A Catskill Catalog: July 3, 2012

A pleasant summer day trip is the drive north on Routes 30 and 30A to Johnson Hall, in Johnstown in the Mohawk Valley. It’s also a great way to celebrate American independence around the Fourth of July.

See, the proprietors of Johnson Hall remained loyal to the king. Their experience might help us understand just how difficult it was for those who staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor choosing the American side.

Johnson Hall was the third and final home of Sir William Johnson, one of British North America’s most prominent men, not just in New York, but also in all the American colonies. William Johnson died two years before the Declaration of Independence, thus sparing him the choice he would have clearly made, the choice his son and heir, John Johnson, did make, to remain loyal to King George III.

Sir William was a remarkable guy. He and his family may not be patriotic icons, but if you are looking for a European colonial who treated the Indians right, Sir William Johnson is your man.
He was born in Ireland in 1715, came to America at the age of 23 to supervise lands his uncle, Admiral Peter Warren, hoped to develop in America.

The lands were in Mohawk country, home of the Iroquois Nation’s Keepers of the Eastern Door. Young Bill Johnson first settled in Schenectady, taking up his duties as agent of an absentee landlord.

Intelligent, adaptive, and ambitious, he gave up his Catholic faith for the colony’s established Anglican Church, and, within two years of his arrival, mastered the Mohawk language.
And he started trading with the natives. Furs were the riches he was after, and he developed business relationships with the Mohawks that soon became friendships. William Johnson adopted Mohawk customs in manners and dress, made fair exchanges of Indian-prized manufactured goods for the furs his native associates brought him, made deals that increased both his prosperity and that of the Mohawk people. (Okay, he may have plied his customers with a bit of alcohol, to which they had little tolerance, but what’s a little manipulation among friends?)

In 1739, he built Mount Johnson, near present-day Amsterdam, and hired Catherine Weisenberg as a his housekeeper. He and Catherine had three children, Ann, John, and Mary, whom they raised there. (Even heroes of Indian affairs aren’t perfect.)

Ten years later, the Johnsons moved again, building Fort Johnson,
a couple miles west of Mount Johnson. There Catherine died. The historic limestone house still stands, but Hurricane Irene did a number on the place, as it did on us, and Fort Johnson is now closed for extensive repairs.

Johnson Hall is very much open for visitors. When William Johnson built that house in 1763, he was a hero of the French and Indian War, a Major General in the King’s colonial militia, and a Baronet of the British nobility, entitled to the title Sir. There, he set up housekeeping with Molly Brant, sister of the famed Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, with whom he raised eight children.
Sir William treated all his children, British colonial and Mohawk native, the same.

From 1756 until his death in 1774, Sir William Johnson was Superintendent of Indian Affairs for all of British North America, form Canada to the Carolinas, from the Atlantic coast to the western frontier. When it came to dealing with native people, our neighbor was the most important man in America.

It was on the frontier that he lived, so when, in 1765, the King’s government passed the Stamp Act, so intolerable to the patriots of Boston and Philadelphia, Sir William supported it. Why, we ask. The Stamp Act, and other taxes imposed on the colonials from across the sea, were designed to raise revenue for protection of the frontier. Of course, the frontier Baronet would support it. To him, and others living on the edge of settlement, raising such revenue to provide military protection made sense.

Sir William suffered a stroke on a hot July 11th, while conducting one of the many mass meetings native people regularly attended at Johnson Hall. He died that day. His son, John, concluded the meeting and took over his father’s vast holdings, something like 50,000 acres of colonial New York. When the colonies declared their independence, John Johnson did what his father would have done: remained loyal both to the King and to the Mohawks who sided with the crown, fighting patriots on the frontier ferociously.

Had the Brits won, the homes and landholdings of Thomas Jefferson and Robert Livingston and the other founders would have been confiscated by a victorious redcoat army. But we won, Americans now. Losing Loyalists lost everything they had. Johnson Hall was overrun by victorious New Yorkers, who rampaged through the place taking everything not nailed down. The Johnsons fled to Canada.
On the Fourth of July, we celebrate and honor those who risked all for freedom.

Perhaps, we should pause, today, to remember that independence was a hard choice, that a lot of thoughtful people chose otherwise for what they saw as very good reason, that among those who made choices that put his family on the wrong side of history was one of the most remarkable men of his age, Sir William Johnson, friend of the Iroquois, pioneer maker of upstate New York.

Happy Fourth!
billbirns@gmail.com