Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories that will appear throughout 2008 as the city of Johnstown celebrates the 250th anniversary of its founding.
Where do you start when outlining the life and times of Sir William Johnson, who founded Johnstown 250 years ago? Wanda Burch, the site manager at Johnson Hall State Historic Site, smiled when asked that question recently.
“Probably with his birth,” Burch replied. “He was Irish and being Irish defined his culture, his contacts with people, his music, how he approached people.”
Johnson, who was many things — trader, land baron, military leader and diplomat — probably benefited from Ireland’s clannish society when he immersed himself in the world of the Six Nations, Burch said.
“He was a generous, very approachable person. Someone able to, in a heartbeat, move easily from one culture to the next. He could talk easily to any member of the Six Nations [and] in the next moment he could be speaking to an English gentleman, a military man, tenants,” she said.
Johnson was born in Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland, and died July 11, 1774 in Johnstown at the age of 59. In between, he became the most powerful, influential man in what is now upstate New York, according to both contemporaries and many historians.
Johnson arrived in New York in 1737 to oversee his uncle Peter Warren’s lands. He established Warrensburg on the south side of the Mohawk River near present-day Amsterdam.
Not long after arriving, Burch said, he began to look after his own interests. He built Fort Johnson on the north side of the river and began to trade with the Mohawks of the Six Nations.
He and a German immigrant, Catherine Weissenberg, had three children and after she died in 1759 Johnson had eight more children with Molly Brant, his Mohawk wife, after building and moving into Johnson Hall.
Noel Levee, Johnstown city historian, said Johnson relied on “a cadre of Irish pals” in positions of power locally. “That was his security blanket,” Levee said.
Dealing with the Mohawks consumed most of Johnson’s time.
“When he was developing Johnstown and his home he was looking forward to laying back a little bit and making it his retirement home,” Levee said.
“He developed this area for himself and he had a circle of friends and relatives to help govern it. He didn’t trust anybody else,” he said.
Johnson’s pursuit of his own empire didn’t sit well with his uncle.
And Levee said Johnson, while working for the crown, had to deal with Albany Dutch as well as the Mohawks. He also had his fair share of supporters in New York City.
“He was safe up here. This was his realm. He obviously built a mansion, a plantation, a town,” Levee said.
Fred Bassett is a senior librarian with the New York State Library and the curator for Johnson’s papers. Such primary source material is prized by historians.
‘quite a character’
“You start to get an intimate picture of a person’s life. I think he was quite a character. For his time period he was a very significant individual. I think he was a very important person,” Bassett said.
Johnson adopted the customs and dressed like the Mohawks, and spoke their language. In turn, they trusted him and trade prospered. Johnson acquired more and more land from the Indians, and advertised in New York newspapers for adventurous settlers — craftsmen, schoolteachers, farmers — to move here.
Anne Grant, who grew up in Albany and encountered Johnson there, described the baronet this way: “He was an uncommonly tall, well made man: with a fine countenance; an expression of dignified sedateness, approaching to melancholy. He appeared to be taciturn, never wasting words … but highly eloquent when the occasion called forth his powers.”
Burch said Johnson also was an astute businessman. “He cornered the peas and wheat market. He built flour and sawmills, had a ferry system on the river. You were completely dependent upon the Johnson plantation if you lived here,” she said.
She said he also applied strategy to his land holdings and placement of settlers. Envision his holdings within a 50-mile radius of Johnstown: former military compatriots were recruited to settle the outskirts, while farmers and craftsmen were located closer to the middle.
She said Indian visitors were known to arrive at Johnson Hall at all hours to talk about their problems with Johnson. He would accommodate them as soon as and whenever they arrived, even if it was 3 in the morning.
srved as liaison
“It had to have been an exhausting life but he had to have loved it and he had to have approached it with a sense of humor,” Burch said. “It was a stream of people visiting, coming and going and continually dealing with business that, at that time, was not only important to this area but the colonies, the Six Nations, and the relationship between the English government and the Six Nations.”
Johnson’s papers reveal a man fully engaged in the Age of Enlightenment. He dabbled in botany, studied and experimented with different crops and animals. He had peacocks, hunting dogs, two parrots and a monkey.
“People who write about Johnson and make him bigger than life. Why bother? It’s all here; you couldn’t make up this man’s life,” Burch said.
“He was a very prominent official. On the eve of the Revolution, he was kind of the man, the liaison between the western political establishment and the Iroquois,” Bassett, the librarian, said.
When Johnson died, he was conducting a conference at Johnson Hall, hearing complaints from Mohawks about property theft as settlers pushed farther west onto Indian lands.
status of nobility
There were some 2,000 mourners at the funeral, chiefs from the Six Nations, Colonial government leaders, Masons and commoners.
“The funeral itself represented his tremendous power and influence in the area and outside the area,” Burch said.
Today, Johnson is overshadowed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the other founders on the country.
When tourists visit Johnson Hall, Burch said, “Over and over people ask, ‘what happened?’ What happened was the American Revolution. When the Johnsons lost their homeland, they lost their history.” Johnson’s surviving family members — loyal to the crown — fled to Canada as the Revolution dawned.
Edward Knoblauch, a history professor who worked on Johnson’s papers, tried to put his importance in perspective.
“From the first founding of English colonies on the mainland in 1607 to the American Revolution, William Johnson was one of only two or three people in North American who were granted the status of nobility by the crown,” he said. “William Johnson was created a baronet when George Washington couldn’t get an officer’s commission in the British army.”
Burch said the state historic site at Johnson Hall and Johnson’s papers leave an enduring legacy of the baronet.
The papers have been digitized. An interactive computer programs allows students and fans of history to explore them using key search words to learn how the son of an Irish, middle-class farmer could build an empire in the new world.
“It’s endless. You can pick a topic and go with it. His music, his art. You can go anywhere with a story line,” she said.
The papers can be accessed at Johnson Hall, at the state library, and on the state library’s Web site. Johnson Hall will reopen to visitors for the season May 1.
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