Johnson, Sir William

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Johnson, Sir William

JOHNSON, SIR WILLIAM. (c. 1715–1774). British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. William Johnson was born at Smithtown, near Dunshoughlin, in County Meath, Ireland, probably in 1715. By 1736 he was handling some business for his uncle, Sir Peter Warren, and by about 1738 he had emigrated, with twelve families of tenants, to manage Warren's Mohawk River estate in North America. In 1739 he began living with Catherine Weisenburg, a runaway German servant girl whom he may have married and who bore him three children. Perhaps even before Catherine died in 1759, he had begun a liaison with his housekeeper, the sister of Joseph Brant, a prominent Mohawk leader. who gave him eight more sons and daughters. By 1743 he had made Warren's estate an economic success and moved to his own thousand-acre property and a house he called Fort Johnson. In 1745 he became a justice of the peace, and the following year he began his career as a frontier diplomat.

Johnson's complex economic and personal ties with the Mohawks made him the ideal agent for repairing New York's relations with the Iroquois after the outbreak of formal war with France in 1744. The Confederacy, in a key position between New France and the northern British colonies, had long been enemies of the French, but over the past twenty years had come to resent British traders who cut them out of their role as middle-men in the Indian trades to the north and west. Governor George Johnson of New York, fearing that the Iroquois might join the French, gave William Johnson a colonel's commission and effectively made him New York's Indian agent. Known as Warraghiyagey ("he who does much business"), he re-established some British influence among the Six Nations, and, by espousing the Iroquois system of alliances and treaties called the Covenant Chain tried indirectly to exploit the suzerainty they claimed, but did not in fact possess, over neighboring regions. He resigned in 1750 when New York refused to repay part of his considerable diplomatic expenses.

In 1755 Johnson was reappointed Indian agent under Major General Edward Braddock and charged with leading 2,000 provincial troops and 200 Indians against Fort St Frédéric (Crown Point, New York). On the way there, he won the battle of Lake George (8 September), where he was wounded. Although he was unable to push on to Crown Point, his success looked dramatic against the background of Braddock's defeat on the Ohio River, and he was rewarded with a baronetcy. In 1756, when the Crown needed to appoint two officials to coordinate Indian policy in the north and south respectively, Johnson became Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Southern Department. In that role, although he could not bring all the Iroquois over to the British side, he raised substantial Native American forces and took a leading part in defending the northern colonial frontier.

In 1759, when Brigadier General John Prideaux (who led one of Britain's four divisions in North America) was killed in action near Fort Niagara, Johnson took command of the expedition that captured Fort Niagara on 25 July. When New France fell, Johnson was aware of the need to cultivate and reassure the Ohio and Great Lakes Indians so recently under French influence. He opposed General Jeffery Amherst's ill-informed and myopic policy of cutting back supplies of gifts and trade goods and ignoring traditional diplomatic protocol. Even after Pontiac's War (1763–1766) erupted, Johnson was able to preserve the neutrality of nearly all the Iroquois, and later, as the British gained the upper hand, he helped to restore peace. His 1766 treaty with Pontiac was of key importance.

In succeeding years Johnson advocated firm, defined boundaries, as sketched out in the proclamation of 1763, which was intended to keep white settlers from further encroachments on Indian land. Johnson also favored tight control over Indian trade to prevent fraud and exploitation. Although his activities were mixed with self-serving land deals, he was meticulous in settling disputes through traditional diplomatic forms and spared no expense in the distribution of gifts. In 1768 he negotiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix which shifted the boundary for settler expansion to the west, and so opened up most of modern West Virginia and Kentucky, and provided a fixed boundary that safeguarded the Native lands to the north and west. This policy would not have been possible except as an imperial scheme, for the individual colonies would hardly have countenanced a bar to further westward expansion. Yet those same colonies, already aroused by what seemed like unjust imperial taxation, were not about to accept imperial regulation of any of their inland frontiers. A land scramble between settlers from Virginia and Pennsylvania followed immediately upon the signing of the treaty, and boundary violations were frequent. Moreover, the treaty rested on the Iroquois' claim to land they did not occupy, so the boundary was unacceptable to the Cherokees and Shawnees who lived there. In 1772 a Virginia-Shawnee conflict over Ohio lands erupted and seemed likely to spread to New York. This became known as Lord Dunmore's War, named for the governor of Virginia, John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore. Though seriously ill, Johnson urgently summoned a council to Johnson Hall, the baronial hall he had built in 1762, where he tried to address Iroquois grievances. On 11 July, after four days of negotiations, he suddenly collapsed and died.

SEE ALSO Pontiac's War.


Flexner, J. T. Mohawk Baronet: A Biography of Sir William Johnson. Revised edition. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1989.

Hamilton, Milton W. Sir William Jhonson: Colonial American 1715–1774. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikar Press 1976.

Kelsay, L. T. Joseph Brant, 1743–1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians: Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

                                 revised by John Oliphant

Sir William Johnson

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Sir William Johnson

British colonial administrator Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) was an important intermediary between England and the Indians in North America.

William Johnson was born at Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland. He came to New York about 1738 to supervise the lands along the Mohawk River belonging to his uncle. There he either married or took as a mistress Catherine Weisberg, who bore him a son and a daughter.

Johnson gained influence with the Indians and in 1745, at the outbreak of king George's War, he kept the Iroquois from allying with the French. The following year he was appointed a colonel and given responsibility for Indian affairs. In February 1748 Johnson was given command of 14 companies of militia raised for the defense of the New York frontier, and on May 1 he was commissioned as colonel for the Albany County militia regiment.

In April 1750 Johnson was appointed to the Council of New York, a position he held for the rest of his life. Five years later, in the French and Indian War, he received a commission for "sole Management & direction of the Affairs of the Six Nations of Iroquois & their Allies." As a major general, with 2,000 militia and 200 Indians, he defeated the French and Indians forces at Crown Point in September 1755. Although failing to take Crown Point, Johnson built a fort and won acclaim for blunting the French threat.

In November 1755 Johnson was made a baronet and appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for the Northern Department. For the next 3 years he concerned himself with Indian affairs and the defense of the northern frontier. He commanded the column that captured Ft. Niagara on July 25, 1759, and participated in Gen. Jeffery Amherst's successful expedition against French Montreal.

Johnson next undertook the organization of new tribes under his jurisdiction and in 1763 was able to put down the conspiracy of Chief Pontiac. In the Treaty of Ft. Stanwix (November 1768) he persuaded the Indians to give up their claims to lands in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He was successful in preventing the Iroquois from joining the Shawnees at the outbreak of Lord Dunmore's War in 1774.

Johnson was a member of the American Philosophical Society and of the Society for the Promotion of Arts, an organization devoted to the development of agriculture. After the death of his first wife he took a niece of a Mohawk chief as a housekeeper; she bore him three children. Later, by his common-law wife, the sister of another Mohawk chief, he had eight children. He died on July 11, 1774.

Further Reading

The best biography of Johnson is Arthur Pound and Richard E. Day, Johnson of the Mohawks (1930). Still useful are William L. Stone, The Life and Times of Sir William Johnson, Bart. (1865); William Elliot Griffis, Sir William Johnson and the Six Nations (1891); and Augustus C. Buell, Sir William Johnson (1903).

Additional Sources

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

Flexner, James Thomas, Mohawk baronet: a biography of Sir William Johnson, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989, 1979.

Igneri, David S., Sir William Johnson: the man and his influence, New York: Rivercross Pub., 1994.

Rowles, Catharine Bryant, Tomahawks to hatpins, Lakemont, N.Y.: North Country Books, 1975.

Simms, Jeptha Root, Trappers of New York: or, A biography of Nicholas Stoner and Nathaniel Foster: together with anecdotes of other celebated hunters, and some account of Sir William Johnson, and his style of living, Harrison, N.Y.: Harbor Hill Books, 1980.

Powell, Richard J., Homecoming: the art and life of William H. Johnson, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; New York: Rizzoli, 1991. □