Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Border Wars

by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye
Assisted by Edward Eggleston
New York
Dodd, Mead and Company, Publishers, 1879.



THE beautiful valley of the Mohawk River is now one of the most fertile sections of the State of New York, a region of dairy-farms, of great cities and large manufacturing enterprises. But away back in the colonial times, when it was yet the very frontier post of white settlements, the most important occasion of popular assembling was the general militia muster. On one such day there was a large gathering of hardy settlersmen, women, and children-dressed in rough garments of homespun cloth. Mingled with the whites were Indians in the various forms of Iroquois costumes. There were short kilt skirts and leggins, and moccasins of buckskin embroidered with porcupine quills. Sometimes these were made of red and blue broadcloth bought from the settlers, and trimmed with beads. Over their shoulders and around their waists they wore belts of wampum, or shell beads, and over all the blankets which had taken the place of robes of skins, now become valuable for trade with the whites. The Indian women were similarly dressed, except that their skirts were longer, and they had, besides, a more modest over-garment. Conspicuous among the militia officers was one gentleman dressed in the showy uniform of the time. He was a man of tall, fine figure and a dignified and powerful face. This was Colonel-afterwards Sir William-Johnson, a very great man among the Indians, and a very influential man among his Dutch and Scotch neighbors.

A pretty, daring Mohawk girl, of about sixteen years of age, stood among the crowd of spectators. Engaged in banter with a field officer, she asked if she might mount his horse. Not dreaming that the girl could do it, the officer gave his permission. In an instant she had sprung to the crupper behind the officer, and they both went dashing away over the parade-ground, the girl's blanket and hair flying in the wind. The scene produced a great deal of merriment among the spectators, and Colonel Johnson was then struck with the beauty of the Indian maiden. This is the tradition of the way in which Johnson's attention was first drawn to Molly Brant, the dashing Mohawk girl. He certainly took her to his house, nominally as his housekeeper. Molly Brant considered herself married to Colonel Johnson according to the Indian custom, which needs but the consent of both parties. She lived with him for the remainder of his life and bore him a number of children. In the writings of a lady who knew the domestic life of Johnson's family well it is said that "Miss Molly," as she was styled, "possessed an uncommonly agreeable person and good understanding." This lady, though she did not know of their ever being " formally married according to our custom," said that they " lived together in great union and affection."

Colonel Johnson was a very remarkable man. He was born in Ireland in 1715, and was of a good family. He came to America at the age of twenty-three to take charge of an estate in the Mohawk Valley belonging to his uncle, Admiral Sir Peter Warren.

Among other romantic stories told of him is one that he came to America on account of some disappointment in love. He occupied his time in girdling the trees on his uncle's land, preparatory to clearing it, and keeping a country store. The enterprising young man also took great pains to learn the Indian language, and to gain the respect of the savages themselves. There is a letter extant from Johnson's uncle, written to the young man during his first year in America, which contains some prudent advice on which Johnson acted during his whole life. In this letter the future baronet is addressed as "Dear Billy." The young gentleman seems to have made some reflections on the horses of the Patroon of Albany. The letter closes thus:

" Keep well with all mankind. Act with honor and honesty. Don't be notional, as some of our countrymen are often foolishly; and don't say anything of the badness of the patroon's horses, for it may be taken amiss. He is a near relation of my wife, and may have it in his power very much to serve you."

The key to much of William Johnson's great success in life is that he kept on good terms with everybody, was not notional, and instead of following the grasping methods of most Indian traders, he followed a much more far-sighted policy, dealing truthfully and fairly with his Iroquois customers.

In a few years the young man became the owner of large estates in the wild land of New York, had built him a mansion, handsome and elegant for his day, known as Mount Johnson, and held office as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He had supervision not only over all the Indians of the Six Nations, but also over many more southern and western tribes. He attended numerous councils, in which he always exerted a great deal of influence over the Indians. He flattered the savages by conforming to their customs. He danced in their wild dances, played their games, and joined them in all their sports. He was formally adopted into the Mohawk nation, given an Indian name, and made a war-chief. He donned the Indian costume, painted himself, dressed his head with the customary feathers, and marched with all dignity and gravity into Albany at the head of his adopted people. After the death of his first wife, a German girl for whom, according to tradition, he had paid five pounds to the captain of the emigrant vessel in which she had come over, and whom he had only married on her death-bed that her children might be legitimate, he married in Indian fashion Molly Brant. This alliance with a Mohawk wife greatly pleased her people and strengthened Johnson's influence over them. His home was always hospitably open to the coming and going of crowds of Indians. He lived a curious life, lord over an immense estate, a general in the king's army, an English baronet, and yet the friend and companion of hordes of squalid Indians.

There is a tradition with regard to the way in which Johnson acquired a large tract of land, known as the " Royal Grant," and which illustrates his management of Indians. While the famous Mohawk chief known as King Hendrick was once lounging around Johnson's mansion, in the free and easy way of an Indian, Johnson received two or three very handsome suits of military clothes. The old chief, with the Indian love for personal adornment, looked with covetous eyes upon the rich costumes. He soon after came again to the mansion and said to Johnson, " I dream."

" Well, what did you dream ?" said Johnson.

" I dream you give me one suit of clothes," was the answer.

" Well, I suppose you must have it," said Johnson, and he gave Hendrick the suit. Perhaps it would not have done to have allowed such dreaming to become customary among the Indians; at any rate, next time Colonel Johnson met King Hendrick, he said, " I dreamed last night."

"What you dream?" asked Hendrick.

" I dreamed you gave me a tract of land," said Johnson, describing a piece of land about twelve miles square.

" I suppose you must have it," said Hendrick, " but you must not dream again."

The great Mohawk war-chief Brant was brother to " Miss Molly," and her influential position as Indian wife of Sir William Johnson had much to do with shaping- the career of her brother. There, are several conflicting accounts of the parentage of Brant. All agree that he was born on the Ohio River. It was quite common for the Iroquois to go on hunting expeditions into the parts of the western country over which they claimed supremacy. So it came about that Brant was born on the banks of the Ohio. According to one story, Molly was Brant's twin sister; but this could not have been true, for, according to the generally accepted date of his birth, Brant was much younger than Molly. His father's name was Tehowaghwengaraghkwin; his own name was Thayendanegea; and doubtless Molly had her long Indian name also, though it is not now remembered. (Her Indian name was "Gonwatsijayenni or Konwatsi?tsiaienni, meaning someone lends her a flower. She was of the Wolf Clan. ajb) According to the tradition preserved in the family of Brant, his father died when he was very young, and his mother married an Indian who went by the name of Brant among the English. Thus Thayendanegea was known among the whites as Joseph Brant, very naturally being called by the surname of his step-father, who was perhaps the influential chief mentioned in Sir William Johnson's diary as " old Nickus Brant." Some writers take a great deal of pains to try to prove that this or that great Indian was of "noble blood." Nothing is more foolish. There was no aristocracy among the Indians. The son of some influential warrior-chief may perhaps be the more likely to inherit the highest Indian qualities, but neither elected war-chief nor hereditary sachem lived in any more elegant bark house or had any better corn and venison than his companions, who could not be called his subjects in any sense of the term. In fact, a sachem or chief was frequently among the poorest of his people, giving away what he had in order to retain his influence; and show his disinterestedness.

Brant, though there is no evidence that his father was a chief, as some have tried to prove, was still pretty certainly a grandson of one of five representative sachems who visited England during the reign of Queen Anne. They were called the " Indian kings," and were received with the greatest curiosity. Addison, in The Spectator says that he "often mixed with the rabble" to follow these strange monarchs a whole day at a time. He made some imaginary notes of their stay, and the impression the strange sights of London made upon the savages. He makes one of the " kings" say, in speaking of St. Paul's Church, that it seems to have been designed for a temple, and that these people have some traditions of a religion having existed among them, but that he could not observe anything like worship when he went into one of these holy houses, though indeed there was a man in black who seemed to say something with a great deal of vehemence, but the rest of the people, instead of paying worship to the deity of the place, were bowing and courtesying to one another, and quite a number of them were fast asleep. He also supposed the chiefs to remark that the English people's dress was "very barbarous," especially as they bound themselves so tightly around the middle of their bodies.

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