Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Mohawk Valley
Its Legends and its History
by Max Reid
New York and London G. P. Putman's Sons
The Knickerbocker Press, 1901
with illustrations from photographs by J. Arthur Maney

Sir William Johnson Bart., 1715-1774

Chapter VIII Sir William Johnson

In examining the early records of history, particularly the colonial and documentary history of New Yoir, I was impressed with the fact that Sir William Johnson filled a very large place in the history of the colony between 1740 and the time of his death in 1774.

We are apt to connect Sir William's life with Johnstown, N. Y., and forget that although he founded and practically created the village that was named for him, he lived there only eleven years, during which time he was occupied in building up the village, erecting churches, courthouse, jail, and his own spacious mansion.

But in fact twenty-four years of his manhood were passed in this valley, and for twenty of those years he lived in the old stone mansion sometimes called Mount Johnson, and now called Fort Johnson, within a mile of the city of Amsterdam.

It was probably here that his wife, Catherine Weisenberg, died, but the date is not known. It was from a Mr. Phillips who lived opposite Cranesville, that he purchased the German girl who afterward became his wife and the mother of his legitimate children. Sir William came to the valley in 1738, and soon after purchased the German girl Catherine for a housekeeper. They were probably married by the Rev. Dr. Henry Barclay, then the rector in charge of Queen Anne's Chapel at Fort Hunter. In 1742 his son, John Johnson, was born, probably in Warrensbush, as Sire Peter Warren's estate of fourteen thousand acres in the present town of Florida was then called.

It was in for Johnson, built in 1743, that Molly Brant presided as mistress and it was here that most of the conferences with the Iroquois were held and here Sir William gained influence over them on account of his kind and strictly honorable treatment of those warlike tribes. It was here that he was made superintendent of the Indians and, in 1746, invested by the Mohawks with the rank of a chief of tat nation. In Indian costume he shortly after led the tribe to a council at Albany.

It was at this house in 1755 that he held a council with the Iroquois which resulted in about two hundred and fifty of their warriors following him to victory over the French at the battle of Lake George.

It was from this mansion that most of the letters on colonial affairs were written by Sir William to His Majesty King George II and to the governor of the colony and the lords of the board of trade.

Here also were born his two daughters, Nancy and Mary.

Whatever may be said of Sir William's private life, no one can read those letters without being impressed with the honesty of purpose of the writer.

While frauds were being practiced on the Indians by the land-grabbing officials at Albany and elsewhere, Johnson, was firm in his desire that the Iroquois should not be cheated but should be dealt with justly. And while fraudulent grants, like the seven hundred thousand acres Kayaderosseras grant, were obtained with ease, he would not claim or occupy any land that was not justly granted to him by his friends the Indians.

We remember Sir William Johnson as a loyalist, and as a friend of the savages who a little later spread terror throughout the Mohawk Valley. But we must not forget that Sir William Johnson died in 1774, and that it was Sir John Johnson and Col. Guy Johnson and the Butlers who were responsible for many of the savage acts of the Indians in the Mohawk Valley and vicinity, and that it was Col. Guy Johnson, the founder of Guy Park, who alienated the Six Nations from the Colonists.

In reading the acts of Sir William and becoming acquainted with his character as it shows fort in his letters, I do not hesitate to say that if he had lived and sided with the colonists, his name would have been written on the pages of history side by side with that of George Washington and other heroes of the Revolution.

In Frothingham's history of Montgomery County is found the following paragraph:

Had Sire William lived it is confidently believed he would have espoused the cause of the colonies against the mother country, in which event one of the most magnificent estates in the country would have been confirmed to him, but his successors, and particularly his son John, allied themselves to the British, and as a result the estate was confiscated and sold for the public benefit.

Sir John Johnson, who occupied Fort Johnson after Sir William moved to Johnson Hall, Johnstown, in 1763, was a man of different character from his father. He and his brothers-in-law, Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus, were creatures of the King, having no sentiment in common with the people. "He was a bloodthirsty and relentless enemy, combining the worst elements of Toryism with the inhuman methods of war only resorted to by savages."

Simms says: "He was not the amiable-tempered, social, and companionable man his father was and hence was not the welcome guest in all society that his father had been."

In early life, while living at Fort Johnson, he wooed, won, but did not wed Miss Clara Putnam, a very pretty girl of good family at Tribes Hill, by whom he had two children, a son and a daughter. Miss Putnam was keeping house for him at the old Fort Johnson mansion when he married Miss Mary Watts, of New York City, on June 29, 1773, but before his return from New York Miss Putnam and her children were sent into the town of Florida. The son, when he grew up, was nicely established by his father in some kind of business in Canada, and the daughter, who was said to have been a tall, beautiful girl, and at one time quite a belle in the valley, married a James Van Hornes, by whom she had one or more children. She had dark hair and dark eyes, was brunette in complexion, and was graceful in her carriage. Only a few years after her marriage, while visiting friends at Tribes Hill, she ate too freely of fruit, became sick, and died suddenly, universally lamented.

Late in life Sir William Johnson (he was sixty-seven years old) sent word to Miss Clara Putnam to come to Canada at a certain time (which was chosen in the absence of his wife), and he would give her some property. She went in the summer of 1809. He at that time gave her $1200 in money and purchased a house and lot for her in Schenectady. She died about the year 1840.

In Griffis's Life of Sir William Johnson we find the following account of "the brown Lady Johnson."

After the death of his wife, Catherine, Sire William lived with various mistresses, as tradition avers, but after a year or two of such life, dismissed them for a permanent housekeeper--Molly Brant, the sister of Joseph Brant, the noted Indian chief.

According to the local traditions of the valley, Johnson first met the pretty squaw when about sixteen years old at the militia muster at or near Fort Johnson. In jest, she asked an officer to let her ride behind him. He assented, returning fun for fun. To his surprise she leaped like a wild cat upon the space behind the saddle, holding on tightly, with hair flying and garments flapping, while the excited horse dashed over the parade ground. The crowd enjoyed the sight, but the most interested spectator was Sir William, who, admiring her spirit, resolved to make her his paramour.

From this time Molly Brant, the handsome squaw, was Johnson's companion. Molly Brant was undoubtedly a woman of ability, and with her Johnson lived happily. She presided over Fort Johnson and later Johnson Hall at Johnstown, and became the mother of a large brood of his natural children, and as "the brown Lady Johnson" she was always treated with respect by the white guests and visitors.

While Molly Brant presided over the mansion, and her dusky children attended the manor school, the daughters of Johnson and Catherine Weisenberg, Nancy and Mary, were trained under the care of governess, who made them acquainted with the social graces of London and the standard literature of England. [These two daughters, who were left by their dying mother to the care of a friends, were educated almost in solitude. They were carefully instructed in religious duties, and in various kinds of needlework, but were themselves kept entirely from society. At the age of sixteen they had never seen a lady, except their mother and her friend (who was the widow of an English officer), or a gentleman except Sir William, who visited their room daily. Their dress was not conformed to the fashions, but always consisted of wrappers of finest chintz over green silk petticoats. Their hair, which was long and beautiful, was tied with a simple band of ribbon. After their marriage they soon acquired the habits of society, and made excellent wives.---Lossing.]

An mansion not quite as pretentious was built for Colonel Claus and wife about a mile east of Fort Johnson. It was located opposite the present Boulevard Hotel. The house was burned down subsequently, but the ruins of the foundation and the old brick oven were to be seen up to within a few years. Subsequently a tavern was erected on the same lot and on part of the old foundation, and was known as the Charley Chase Hotel. All trace of this old building is entirely obliterated.

Since writing the above, accident has thrown in my way some new material in reference to the family of Sir William Johnson. The facts were transmitted to me by one of the descendants. a man of undoubted ability and probity of character, and they furnish a missing link between Catherine Weisenberg and Molly Brant. It seems that Molly Brant had a predecessor in the affections of Sir William, in the grand-daughter of grand-niece of King Hendrick. She born to Sir William two daughters, and died in childbirth with a third, in 1753. This woman took the English name of Caroline, and her daughters were named Charlotte and Caroline. Charlotte Johnson married Henry Randall, a subaltern in the King's Royal Provincial Regiment, about two years before the war of the Revolution. When the war came on he resigned from the King's service and entered Schuyler's Regiment of Militia. He afterwards joined Clinton's Regiment of Continentals, and was killed at Monmouth Court House. Charlotte accompanied her husband to Albany, turning her back forever on her kith and kin. She had two children, one named Charlotte Randall, who married George King. They had a daughter, Charlotte King, who was the grandmother of my informant. The other daughter of Sir William Johnson by Molly Brant's predecessor, named Caroline, is said to have married Walter N. Butler, who was killed at West Canada Creek in 1781.

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