William Johnson

views updated

William Johnson

Born 1715 Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland

Died July 11, 1774 Johnstown, New York

British official who served as commissioner of Indian affairs in the American colonies

William Johnson was an Irish immigrant who became a prosperous trader in colonial New York. Part of his success was due to the strong relationship he developed with the Iroquois Indians of that region. In 1755, British leaders named Johnson commissioner of Indian affairs and gave him sole responsibility for negotiating treaties with the Indians. Johnson kept the Iroquois loyal to the British throughout the French and Indian War. He also served as a general, leading British forces and their Indian allies to victory in the Battle of Lake George and the capture of Fort Niagara.

Develops strong relationship with the Iroquois

William Johnson was born in Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland, in 1715. In 1737, at the age of twenty-two, he immigrated to New York in hopes of making a prosperous life for himself. Johnson started out by managing fifteen thousand acres of land along the Mohawk River that belonged to his uncle, Commodore Peter Warren. He leased small parcels of land to other immigrants and helped them to build homes and farms there. Johnson also worked as a trader of furs and supplies for the settlements along the Mohawk River. He soon earned enough money to buy his own land across the river from his uncle's property. His land holdings eventually reached five hundred thousand acres. Johnson built a house on his property in 1742, and seven years later he established Fort Johnson there.

At the time Johnson arrived in North America, northern New York was the home of the Mohawk Indians. The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian (Native American) nations (the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) from the Iroquois language family. Johnson learned the Mohawk language and customs, and traded honestly and fairly with the Mohawk people. Over time, he gained the respect and friendship of their leaders. The Mohawk eventually adopted him into their tribe and gave him an Indian name, Warraghiyagey, meaning "doer of great things" or "Chief Big Business."

When King George's War (known in Europe as the War of the Austrian Succession) began in 1744, Johnson used his influence with the Indians to prevent the Iroquois Confederacy from forming an alliance with the French. In 1746, British military leaders gave him the rank of colonel and asked him to raise and lead an army of Iroquois warriors. Two years later, he was given command of the colonial troops raised to defend New York's northern border against French forces in Canada. In 1750, Johnson was appointed to the Council of New York, an important political group that helped set policy for the colony.

Becomes commissioner of Indian affairs

By the early 1750s, the Iroquois Confederacy found itself in the middle of a dispute between the French and British colonies in North America. The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin. Both the British and French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, a vast wilderness that lay between their colonies and offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. Tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy had lived on this land for generations. As Iroquois influence in the region started to decline, however, the British and French began fighting to claim the Ohio Country and take control of North America. This conflict, which started in the colonies in 1754, became known as the French and Indian War (1754-63). Once Great Britain and France officially declared war in 1756, the conflict spread to Europe (where it was called the Seven Years' War) and around the world.

British leaders wanted to keep the Iroquois Confederacy on their side during the war. In 1755, they appointed Johnson commissioner of Indian affairs for the northern colonies. Johnson thus became the official representative of King George II (1683-1760) of England among the Iroquois and their allies. He was the only person authorized to negotiate treaties with the Indians. As he performed his job, Johnson usually acted as a trusted advisor to Iroquois leaders. He kept them informed of British plans and tried to convince them to support the British war effort. He also tried to prevent the colonists from cheating the Indians in trade or tricking them into giving up their land. His efforts helped keep the Iroquois loyal to Great Britain throughout the war.

Wins Battle of Lake George and captures Fort Niagara

Johnson also played an active role in the war as a military leader. In September 1755, for example, he led thirty-five hundred colonial troops and Indian warriors on a mission to attack Fort St. Frédéric, a French stronghold on Lake Champlain in northern New York. In preparation for the attack, Johnson transported his men and supplies to Lake George, where he set up camp. Before Johnson could move against Fort St. Frédéric, however, he came under attack from French and Indian forces under Baron Ludwig August (also known as Jean-Armand) Dieskau (1701-1767). In what became known as the Battle of Lake George, Johnson's forces turned back the French attack and even managed to capture Dieskau. Even though he had never threatened Fort St. Frédéric, Johnson was hailed as a hero afterward. After all, it was the first important British victory of the war, and it also stopped the French from advancing into New York. Johnson received a monetary reward and the title of baron from King George II in recognition of his efforts.

Once the British turned the tide of the war in their favor with a series of important victories in 1758, Johnson found it easier to convince the Indians to join the fight. In 1759, he gathered one thousand Indian warriors to take part in the British attack on Fort Niagara. They joined British forces under General John Prideaux (1718-1759) and reached the French fort in early July. The British forces then set up a siege of the fort, surrounding it and pounding it with artillery fire in order to weaken its defenses. Prideaux was killed in the early days of the siege, forcing Johnson to take command of the British troops.

A short time later, Johnson's Indian scouts informed him that French forces were approaching. The British forces built a log wall and an abatis (a defensive barrier consisting of felled trees with sharpened branches) to block the road to the fort. The enemy arrived on July 23 with a force of six hundred French soldiers and one thousand Indian allies. Before the battle began, the Indians on both sides held a conference and decided not to take part. The remaining force of six hundred French soldiers charged the British position in an attempt to break through to the fort. More than half of these men were killed or captured, and the others were forced to retreat. Fort Niagara surrendered to Johnson two days later. The capture of Fort Niagara cut off important supply routes between the French colonies in Canada and those along the Mississippi River, thus giving the British control over the Ohio Country and much of the former French territory to the west.

Deals with postwar Indian conflicts

Following the capture of Fort Niagara, Johnson resigned from the military to concentrate on his duties as commissioner of Indian affairs. Once the war ended in a British victory in 1763, settlers began streaming into the new territory that Great Britain had claimed from France. These settlers soon came into conflict with the Indians who had lived on this land for many generations. In 1763, several Indian nations staged a rebellion in which they took over a number of British forts in the Ohio Country and on the Great Lakes. The following year, Johnson held a conference at Fort Niagara and helped negotiate a peaceful settlement of the dispute.

In 1768, Johnson persuaded the Iroquois to sign the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Under the terms of this treaty, the Iroquois agreed to give up their claims to sections of land in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In exchange, the colonies agreed to establish a permanent boundary for Indian territory—land that would be off-limits to settlers. After negotiating the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Johnson concentrated on his own business interests. He founded the settlement of Johnstown, New York, which he turned into a community with its own school, doctor, blacksmith, and farm manager.

Johnson's health began failing during the 1770s, and he spent much of his time at home. But Indian friends and colonial leaders continued to approach him to act as a mediator in disputes over land. Johnson held his last council fire (a meeting of Indians to discuss important issues) outside his home in July 1774. He gave a speech to the gathered Indians on July 11, then went inside and died soon thereafter. His house, Johnson Hall, survived the American Revolution and still stands today. It was acquired as a historic landmark by the state of New York in 1906 and has been fully restored.

During his lifetime, Johnson was a member of the Society for the Promotion of Arts in America. He also helped found King's College, which later became Columbia University. Johnson was married three times. He married his former housekeeper, Catherine Weisberg (some sources say Weissenberg), when he was in his early twenties. They had three children together before she died. Johnson then married Caroline Peters, who was the niece of a friend, Mohawk chief Hendrick (c. 1680-1755). They also had three children together before she died. Johnson's third wife was Molly Brant, a young woman of Indian ancestry with whom he had eight children.

For More Information

Drew, Paul Redmond. "Sir William Johnson—Indian Superintendent."Archiving Early America. http://earlyamerica.com/review/fall96/johnson.html (accessed January 28, 2003).

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Flexner, James Thomas. Lord of the Mohawks: A Biography of Sir William Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Flexner, James Thomas. Mohawk Baronet: Sir William Johnson of New York. New York: Harper, 1959. Reprint, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989.

Hamilton, Milton W. Sir William Johnson, Colonial American, 1715-1763. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Preess, 1976.

Igneri, David S. Sir William Johnson: The Man and His Influence. New York:Rivercross, 1994.

Moss, Robert. The Firekeeper: A Narrative of the Eastern Frontier. New York:Forge, 1995.

Pound, Arthur, and Richard E. Day. Johnson of the Mohawks: A Biography of Sir William Johnson. New York: Macmillan, 1930. Reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971.

"Sir William Johnson." Johnstown, New York. http://www.johnstown.com/city/johnson.html (accessed January 28, 2003).

About this article

William Johnson

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article