Builders of our Country Vol. I - G. Southworth

Sir William Johnson

Right across the present state of New York lay the land of the mighty Iroquois Indians. Five tribes formed this race, the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas and the Senecas. (Later the Iroquois adopted a sixth tribe into their confederacy. This sixth tribe were the Tuscaroras.) In the whole of America no Indians were more ferocious or more powerful than the Iroquois. Living at peace with one another the Five Nations, with their combined strength, made a terrible foe for the enemy.

Through the beautiful Mohawk Valley and on west to Niagara they built their Long Houses, roved at will and lived their free wild life. The land was theirs.

Then came the time when the French settled Quebec, and down from the north came Champlain and his Algonquin war party. All unsuspecting and sure of success the Iroquois rushed into battle. When, behold, a white man unheard of wonder appeared in the lead of the old familiar enemy, and with his death-dealing gun killed in one instant two great Iroquois chiefs! For the first time panic filled the breasts of their followers and, in terror, they fled before the white man from the north.

The Dutch, settling at first to the south of the Iroquois' land, dealt more peaceably with the Five Nations. From their trading posts on the Hudson they carried on a lively fur trade with the red men; and with the Mohawks, formed a treaty of peace. But, for all the friendly relations, the fact remained that gradually, gradually the white men were shutting in the Iroquois on the south and east as well as on the north and west.

And, still, the newcomers were not content. After the Dutch had surrendered to the English, England's king began selling to his subjects great tracts of land Tight in the Mohawk valley itself. The Indians watched this spreading out with a jealous eye. Surely, here was cause for trouble between the English settlers and the savages.

One of these estates, lying on the south side of the Mohawk river, was bought by a certain Sir Peter Warren, an admiral in the English navy. And Sir Peter sent his nephew, William Johnson, to live on this American property and look after its owner's interests. A more fortunate choice could not have been made.

William Johnson was an Irish lad born in that country in 1715. "William is a Spritely Boy, well grown, of good parts, Keen wit but Most Onruly and Streperous!" says Sir Peter's diary of William when he was eleven. The good qualities must have over-balanced the bad ones as the boy grew up, for Sir Peter would hardly have made an "onruly and streperous" person his American agent.

It was December, 1737, when William Johnson reached New York. There he spent the winter making plans and laying in supplies to be used in his new life. With the spring he set out for his uncle's estate. Here he built a storehouse and a dwelling and here he lived for five years clearing the land, making roads, selling farms and doing all he could to better the property and enrich his uncle.

Soon he began to buy for himself land north of the Mohawk and, at the end of his first five years, he moved into a great stone house built on his own property at Akin. This new home, which is still standing, Johnson called "Mount Johnson."

All this was very well for Sir Peter and for William Johnson, but it is not what makes him important in our history. You see from the very first William Johnson took a lively interest in the Indians. He learned their language, invited them time and again to his home, traded with them for furs, paid them for the land he bought, hunted with them, fished with them and, above all, treated them always fairly and squarely. Such dealings were so unlike what they were used to from other traders that it won for Johnson the rare love of the red men. And one day, dressed in the height of Indian fashion, and entering into the very spirit of the occasion, he was formally adopted into the Mohawk tribe and made an Indian Chief! Naturally, this only increased his already great influence over the Indians.

How William Johnson contrived to humor his wily friends and yet keep the upper hand of them, you can see. Once King Hendrick, great Iroquois Chief that he was, while visiting Johnson saw a richly gold-embroidered coat. How he wanted that coat! He could not get it out of his mind. So, in a few days, back he came and said to Johnson, "Brother, I dream. I dream you gave me your coat of gold." Johnson smiled at the old chief and said, "Well, I suppose you must have it then," and without any hesitation gave King Hendrick the coveted coat. Then, in his turn, Johnson tried the same scheme, and next time he saw the king said, "I too dream." "And what was your dream?" asked the chief. "I dreamed you gave me all the land between the East and West Canada Creek." It was pretty hard for even an Indian to show no feeling at such a demand, but as calmly as possible King Hendrick said, "Well, I suppose you must have it, but, brother, we will quit dreaming." This land has been called "Sir William Johnson's Dreamland Tract." He later made the Indians a present of enough money to pay them for the land.

Seeing how he managed the Indians, the colonial governor, in 1746, appointed Johnson Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Colony of New York, and the appointment was confirmed by the king himself. Later Johnson was made General Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the country.

This position was one of great and growing importance. As long as the Iroquois could be kept friendly to the English, see what a protesting wall they made during the wars with the French and their allied Canadian tribes. Were it not for just this wall, the enemy could easily ravage most of New York at will. And soon after Johnson became Superintendent of Indian Affairs, the disputes which led to the last French and Indian war began.

Imagine the alarm when rumors reached Johnson that French messengers were visiting the tribes in the west of the colony, stirring up discontent and seeking to turn them against the English. Although it was December, cold and snowy; although part of the 160 mile journey was over no better road than an Indian trail, Johnson set out on horseback at once. From village to village he rode till he came to the "Keepers of the Western Door," as the Senecas were called. Here, as everywhere, he was heartily welcomed by his Indian friends and given the best their homes could boast. Whatever damage the French messengers had done was more than offset now, and once more Johnson felt sure of the loyalty of the Iroquois.

When the Albany Convention met in 1754 to discuss plans for colonial protection, the Iroquois further proved their loyalty by sending representatives and pledging their help, providing William Johnson should be their leader. And, true to their word, when Major General Johnson led an attack on Crown Point, several hundred Indians formed part of his force.

Starting north from Fort Edward, Johnson met the French at the head of Lake George. A desperate battle was fought, Johnson and the French Commander both being wounded and the brave old Indian king, Hendrick, killed. Although the French were at last beaten and driven back, Crown Point was still in the enemy's hands. The main effect of Johnson's victory was to encourage the English, who were still sorely depressed over Braddock's defeat of a few weeks before.

Another victory fell to Johnson's lot when in 1759 Fort Niagara surrendered to the army under his command. As a reward for his services in the French and Indian war England knighted him.

After the war was over Sir William built a beautiful new home called "Johnson Hall "where stands the Johnstown of today. By this time, he was the owner of many thousand of acres north of the Mohawk. Hardly had he moved into his new home when more trouble arose:

It was discovered that Pontiac, chief of a Michigan tribe friendly to the French, had been forming a league of many tribes and inciting them to drive the English from their land. In 1763 fort after fort was attacked in the west. Most of these attacks came with no warning and, whenever the Indians were victorious, they joyfully murdered the garrison.

Detroit might have met the same fate but for the loyalty of a beautiful Indian girl. Slipping inside the fortifications on a trumped up errand, she warned the Commander that Pontiac was coming next day with sixty chiefs to ask that a council be held. Each chief would be wrapped in his blanket and hidden in its folds he would carry a gun. Pontiac would make a friendly speech and then offer a wampum belt. When he held out this supposed token of peace, the chiefs were to throw off their blankets, spring upon the officers and scalp and kill until not an Englishman was left alive.

Sure enough, next morning Pontiac and his blanketed chiefs appeared, their faces painted, their eyes gleaming. But, what was their surprise to see the English officers lined up inside the fortifications fully armed. And even in the council house every officer had a sword at his side and a pistol in his belt. Pontiac needed no interpreter to tell him that his plot was known. The wampum belt was not presented and, after a little, the meeting broke up and the savage chiefs stalked away as they had come. This was in May, and after their all-summer siege, Detroit was still in English possession.

During all this widespread revolt Sir William Johnson was able to keep most of the Iroquois in control. A few of the Senecas did go out on the war path, but the other tribes remained loyal to their English friends.

The spring of 1764 brought more ravaging of the English borders by the western Indians. However, in June, Sir William succeeded by coaxing or threats in gathering together a great Indian council at Niagara. There, dealing with one tribe after another, he induced them to give up fighting the English and to sign treaties of peace. But, though the backbone of Pontiac's rebellion was now broken, it was not until two years later that that great chief himself finally met Sir William at Oswego, smoked the peace pipe and buried the tomahawk

The last years of Sir William Johnson's life were for the most part spent at Johnson Hall. Even when he was dying there in the summer of 1774, his thoughts seemed to be with his Indian friends. And it was with almost his last breath that turning his eyes to Joseph Brant, the Iroquois chief, he said, "Joseph, control your people—control your people! I am going away."