William Johnson, 1st Baronet

William Johnson, 1st Baronet

Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet (1715 – 11 July 1774), founder of Johnstown, New York, was an Irish pioneer and army officer in colonial New York, and the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1755 to 1774. He served on the Governor's Council in New York, earned the rank of Major General in the British forces during the French and Indian War. Sir William was a man of many accomplishments, and ultimately his estate in the Mohawk River Valley covered over 400,000 acres (1,600 km²).

Irish Origins

William Johnson was born to Christopher Johnson - son of William MacShane and great, great grandson of Sir Turlough mac Henry Ó Néill - in County Meath, Ireland in 1715. The family was originally the O'Neills of the Fews in Armagh and thus a branch of the Uí Néill, but had been dispossessed by the Irish Confederate Wars and the Williamite war in Ireland. William's father was originally known as William MacShane (Ó Néill) but changed his name to the English version of MacShane: Johnson. [O'Toole, 19.]

Early Years in America

William Johnson is thought to have originally planned a mercantile or legal career, but in 1738 he emigrated to America to manage and settle a large tract of land granted to his uncle, Admiral Sir Peter Warren. This area was known as Warrensburg. [O'Toole, 43.] On June 30, 1739 Johnson bought a tract of land in his own name, 1/4 mile long and one mile deep for £180 on the north side of the Mohawk, a house and small farm and later built a stone mansion which he referred to as 'Mount Johnson'. [Flexner, 22.] After the outbreak of the French and Indian War, 'Mount Johnson' became known as 'Fort Johnson', a defence post in which Johnson added two blockhouses by the 1750s. [O'Toole, 110.]

The local Indians were the eastern most tribe of the Iroquois, the Mohawks. When Johnson arrived their population had collapsed to only 580.Fact|date=December 2007 He learned from and lived with them; they adopted him and made him an honorary sachem (civil chief) around 1742. Eventually, he became a trader and supplied the traders going to Fort Oswego with their goods and he bought from the traders their furs when they came back down river.Fact|date=December 2007 He dealt directly with New York City cutting out the previous middlemen at Albany.

War broke out with the French in 1744 (King George's War). In November, 1745 a force of 600 French and Indians destroyed Saratoga and took one hundred prisoners. In 1746, Johnson was appointed "Colonel of the Warriors of the Six Nations" to enlist and equip as many whites and Indians for a campaign against the French. The Iroquois had maintained a policy of neutrality in this war until Johnson's appointment when they decided to enter the war in a limited manner on the side of the British. Johnson organized small Iroquois raiding parties which engaged in "scalping & burning them & their settlements". Johnson paid bounties for scalps and he was aware this would result in the scalping of non-combatants of all ages and both sexes. He set the bounty for children at half the rate of adults. In June, 1748 Johnson was made "Colonel of the New York levies" giving him the additional responsibility for the colonial militias at Albany. In July, 1748 word was received of a peace settlement.

In 1750 he was appointed to the Province of New York Governor's Council. In 1751, at his Uncle Peter Warren's urging and because his bills had not been paid he resigned as Indian commissioner.Peter Warren died in July, 1752. In his will he left nothing to Johnson and also stated that Johnson was to repay the debts he had incurred while managing Warren's estates.


Some of Sir William Johnson's descendants argue that William truly endorsed the bounty and scalping of children and that he was not an actual slave holder. According to Sir William Johnson's Last Will and Testament, he does refer to slaves and servants, providing his children and Molly Brant to inherit his slaves and servants. One translation is provided at the following reference. [ [http://www.threerivershms.com/simmswillswj.htm Frontiersmen of New York, Will of Sir William Johnson ] ]

In addition, Fintan O'Toole and other historians have accounted for his slave ownership. [O'Toole, 291]

French and Indian War

In April, 1755 Commander-in-chief General Braddock appointed Johnson Superintendent of Indian Affairs and also commissioned Johnson a major general in the provincial army. Braddock tasked him to lead militia forces against Crown Point. In September, his expedition defeated Baron Dieskau at the Battle of Lake George. Johnson captured the wounded Dieskau. Johnson was wounded in the hip by a ball which was to remain in his hip for the rest of his life. [Flexner, 124.]

In October, he built Fort William Henry.

In 1755, he re-established the Covenant Chain with the Iroquois.

In December he resigned his commission as Major General and Governor William Shirley recommended that he be removed from his position as superintendent of the Indians. In November, King George in recognition of this victory awarded Johnson £5,000 and made him a baronet. In January, 1756 William Shirley was replaced as commander-in-chief, and Johnson was made Sole Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies answering directly to the government in London. His principal deputies in his work with the Indians were Guy Johnson, George Croghan, and Daniel Claus. [Flexner, 160.]

In August 1757, when the French started their siege of Fort William Henry, Johnson arrived at Fort Edward with 180 Indians and 1,500 militia. General Daniel Webb overestimated the size of the French force did not send a relief force from Fort Edward and Fort William Henry surrendered.

In 1758, he was part of General Abercrombie's failed attempt at the Battle of Carillon to take Fort Ticonderoga.

Johnson led a Six Nations and militia force as part of General John Prideaux's Battle of Fort Niagara in the summer of 1759. When Prideaux was killed, Johnson took command of the force and captured the fort. The conquest of Niagara drove the French line back from the Great lakes, and Sir Johnson is given the credit for bringing security to the area. [Flexner, 215.]

He accompanied General Amherst at the capture of Montreal in 1760.

After the war, King George rewarded him with the grant of an additional tract of 100,000 acres (400 km²) north of the Mohawk River. As a reward for his services, he was granted additional tracts of land in what is now Hamilton and Fulton counties.

After War Years

In 1762, he founded the city of Johnstown about 25 miles west of Schenectady, New York where he established a free school attended by both English and Indian children. The city, originally called John's Town, was named by Johnson for his son, John. [Decker, p. 27.] Here he built in 1763 Johnson Hall where he lived until his death. He acquired a large number of Irish tenants for his lands. Most of the work on his estate was done by slaves. While embracing friendships and political alliances with the local Mohawks, Sir William Johnson owned many slaves. He became one of the largest slave owners in Northern New York State. “His own farming was done by ten of fifteen slaves under an overseer named Flood.” [F.W. Beers & Co., 188.] Although free blacks also lived in the area, Johnson was an 'enthusiastic slaveholder'. [O'Toole, 291.]

He was a proponent of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which forbade colonists west of the Appalachian Mountains. The details of the boundary were negotiated by Johnson in the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768. Against instructions from London, Johnson pushed the boundary 400 miles to the west.

In 1764 at the end of Pontiac's War, Johnson, "by virtue of the powers and authority to him given by his Majesty" the king of England, signed a friendship and peace treaty with four delegates representing the Hurons of Detroit. ["Document Doubles" in [http://www.collectionscanada.ca/forgery/002035-500-e.html Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery] , a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada ] Pontiac's War strengthened the position of Johnson because it became apparent that a policy of compromise was required with the Indians and this was Johnson's domain.

In 1766, Johnson formed a Freemason lodge at Johnson Hall with himself as the master. Sir William Johnson took the past master’s degree in 1766. Soon after he designated a lodge-room at Johnson Hall, and later St. Patrick’s Lodge, No. 4 was granted from the Provincial Grand Master of New York, dated May 23, 1766 with Sir William Johnson as master. [F.W. Beers & Co., 197.]

In 1771 he built St. John’s Episcopal Church but according to Johnson, it was “small and very ill built”. Within five years, a larger church made of stone was erected to accommodate the growing congregation. [Flexner, 301.] In 1772, Johnson built the existing county courthouse and jail. The bricks were imported from England by boat to Albany and then carried north by wagon. [F.W. Beers & Co., 191.]

In 1772, Johnstown became the county seat of Tryon County when Johnson convinced William Tryon, the British Governor of New York, to separate the western portion of the state from Albany County making Johnstown and the surrounding area a separate county named for Governor Tryon. [Decker, p. 27.]

In September, 1773 a party of 425 lead by the McDonnell's left the west of Scotland to become tenants on Johnson's land.

Having begun as an Indian trader, Johnson soon became one of New York's most prosperous and influential citizens. His business interests came to include various enterprises including a lumber business and a flour mill. In acknowledgment of Johnson's successful business endeavours, the local Native American inhabitants dubbed him "Warragghivagey," or "he who does much business." [Decker, p. 29] Johnson's businesses, perhaps most particularly his lumber operations, benefited from slavery, which was then legal in New York State. As the largest slaveholder in the county and perhaps in the state of New York, he had some sixty slaves working for him. [Williams-Myers, p. 24; 29-30] By the time of his death he had accumulated 170,000 acres and was the second largest land owner in British North America after the Penn family.

Entertainment at “The Hall” included 'Sport Days' in which local residents gathered on the Johnson’s manor and competed in sports such as boxing and foot racing. Other games included horse races with riders facing backwards, climbing a greased pole, and sing the worst song. [F.W. Beers & Co., 189.]


William Johnson died from a stroke at his home in Johnstown on July 11, 1774 during an Indian conference. Guy Johnson reported Johnson died when he was "seized of a suffocation". His funeral was attended by 2,000 people. His coffin was carried by William Franklin, Governor of New Jersey, and the justices of the supreme court. He was buried beneath the altar in St. John's Anglican church, the church he founded in Johnstown. The next day the chiefs of the Six Nations performed their own memorial service.

His role as Superintendent of Indian Affairs was taken over by his nephew (and son-in-law) Guy Johnson.

All of Johnson's lands and property were seized during the American Revolution by the rebel New York legislature. His manor house, Johnson Hall, was subsequently acquired by Silas Talbot who commanded USS Constitution, or "Old Ironsides." [ [http://www.mysticseaport.org/library/manuscripts/coll/coll018/coll018.cfm#head63744416 Mystic Seaport: biography of Silas Talbot] ]

His intimates and their children

Many of these relationships were maintained concurrently.

In June 1739, William began a relationship with an immigrant of German Palatine extraction, Catherine Weisenberg (1723 – April, 1759). She originally came to America as an indentured servant, but had run away, apparently with the help of relatives, and became a servant to a family called Phillips. William purchased her contract, and the couple had three children before her death. Their son John Johnson, inherited his father's title and estates. [Pound, 48.]

Before Catherine's death, he had already begun a similarly unmarried relationship with Elizabeth Brant, by whom he had three children, Keghneghtago or Brant, born in 1742, Thomas and Christian, born in 1744 and 1745 — both of whom died in infancy.

About 1750, he had a son called Tagawirunta or William by a Mohawk woman, possibly Elizabeth Brant's younger sister, Margaret.

In 1759, Molly Brant, sister of Joseph Brant moved into Johnson Hall and became his common-law wife with whom he had eight children. In Johnson’s last will and testament, he acknowledged “Mary” (Molly) Brant and their natural children. They are: Peter, Elizabeth, Magdalene, Margaret, George, Mary, Susannah, and Anne. [Pound, 489]

By Caroline Peters, niece of King Hendrick, he had about three.

Johnson is also known to have been intimate with the sisters Susannah and Elizabeth Wormwood (daughters of Henry Wormwood), an Irish woman called Mary McGrath (by whom he appears to have had a daughter, Mary), and several other Mohawk women.


His manor house named Johnson Hall in Johnstown, New York was named a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and is now a New York State Historic site, open to the public.



* [http://www.clanmcshane.org/history.html Clan McShane]
* [http://www.thepeerage.com/p9454.htm The Peerage]
* [http://www.collectionscanada.ca/forgery/002035-500-e.html "Detecting the Truth: Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery"] , virtual exhibit, Library and Archives Canada
* Decker, Lewis G., "Images of America: Johnstown". Charlestown, SC: Arcadia Publishing (an imprint of Tempus Publishing, Inc.), 1999. ISBN 0-7385-0174-3.
*O'Toole, Fintan, "White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America"; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. ISBN 0-374-28128-9.
* Williams-Myers, A.J. "Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century". Africa World Press, Inc.; Trenton, NJ. 1994. ISBN 0-86543-303-8.
* Flexner, J. T. (1979). "Mohawk baronet. A biography of Sir William Johnson". Syracuse, NY: University of Syracuse.ISBN 0-8156-0239-1.
* "Illustrated history of Montgomery and Fulton Counties, N.Y." (1981). New York: F.W. Beers & Co. (Original work published 1878).
* Pound, A. (1930). "Johnson of the Mohawks". New York: The Macmillan Company.

External links

* [http://www.nysparks.state.ny.us/sites/info.asp?siteID=17 Johnson Hall historic site]
* [http://www.johnstown.com/city/johnson.html Johnstown's memorial page]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyherkim/johnson/Contents.html W. Max Reid, "The Story of Old Fort Johnson", 1906]
* [http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=1974 Biography at the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online"]
* [http://www.oldfortjohnson.org "Fort Johnson Historic Landmark"]
* [http://www.buffalonian.com/history/articles/%3C1800/whitebjoe.html First White Settlement and Black Joe article of William Johnston {William of Canajohrie?} died 1807 Buffalo NY age 65 - for reference only]
* [http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8514866 William Johnson on Find-A-Grave]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyfulton/index.html Fulton County GenWeb]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~nyherkim/ Herkimer and Montgomery County GenWeb]
* [http://threerivershms.com/ Three Rivers]
* [http://purl.org/net/nysl/nysdocs/423659 Papers of Sir William Johnson] A 14-volume set digitized from previously printed transcripts of materials in the New York State Library's collection of Johnson's papers.

Family Tree

Aodh (Hugh) O Neill, fl. 1505, younger son of King of Tir Eoghan; 1st O Neill of the Fews.
Henry mac Aodh O Neill
Sir Turlough mac Henry O Neill, fl. 1593-1602.
Sir Henry mac Turlough O Neill of the Fews, alive 1641.
Shane/John O Neill of the Fews
Tomas mac Shane O Neill, fl. 1648
William MacShane (O Neill)
Christopher Johnson (MacShane) of Smithstown, Dunshaughlin, Co. Meath, 1684-1763. =Anne Warren
| | |
John Warren Anne Catherine

Guy Johnson, c.1740-88.
Sir William +Catherine +Elizabeth +Margaret +Mary +Molly Brant +Caroline{16)
| | | |
Ann (1) Keghneghtago(4) Tagawirunta Mary Peter (7) William(15) John (2) Thomas (5) (6) Elizabeth(8) daughter Mary (3) Christian Magdelene(9) daughter Margaret (10) George (11) Mary (12) Susanna(13) Anne (14) Note 1: aka Nancy married to Daniel Claus Note 2: See Johnson Baronets of New York Note 3: Married to Guy Johnson Note 7: Died 1777 near Philadelphia while serving with 26th Regiment of Foot [http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?Biold=36113&Query=Brant] Note 8: Married Dr Robert Kerr. Their son William Johnson Kerr married to Elizabeth the daughter of Chief Joseph Brandt and granddaughter of New York trader George Croghan. Note 11: Tekahiowake, aka George Jacob Johnson, 1758-1843; father of Smoke Johnson; Smoke Johnson grandfather of poet Pauline Johnson Note 15: William of Canajoharie-died 1807? {see reference above} Note 16: Niece of King Hendrick


* Allegedely a Johnson relation by marriage was Captain Philip Skene of the British Army and founder of Whitehall (village), New York.Fact|date=February 2007

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