Johnson, William

Variant last names: Johnston; Jonson
Other namesFirst Baronet of New York; Sir; Major General; Superintendent of Indian Affairs
Birth: 1715 in Smithstown, County Meath, Ireland
Death: July 11, 1774 in Johnson Hall, NY
Affiliation:

Mohawk; British Army; Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

Faith:

Anglican with a Catholic background

Nationality:

Irish

Occupation:

British Superintendent for Indian Affairs

Residence:

Johnson Hall, NY (from 1738 to 1774-07-11)

Marital status:

Sir William Johnson had two common law marriages. His first was to Catherine Weissenberg, a run-away indentured servant from New York City. Their relationship lasted from 1739 until her death in 1759. Their son, John Johnson, was knighted and became influential in Canadian politics after the American Revolution. His second was to Molly Brant, a powerful Mohawk woman. They had at least eight children and one of their sons, known as William Major, briefly attended Moor's (he and Ralph Wheelock had a fight over whose father was more important). Other relevant family members include Joseph Brant, Guy Johnson, and Daniel Claus. Joseph Brant, his brother in law via Molly Brant, became a famous Mohawk war chief. Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus were Johnson's sons-in-law. Guy Johnson inherited his job as superintendent, while Daniel Claus had a brief career in Britain's Indian department (both died while in Britain trying to recoup losses from the Revolution in 1788 and 1787 respectively).

Biography:

Sir William Johnson was a powerful British colonial official who amassed wealth and influence by integrating into the Mohawk tribe. For a brief window of time (1761-1768), he provided support for Wheelock’s missionary efforts among the Six Nations. He also helped the Brothertown Nation of Indians procure land from the Oneidas. Johnson was born in Ireland in 1715. His family had been part of the Catholic elite, but after William of Orange’s 1690 victory at the Battle of the Boyne, they at least nominally converted to the Episcopalian Church. In 1738, Johnson emigrated to America to manage his uncle Peter Warren’s estate in Mohawk territory. Over the next decade, Johnson became wealthy in his own right through trade and land sales, acquiring a vast estate crowned by his manor house, Johnson Hall, which became the central location for British and Indian treaty making. In 1745, Johnson began collecting official British titles and positions. He played an important military role in the French and Indian War and was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1756 and first baronet of New York in 1757. Much of Johnson’s success was due to his influence among the Mohawks, which he obtained by learning their language and customs and integrating himself into their society. He participated in Mohawk rituals and entered into a common-law marriage with a powerful Mohawk woman, Molly Brant (also called Mary Brant). Because Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) society is matrilineal, this marriage was an essential element of his participation in Indian affairs. Wheelock desperately wanted to wield missionary influence among the Six Nations, and sought to obtain Johnson as an ally in his endeavors. At first, the two found grounds for cooperation. Wheelock sent Occom as a missionary to the Oneidas in 1761 and again in 1762, and sent a substantially larger group of missionaries and schoolmasters in 1765, 1766, and 1767. Johnson, meanwhile, encouraged Haudenosaunee children, including his brother-in-law Joseph Brant, to attend Moor’s. Johnson’s support proved indispensible to missionaries in the field; he helped with supplies, language skills, and relations with the Mohawks and Oneidas. Wheelock also valued Johnson for his influence in Britain, and drew on him for recommendations and public statements of support numerous times. From 1763 on, however, Johnson found himself decidedly uncomfortable with Wheelock’s missionary efforts, and by 1769, their relationship had dissolved completely. In 1766, Johnson was invited to join the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the largest and most influential Anglican missionary society in the 18th-century British-Atlantic world. He began working to place Anglican missionaries, rather than Congregationalist and Presbyterian ones, among the Six Nations, which alarmed Wheelock. Johnson was generally supportive of Native American tribes’ efforts to maintain their land and sovereignty. As the historian Linford Fisher has noted, “virtually every major Native group in southeastern New England successfully petitioned Johnson to act on their behalf during the late 1760s and early 1770s.” Among these groups was the Brothertown Nation, a Christian composite tribe formed by Southern New England Algonquian Moor’s alumni. Johnson helped them negotiate with the Oneidas, which proved essential to their successful land purchase and relocation to central New York.

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Sources:

Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1997. Calloway, Colin. The Indian History of an American Institution. Dartmouth College Press 2010. Chase, Frederick. A history of Dartmouth College and the Town of Hanover, New Hampshire. 1891. Fintan O'Toole. White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America. New York: Macmillan 2005. Accessed via GoogleBooks. Fisher, Linford. The Indian Great Awakening: Religion and the Shaping of Native Cultures in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press 2012. Gwyn, Julian. "Johnson, Sir William." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. Accessed 12/6/2013. McCallum, James. The Letters of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indians. Dartmouth College Press 1932. Rossie, Jonathan G. "Johnson, Guy." In Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, vol. 4. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003. Accessed 12/9/13.