Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883

Volume I, Page 203, Sir William Johnson's Marriages.

Johnson had not been long in the valley, when his friend Lewis Groat, residing across the river, familiarly asked him why he did not get married. He replied that he wanted to marry a girl in Ireland, but his parent broke up the match, and that as he could not marry the girl of his choice, he had resolved never to marry, a resolution he kept for some time notwithstanding his libidinous habits, which the customs and morals of the times greatly favored. Near the tow canal locks below Port Jackson, and a mile or two from Johnson's residence, two brothers, Alexander and Hamilton Philips, had previously located; and living with them in the capacity of a servant girl was Catharine Weisenbergh, a German girl, said however to have been born in Madagascar, who, on arriving at New York, was sold into servitude to pay her passage. She was an uncommonly fair and wholesome looking maid. Groat, knowing his friend's determination not to marry, asked him why he did not go and get that pretty High Dutch girl for a housekeeper? He replied, I will do it! and they parted.

Not long after this interview, Groat was a Philip's on business, and, not seeing her, inquired of one of the brothers where their High Dutch girl was? Said Philips, "Johnson, that d---d Irishman, came the other day and offered me five pounds for her, threatening to horsewhip me and steal her if I would not sell her. I thought five pounds better than a flogging, and took it, and he's got the gal." Johnson obtained the girl in the precise manner he had assured his friend he would proceed. The German girl was the mother of Sir John Johnson, and the wives of Col. Guy Johnson, a nephew of Sir William, and Daniel Claus.

(The tradition of Johnson's getting his housekeeper, etc. was from John L. Groat, and as published by me in 1845, was correct, except in the name of the girl, of which he was not positive, and which seemed not attainable elsewhere. In an English work entitled "Landed Gentry," this woman's name is given as Catharine Weisenbergh. I regret my inability to obtain her true name prior to 1845, as that error of her name was the only one of the least importance into which I led later writers.)

Henry Frey Yates, Esq., a son of Christopher P. Yates of the Tryon County Committee of safety, in a communication to his son, Bernard F., in which he notes several exceptions to sayings of Col. Stone, in the Life of Brant, which memoranda have been kindly placed in the hands of the writer by the sons since the above was written, quotes from the first volume of that work, page 101, a remark that "the mother of Sir John Johnson was a German lady," and thus discourses: "Mr. Stone has been misinformed as to the history of the mother of Sir John; she was not a German lady. She was a German by birth." After naming William Harper, a former judge of Montgomery county, and his brother Alexander, as authority for what he says, he thus continues: "The facts with respect to the mother of Sir John are, that she was a poor German girl, who, on her arrival in New York, was sold for her passage over from Germany. That was then the universal practice, and the only method that the poorer class of German Emigrants had, when they wanted to emigrate to this county. They were obliged, before they embarked on shipboard for America, to sign articles by which they bound themselves to the captain, that, on their arrival here, they should be sold for their passage money, for one, two, three, or four years, as the captain could make a bargain with the purchaser, the captain being obliged to board them, etc. Whenever a ship arrived, it was immediately advertised that she had brought so many male and female immigrants, who were to be sold for their passage."

They were usually sold into servitude, to such persons as would take them at the shortest period of services, and pay the captain in advance, his charges for their passage and contingent expenses. Purchasers were bound, on their part, to treat those servants kindly, and release them at the expiration of their time. This custom continued for some 25 years after the close of the American Revolution, and numbers who proved valuable citizens, availed themselves of this method of crossing the Atlantic. When passengers were advertised for sale, says Mr. Yates: "The wealthy Germans and Low Dutch, from various parts of the country, would then repair to New York and make their purchases. Sometimes one would purchase for a number of families. In this way it was, that the mother of Sir John was purchased for her passage across the Atlantic by a man named Philips, residing about 12 miles from Schenectada, on the south side of the Mohawk, and nearly opposite Crane's village on the north shore. Sir William, seeing the young woman at the house of Mr. Philips, and being pleased with her, bought her of him and took her to his dwelling at the old fort. Sir William had three children by her, Sir John, Mrs. Guy Johnson and Mrs. Col. Claus. Sir William was never married to her, until on her death bed, and then he did it only with a view to legitimize [legitimatise] his children by her. The ceremony was performed by Mr. Barkley, the Episcopal minister residing at Fort Hunter, where he officiated in a stone church built by Queen Anne for the Mohawk Indians.

At page 387, vol. 1, of Stone's Brant, Molly Brant, a sister of that chief, is spoken of as the Indian wife of Sir William Johnson. With reference to this woman, says the memoranda of Yates, "It is true that Sir William was married to Molly according to the rites of the Episcopal church, but a few years before his death. The Baronet, feeling his life drawing to a close, and abhorring living longer in adultery, to quiet his conscience privately married Molly to legitimize his children by her, as he had done those by the German girl, who was the mother of Sir John and his sisters."

Among the few who witnessed the ceremony of the Baronet's second marriage, which is said instead of years, to have been but a short time before his death, and after his Will was drawn, the memoranda names Robert Adams, a merchant of Johnstown, and Mrs. Rebecca Van Sickler: to the last mentioned he accredits his authority. Mrs. V.S., as the manuscript continues, "was always received into all the respectable families in Johnstown as a welcome guest, and was very fond of relating anecdotes of Sir William. Molly was a very exemplary woman, and was a communicant of the Episcopal church. Among all the old inhabitants on the Mohawk, Molly was respected, as not only reputable, but as an exemplary, pious, Christian woman. The care that she took of the education of her children, and the manner in which she brought them up, is at once a demonstration of the depth of the moral sense of duty that she owed her offspring. Not far from 1840, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. H. F. Yates, who was a tall and dignified old gentleman. This was before I saw the manuscript above quoted: but I had the assurance from his own lips that Col. Stone was in error, in calling Mrs. Sir William Johnson a lady in the acceptation of the term. He gave it as a well known fact among all the old people who were companions of Sir William, that his wife was a poor German girl, to whom he was not married until after she was the mother of three children; that she was on her death bed with consumption at Fort Johnson, and was bolstered up to have the ceremony performed. Such was the tradition among all the old people of Central New York 50 or 60 years ago. The late Alexander J. Comrie, of Johnstown, who was County Clerk when Montgomery county was divided in 1838, and when he was some 50 years old, assured me that it was a well understood fact among his Scotch ancestry in and around Johnstown, that the Baronet was married near the close of his wife's life, to legalize the heirship of his children; and that on account of the lateness of the marriage, his son Sir John had experienced some difficulty in succeeding to his father's titles.

Mr. Yates supposed Rev. Henry Barclay performed the ceremony of marrying Sir William Johnson to his first wife. This was a natural inference in the absence of any positive data, knowing that he was the first settled clergyman in the valley above Schenectada, and near the period when the event must have transpired. Dr. Barclay was a native of Albany, and having taken orders in the Episcopal church, he was established at Fort Hunter as a missionary to the Indians in the same year that Johnson located in Florida. Here he labored from 1738 to 1746, when he went to New York. Tradition has said Mrs. Johnson died young, and I had supposed her death took place prior to or near 1750. Dr. Barclay was rector of Trinity church from 1746 to 1765, in which year he died. (Ed. note to Brod. Papers, vol. 6, p. 88)

Col. Stone, in the Life of Brant, says the family Bible of Sir William Johnson, which contained his family record, was purchased by John Taylor, a former Lieutenant Governor, among the confiscated property of the Johnson family; and that he sent word to Sir John Johnson that the could have this keepsake by refunding its purchase money, four guineas. He discourteously did send for and receive it. Now, it seems passing strange, if this Bible contained a record of the marriage of Sir William, that Col. Stone had not obtained its information in his Canadian researches; or that D. O'Callaghan at a later day, should not have got upon the trail of this Bible, if any such there ever was. Probably if there was such a record, somebody had a motive to destroy it.

(Since the above account was written, a memorandum made in 1844, from the lips of Isaac De Graff, of Schenectada, then 87 years old, has turned up, when he stated to the writer that he had seen the family Bible of Sir William Johnson, and in it the record of his marriage by Rev. John Ogilview, to Catharine Weisenfelts, ten days before her death; but he did not recollect when the event transpired. Dr. O'Callaghan made the name Weisenbergh. Had not this item been mislaid, I should have given her correct name in my Schoharie County, etc., published in 1845. Mr. Ogilvie succeeded Mr. Barclay, and went upon his mission in the spring of 1749, and was Chaplain with the army under Sir William from 1760 to the close of the war; and, on the death of Mr. Barclay, he became his successor as Rector of Trinity Church, New York (Doc. His. vol 3, p. 1152). Mr. De Graff was a worthy and conscientious man, and was the father of the late John I. and Jesse D. De Graff. He had the same traditions of Sir William's domestic affairs that other people who knew him personally.)

Doctor O'Callaghan while arranging the Brodhead Papers, took some pains to discredit the character and credibility of my History of Schoharie County, etc., with the public, as I hinted in the Preface, not only in a literary society in Albany, but with a publishing house in Boston, for what I had said of his brother counterman's marriage; but promised to unsay what he had said, if he could not produce a record of his marriage. And although he carried his investigation from Canada to Europe, he found no such record, and more than that, he forgot to redeem his pledge to me. If in the absence of all proof to the contrary, any one fact is established over all other traditions, it is the one above given; and if it were otherwise, the relatives of the German lady whose pedigree was above cavil, would have been sure, when the fame of their kinsman was unrivaled by that of any other man in the thirteen colonies, to claim their full share in the honor of renown attached to his name. If any record of this mooted marriage ceremony is ever found, it will be among the private papers of the Episcopal clergyman who performed the novel ceremony, and those of Mr. Ogilvie if preserved may show it.

Just when Johnson secured this German girl, is not precisely known; but as he located in 1738, he no doubt obtained her in the following year. On the disinterment and reburial of the remains of Sir William Johnson, at Johnstown in 1862, a plain gold ring was found among them, marked on the inside "June 1739, 16". It is believed that at the time he secured his housekeeper, he gave her this ring, which after her death, he wore himself. The 16 in the position placed is an unsolved enigma, unless it indicated her age, which is quite probable.

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