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
JOHNSON HALL, JOHNSTOWN
< Johnson Hall, Johnstown
MANY reasons have been given in explanation of why Sir William Johnson built a home in this location, which at the time was a wilderness. Some say because here was the intersection of six Indian trails and therefore a future crossroads and a logical place for a settlement. And no doubt Sir William did consider this when planning the erection of his new estate. Others say the principal reason was to live more centrally within the bounds of his enormous land holdings. All agree he wanted a home of greater elegance than he contemplated when he built Fort Johnson. It was to be more in keeping with his position of advanced importance and a suitable place in which to entertain the socially and politically great of both the Old World and the New. No doubt these were factors, but another reason must have been a desire to live apart from his son John. Not that there was undue friction between them, but it was certain that John would marry and naturally Sir William hoped he would marry "well." And how satisfactorily John's wife would adapt herself to Sir William's mode of living must have been a moot question.
Johnson Hall, finished in 1762, is a frame structure, its plank siding marked off to imitate stone blocks. In 1763 there was an Indian uprising under Chief Pontiac, the powerful leader of the more western tribes not so completely under Sir William's control. Therefore the two stone blockhouses were built (separate buildings) spaced perhaps twenty feet from the Hall which stood equidistant between them. One of these blockhouses remains today, the only original structure of its kind in the Valley.
<- Blockhouse located on the property.
The buildings face an open, shaded lawn which slopes away to the north and east. On the front lawn is a circle of lilacs said to be from the original strain planted by Sir William himself. Within this circle and on this expansive lawn which surrounds the house were held the Indian councils. Here the Indians came and camped, actually by the thousands, debating important questions which Sir William was called upon to settle. These were often the old grievances of land grabbing, unfair dealings, boundary treaties and questions of loyalty and allegiance to the English Crown.
Other small buildings across a small creek housed some fifteen slaves who worked the land. There were also a personal physiclan, a butler, a surveyor and a musician or two.
The house is colonial in its lines, with a sloping roof facing each of its four sides. A hall, fifteen feet wide, runs directly through the building with a Palladian window over the stair landing. Its lines are decidedly less the fortified home and more the elaborate country seat of an important gentleman. At the time he built, Sir William was apparently but little concerned with the safety of his exposed frontier establishment. He felt assured of his control over the Six Nations; the French had been defeated, so all seemed peaceful. The later uprising under Pontiac was a direct result of injudicious (to use a word far too mild) treatment of the western Indians by the English, who committed grievous mistakes in their dealings with them. As was so often the case, it was a sort of behavior not at all in accord with Sir William's policies, though he was called upon to settle such disputes. It was because of this unforeseen danger that Sir William built his blockhouses. The fact that he built them proved the seriousness of the situation as he saw it. Yet even here he might have spared himself the expense. His almost unbelievable influence over the Six Nations, coupled with his personal appeal to Pontiac at Oswego, was sufficient to accomplish a peace which all feared could be reached only by defeating the Indians in another bloody frontier war.
On either side of the Hall as one enters are large rooms. On the right, at the rear, was Sir William's library, the room in which he died after a dramatic and exhausting speech made with great physical effort. In front of this room is the dining-room. An inconspicuous stairway leads to the kitchen directly below. The rooms on the left are drawing room and bedroom. The hall, as well as the rooms, is paneled. A large and dignified stairway with landing leads to the second floor.
<- Stairway, Johnson Hall.
The rear rooms on the second floor are bedrooms. One of the front rooms was used as the Masonic Lodge, of which Sir William was first Master. Opposite is another large room which legend has termed the "council room."
Leading from the hall to the attic is a narrow stairway. This attic is a large open space which often accommodated members of the family when the four second floor rooms were filled. The basement has been so entirely renovated as to destroy illusion of age. There was an inside well here to insure an any adequate water supply, so the story goes, but all signs of it have disappeared. The space was devoted to a kitchen, wine and storage cellars, and a servants' hall.
The property was purchased by the State of New York in 1907, when the house was repaired and the exterior restored. It is now open to the public as a museum composed of a collection of local memorabilia, among which are many items once the property of members of the Johnson family.
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