- 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
The furnishings and fittings of the Hall’s square drawing room came from England. On the paneled walls were prints of Titian, Lancret, and Poussin. The library held books of the London moment: Goldsmith and Smollett; Chambers’ Dictionary; The London Magazine; The Polite Lady: or a Course of Female Education; Chrysal: or the Adventures of a Guinea. Johnson’s administrators and overseers were Irish, as were the schoolmaster, the bookkeeper, the doctor, the lawyer, and the servants—except for the more menial ones, who were slaves. Johnson brought over tenants from the old country, Irish from Meath and Scots Highlanders. He brought over a harper as well, and Billy the dwarf fiddler.
In exchange—some thought it a poor one—he sent his son to London “to wear off the rusticity of a country education.” King George, in accordance with the original patent of nobility granted Sir William, knighted the young man. Johnny Johnson returned a London buck in speech and manner, supercilious as his father never was. He too knew the Indians, speaking their tongue even more fluently than his father, but he was a harder man and, as he would demonstrate during the Revolution in the valley raids with his Royal Greens, more ruthless.
Johnson’s goal both for his estate and the Mohawk Valley was a prosperous, settled agricultural community. With this aim he nurtured his tenants and sold farms on reasonable terms to industrious, independent men; most of the acres of the Johnson Hall domain were let to tenant farmers. The Hall itself was in the nature of an early experimental agricultural station. Sir William imported seeds, vines, and plants; he brought in hounds; he introduced sheep to the valley. His prize stud animals were available to tenants and neighbors. Though in the irony of history the Hall would be lost within a decade and a half, what he aimed for there was permanence, the rooted attachment to this new earth that his ancestors had found in Ireland.
The Mohawks moved their council fire to the circle of lilacs beside the Hall, and the grounds were as littered by their casual visiting as the Fort had been. Anne MacVicar Grant in her Memoirs of an American Lady observed: “Five hundred of them have been known, for nights together, after drinking pretty freely, to lie around him on the floor, while he was the only white person in a house containing great quantities of everything that was to them valuable or desirable.”
The peace was not to last. Amherst’s indifferent contempt for the Indians, his admittedly heavy hand and parsimonious dealings with them, led to Pontiac’s conspiracy in 1763, which let loose the bloodiest of Indian wars on the frontiers. Even the Six Nations were affected, and the Senecas, who had always been the least trustworthy and the most susceptible to French influence, joined the western war parties. The Mohawk Valley itself remained tranquil, though the borders of Pennsylvania and Virginia were scourged. At the now-fortified Johnson Hall the ailing Warraghiyagey called a council of the five nations—without the Senecas—and again by his efforts and influence kept the bulk of his Iroquois in line.
Pontiac’s revolt, when every fort in the west except Detroit was lost by Indian treachery, broke Amherst’s reputation and caused his recall; and in this crisis General Thomas Gage, the new commander in chief, fell back on Johnson. Coolly, the Superintendent set out to conciliate his charges while at the same time isolating and humbling the responsible leaders. He drew the Senecas back to their old allegiance—they would later have to pay a land indemnity for their breaking of the covenant. He reconciled the others. A great peace council was held at Niagara in July, 1764, attended by 1,400 tribesmen. Though troubled by his old wound and by the onset of age Johnson made the hard journey. Once there he held separate meetings with each of the deputations. In his familiar red blanket with its gold fringe he harangued and explained and laid down belts of wampum as he had done so often in the past. And again his persuasive leadership succeeded, even though Pontiac himself, after a tentative peace offer, had fled to the still-hostile western nations.
Two years later Johnson, accompanied by Guy Johnson, met with a die-hard party of western chiefs at Oswego, where Pontiac came to make his submission. Pontiac himself may not have been so much a great leader as a glib orator; his revolt lacked real co-ordination. But he had become a symbol of the unity of the Indian tribes, and this meeting marked a formal end of their resistance. He and Johnson shook hands, embraced and gave each other the kiss of peace. In this last and perhaps sternest test of his Indian policy Johnson emerged the father figure of the western tribes as he had been of the Iroquois.