The Irish Indian Chief


When Sir William Johnson died in July 1774, he was one of the richest and most powerful men in colonial America. He bequeathed large sums of money to his numerous children (including eight by his Native American spouse, Degonwadonti, known as Molly Brant) and an astonishing 170,000 acres of land on the banks of the Ohio River and in the state of New York. Johnson, who in 1755 had been knighted as first baronet of New York for his successes in the French and Indian Wars, had carved out a career and accumulated a fortune as a colonial trader, functionary, soldier, and adventurer in upstate New York. His achievements, as Fintan O’Toole repeatedly shows in his elegantly written biography, White Savage, were largely the result of his exceptional skills as a mediator between the growing number of European colonists and the indigenous peoples who, though a declining population, nevertheless remained a powerful force, not least because of their strategic importance in the struggle between the English and the French for the control of North America.

O’Toole sets out to explain the sources of Johnson’s success. What, he asks, enabled Johnson to move with such apparent ease between the world of the new settlers and the very different environment of the Mohawk Indians, “to be at home simultaneously in different cultures,” to become, as he puts it at one point, a successful “amphibian”? The answer, says O’Toole, lies in his distinctive Irish background, in the “mental world in which William Johnson had been formed.” This argument, as we shall see, produces some remarkable insights into Johnson’s career, but it also raises some serious problems that are quite often encountered in biographical accounts centrally shaped by the notion of “identity.”

William Johnson was born in rural Smithstown, in County Meath, some twenty miles northwest of Dublin in about 1715. He came from a family that on both sides had Catholic and Jacobite roots and was therefore subject to the Penal Laws that barred Catholics from “universities, the legal profession and military commissions… and limited Catholic opportunities to buy or lease land.” The uncertainty and hardship caused by these legal restrictions provoked different responses from members of the Johnson and Warren clans. Some stayed with the Stuarts, whom they believed were the rightful monarchs of Great Britain and Ireland, and went into exile with them, joining French regiments and fomenting rebellion against the Hanoverians. Others chose to convert to Protestantism, to conform in return for a career in the military or bureaucracy of the burgeoning British state. Of the latter, none was more successful than William Johnson’s uncle, Sir Peter Warren, an admiral of the British navy made rich by naval prizes, a shrewd marriage into the very rich De Lancey family of New York, and canny land purchases in the colony. (At one point he acquired more or less the whole of Greenwich Village in Manhattan.) Among Warren’s properties were 14,000 acres of forest just south of the Mohawk River, some 180 miles north of New York City. Warren, who had already become a patron of Johnson’s, urged him to move to America and develop the land, strongly implying that he would eventually bequeath it to the young man. All Johnson had to do was convert to the Protestant faith.

Johnson arrived among the Dutchmen, Germans, and Mohawk Indians of upstate New York in 1738. He quickly made an impact. Within a year, though supposedly trading on his uncle’s behalf, he had set up his own trading post, Mount Johnson, in the Mohawk River Valley, with a sawmill, store, and house. He exchanged Indian furs for a wide variety of goods, including cloth, axes, clothing, metal goods, guns, mirrors, cosmetics, body paint, and rum. Soon the Dutch merchants in Albany were complaining that he was undercutting their fur trade with the Mohawk Indians.

From the outset, both made extensive use of black slaves, while Johnson developed a special relationship with the indigenous tribes of New York. Willing to treat the Indians fairly, sociable, adaptable, sensitive to cultural specificity, mindful of the importance of ritual and rhetoric, and, above all, “unhampered by religious disdain,” Johnson was soon adopted by the Mohawks as one of their own. In about 1742 he was made a Mohawk sachem (an elder and wise councilor) with the name Warraghiyagey, roughly meaning “A Man who undertakes great Things.”

The Mohawks occupied a special place in relations between the colonists and the Native Americans. Though less numerous and affluent than in the seventeenth century, their greatest asset, as O’Toole explains, was

their ritual and diplomatic position as elder brothers of the confederacy [of the six Iroquois nations]. So long as the British saw them as the key to influencing the confederacy as a whole, they had serious standing in the imperial mind, and that standing in turn could renew and sustain their privilege within the confederacy.

As a European and a Mohawk, Johnson was soon able to establish himself as an indispensable link between the indigenous and immigrant cultures and as a vital connection between British military interests and the concerns of the Indians. His position also gave him considerable advantages over his rivals in the fur trade.

When hostilities broke out between the British and the French during the War of the Austrian Succession, the governor of New York, George Clinton, not surprisingly turned to the man known for his abilities to deal with the Indians. In 1746 he dismissed the Indian commissioners in Albany and appointed Johnson “Colonel of the Warriors of the Six Nations,” with instructions to enlist and equip as many whites and Indians as possible for a campaign against the French and their allies. Though the Iroquois were at first reluctant to be drawn into the European conflict, Johnson won them over at a gathering held at Albany in August 1746. But he did so, O’Toole points out,

not as a white settler and trader, but as a Mohawk war chief. He came dressed in blanket, loincloth, leggings and moccasins, his face painted with vermilion and verdigris, his hair drawn back and decorated with ribbons.

Both the Mohawks and Johnson hoped the war would end the Albany fur trade with the French, who were based in Montreal. The Mohawks wanted the Indian middlemen, their fellow Iroquois, to return to their ancestral homelands; Johnson wanted to replace the Albany trade with his own fur business, which he would run from Oswego.

The ensuing war was a dirty conflict, marked by raiding parties into Canada that pillaged, killed, and scalped as they went. As Johnson put it, the aim was to “make the french Smart…by taking Scalping & burning them, & their Settlements.” To that end Johnson spent over £5,000 of his own money (including bounties for scalps) funding the war, and at its end, when he had acquired the grand title of Commissary of New York for Indian Affairs, he was still owed more than £2,000. After a mere decade or so in America, Johnson was already a very rich man. O’Toole gives us little sense of where this wealth came from, but Johnson’s intense rivalry with the Albany merchants conveys how enormously profitable his Indian trade had become.

In fact Johnson’s successes created enemies in the New York legislature. The De Lancey faction, of which his uncle Admiral Warren was a part, supported the Albany merchants in their attempts to retrieve control of Indian affairs. They also refused to reimburse Johnson’s wartime expenses, and, through his uncle, attempted to force his resignation as commissary. Johnson quit in 1751, but failed to heal the rift that had opened up with his relative and patron. When Warren died a year later, his last will, drafted a few months before his demise, not only did not bequeath Johnson the New York estate, but demanded that his nephew repay all the money he had ever lent him and send it to Johnson’s brothers and sisters in Ireland. As O’Toole says, it seems to have been motivated by “pure spite.” Though Johnson failed to placate his old patron, he did not lose the loyalty of his Indian brothers. His resignation threw Indian affairs into complete confusion. Neither the Mohawks nor the other members of the Six Nations were willing to deal with anyone else but Johnson.

In the years that led up to the French and Indian Wars, it became clear not just that the French were determined to move into the Ohio Valley but that, in the absence of Johnson, they were successfully recruiting members of the Six Nations and other tribes to their cause. Johnson was acutely conscious of the danger; he transformed his elegant estate at Mount Johnson into Fort Johnson, a well-armed buttress against French incursions. In 1755 during a campaign to stop the French, Johnson was once again called to arms, appointed a major general in the provincial army to lead an attack on Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point on Lake Champlain.

During the French and Indian Wars Johnson became more powerful than ever. Between 1755 and 1759 he gradually brought the Six Nations back into the British fold, first winning the support of his fellow Mohawks, and then accommodating the Indian tribes to the west. By 1759 he had persuaded the entire Indian confederacy to support the British cause. A year later, he secured the neutrality of the Canadian Indians who had earlier been strong supporters of the French. In recognition of his skills, George III appointed him Sole Superintendent for Indian Affairs in the Northern Colonies. Johnson was also victorious on the battlefield. The early part of the war, in which the British fared badly, was brightened by his capture of Baron Jean-Armand de Dieskau at the victory of the Battle of Lake George; and in 1759 he dealt a fatal blow to French supply lines by capturing Fort Niagara.

By the end of the war he was a popular hero. Johnson had made sure that the American and British press published favorable accounts of his victory at Lake George, and many stories circulated about his chivalrous treatment of his wounded captive, Dieskau, whom he had saved from killing by the Mohawks. When Benjamin West painted his great canvas of the death of General Wolfe at the capture of Quebec, he included an American ranger, dressed half in European and half in Indian costume, whose powder horn is inscribed “Sr. Wm. Johnson/MOHAWK RIVER.” Johnson’s presence, as O’Toole emphasizes, was pure fiction, but also attests to public recognition of Johnson’s importance in the war effort.

Paradoxically, however, British success brought its problems for Johnson, dividing the Indians and British colonists, whose cooperation had long been the source of his influence. British victory in North America had rendered the alliance with the Indian nations much less important, because the colonists no longer needed the tribes as a counterweight to the French. As General Thomas Gage put it pithily, “All North America in the hands of a single power robs them of their Consequence, presents & pay.” At the same time friction between settlers eager to settle in the west of the colonies and Indians angry at the invasion of their lands continued unabated. Crimes by Europeans against Indians, including theft, rape, and murder, went unpunished. Reports during the war of Indian “atrocities,” especially the so-called massacre at Fort William Henry on Lake George, when the French general Montcalm had been unable to prevent the slaughter by Indians of British soldiers, had helped demonize the native peoples as savages who needed to be controlled and subdued, not allies who should be cultivated. These changes of perception were reinforced by pressures from British imperial administrators, eager to cut the costs of empire, including the expense of subsidizing Indian allies.

In the short run, these developments damaged Johnson greatly. Sir Jeffery Amherst, the British commander in North America, a man who clearly feared and disliked the Native Americans and often spoke of the possibility of their “Entire Destruction,” was deeply hostile to Johnson’s dealings with the Indian nations. Johnson, as O’Toole points out, paid bounties and rewards to Indians, but “also spent a lot of money greasing the wheels of cultural exchange, flattering sachems and satisfying Indian honour.” The sums were considerable: between November 1758 and December 1759, he paid £17,000 to improve relations with Indians. In Amherst’s eyes the practice of “purchasing the good behaviour” of Indians with presents was reprehensible. He accepted that “Services must be rewarded,” but condemned what he saw as plain bribery: “when men of what race soever behave ill, they must be punished but not bribed.” He also wanted to curb the sale of arms and ammunition to the Indians, to reduce their power to resist the British. Despite Johnson’s protests, Amherst made him give up his diplomatic relations with Indians.

As a result, the Native Americans were angry and alienated: in the spring and summer of 1763, Indians on the western frontier led by the Ottawa chief Pontiac destroyed or captured every British post west of Detroit. “By the end of the summer,” as O’Toole explains, “more than 400 redcoats had been killed, hundreds more were in captivity and perhaps 2,000 civilians had died in Indian attacks along the frontiers from New York to North Carolina.” Amherst’s policy was in tatters and Johnson, going over his head and directly to the Board of Trade, was vindicated. Pontiac’s revolt, as O’Toole points out, gave Johnson back his powers. In the summer of 1764 he convened a huge conference of the Indian nations at Fort Niagara attended by more than two thousand Native Americans. The meeting lasted over a month and Johnson gave away presents worth £38,000 and spent a further £25,000 in New York currency on entertaining. The old way of doing things worked. Johnson’s Indian guests agreed to go to war against Pontiac and his fellow rebels.

But the problem of westward expansion and the conflict it provoked between the settlers and the Indians would not go away. Johnson wanted the Indian trade regulated, with a system of commissaries overseeing official trading posts, so as “to overcome the indiscretion of some [traders], & the Villainy of Others, together with the licentiousness of the Frontier inhabitants.” No doubt this would also have protected his own trade from interlopers and helped his friends. But though he succeeded in having such a system approved by the Crown, it could not cope with the chaotic pressures of the frontier. Instead Johnson turned to the idea of fixing a boundary to westward expansion by the British, a scheme he promoted after the French and Indian Wars and which came to fruition in 1768. In October of that year, a conference convened at Fort Stanwix and attended by more than three thousand Native Americans, including Iroquois, Delawares, and Shawnees, met to decide on a new western boundary.

The situation was complicated by the claim of Johnson’s old allies, the Six Nations, to the right to negotiate the fate of lands occupied by the western Indians. Johnson cut a clever and lucrative deal. As O’Toole explains,

The legal fiction that the Iroquois owned the Ohio valley would allow Johnson to purchase it from them. The British would gain territory, the Iroquois would be paid for property they did not really own, and the illegal back-country settlements [in Ohio] would be legalised. Everyone would gain except, of course, the Ohio Indians.

Among the beneficiaries was Johnson’s friend and deputy George Croghan, who acquired 100,000 acres, and a Philadelphia syndicate, of which Johnson was a member, which got two and half million acres. In order to facilitate these acquisitions, Johnson negotiated a western boundary more than four hundred miles further west than he was empowered to do by the British government.

Though astonishingly rich, Johnson, in his last years, saw his power gradually decline. After the defeat of the French and the suppression of Pontiac’s revolt, the Indians continued to be harassed by settlers and neglected by the government in London. The authority that Johnson had accumulated as an intermediary ebbed away. At Johnson Hall, he and his Indian consort, Molly, provided charity and aid to the Mohawks, keeping open house not only for his Indian friends and relatives but travelers “from all parts of America, from Europe, and from the West Indies.” Johnson relentlessly kept up his efforts to defend the people he had adopted. When William Tryon, the new governor of New York, visited Johnson Hall in 1772, he commented, “it would be no great impropriety to style him the Slave of the Savages.” The Iroquois themselves called Johnson “a Tree that grew for our Use.” It was entirely fitting that he collapsed and died in July 1774 at a conference at his house convened to discuss a crisis provoked by organized attacks on the Ohio Indians.

Johnson’s small-scale empire barely outlived his own demise. His white son and heir, John, and his Indian relatives and friends, all loyal to the Crown that Johnson had served so well, fought against the Revolutionary Patriots, and lost all their lands. Johnson’s white family were driven from Johnson Hall, which was ransacked; Molly and her children, who had left Johnson Hall after Sir William’s death, were forced into flight and eventual exile in Canada. Johnson’s eldest Indian son was killed fighting the Patriots in 1777. Two years later the Iroquois communities (some forty villages) were devastated by Washington’s expedition, which punished the Indians’ loyalism by looting their farms and houses, killing and raping as they went. George III compensated John with £38,995, and Molly and her family with a much smaller sum, but the world that Johnson had created was destroyed by the Revolution. John Adams took the view that “the Family of Johnson, the black part of it as well as the white…deserve Extermination.” Many of the family survived the Revolution and continued to serve the British, but the polyglot culture the family embodied was dealt a fatal blow.


Throughout his account of Johnson’s life, O’Toole emphasizes his Irishness. Thus he explains Johnson’s skill in adopting the practices, customs, and rituals of the Mohawks by emphasizing their similarity to those of Johnson’s Irish youth. Johnson, he says,

owed his ability to understand and perform the Iroquois rituals of death to the fact that they were not entirely alien to the world of his youth…. Just as the mourning half of an Iroquois village chanted death songs, the Irish Catholic culture of Johnson’s childhood had a formal system of elaborate lamentation.

Similarly, Johnson understood when the Iroquois carved a tree of peace as a means of claiming land because “mythic images of stone, tree and spring, alien to most Europeans, were an inescapable part of the landscape of William Johnson’s Irish childhood.” As someone familiar with the symbolic nature of gift giving and all forms of exchange, he instinctively understood that trade involved more than “an accumulation of profits.”

O’Toole also draws an analogy between Indian and Irish patterns of belief. “In America,” he argues, Johnson

found himself in a culture where belief was not a simple matter of accepting one true faith and discarding all others, but of laying one system of understanding on top of another so that they formed shifting strata of meaning.

Just as Native Americans saw no contradiction in attending “church, honouring the Great Spirit and appeasing the Manitous or spirits that pervaded the natural world,” so Irish culture “encompassed Protestant rationalism, Catholic faith and an older layer of pre-Christian ritual and myth.”

It might also be said that the mixture of Protestantism, Catholicism, and pre-Christian belief was not particularly Irish, but could be found in communities across eighteenth-century Europe, including in England. (A similar point can be made about rituals of lamentation, a mythic view of nature, and the central part of symbolic forms of exchange such as gift-giving in the marketplace.) But O’Toole wants to go further in his claims about Irish affinities with Indians, comparing the sensibility of Mohawk sachems with the mental world of Johnson’s youth:

a murky and secretive place whose inhabitants had every reason not to advertise their inner thoughts; a world of fluidity and compromise, of abandoned loyalties and assumed allegiances, of swallowed pride and subtle strategies; a culture that had faced the truth that it is ruled by forces it cannot master.

Both Irish and Indian cultures are portrayed as marked by loss.

This sense of loss and desire for recuperation, O’Toole argues, can be seen in the world Johnson created around Johnson Hall, especially in the years after the end of the French and Indian Wars. “He craved,” says O’Toole, “the life of an Irish country gentleman, part tribal chief and part bucolic patriarch, perfectly balanced between upper-class opulence and indulgent conviviality.” “He was imagining himself as a Gaelic lord, an idealised feudal chieftain from a time before the city fell and his class was dispossessed.” To that end, he “gathered around him broken shards of the old Irish order: harp music and the Gaelic language, Catholicism and the ancient sacred spring of his Warrenstown childhood.” Thus O’Toole interprets Johnson’s decision to allow some of his Scottish Highland tenants to practice their Catholicism “as a part of Johnson’s return to his own past and as a final revenge for the silences and humiliations of conversion and conformity that had been forced on his family in Ireland.”

A problem for O’Toole’s account is that he has two somewhat contradictory ideas of “identity.” On the one hand he wants to explain Johnson by his Irishness, and to show that he hankered to return to his roots. On the other, he takes the rather different view that Johnson’s Irish upbringing helped him create and flourish in the extraordinary mixed culture of the North American West and to fashion an entirely different sort of identity for himself, presiding at Johnstown over “a remarkable polyglot community in which Irish, Mohawk, German, Dutch, French, Scottish and English people lived side by side.” O’Toole repeatedly emphasizes Johnson’s sense of loss, rather than writing positively about his creative fashioning of a new sort of identity. Time and again he explains Johnson’s multifaceted and complex character and the actions he undertook by referring to a nostalgia for Ireland. This is both reductive and implausible.

O’Toole faces the difficulty that Johnson, at least on the basis of the evidence presented, does not seem to say much about his Irishness. He therefore, quite legitimately, infers Johnson’s views from his actions—placing a map of Ireland on the wall, hiring an Irish piper, reserving most of his patronage for Irish friends. But here questions arise, and not least about how we are to weigh these pieces of evidence. Is having an Irish map on a wall proof of a “desire to re-create the defunct cosmos of his ancestors”? Is Johnson’s toleration of Catholic worship more plausibly explained by his palpable and frequently reiterated skepticism about religious belief or by his desire to return to his Catholic roots?

Or, more egregiously, can Johnson’s ownership and treatment of his slaves—no different in any respect from most other white slave owners in North American—be seen as “part of his Irish pride”? And what are we to make of the evidence that, as O’Toole fairly concedes, points in a different direction: Johnson’s acquisition of the cultural trappings of metropolitan gentility, his repeated naming of places and forts after members of the Hanoverian dynasty, and his condemnation of Catholic principles as inimicable to British interests?

The picture that O’Toole himself paints demands a fuller and richer interpretation, and throws up important questions that are largely ignored. We are never told how Johnson became so rich so quickly, or what profits he made through the Indian trade. The entire economy of Mount Johnson is largely omitted. Nor is there any sustained account of the powerful patronage network within which Johnson worked and which connected the Mohawk River with the interests of powerful English aristocratic groups like those of Henry Fox, Lord Holland, at the center of the empire. Johnson may have been on the periphery, but, as O’Toole repeatedly demonstrates, he often called on allies based in London in his (usually successful) struggles with rivals like Amherst in North America.

O’Toole likes to see Johnson as a patriarch with a “semi-feudal, paternalistic mindset.” This may have been characteristic of the culture he left, but not of the one in which he found himself. Johnson was a slaveholder, a highly successful trader, the master of indentured servants, and the exploiter of some Native American Indians (where did those 170,000 acres come from?). In short, he was an exceptionally successful imperial adventurer. His career invites comparison with members of the British East India Company in Bengal, with Spanish land and slave owners in Latin America, or with Dutch governors in Surinam.

His successes, as O’Toole shows, were based on an exceptional understanding of Iroquois society, and the creation of a culture that was at once European and Native American and knew no racial boundaries between the two. His sympathy for the Mohawks, fostered through friendship, kinship, and love, was remarkable, and O’Toole’s evocation of it is one of the strengths of his book. No doubt his Irish youth helped shape his response to the New World, but just as Johnson never became truly Mohawk, so he never remained completely Irish. The loss that Johnson’s life reveals is, however, neither Irish nor Mohawk, but rather the demise of a heterogeneous multiethnic culture, improvised by its creators and easily romanticized in retrospect, that could only flourish on the margins of empire and in the midst of imperial conflict. Neither a dominant imperial power nor a new republic would tolerate such a hybrid as William Johnson.