History From America's Most Famous Valleys
History of Montgomery Classis, R.C.A.
by W.N.P. Dailey,
Recorder Press, Amsterdam, NY 1916
To which is added sketches of Mohawk Valley men and events of early days, the Iroquois, Palatines, Indian Missions, Tryon County, committee of Safety, Sir Wm. Johnson, Joseph Brant, Arendt Van Curler, Gen. Herkimer, Reformed Church in America, Doctrine and Progress, Revolutionary Residences, Etc.
Sir William Johnson
Sir William Johnson, the son of Christopher and Anna Warren Johnson. was born in the county of Meath, Ireland in 1714. At the age of twenty he came to America to act as an agent for his uncle, Peter Warren. Admiral Warren had married the daughter of Stephen De Lancey, a wealthy aristocrat of the provincial metropolis, and built there a new home, now known as No.1 Broadway, later the head quarters of Generals Howe, Clinton and Carleton. It was from this home that Major Andre set out on his mission to aid Arnold, with whom he ad been intimate for years, to consummate his treachery. At the time of Johnson's coming Capt. Warren had acquired a title to a tract of fifteen thousand acres of land in the present town of Florida (Montgomery Co.). In correspondence his uncle Peter speaks of William as a wayward youth in the home land who is being sent out to the new world in the hope that its experience will discipline him. One of the elements, perhaps the chief one, that called for this chastisement was his attachment to an Irish colleen which met the serious objection of both his parents and his uncle.
Thus it happened that when the lad was ready to take up his new work in America he left behind him in the port town of Drogheda a broken-hearted girl, to whom, however, he pledged a sure return for marriage. But the girl knew that it was to break up this alliance that he was being sent away and instinctively she felt that they would never see each other again. We shall see how this incident colored the whole after life of William Johnson and gave him an unenviable reputation among the settlers of those days. Soon after the arrival of Johnson he was made the agent of the English government for the Iroquois or Six Nations. This was in June, 1738, the birth year of King George III. He began an extensive fur trade with the Indians and in various ways secured large tracts of land. He adopted not a few of the customs of the Mohawks, learned their language, and in 1746, was formally adopted into the tribe and given the title, Wa-ra-i-ya-ge, i. e. "chief director of affairs." While advancing his own personal interests he kept the Americans loyal to the English cause.
His alliances, first with Caroline Hendrick, daughter of "King" Hendrick, and later with Molly Brant, sister of Joseph Brant the noted Indian leader, and his intimacy with many of the wives of the chiefs of the various tribes, gave him increasing power over the Red men, and until his death made his name a tower of strength and influence in the valley in the dealings of the Indians with the white settlers and in their relations to the home government.
Johnson's first settlement in the new world was on the land of his uncle, to which he gave the name of Warren's Bush. This settlement was about half a mile below what is now (south) Amsterdam, and as late as 1795 was known as "Johnson's Settlement." Johnson lived there five years and here his first son, John, was born. A plan was devised whereby a homestead was to be given to the first five hundred families emigrating from Europe. In the first five years he had disposed of more than two-thirds of all his uncles holdings, these being on the south side of the Mohawk and west of Schenectady. It was while Johnson was settled at Warren's Bush that his alliance with Catherine Weisenberg began. Two miles below Johnson's store was a tavern kept by Alexander and Hamilton Phillips at what is now called Phillips' Locks. The Groat brothers (of Amsterdam) were living on the north side of the river at what is now Cranesville ("Adriutha"). Simms the historian of the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys gets his information from persons who were very close to these occurrences, indeed witnesses of much that he narrates, hence their historic credibility and authenticity. He says that Lewis Groat suggested the desirability of marriage to William Johnson, but the latter said that he wanted to marry a girl in the old country, but his folks prevented it. He had determined that he would never marry, but, he added, that he proposed to raise a numerous progeny. Even if one doubts the conversation there is an abundance of evidence to prove that Johnson carried out the spirit of this determination.
Johnson's first alliance was with Catherine Weisenberg, a "High Dutch" girl, then a Palatine orphan, whom he had met at the Phillips' tavern. Her passage money had been paid by Alexander Phillips, to whom she was bound out by the captain of the sailing vessel for a term sufficient to meet this indebtedness. It was a common custom of the time. Phillips protested against giving up the girl but Johnson finally won out, paid the passage money, and took her to his settlement to be his housekeeper. One historian says Catherine was the daughter of Rev. Jacob Weisenberg, a Lutheran pastor at Schenectady, who was appointed by Governor Clinton in 1745, an Indian commissioner. It is said that the baronet availed himself of the Iroquois custom, still prevalent among certain Mexican tribes, of allotting to distinguished visitors their choice of maiden or squaw during their stay among the tribe. Hence William Johnson in the years raised up a numerous progeny among the Indian women, who were proud of the honor thus bestowed upon them. This policy was the practice of the French colonists, urged on them by the French King. It is a significant fact that while the men friends of Sir William Johnson frequently called on him at Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall the women acquaintances and the wives of the men mentioned seldom if ever went to his home, owing to this well known unmoral attitude of the Indian commissioner. In 1743 Johnson bought a large tract of land upon the north-west bank of the Mohawk on both sides of the Kayaderosseros creek. In 1742 he built a grist mill and the stone house now called Fort Johnson, the first colonial mansion in New York state. He had brot sixty ScotchIrish families to this estate, all Romanists, and had settled them in Perth, Broadalbin, Galway, and Johnstown. It was from these families that Sir John Johnson, after the death of Sir William, recruited his body-guard of one hundred and fifty at Johnson Hall. In 1745 the baronet was importing breeding horses and stock; in 1746 he was shipping flour to the West Indies, and was the largest slave holder in the Province. In 1769, five years before his death, the crown, on the request of Sir William, gave him what is called, the "Royal Grant," an estate of sixty thousand acres of land, the tract extending between East and West Canada creeks, on the north side of the Mohawk. It included the present site of Herkimer and Little Falls. The tradition of Johnson securing this land from "King" Hendrick thro dreams is as fascinating as it is fanciful. Sir William was always keen on futures, both for himself and his families, and he had a lot of folks to remember in his will, and wanted his property and lands to go around.
Sir William's first residence on the north side of the river was at what is now Fort Johnson. Because of certain grants of land by Ethan Akin to the N. Y. C. H. R. R. the place for many years was called Fort Akin but in 1912 this was changed to Fort Johnson. The old baronial home has now for several years been the headquarters of the Montgomery County Historical Society. East of Fort Johnson, or "Mount Johnson" as it was first called, Sir William built a two story stone house for his daughter. Mary (born in 1744) who married her cousin, Guy Johnson, a nephew of Sir William. And about midway between this residence and his own home he built another house for his daughter Nancy Anne (born 1740), who married Col. Daniel Claus. There was a tract of land about a mile square attached to each of these two residences.
Mrs. Nancy Claus went to Canada in 1776 and died there soon afterwards. A child of this marriage, Mary, married Lord Clyde, better known as Sir Colin Campbell of British fame, whose Highlanders raised the siege of Lucknow. When Sir William removed to Johnstown, named for Sir William's oldest son, in 1763, he left his son, John Johnson, in the home at Mount Johnson. The Johnson family were to all intents and purposes the ruling family of the valley of the Mohawk, living as aristocratic nobles, surrounded by a sort of feudal system borrowed from the old world, but exceedingly offensive to the liberty loving German and Dutch settlers. An estate of two hundred thousand acres, the largest in the world at the time, was not in accord with the growing spirit of democracy (in the new world. The house Sir William built for Mrs. Claus was soon afterwards accidentally destroyed by fire, but the Guy Johnson house, Fort Johnson, and Johnson Hall at Johnstown are well preserved. The last was built in 1763. Of the alliance of Sir William with Catherine Weisenberg, three children were born, Mary (Mrs. Guy Johnson), Nancy (Mrs. Claus), and John Johnson (born in 1742), Mrs. Grant, to whose work we have referred in the article on the Palatines, visited the home of Sir William Johnson, and writes most interestingly of the life at Mount Johnson, especially emphasizing the strict seclusion under which these first daughters were kept. John Johnson was born Nov. 5, 1742. The mother, Catherine Weisenberg, died in 1745, and was buried near the baronet's house at Fort Johnson, tho in later years the grave was completely lost track of. There is no extant evidence that Sir William Johnson was ever married-to this woman, or to Molly Brant, whom he refers to even in his will as a "housekeeper," or to Caroline Hendrick (niece of King Hendrick) or to any of the others who bore him children. His son, John Johnson, was knighted a year or more before his father's death, and at the personal solicitation of the father who must have known that the question of legitimacy might have thwarted this honor after the decease of the baronet. And, again, we have too keen a respect for the ability and shrewdness of Mollie Brant to believe that if she were the lawful wife of Sir William, as some writers assert, that she would have allowed herself and her eight children to be driven back to the savage conditions of her Indian tribe.
Besides these homes we have mentioned Sir William also had others on his great estate, one at what is now known as the Fish House (Fulton County) a woody summer resort under the care of the two Wormwood women. Another home, with its attendant furnishing was built at Broadalbin. Caroline Hendrick, to whom reference has been made, died in 1752, and Molly Brant was then brot to Mount Johnson to care for Caroline's three children. One of these, William of Canajoharie, whose Indian name was Teg-che-un-to, and who was killed a:t the Battle of Oriskany, is mentioned in the baronet's will. Two daughters, Charlotte and Caroline, had already received their dowry at their marriage. Charlotte married Henry Randall, a young British officer who, later joined the Continentals and fell at the Battle of Monmouth. Caroline married Michael Byrne, who clerked for Sir William. He was one of Butler's Rangers and was killed at Oriskany. His widow married Mr. McKin, a Canadian Indian agent., Francis Parkman, the eminent historian, refers to an alliance that Sir William had with one Eleanor Wallaslous, but does not quote any authority. The marriage of Sir William Johnson Bart to Elizabeth Cleland on March 10, 1757, published in the "Gentleman's Magazine" and the "London Magazine" in 1757, refers to another family of another name. Molly Brant the "tribal wife" of Sir William went to Fort Johnson in 1752 and lived with Sir William until the time of his death in 1774. She was the half-breed step-daughter of "Nickus Brant," at whose place Johnson always stopped when visiting Canajoharie. Her mother was a Mohawk squaw. Jared Sparks the noted historian of the Revolution, and other analysts say that Joseph Brant was the natural son of Sir William by this Mohawk squaw, which might account for the baronet's faithful attention to Joseph. It is a singular commentary on the influence of this baronial home that after so long a period of contact with the best that there was in that day in the valley, Molly Brant, the close companion of the baronet, and her half-breeds all reverted to savagery, except possibly one son, Peter. The mother died in Canada in 1805.
In 1757 because of his part in the battle of Lake George wherein the French were defeated, Sir William was knighted and given a reward of five thousand pounds Sterling. Johnson was also in command at the fall of Fort Niagara in 1759, and in the surrender of Canada in 1760 he led a thousand Iroquois against Montreal. Johnson was vigorous of body and fertile of mind, tho coarse in conduct and unmoral in action. He made the most of an opportune period and quickly rose from the ranks to be commander of the army, and from colonist to baronet. Almost invariably the histories of the valley refer to his generosity toward all Christian work. Up to the time of his death he seems to have been the prime mover in every religious undertaking of the valley, no matter what the denomination. This is what the books say and later writers who follow the books. Doubtless he did a great deal toward establishing his own communion, the Church of England. But amid all the lists of donors to the erection of the Dutch churches, as at German Flatts, Herkimer, Stone Arabia, St. Johnsville, Fonda, Manheim-enterprises of his day, we have never seen his name, tho these lists contain many of the names of the settlers of the Mohawk and Schohaire valleys. And it was natural that he should favor his own church, the Church of England, whose ministry and membership in their entirety were inimical to the colonists in their struggle for Independence, and whose persistent and seditious efforts to establish a foreign hierarchy in America precipitated the American Revolution. When Queens College (Rutgers) was founded by royal charter in 1766 upon the petition of the ministers and members of the Reformed Dutch church in America, Sir William Johnson, representing the interests of England, was made one of the forty-one directors, the Governor, Chief-justice, and Attorney General of the New Jersey Province, heading the list. The college buildings constructed were burned by the British in 1778. Johnson's correspondence shows that in the beginning at least he was in league with England's policy of exterminating the liberty-loving colonists of the Mohawk valley.
In 1746 Capt. Warren Johnson of the Royal Army, the baronet's brother, visited him at Fort Johnson, bearing important message from General Clinton. On March 18, 1747, William Johnson wrote Gov. Clinton, complaining that the government was likely to ruin him for lack of blankets, and paints, and guns and cutlasses, commodities promised their copper colored allies who were bringing in prisoners and all sorts of scalps to Mount Johnson. In May, 1747, he writes of the youth, Walter Butter's successful scalping expedition. He refers to a party of six Mohawks who had just brot in seven prisoners and three scalps and adds "this is very good for so small a party." Fort Johnson in those days must have afforded a gruesome sight with its walls plastered with the scalps of the men, women, and children of the valley. Johnson, European and Mohawk, colonist and baronet, was also the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of pre-Revolutionary times.
Sir William Johnson died at Johnston Hall, Johnstown, on July 11, 1774. The troubles between the Colonists and the Indians and between the Colonists and the mother country were beginning to tell upon him. We credit him with prophetic vision, for he must have seen the clouds of conflict gathering; he must have been keenly alive to what would happen when the savages were once unfettered; he knew only too well the determination of the colonists, the liberty loving Dutch, and the Palatines with half a century of unjust oppression behind them in the valleys of the "Schorie" and "Mohaque," he doubtless felt that England would play a losing game with the Independents; he had received lavish gifts of gold and honor from his mother land, and at the same time, had cemented here in the valley privileged fellowship with these hardy pioneers who represented him and were guided and helped by his never failing counsels. The year before his death he had been to England and he knew the mind of the ministry there, or, at least, he knew the plans of those who would have charge of the war, if the conflict once came. In vision fearful he saw the slaughtered tribes of Red men, the devastated homes of the settlers, all of whom were his friends. Was there a premonition of his death in the reported conversation with John B. Van Epps of Schenectady, or Lewis Groat of Cranesville, or Mr. Campbell, of whom it is said he remarked in some such words as these-"I see the conflict coming, but I will never live to see it." On the day of his death he was attending the Tryon county court at Johnstown. He was wearied with the conferences he had held with the Indians. A package of personal correspondence had just come from England. He took it, left the court room, went to his home, and in an hour or so Sir William Johnson, Baronet, was dead. What choice he would have made in the impending struggle-between his beloved England and his beloved friends, the latter both Colonists and Iroquois, is only conjectural. His last word was spoken in the Mohawk tongue to Brant, "Joseph, control your people, I'm going away."
Sir William Johnson was buried a few days later beneath the altar of the stone church at Johnstown which he had caused to be erected in 1764. The body was first placed in a mahogany casket, then sealed in a lead container. During the Revolution this lead covering was removed and run into bullets. Campbell says that the body was taken up in 1806 and the "bones re-interred," but he does not say why this was done. But we know that there was a time in the early years of the past century when St. John's church was much neglected and falling into ruins. The church, after the Revolution had been used by the Presbyterians, except for eight Sundays in each year, when the Episcopalians might hold worship therein. The boys of the day found their way into the building and one tells how they used to get into the vault where they would read the brass-nailed inscription on the casket of Sir William, and when the waters of the Cayadutta broke their bounds and overflowed into the vault they watched the casket floating around.
In the fire of 1836 when the church was destroyed they re-cased the body before a second (or third) burial, but hung the coffin-lid with its brass inscription in the chancel. In the second fire, which burned out the church interior, this was consumed. When the church was rebuilt after the fire of 1836, the vault was without the edifice, and it was not until 1862 that it was discovered, and the bones again interred with a monument marking the spot. We do not know in all American history such an illustration of the complete overthrow in so short a time of the great ambitions, and the well-laid plans, and the consummate skill that was embodied in the establishment of a magnificent kingdom in this New World under the leadership of Sir William Johnson. Within a few months the vision splendid, which had a most substantial basis of fact, bad crumbled into dust. The world's greatest honors were his, untold wealth, a land-kingdom of a hundred and seventy thousand acres, houses of stability that are still with us after a century and a half, the men of the old and new worlds, his friends and admirers. Studiously, prophetically he devised this vast estate, binding all the heirs that it should remain intact. But in a short time the eldest son is an exile and an object of infamy, while today instead of the boundless feudal kingdom there is a great free State with a multitude of farms, and villages, towns, and cities. Not much more than a name remains to recall the story, while the influence of the lives of the men and women who loved God first and liberty afterwards still abides in the increasing devotion of their descendants to God and Home and Native Land.
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