No Frontier Partisan has ever loomed so large. In the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War, Sir William Johnson was perhaps the most important man in the Colonies — and one of the richest. As the British Crown’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies, he was responsible for maintaining the key relationship with the Haudenosaunee, the League of the Iroquois. Despite having no military background, he was a successful military commander of colonial and native forces during the French and Indian War, and he was a key figure in resolving the insurgency led by the Odawa Pontiac and the Seneca Guyasota in the wake of that world war.
Raised to the rank 1st Baronet for his service to the Crown, he lived in true barnonial style on an estate he carved out of the wilds of the Mohawk Valley. He had a prodigious capacity for work, both commercial and diplomatic, but he also made plenty of time to feast and fornicate on a grand scale.
The Mohawk named him Warraghiyagey — He Who Undertakes Great Things. More colloquially, the name translates as Big Business.
Though he bore an aristocratic title and certainly lived out a life of aristocratic excess, Johnson was really a classic Irish lad on the make. He was a MacShane, an Irish Catholic who Anglicized in name and faith to get ahead in the 18th Century Protestant Ascendancy. He came to America in 1738 to administer the Mohawk Valley estate of his uncle, Admiral Peter Warren.
He immediately showed a knack for trade, facilitated by his most important quality — a remarkable affinity for native culture, particularly that of the Mohawk. In short order, he’d established himself as a key middleman in the Mohawk Valley Fur Trade corridor (which mightily pissed off the Dutch merchant class in Albany). And because the Fur Trade was the critical economic driver of the colonial world, his position made him a key figure in frontier diplomacy, in a world where the French and Great Britain vied for supremacy in the North American interior and the First Nations played one off against the other to pursue their own agendas.
The Iroquois — particularly the easternmost member of the League, the Mohawk — were the key to the borderlands. The only way the British could hope to maintain a foothold in the Fur Trade and in the military balance of power was to keep the Iroquois on side, or at least neutral. This had been British and Iroqois policy since the 17th century — known as the Covenant Chain.
Johnson was the key man in the mid-18th to keep the Covenant Chain bright.
Romantics attribute Johnson’s success with the Mohawk to a Celtic affinity for the native way of life. I won’t gainsay it. Something about the Mohawk resonated deeply with Johnson, and he treated them in every way as extended family. The Mohawk formally adopted him. It was an exceptional relationship — and absolutely sincere.
After the death of his first common law wife, a Palatine German servant girl named Catherine Weisenberg, Johnson set up housekeeping with a Mohawk woman named Degonwadonti, better known as Molly Brant. The older sister of Joseph Brant, Molly was an important figure in her own right in the matrilineal Mohawk culture. She lived as Johnson’s consort, exerting significant influence with her people on behalf of the Crown. They had eight children together.
Johnson was a gentleman hunter and outdoorsman, but he was not a wilderness operator like Simon Kenton — or, indeed, his son Sir John Johnson or his Indian Department colleague John Butler, who would one day found the infamous Loyalist Butler’s Rangers. When he was given command of colonial militia and native forces during the French and Indian War, he recognized his own lack of military expertise and tried to get out of it.
Yet for all that, Johnson delivered key victories for the British. In 1755, a year of disaster for British arms, he served up a narrow and undecisive victory over the French and their Indian allies at the foot of Lake George. Johnson took a musketball in the “upper thigh” (read ass), a wound that would plague him for the rest of his days. There wasn’t anything particularly glorious about his triumph, and it had little strategic impact, but it was a victory, and Great Britain sorely needed one.
King George II elevated Johnson to the Baronetcy.
Johnson led almost the entire military strength of the Iroquois League in a campaign to take Fort Niagara in 1759, and contributed to the planning of an ambush that destroyed a French relief force and ensured the fort’s surrender. Historian Francis Jennings says that Johnson wasn’t even on scene and that he exaggerated his and the Indians’ role in dispatches (and, to be fair, the lion’s share of the glory really does belong to the 46th Regiment of Foot) — but Jennings for some reason always had his tomahawk out and sharpened for Johnson.
The fact is that, despite being a trader and a diplomat to his core, Johnson enjoyed some signal military successes that helped win North America for Great Britain.
Victory in the French and Indian War (the Seven Years War in Europe) vaulted Great Britain to the top of the pile in European great power rivalry. Britain had won what should be regarded to the first true world war. But, as Britain would learn again in the 20th Century, winning a world war is almost as costly as losing one. The Empire was greatly expanded — and deep in debt.
The Crown sought to economize (and to get the Colonies to pay a bit of the burden of their own defense; another tale). One area of economy was to cut way back on “presents” offered to the First Nations people — including vital supplies of powder and shot, upon which all the peoples of the region were dependent for their livelihood. British Commander in North America Jeffery Amherst, who held Indians in contempt anyway, pursued this policy vigorously — and over the objections of Sir William Johnson.
Johnson well understood that the British policy was pennywise and pound foolish. He understood, as Amherst did not, that the system of gift-giving and the rituals of trade were not mere bribes for good behavior but gestures of respect and mutual interest. Messing with these diplomatic niceties out of arrogance and false economy would have dire consequences.
Which they did. In 1763, a loose confederation of woodland tribes around the Great Lakes and in the Ohio Country launched an insurgency, commonly known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, which came within a hair’s breadth of driving the British out of Indian Country altogether.
Johnson labored mightily to keep the Iroquois from throwing in with the “rebels” — which would have been disastrous for the Crown. Some western Iroquois, the Seneca, took the warpath under the leadership of Guyasota. The Seneca generally tended to militancy and were the least inclined among the League to be influenced by Johnson. But the League did not fracture, and the great native polity did not turn against the Crown.
Johnson negotiated a treaty at Fort Niagara in the summer of 1764 that kept the Iroquois on side and brought most of the Seneca back into the fold. He even persuaded some of them to mount an expedition into the Ohio Country to punish “rebellious” Delaware. It wasn’t much of a campaign, but it re-burnished the British-Iroquois Covenant Chain and helped to defuse the war.
Johnson would continue to work diplomatically to balance the interests of the Crown, the Iroquois, the western tribes and the increasingly land-hungry colonists through the 1760s. But it was also a time to reward himself for his labors — and the Great MacShane knew how to have a good time…