Johnson, William (1715-1774) (DNB00)

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JOHNSON, Sir WILLIAM (1715–1774), superintendent of Indian affairs in North America, was born in Ireland in 1715. He was eldest son of Christopher Johnson of Warrentown, co. Down (Stone, i. 60), by his wife Anne, sister of Admiral Sir Peter Warren, K.B. Young Johnson was educated for a mercantile life, but the refusal of his parents to allow him to marry changed his plans, and in 1738 he went to America, where his uncle, Sir Peter Warren, had an estate in the valley of the Mohawk, the dowry of his wife, a daughter of Stephen De Lancy of New York. Johnson accepted the management of the estate, and established himself on a tract of land on the south side of the Mohawk river, about twenty-four miles west of Schenectady, which Warren had named ‘Warrenburgh.’ Johnson began to colonise the tract, embarked in trade with the Indian tribes, and by sterling honesty and justice, by his commanding presence and eloquence, his power of adapting himself to their habits and customs, acquired an ascendency over them greater than ever was possessed by any other white man. The Mohawk tribe chose him as their sachem, naming him ‘Wariaghejaghe’ or ‘Warrahiaghy,’ ‘he who has charge of affairs.’ On the resignation of the Albany Indian commissioners in 1744, Governor George Clinton appointed Johnson colonel of the six nations. In 1746 he was commissary of New York for Indian affairs, and in 1748 was put in command of the New York colonial forces for the defence of the frontier, and prepared a plan of campaign against the French. The peace of Aix-la-Chapelle put a stop to the operations. In April 1750 Johnson was appointed by the king a member of the governor's council. The revival of the Albany board of Indian commissioners in 1753 having led to a quarrel between the colonists and Indians, the council and assembly of the province urged Johnson to effect a reconciliation. On 5 July 1753 Johnson repaired with a special commission to Onondaga, where the ‘great council-fire’ of the northern Indians had been lit from time immemorial, held a council of the tribes, and settled the difficulty, but declined having anything more to do with Indian affairs. At this time Johnson lived at Fort Johnson, otherwise Johnson Castle, a large stone building which he had erected on the north side of the Mohawk, and had fortified in 1743. It is still standing, about three miles west of the village of Amsterdam. In 1754, as one of the New York delegates, he attended the congress of Albany and the great council of Indians held there, and the Indians urgently begged that Johnson should be appointed superintendent of Indian affairs. At the council held at Alexandria in April 1755 he was sent for by General Edward Braddock [q. v.], and appointed ‘sole superintendent of the affairs of the six united nations, their allies, and dependants.’ By order of the council he received the local rank of major-general, and was appointed to the chief command of the provincial forces in the expedition against Crown Point. At the head of these forces he defeated the French under Baron Dieskau at Lake George, where he was wounded in the hip early in the action, but remained on the field. The victory saved the colony from French invasion, prevented for the time any attack on Oswego, and went far to counteract the ill-effects of Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela. Johnson received the thanks of parliament and a grant of 5,000l., and on 27 Nov. 1755 was created a baronet. His account of the action is among the manuscripts in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 20662, f. 155). On his arrival at the spot, a few days before the fight, Johnson had renamed Lake St. Sacremont ‘Lake George,’ as he states, ‘not only in honour of his majesty, but to assert his undoubted dominion there.’

In March 1756 Johnson was appointed from home ‘colonel, agent, and sole superintendent of the affairs of the six nations and other northern Indians,’ with a salary of 600l. a year, and he held that post for the rest of his life. In 1756–7 Johnson was with the Indians in the abortive attempts of the British to relieve Oswego and Fort William Henry, and in 1758 was with Abercromby at Ticonderoga. In 1759 he was second in command of the expedition against Fort Niagara, and when General Prideaux was killed in the trenches succeeded to the command, pushed on the siege with great vigour, routed a French relieving force under Aubry, and summoned the garrison, which surrendered at discretion. His orders at Niagara and letters to the officers in command there at various periods are also in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 21678). In 1760 Johnson led the Indians under Jeffrey Amherst [q. v.] in the advance on Montreal and the conquest of Canada. In the Indian war which followed in 1763, when Indian scalping-parties harried the frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, Johnson's influence kept the northern nations quiet, although he could not prevent some acts of hostility on the part of the Senecas. As head of the Indian department Johnson concluded the great treaty with the Indians at Fort Stanwix in 1768. For his services in Canada Johnson was granted in perpetuity by the king a tract of land, one hundred thousand acres in extent, on the north bank of the Mohawk, which was long known as the ‘Kingsland,’ or royal grant. There in 1764 he built Johnson Hall, a modest wooden mansion (figured in Appleton, iii. 452), which still stands in the village of Johnson, about three miles from Fort Johnson. The village had previously been laid out by Johnson, who added, chiefly at his own cost, stores, an inn, a court-house, and an episcopal church. Numerous settlers were brought, and in 1772 Johnson became the shire town of Tryon county. At Johnson Hall Johnson spent the remainder of his life in a kind of baronial style, exercising boundless hospitality. He paid great attention to agriculture, and was the first to introduce sheep and blood horses in the Mohawk valley. Signs of the coming revolution troubled his latter years. He died at Johnson, New York, 4 July 1774.

The church in which he was buried was burned down in 1836, and rebuilt, but not quite on the same site. The vault was discovered, with the crown broken in, early in 1862, when Johnson's remains were removed, but they were reinterred there on 7 July 1862.

Johnson married, in 1739, Mary Wisenburgh, the daughter of a German settler on the Mohawk, by whom he had a son, John, who succeeded to the baronetcy, and two daughters, Anne and Mary, who married respectively Colonels Daniel Claus and Guy Johnson [q. v.], Johnson's deputies in the Indian department. His wife died young, and Johnson then consoled himself with a young Dutchwoman (one of his many mistresses), who bore him several children. Johnson is said to have married her on her deathbed. In later years Johnson took to his home Mary, or, as she was generally called, Molly Brandt, sister of Joseph Brandt or ‘Thayendanegea,’ the famous war-chief of the Mohawks. Her black eyes and laughing face captivated his fancy at a Tryon county militia-muster. With her he lived happily to the end of his days. She bore him eight children, whom he styles in his will ‘my natural children.’

Johnson was a tall, fine-looking man, of genial manners and vigorous intellect. His education has been described as imperfect and his tastes coarse and uncultivated (Parkman, Pontiac, ii. 92–3, and authorities given in footnote). He was the author of a valuable memoir on the ‘Languages, Customs, and Manners of the Indian Six Nations,’ published in the ‘Transactions’ of the Philosophical Society, November 1772. His correspondence with the British and colonial governments, published in the county and documentary histories of the state of New York, is extremely well written, and absolutely essential to a proper understanding of the history of the state and of America generally (Appleton, vol. iii.).

Johnson was succeeded in the Indian department by his nephew and son-in-law, Colonel Guy Johnson. His son and successor in the baronetcy, Sir John Johnson (d. 1830), much less popular than his father, was knighted in England during his father's lifetime. He commanded a regiment of loyalist provincials, known as the Queen's Own American Regiment, or ‘Johnson's Greens,’ during the American war of independence. The order-book of the regiment has lately been published as a volume of ‘Munsell's Historical Series.’ He succeeded Colonel Guy Johnson as head of the Indian department, and died superintendent-general and inspector-general of Indian affairs, and colonel of Canadian militia, on 4 Jan. 1830. Neither father nor son ever held any commission in the English regular army.

[Foster's Baronetage under ‘Johnson of Twickenham, Middlesex;’ W. L. Stone's Life of Sir William Johnson, Albany, N.Y. 1885, 2 vols.; Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe, London, 1884, 2 vols.; Parkman's Conspiracy of Pontiac and Indian War after the Conquest of Canada, London, 10th ed., 1855, 2 vols.; Bancroft's Hist. United States, 9 vols.; Appleton's Cyclop. American Biog. vol. iii. under ‘Johnson, Sir William,’ see also under ‘Brandt’ and ‘De Lancy.’ Much of Johnson's correspondence will be found in the Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS.]

H. M. C.