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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.

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