History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Forts & Firesides of the Mohawk Country
by John J. Vrooman, 1951
Published by Baronet Litho Co., Inc., Johnstown, NY
FORT JOHNSON AT FORT JOHNSON
<- The Drawing Room at Fort Johnson.
THIS BUILDING, just west of Amsterdam, as well as Johnson Hall at Johnstown, which was the later residence of Sir William Johnson, are perhaps the two most interesting pre-Revolutionary residences in the Mohawk Valley. Here, at Fort Johnson, Sir William lived some fourteen years from 1749 to 1763, when he removed to his newly completed home at Johnstown.
Of the two, Fort Johnson is perhaps the more interesting. It is earlier and its construction evidences the fact. It was the home of a man whose star was in its ascendancy. Before he left this home he personally controlled the Indian population inhabiting the eastern section of the continental forest, which formed the hazy boundary of Colonial America.
Sir William built his house strongly, of fieldstone, to serve as a fortress in the wilderness. It is of two stories, surmounted by an attic, and was covered by a lead roof which the Colonists removed and molded into bullets after confiscating the estate at the outbreak of the Revolution. Its simple rectangular dimensions are 64 feet by 34 feet with a hall through the center. To the right, on entering, is the oak staircase leading to the second floor. Much of the wood work and paneling on the first floor is of black walnut now painted white, while that on the second floor is of cherry, some painted and some left in the natural color of the wood. On each side of the halls of both floors are equal rooms to right and left, warmed by simple fireplaces. To the rear of these rooms are long narrow rooms on either side, the arrangement being the same on both floors. These smaller rooms, hardly more than halls, were no doubt used as living quarters for the family.
On the ground floor at the left is what probably served as a reception room. To the right was the dining room. Together with the broad hall which separates them they form a perfect suite and must have been an admirable setting for the affairs, both formal and informal, for which Sir William was noted. A basement, divided into two rooms by a heavy stone wall, underlies the entire house. Here, no doubt, was storage for food and drink. Entrance to it is by a very steep stairway at the rear of the hall. There was also an outside cellarway.The exterior, as it faces southerly along the highway, is impressive in its simplicity and is immediately recognized by anyone as a building of significance. The unique triangular placement of its three dormer windows, the massive appearance of its obviously heavy stone walls and the beautifully proportioned portico all command immediate attention. The heavily paneled shutters were made to cover and protect its equally spaced windows.
Following Sir William's departure, the home was occupied by his son, Sir John, until Sir William's death in 1774, at which time Sir John moved to the more recently completed house known as Johnson Hall, where his father had died.
Then came the Revolution and with it the confiscation of Tory estates. Aaron Burr visited Fort Johnson soon after his marriage in 1782 with an idea of purchasing it. His description of the property, in a letter to his wife, is interesting; the conclusion, reached in his last sentence, is because she had vetoed the idea:
"I should have told you that I am speaking of Fort Johnson where I have spent the day. From this amiable bower you ascend a gentle declivity by a winding path to a cluster of lofty oaks and locusts. Here Naturc assumes a more august appearance. The gentle brook which murmurs soft below, here bursts into a cataract. Here you behold the stately Mohawk roll its majestic wave along the lofty Appalachians. Here the mind assumes a nobler tone and is occupied by sublimer objects. What there was of tenderness here swells to rapture. It is trulv charming....In short then, my Theo, the beauty of this same Fort Johnson, the fertility of the soil, the commodiousness and elegance of the buildings, the great value of the inills, and the very unconsiderable price -which -was asked for the whole have not induced me to purchase it and never will."
The old fort has had many owners but is now occupied by the Montgomery County Historical Society as a period house, open to the public. It was purchased and presented to the Society by Brigadier-General John Watts DePeyster, a lineal descendant of Major Stephen Watts, a brother-in-law of Sir John Johnson. Its furnishings are in taste and of the period, some of them having been the property of the Johnson family.
The weathering of two centuries and perhaps the "heap o' living" the old house has known has permeated it with an atmosphere which must be felt by anyone in tune with its storied past.
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