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 …

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