April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Only Sir William Johnson, living among them in feudal splendor, won and kept the confidence of the Iroquois.
Warraghiyagey, He-Who-Does-Much, was the name the Iroquois gave to this Mohawk Valley immigrant whom they came to love as a father and trust even beyond the grave. William Johnson justified and returned their love. While the common attitude of eighteenth-century America toward the Indians was one of fear and contempt, seasoned by covetousness, Johnson fearlessly mixed with them as equals, spoke their language, ate their food, wore their clothes, mated with their squaws, stamped and danced with the braves about their campfires, and learned to hold forth in the endless flowery speeches of their powwows.
In 1738, as a young man of 23, he arrived in the Mohawk country to manage his uncle’s land and set up a trading post. During the 36 years he lived in the valley of his adoption he was to become a fabled figure—the wealthiest colonial of his day, lord of a domain of hundreds of thousands of acres, casual dispenser of a feudal munificence at Johnson Hall, sole successful military commander in the disastrous year of Braddock’s defeat, major general of militia, His Majesty’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a Mohawk war chief, the second baronet to be created in America.
He was indeed one of the great men of his time. History, usually unkind to lost causes, has obscured his portion. For he was a king’s man. Like his rival, Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, he died on the eve of the Revolution and, like him, he would have kept to the old allegiance had he lived. But for the Revolution he might have become as myth-cloaked a figure as Washington, for the Mohawk Valley was a gateway, the key to the West, and through his Indians Johnson held the key in his hand. By his blood brotherhood with the Mohawks he controlled the other five nations of the Iroquois—the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora—in their at-times hesitant loyalty.
No other man in America ever had such influence with the Indians. In King George’s War and in the French-Indian War he kept the frontier between the French and the English intact. The Iroquois, most able and ferocious of the North American tribes, lay athwart the vital empire-valley. More than a hundred years earlier Champlain, with his Huron allies, had turned them into vindictive enemies by his early-morning massacre at the Ticondcroga promontory, and the Iroquois, temporarily shattered, had allied themselves with the Dutch, and later with the English, nor could the French ever after break that allegiance.
Yet it was William Johnson’s devotion that preserved this covenant in the eighteenth century. He was the champion of Indian interests, their Warraghiyagey, the one white man whom they could trust without limit and who returned their faith with love. But for Johnson the Iroquois might have stood passively aside.
To his contemporaries Johnson’s way of life was puzzling. He was as alien in mentality to the Yankee trader as he was to the moral Puritan or the frontier land-shark. At his small trading post in the Mohawk Valley he first astonished everyone by treating the Indians fairly. It was his nature to deal honestly with his inferiors without regard to their inferiority, to mix with them and assume their ways, and yet never by this familiarity to forfeit their respect or their sense of his leadership. But even a historian like Francis Parkman, writing years later, could not conceal his distaste for Johnson’s intimacy with the Indians and their squaws.
Though Johnson came to possess vast acres, he was not a land speculator. It was his boast that he had bought land from whites, not stolen it from Indians. His largest single holding, the Canajoharie Indian tract of almost 100,000 acres, was given to him by the Canajoharie Mohawks in trust, to protect their hunting grounds from the encroachments of other whites. His attitude was more feudal than national, and it is this archaic outlook that explains much of Johnson’s character. Toward the Indians he felt a liege bond.
He was born in Ireland, a loyal servant of the English Crown, and the untidy prodigality of Johnson Hall, swarming with Indians, was essentially that of an Irish country house set down on a frontier. Johnson cared for his acres like a careful husbandman and conscientious proprietor, not like a land-jobber. His easy self-assurance was innate. His loyalties, foibles, and abilities were characteristic of the Anglo-Irish caste, that gifted race within a race that has been so prolific of leaders, soldiers, and administrators. Transposed to the forest world of the Mohawk Valley—with its hard clarity of light, its blue air, and savage shifting seasons—he remained an Irishman always, creating where he could the remembered pattern of the blurred, dovegray landscape he would never see again.
It was Johnson’s uncle, Admiral Sir Peter Warren, who gave his nephew the first step forward in America. Warren, at that time only an untitled captain, was even then a cosmopolite. He had married an American from the De Lancey clan; his New York town house was the finest in the city; he owned a country place in Greenwich—afterward Greenwich Village. With a Celtic regard for relatives he brought his nephew from Ireland to manage 13,000 acres of Mohawk Valley land that he—always the astute businessman—had bought on the cheap from the widow of the late Governor William Cosby.
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.”
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:
I must say he is a complete gentleman, and willing to please and oblige all men; familiar and free of access to the lowest sentinel; a gentleman of uncommon smart sense and even temper; never saw him in a ruffle, or use any bad language—in short, I never was so disappointed in a person in the idea I had of him before I came from home, in my life; to sum up, he is almost universally beloved and esteemed by officers and soldiers as a second Marlborough for coolness of head and warmness of heart.
The year 1755 was one of disaster for the colonies. Braddock’s grave under the road had been trampled over by his broken units and crisscrossed by the fellies of his own artillery. Shirley, late in starting for Niagara and his men disheartened by the news of Braddock’s defeat, was hampered by bad weather and finally immobilized by the September line storms. In his distress he attempted to suborn Johnson’s Indians for his own ends, a step that Johnson never forgave and one that sundered for good these two, perhaps the ablest of the colonial leaders. Only Johnson with his Indians and Yankee militia was successful in that grim season, triumphing over French regulars under Baron Dieskau.
Up till now Johnson had never commanded troops in the field, and he proceeded gingerly. At first there was difficulty with the Indians, an aftermath of Shirley’s intrigues, but finally he set out with a small Mohawk contingent—among them the thirteen-year-old Joseph Brant—and 3,500 provincial troops. He arrived without incident at Lac St. Sacrement, which he loyally renamed Lake George, and laid out a camp on its western shore near the southern end, some fifty miles below Crown Point. A more professional soldier would have avoided such a site, flanked by swamps with the lake in the rear barring retreat, but Johnson did not anticipate a land attack. This, however, is what was to come. Baron Dieskau—the wily professional trained under Marshal Count de Saxe, more brilliant than Braddock but with the same contempt for provincials—did not choose to wait behind his Crown Point fortifications but started down from Lake Champlain with a canoe flotilla of over a thousand Indians and several hundred regulars from the regiments of Languedoc and La Reine.
When news of Dieskau’s advance reached the camp Johnson sent out a thousand men under Colonel Ephraim Williams, with Old Hendrik, long most faithful of the Indian chiefs, to lead the scouts. Together they marched into a defile trap that Dieskau had prepared for them, in the preliminary engagement known afterward as “the bloody morning scout.” Williams and Hendrik with a hundred more were killed. The remaining provincials panicked and cut back to the temporary barricades near the water’s edge. Dieskau pressed on, no doubt feeling that the battle was won, only to be met by improvised artillery fire that stopped him in his tracks.
Forming up his regulars, he sent them in a precise frontal attack against Johnson’s center. They advanced by close column platoons, their white frogged uniforms an ominous line against the green background of scrub alders. The New Englanders, with their backs to the lake, knew the fear that all men know in battle, but the spell of those uniforms had been broken ten years before at Louisbourg, and though the grenadiers of Languedoc and La Reine reached the crest of the barricades the Americans did not give. In the end it was the French regulars who broke in disorder, pursued back through the thickets by Yankee farmers and whooping Indians.
At an early stage in the battle Johnson was shot in the thigh—the bullet was to remain there to trouble him for the rest of his life—and carried to his tent, so that although the defenses and troop dispositions had been prepared by him, the direction of the battle was taken over by his second in command, Brigadier Phineas Lyman. Dieskau too had been wounded several times in the assault, but propped up against a stump in the long grasses he still shouted unheeded orders to his infantry until he was overrun and made prisoner.
Johnson, with 260 casualties, prudently remembered Braddock and made no attempt to follow up the French along the Crown Point road. His was a moral rather than a strategic victory, but it was the only one of the year and one in which provincials on their own had stood up to regulars and beaten them. Young Joseph Brant, it is said, returned with a French scalp and a grenadier’s white uniform. For Johnson, the amateur general, the reward was great—£5,000 from the Crown and a baronetcy.
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.
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.
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.
Two years would see the piano room scored by the hobnails of the insurgent Americans. The Johnson dynasty would be shattered, Sir John and Guy and their dependents in flight to Canada, followed by the Mohawks under Joseph Brant. Sir John was to stand once more in despoiled Johnson Hall in 1780, but this time for a few hours only as a fugitive raider harrying the land where his father lay buried. Appointed colonel of the King’s Royal Regiment, better known as Johnson’s Greens, he swept down the Mohawk Valley from Montreal, turning the region into a smoking waste. The son’s raids, raids which the father could never have countenanced in his beloved valley, have clouded Sir William’s reputation.
Yet, looked at in perspective, Johnson’s and Brant’s valley forays were not the capriciously wanton acts that they seemed afterward to Americans. Like Sheridan’s Civil War raid down the Shenandoah Valley, their primary object—justified so long as war is justified—was to deny the food supplies of this rich valley to the enemy. General John Sullivan’s ravaging of the Seneca country was equally brutal, and equally justified.
That Johnny Johnson did not approach his father’s stature was as clear then as it is now. Yet adversity brought out stout Johnson qualities in him. He devoted himself to helping the impoverished Loyalists in Canada, and later as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for British North America he showed much of his father’s capacity for dealing with the Indians. The Mohawks kept to their family allegiance. They never returned to the valley of their name.
With the peace the Mohawk Valley lay open to the West. Afoot, by flatboat, by covered wagon, the settlers and adventurers and old soldiers and soured New England farmers of the new republic trekked up the valley. At Fort Johnson they might stop for a moment to admire the massive empty stone structure, but its name meant little to them. Sir William Johnson was no concern of theirs. He was part of the past; and to them it was the future that mattered.