Indians told them that he had come to brighten the “chain of friendship.” On his return home he wrote to Amherst that he had left the western nations extremely well disposed toward the English and that they would never break the peace—“unless,” he added forebodingly, “greatly irritated thereto.” For it must have been clear to Johnson that the stubborn commander in chief’s niggardly instructions to cease giving presents to the Indians, and particularly to cease distributing the free gunpowder to which the French had accustomed them, was an irritant that if pursued in would make such a rising as Pontiac’s inevitable.

But the time had not yet come. Sir William returned to Johnson Hall and the life of a manor lord.