Here to return to
SIR WILLIAM JOHNSON
THE story of the French and Indian wars on our border does not fall within the scope of this chronicle; but in order to understand the development of New York we must know something of the conditions which prevailed in the province during that troubled epoch. The penurious policy pursued by the Dutch and continued by the English left the colony without defenses on either the northern or southern boundaries. For a long time the settlers found themselves bulwarked against the French on the north by the steadfast friendship of the “Six Nations,” comprising the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, the Senecas, and the Tuscaroras; but at last these trusty allies began to feel that the English were not doing their share in the war. The lack of military preparation in New York was inexcusable. The niggardliness of the Assembly alienated successive governors and justified Clinton’s assertion: “If you deny me the necessary supplies all my endeavors must become fruitless. I must wash my own hands and leave at your doors the blood of innocent people.”
When the Indians under the leadership of the French actually took the warpath, the colonists at last awoke to their peril. Upon call of Lieutenant-Governor De Lancey, acting under instructions of the Lords of Trade, all the colonies north of the Potomac except New Jersey sent commissioners to a congress at Albany in June, 1754, to plan measures of defense and of alliance with the Six Nations.
Albany was still a placid little Dutch town. Mrs. Grant of Laggan in Scotland, who visited Albany in her girlhood, wrote of it afterward with a gentle suavity which lent glamour to the scenes which she described. She pictures for us a little town in which every house had its garden at the rear and in front a shaded stoop with seats on either side where the family gathered to enjoy the twilight. “Each family had a cow, fed in a common pasture at the end of the town. In the evening they returned all together, of their own accord, with their tinkling bells hung at their necks, along the wide and grassy street, to their wonted sheltering trees, to be milked. At one door were young matrons, at another the elders of the people, at a third the youths and maidens, gaily chatting or singing together, while the children played around the trees, or waited by the cows for the chief ingredient of their frugal supper, which they generally ate sitting on the steps in the open air.”
The court-house of Albany to which the commissioners journeyed by boat up the Hudson, is described by Peter Kalm, a Swedish traveler and scientist, as a fine stone building by the riverside, three stories high with a small steeple containing a bell, and topped by a gilt ball and weather-vane. From the engraved print which has come down to us, it seems a barren barrack of a building with an entrance quite inadequate for the men of distinction who thronged its halls on this memorable occasion.
In this congress at Albany, Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania and William Johnson of New York were the dominating figures. The famous plan of union which Franklin presented has sometimes made historians forget the services rendered by this redoubtable Colonel Johnson at a moment when the friendship of the Six Nations was hanging in the balance. Though gifts had been prepared and a general invitation had been sent, only a hundred and fifty warriors appeared at Albany and they held themselves aloof with a distrust that was almost contempt. “Look at the French!” exclaimed Hendrick, the great chief of the Mohawks. “They are men. They are fortifying everywhere; but, we are ashamed to say it, you are all like women — bare and open without any fortifications.” In this crisis all the commissioners deferred to William Johnson as the one man who enjoyed the complete confidence of the Six Nations. It was he who formulated the Indian policy of the congress.
He had been born in Ireland. His mother was Anne Warren, sister to Captain Peter Warren, who “served with reputation” in the Royal Navy and afterward became Knight of the Bath and Vice-Admiral of the Red Squadron of the British Fleet. Captain Warren was less than a dozen years older than his nephew, whom he regarded with affectionate interest. He described him as “a spritely boy well grown of good parts and keen wit but most onruly and streperous,” and the sailor added: “I see the making of a strong man. I shall keep my weather eye on the lad.”
The result of this observation was so favorable that the captain, who was on station in America, sent for William Johnson to come out and aid him in the development of a real estate venture. A. large tract of land near the Mohawk River had come into Warren’s possession, and as a sailor Warren naturally found difficulty in superintending land at what was then a week’s journey from the seacoast. “Billy” was his choice as an assistant, and the boy, who was then twenty-three years old, left the Old World and in 1738 reached the new plantation where his life-work lay before him. For this he was admirably equipped by his Irish inheritance of courage, tact, and humor, by his study of English law, and by a facility in acquiring languages which enabled him to master the Mohawk tongue in two years after his arrival in New York.
The business arrangement between Captain Warren and his nephew provided that Johnson should form a settlement on his uncle’s land known as Warrensbush, at the juncture of Schoharie Kill and the Mohawk, that he should sell farms, oversee settlers, clear and hedge fields, “girdle” trees (in order to kill them and let in the sun), purchase supplies, and in partnership with Warren establish a village store to meet the necessities of the new colonists and to serve as a trading-station with the Indians. In compensation for his services he was to be allowed to cultivate a part of the land for himself, though it is hard to imagine what time or strength could have been left for further exertions after the fulfillment of the onerous duties marked out for him.
A few years after his arrival at Warrensbush he married a young Dutch or German woman named Catherine Weisenberg, perhaps an indentured servant whose passage had been prepaid on condition of service in America. Little is known of the date or circumstances of this marriage. It is certain only that after a few years Catherine died, leaving three children, to whom Johnson proved a kind and considerate father, in spite of an erratic domestic career which involved his taking as the next head of his household Caroline, niece of the Mohawk chief Hendrick, and later Molly Brant, sister of the Indian, Joseph Brant.
Molly Brant, by whom Johnson had eight children, was recognized as his wife by the Indians, while among Johnson’s English friends she was. known euphemistically as “the brown Lady Johnson.” She presided over his anomalous household with dignity and discretion; but it is noticeable that Johnson, who. was so willing to defy public opinion in certain matters, was sufficiently conventional in others, as we learn from a description of the daily life of the legitimate daughters of the house. While Mohawk chiefs, Oneida braves, Englishmen of title, and distinguished guests of every kind thronged the mansion, and while the little half-breed children played about the lawns and disported themselves on the shores of Kayaderosseras Creek close at hand, “the young ladies” lived in almost conventual seclusion.
The grim baronial mansion where this mixed household made its dwelling for many years, was called variously Mount Johnson, Castle Johnson, and Fort Johnson. It was built in 1742 with such massive walls that the house is still standing in the town of Amsterdam. In 1755, when the Indian peril loomed large on the horizon, the original defenses were strengthened, a stockade was built as a further protection, and from this time on it was called Fort Johnson.
Owing perhaps to Johnson’s precautions and the Indian’s knowledge of his character, the fort was not attacked and its owner continued to dwell in the house until 1762, when, having become one of the richest men in the colony, he built on a tract of land in Johnstown a more ambitious, and, it is to be hoped, a more cheerful mansion known as Johnson Hall. This house was built of wood with wings of stone, pierced at the top for muskets. On one side of the house lay a garden and nursery described as the pride of the surrounding country. Here Johnson lived with an opulence which must have amazed the simple settlers around him, especially those who remembered his coming to the colony as a poor youth less than thirty years earlier. He had in his service a secretary, a physician, a musician who played the violin for the entertainment of guests, a gardener, a butler, a waiter named Pontiach, of mixed negro and Indian blood, a pair of white dwarfs to attend upon himself and his friends, an overseer, and ten or fifteen slaves.
This retinue of servants was none too large to cope with the unbounded hospitality which Johnson dispensed. A visitor reports having seen at the Hall from sixty to eighty Indians at one time lodging under tents on the lawn and taking their meals from tables made of pine boards spread under the trees. On another occasion, when Sir William called a council of the Iroquois at Fort Johnson, a thousand natives gathered, and Johnson’s neighbors within a circuit of twenty miles were invited to assist in the rationing of this horde of visitors. The landholders along the Mohawk might well have been glad to share the burden of Sir William’s tribal hospitality, since its purpose was as much political as social and its results were of endless benefit to the entire colony.
At last the Indians had found a friend, a white man who understood them and whom they could understand. He was honest with them and therefore they trusted him. He was sympathetic and therefore they were ready to discuss their troubles freely with him. As an Indian of mixed blood declared to the Governor at Albany in speaking of Sir William: “His knowledge of our affairs, our laws, and our language made us think he was not like any other white but an Indian like ourselves. Not only that; but in his house is an Indian woman, and his little children are half-breed as I am.”
The English therefore were peculiarly fortunate in finding at the most critical stage of their political dealings with the Indians a representative endowed with the wisdom and insight of Sir William Johnson. Unlike the French, he did not strive to force an alien form of worship upon this primitive people. Unlike the Dutch, he insisted that business should be carried on as honestly with the natives as with the white men. Unlike his fellow-countrymen, he constantly urged adequate preparation for war on the part of the English and demanded that they should bear their share of the burden. In a written report at the Albany congress he strongly recommended that inasmuch as the Six Nations, owing to their wars with the French, had fallen short both in hunting and planting, they should be provided with food from the English supplies. Finally he testified to the sincerity of his convictions by going to the war himself and rendering valuable service first as colonel and later as major-general. After the Battle of Lake George, Johnson was knighted by the King and received a grant of £5000 from Parliament. In the same year he was appointed by the Crown “Agent and Sole Superintendent of the Six Nations and other northern Indians “ inhabiting British territory north of the Carolinas and the Ohio River.
Johnson is described by one who saw him about this time or somewhat earlier as a man of commanding presence, only a little short of six feet in height, “neck massive, broad chest and large limbs, great physical strength, the head large and shapely, countenance open and beaming with good nature, eyes grayish black, hair brown with tinge of auburn.” His activity took every form and was exerted in every direction. His documents and correspondence number over six thousand and fill twenty-six volumes preserved in the State Library. Nor did these represent his chief activities. He was constantly holding councils with the native tribes either at Fort Johnson or at the Indian camps. It was he who kept the Mohawks from joining in Pontiac’s conspiracy which swept the western border; it was he who negotiated the famous treaty at Fort Stanwix in 1768. In the midsummer of 1774 he succumbed to an old malady after an impassioned address to six hundred Iroquois gathered at Johnson Hall.
He was one of the fortunate few whose characters and careers fit exactly. He found scope for every power that he possessed and he won great rewards. His tireless energy expressed itself in cultivating thousands of acres and in building houses, forts, and churches. He dipped a lavish hand into his abundant wealth and scattered his gold where it was of the greatest service. He loved hospitality and gathered hundreds round his board. He was a benevolent autocrat and nations bowed to his will. He paid homage to his King, and died cherishing the illusion of the value of prerogative. He was fortunate in his death as in his life, for he was spared the throes of the mighty changes already under way, when the King’s statue should be pulled down to be melted into bullets, when New York should merge her identity in the Union of States, and when the dwellers along the banks of the Hudson and its tributaries should call themselves no longer Dutch or English but Americans.