- 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
With the downfall of New France that Johnson had done so much to bring about, the Indians lost their bargaining power. No longer did their painted warriors tip the balance between rival military establishments. Then they had been courted and cajoled; now they would be pushed aside. Supervision of the Indian trade was turned over to the provincial governments and, under pressure from the frontiersmen, they allowed all controls to lapse. For the rest of his life Johnson would be engaged in a losing struggle to protect his Indians against conniving merchants, land robbers, and the rum trade. A month before his death he wrote: “I have daily to combat with thousands, who, by their avarice, cruelty or indiscretion, are constantly counteracting all judicious measures with the Indians; but I shall still persevere.”
In an attempt to make a final settlement between the red men and the encroaching whites he called a conference of the Iroquois at Fort Stanwix on the upper Mohawk in 1768. Here at the price of large land concessions from the Indians he arranged the fixing of a permanent boundary line between their hunting grounds and those of the whites. Firm as the Stanwix Line looked on paper, it was scarcely drawn before it was violated. Hard-handed trappers and traders and speculators were not to be held back by any paper commitments confirmed in London. The British government in its efforts to protect its Indian allies alienated large groups of stubborn and determined frontiersmen who would soon side with the discontented merchants and shippers in denouncing the Crown’s interference with what they maintained were their natural rights.
Johnson Hall, self-contained and self-sustaining, was insulated from the agitation of the seaboard cities in the years just before the Revolution. Sir William, his health gone and age upon him, never really felt the gathering crisis. He died the year before the portentous initial volley at the Concord Bridge. Some time after his death it was rumored that, realizing that the old allegiances were dissolving, he had committed suicide. There is no truth in this, however; so little did he sense the crisis in his last years that he dreamed vaguely and wistfully of a peerage, of becoming the first lord (if one excepts William Alexander, the self-appointed Lord Stirling) to be created on the American scene.
Conformist that he was, he did his best to secure the establishment of an American bishopric for the Church of England. He built a stone church at his village that is now officially Johnstown and an Indian church at Danube that is still standing. Yet with his customary tolerance he gave land to both Lutherans and Calvinists for their new chapels. Like Washington he became master of his Masonic lodge, St. Patrick’s Lodge, which he himself founded. He was a member of the Society for the Promotion of Arts in America, a trustee of Queen’s University (now Rutgers), and a benefactor of King’s College (now Columbia).
As background to his existence at the Hall, and in spite of his failing health, his Indians remained his lasting concern. Violations of the Stanwix Line by the whites increased each year. Some of the Ohio tribes were threatening to move against the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontiers. The Six Nations grew restive again. Such brutal murders by the whites as that of Silver Heels, Braddock’s old Seneca scout, who unlike many of his tribe had served the English faithfully all the years of his manhood, roused the Iroquois to bitter anger. His scalping was regarded as an act of war.
Six hundred tribesmen gathered at Johnson Hall in July, 1774, demanding the justice that they had always received from Brother Warraghiyagey. Incapacitated for several days by dysentery, Johnson managed to leave his sickbed on July 11 to address them. In Indian garb, with his gold-fringed blanket about him, he spoke to them for two hours in the lilac circle before the council fire in the summer sun, pacing and stamping the earth, laying down wampum, embellishing each point of rhetoric, promising to protect them and punish the white aggressors promptly. He managed to get through his oration, but while the customary presents were being distributed, he collapsed and was carried to his bedroom. Two hours later he was dead.
Sir William Johnson, in scarlet uniform with silver buttons, lay in his mahogany coffin in the darkened piano room. Through the wooden slats of the closed shutters one could hear the humming of bees and beyond, more insistently, the chant of the Iroquois mourning their Warraghiyagey—like the keening of the Irish over their dead. Irish, English, Scots, Germans, Dutch, and Negroes—2,000 valley settlers united for the last time—would follow his body to the grave. After the appointed Anglican service the Indians conducted their own funeral rites. And as the first handful of earth rattled down on the metal coffin plate it was an era that was being covered over.