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
SIR WILLIAM JOHNSON, AMSTERDAM
Volumes have been written about this man and more will be written. What follows here serves only to introduce to you Sir William Johnson of Fort Johnson.
William Johnson, born in Ireland in 1715, came to America in 1738 when but a lad of 23 years old to manage an estate of some several thousand acres that had come into the possession of his uncle, Admiral Peter Warren of the Royal Navy. This land lay along the south bank of the Mohawk in the town of Florida, opposite the present Amsterdam. Here he made his first home at what was called Warren's Bush or Johnson's Settlement. Sir Peter Warren was a brother-in-law of Oliver De Lancy, an important man of his time, and it was largely through his aid that Admiral Peter came into possession of this enormous grant of some 16,000 acres.
To understand young William's immediate success in this undertaking it is necessary to understand the man. It is said he was sent to America to break up an attachment he had already formed for a sweet Irish lass. But if this be so, it was not long before she was well out of his mind, or at least comfortably stowed away at the back of it. Honest and fair dealings won him the immediate friendship of all with whom he had transactions and especially so with the Indians, who were so often the victims of crafty traders. The Mohawks said of him after long acquaintance: "He never deceived us." He was most democratic in his manner of living. This side of his nature perhaps paid him bigger dividends in the way of material gain than any other trait he possessed.
His intimacies with the squaws and daughters of the chiefs and for which he has been so severely criticized was simply the continuance of an old custom the Indians granted any distinguished guest among them - the visitor's choice of squaw or maiden. Sir William had a rich scarlet blanket bound with gold lace. This he wore when transacting business with the Indians; and being a partial adoption of their own style of dress, it flattered and pleased them very much. To his intimates he often boasted of the scenes to which that blanket had been a silent witness. The fact that he was able to live among them, speak their language, paint, dress, and dance their dances, play their games, hunt and fish with them, gained for him a power over them that was never equalled by any other white man.
And if Johnson lived with the Indians, it is equally certain they lived with him! His later houses were filled to overflowing with the Indians; and throughout his long and active career we find Johnson mentioning this fact in his correspondence and complaining that his entertainment of the Indians was a heavy burden on his private purse. He was continually receiving supplies from the Governor to be used as gifts to the Indians, to "keep the peace chain bright," for he was soon appointed Superintendent in charge of Indian affairs for the Crown.
He lived at Warren's Bush some five years and succeeded in disposing of about two-thirds of his uncle's land. About 1740 he bought a large tract of land himself, on the north side of the river - extending westerly from present Amsterdam.
Johnson's first "wife" was a young German immigrant named Catherine Welsenberg, a Palatine orphan, who made the passage binding herself to the captain of the vessel for a term sufficient to pay this indebtedness, which was then a common custom. The captain would assist the immigrant to find a position, and the employer reimbursed the captain for the immigrant's passage in lieu of wages until the debt had been paid.
In this case Catherine secured a position with a Mr. Phillips, two miles east of Johnson's home. Here Johnson met the girl, bought her for 5 pounds and took her to his home. From this union there were three children, Anne, John and Mary, all baptized in the Fort Hunter Chapel in the name of Welsenberg, and no mention made of Sir William's name then, nor subsequently, nor was the marriage recorded in any church record, though it is said he married Catherine on her deathbed. Her first two children, John (later Sir John), and Anne (commonly called Nancy and later Col. Claus' wife) were born on the south side of the river. Nothing remains of this house and little or nothing is known of the manner of its construction though the site is marked. Mary, the second daughter, became the wife of her cousin, Guy Johnson.
Mount Johnson, Sir William's first house north of the river, was on his own property. It was a stone house, built about 1742, and stood a mile east of the present Fort Johnson, which he built in 1749 on the west bank of that tumbling little stream, Kayderosseras Creek.
Catherine Weisenberg died at Fort Johnson about 1749 and was buried in the garden, so the legend goes. A more recent addition to the story is to the effect that a subsequent owner of the property, searching for her grave, raised a stone now used as a door-step at the south entrance of the house. This stone, still there, is identical with others brought to this vicinity as tombstones. It is cut in a similar shape, about four feet by six, its top edges rounded; in fact it lacks nothing but the inscription, which leads one to believe that this was quite possibly the tombstone of Catherine Weisenberg, removed from an earlier location to serve another purpose.
It was at Mount Johnson that Sir William and Catherine lived while Fort Johnson was being built. It was something of a tragedy that Catherine died at so early an age after a life that must have held much of downright hard toll through Sir William's lean years and was not permitted to share with him the later years which brought his greater glories. Of all Sir William's children by his several wives, hers were of greatest prominence in later life, yet she knew them only as infants.
Caroline Hendrick, a daughter of the Mohawk Chief Abraham and a niece of King Hendrick, was Sir William's next choice to share his home. She bore him three children and died about 1752.
His third "wife" was Molly Brant, daughter of the widow Brant by a former husband. Both Molly and her famous brother, Joseph, were children of their mother's first marriage to a fullblooded Mohawk Chief of the Wolf tribe, and were grandchildren of one of the Mohawk chieftains taken to the Court of London in 1710 by Colonel Schuyler of Albany. Molly, "Miss Molly" or the "Brown Lady Johnson" as she is known to history, came to Fort Johnson about 1753. She bore Sir William eight children who survived and are mentioned in Sir William's will. After his death Molly moved to the Canajoharie Castle, which had been the home of her people. At the time of the Revolution she fled to Canada, following her people of the Mohawk nation.
Sir William, a Colonel in 1754, attended a military conference held in Albany in June in the hope of uniting the efforts of the colonists against the French who dominated the land west of the Alleghenies. The Six Nations were also in attendance and its terms were made satisfactory to them. King Hendrick, chief sachem of the Mohawks, was present and his speech has been preserved. He urged speedy action to fortify the outlying settlements, and in his speech can be seen the friendship and esteem in which Colonel Johnson was held by his Indian neighbors.
In closing his speech he flayed the English for their lack of energy and accomplishment. Said he:
<-Front door at Fort Johnson.
Colonel William Johnson became "Sir William" following the victorious Battle of Lake George in 1755, in recognition of his distinguished services. In this same year, at a congress of governors at Alexandria, General Braddock urged and secured the appointment of Colonel William Johnson as Superintendent of Indian affairs. Braddock immediately advanced Johnson 2,000 pounds to pursue the work. Johnson was in attendance at the meeting. To live in a style befitting a titled gentleman, he built Johnson Hall at Johnstown in 1762 and here he died.
Sir William was public-spirited, open-handed and co-operative in promoting any worthy project, and in his official capacity was an outstanding success, particularly so in his commanding influence over the Indians. As a military leader he was successful at the Battle of Lake George, at the capture of Fort Niagara, and again at the capture of Montreal.
With masterly strategy and diplomacy Sir William brought about peace with Pontiac at Oswego, averting what would have been a far-flung Indian uprising with its fearful consequences to the English. This peace treaty is the highlight of his control over the Indians.
His death was dramatic in its suddenness. He had been in council with the Indians in spite of illness; the day had been hot (it was July 11th, 1774). But the situation would bear no delay; 600 Indians were gathered at the Hall. After two hours of most emphatic speaking, he was seized with spasms of pain and was carried indoors. He died two hours later, "of a suffocation," wrote Guy Johnson, though the report of the Council at Albany called it "a fit of some kind." His physician diagnosed it as a "stoppage of the gall-duct." His last words were to Joseph Brant, "Joseph, control thy people, I am going away."
He was buried, at his own request, beneath the altar of the stone church at Johnstown which he had erected in 1771. The body was placed in a mahogany casket, all being within a lead container. A fire destroyed the church in 1836, and as the place of burial was outside the well of the new church, for a time the grave was lost. It was finally discovered and within the decayed casket were some remains and a gold ring inscribed "Jun 1739-16," the significance of which is still unexplained. This ring is now a treasured possession at Johnson Hall. The remains were reinterred just south fo the present Church, the grave being marked by simple stones.
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