History From America's Most Famous Valleys
of Tryon County;
Border Warfare of New York,
During the Revolution.
By William W. Campbell
New York; Printed and Published by J. & J. Harper 1831
Sketch of the Life of Sir William Johnson
A considerable part of the following sketch of the life of Sir William Johnson is taken from the travels of Dr. Dwight. In the main, it is believed to be correct, though perhaps he has not done him justice in the remarks which he makes relative to his command at Lake George. He is supported, however, by an article, supposed to have been written by Gov. Livingston, and published in the seventh volume of the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
"The sight of Sir William Johnson's mansion, in this vicinity, awakened in my mind a variety of interesting reflections. This gentleman was born in Ireland, about the year 1714. Sir Peter Warren having married an American lady, purchased a large estate on and near the Mohawk. In the year 1734 he sent for Mr. Johnson, who was his nephew, to come and superintend the property. To fulfill the duties of the commission, Mr. Johnson seated himself in this spot -- here he became, of course, extensively acquainted with the Six Nations. He studied their character, and acquired their language; carried on an extensive trade with them, and by a course of sagacious measures, made himself so agreeable and useful to them, that for many years he possessed an influence over them, such as was never gained by any other white man.
"His constitution was unusually firm, and his mind hardy, coarse, and vigorous. Unsusceptible of those delicate feelings by which minds, of a softer mold, are in a great measure governed; destitute of those refined attachments which are derived from a correspondence with elegant society, and unconfined by those moral restraints which bridle men of tender consciences, he here saw the path open to wealth and distinction, and determined to make the utmost of his opportunity. In troublesome times, an active, ambitious man hardly ever fails to acquire some degree of consequence. Such were the times in which Mr. Johnson resided at this place; and so persevering and successful was he in turning them to his advantage, that he rose from the station of a common soldier to the command of an army, and from the class of yeomen to the title of Baronet.
"In the year 1757, he led the provincial army to Lake George; where was achieved the first victory, gained on the British side, in the war commencing at that period. For this victory, toward which he did little more than barely hold the place of Commander in chief, he received from the House of Commons 5,000 pounds sterling, and from the King the title of Baronet and the office of superintendent of Indian affairs.
"In the year 1759, being at the head of the Provincial troops employed under Brigadier Gen. Pirdeaux to besiege Fort Niagara, he became upon the death of that officer Commander in chief of the whole army, and directed the siege with activity and skill. On the 24th of July a body of French and Indian assailants approached to raise the siege; Sir William marched out to meet them and gained a complete victory. The next morning the fort itself surrendered, and the garrison were made prisoners of war.
"In 1760 he led 1000 Iroquois to join the army of Gen. Amherst at Oswego. With this body he proceeded under the command of that illustrious man to Montreal. Here he concluded his military career with honor, being present and active in a distinguished station at the surrender of Canada.
"The services which he rendered to the British Colonists were important, and will be long as well as deservedly remembered. The property which he amassed here was very great. At the time when he came into America a considerable part of the cultivated and much of the uncultivated land in the Province of New York, was divided into large manorial possessions, obtained successively from the government by men of superior sagacity and influence. Sir William followed the custom of the country, and by a succession of ingenious and industrious exertions secured to himself vast tracts of valuable land.
The following story of Sir William's ingenuity has been frequently related. Old king Hendrick, of the Mohawks, was at his home at the time Sir William received two or three rich suits of military clothes. The old king, a short time afterward, came to Sir William, and said, "I dream." "Well, what did you dream?" "I dream you give me one suit of clothes." "Well, I suppose you must have it," and accordingly he gave him one. Some time after, Sir William met Hendrick, and said--"I dreamed last night." "Did you; what you dream?" "I dreamed you gave me a tract of land," describing it. After a pause, "U suppose you must have it, but "and he raised his finger significantly, "You must not dream again." This tract of land extended from the East to West Canada Creek, in the now County of Herkimer, and was about twelve miles square. The title was afterward confirmed by the King of England, and it was justly called the "Royal Grant."
Old king Hendrick, or as he was sometimes called, the great Hendrick, lived in the now town of Minden in Herkimer County, and near the upper Mohawk castle. "The site of his house," says Dr. Dwight, "is a handsome elevation, commanding a considerable prospect of the neighboring county. It will be sufficient to observe here, that for capacity, bravery, vigor of mind, and immovable integrity united, he excelled all the Aboriginal inhabitants of the United States of whom any knowledge has come down to the present time. A gentleman of a very respectable character, who was present at a council held with the Six Nations, by the Governor of New York, and several agents of distinction from New England, informed me that his figure and countenance were singularly impressive and commanding; that he eloquence was of the same superior character, and that he appeared as if born to control other men, and possessed an air of majesty unrivaled within his knowledge." In the French wars he led forth his Mohawk warriors and fought side by side with Sir William Johnson. Through all the intrigues of the French he remained faithful to his alliance. He was also highly esteemed by the white inhabitants. During some of the negotiations with the Indians of Pennsylvania and the inhabitants of that state, Hendrick was present at Philadelphia. His likeness was taken, and a wax figure afterward made which was a very good imitation. After the death of Hendrick, an old friend, a white man, visited Philadelphia, and among other things was shown this wax figure. It occupied a niche, and was not observed by him until he had approached within a few feet. The friendship of former days came fresh over his memory, and forgetting for the moment Hendrick's death, he rushed forward and clasped in his arms the frail, icy image of the chieftain.
"As these were always exposed to French and Indian incursions, they were obtained for trifling sums, being considered by most men as of very little value. In consequence of the peace of Paris, and the subsequent increase of the settlements in the Province, they rose, as he had foreseen, from being of little value to such a price as to constitute an immense fortune.
"By Lady Johnson he had three children, two daughters, and married to Col. Claus, the other to Col. Guy Johnson, and a son afterward Sir John Johnson. Of the first of these gentlemen I have no further information. The two last took the British side of the question in the Revolutionary war.
"Sir William built a house at the village of Johnstown, where he chiefly lived during the latter part of his life. The house which he built on this road (along the Mohawk river) was occupied by Sir John. Colonel Guy Johnson built a house on the opposite side of the road a little further down the river. Here these men lived essentially in the rank and with not a small part of the splendor of noblemen. But when they joined the British standard their property vanished in a moment, and with it their consequence, their enjoyments, and probably their hopes."
Many accounts are still given of the rustic sports encouraged by Sir William, and of the influence which he exerted over the Indians and white inhabitants. He died July 11th, 1774, aged 59 years. There is something still mysterious connected with his death. He had been out to England, and returned the previous spring. During a visit which he made shortly after to Mr. Campbell, an intimate friend of his at Schenectady, the conversation turned upon the subject of the disputes between the colonies and the mother country. He then said he should never live to see them in a state of open war. At a court held in Johnstown for Tryon County, he received a foreign package. He was in the Court House when it was handed him. He immediately left the house and walked over to the Hall. This package was afterward understood to have contained instructions to him to use his influence in engaging the Indians in favor or England, in case a war should break out. If such were the instructions to Sir William, his situation was indeed trying. On the one side was the English government, which had so highly honored and enriched him, and on the other his own adopted country, whose armies he had led to victory, with many warm personal friends, who entertained a great respect for him, and who had fought by his side during the previous wars. A spirit like his could not but have foreseen the dreadful consequences of employing such a force as the Indians in such a war. His death followed immediately before the rising of the court. Rumor said he died by poison, administered by himself; but perhaps extreme excitement of mind thus suddenly put and end to a life already protracted to a middling old age. He was buried under the old Stone Church at Johnstown. His bones were taken up in 1806, and redeposited. In the coffin was found the ball with which he was wounded at Lake George, which had never been extracted, and which ever after occasioned lameness. His most valuable papers, including his will (said to be a very singular document) were buried in an iron chest in his garden, where they were much injured by the dampness of the earth. They were taken away by his son, Sir John, during the war. (18)
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