Sir William Johnson

British colonial administrator Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) was an important intermediary between England and the Indians in North America.

William Johnson was born at Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland. He came to New York about 1738 to supervise the lands along the Mohawk River belonging to his uncle. There he either married or took as a mistress Catherine Weisberg, who bore him a son and a daughter.

Johnson gained influence with the Indians and in 1745, at the outbreak of king George's War, he kept the Iroquois from allying with the French. The following year he was appointed a colonel and given responsibility for Indian affairs. In February 1748 Johnson was given command of 14 companies of militia raised for the defense of the New York frontier, and on May 1 he was commissioned as colonel for the Albany County militia regiment.

In April 1750 Johnson was appointed to the Council of New York, a position he held for the rest of his life. Five years later, in the French and Indian War, he received a commission for "sole Management & direction of the Affairs of the Six Nations of Iroquois & their Allies." As a major general, with 2,000 militia and 200 Indians, he defeated the French and Indians forces at Crown Point in September 1755. Although failing to take Crown Point, Johnson built a fort and won acclaim for blunting the French threat.

In November 1755 Johnson was made a baronet and appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for the Northern Department. For the next 3 years he concerned himself with Indian affairs and the defense of the northern frontier. He commanded the column that captured Ft. Niagara on July 25, 1759, and participated in Gen. Jeffery Amherst's successful expedition against French Montreal.

Johnson next undertook the organization of new tribes under his jurisdiction and in 1763 was able to put down the conspiracy of Chief Pontiac. In the Treaty of Ft. Stanwix (November 1768) he persuaded the Indians to give up their claims to lands in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He was successful in preventing the Iroquois from joining the Shawnees at the outbreak of Lord Dunmore's War in 1774.

Johnson was a member of the American Philosophical Society and of the Society for the Promotion of Arts, an organization devoted to the development of agriculture. After the death of his first wife he took a niece of a Mohawk chief as a housekeeper; she bore him three children. Later, by his common-law wife, the sister of another Mohawk chief, he had eight children. He died on July 11, 1774.


Further Reading on Sir William Johnson

The best biography of Johnson is Arthur Pound and Richard E. Day, Johnson of the Mohawks (1930). Still useful are William L. Stone, The Life and Times of Sir William Johnson, Bart. (1865); William Elliot Griffis, Sir William Johnson and the Six Nations (1891); and Augustus C. Buell, Sir William Johnson (1903).

Additional Biography Sources

Flexner, James Thomas, Lord of the Mohawks: a biography of Sir William Johnson, Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Flexner, James Thomas, Mohawk baronet: a biography of Sir William Johnson, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989, 1979.

Igneri, David S., Sir William Johnson: the man and his influence, New York: Rivercross Pub., 1994.

Rowles, Catharine Bryant, Tomahawks to hatpins, Lakemont, N.Y.: North Country Books, 1975.

Simms, Jeptha Root, Trappers of New York: or, A biography of Nicholas Stoner and Nathaniel Foster: together with anecdotes of other celebated hunters, and some account of Sir William Johnson, and his style of living, Harrison, N.Y.: Harbor Hill Books, 1980.

Powell, Richard J., Homecoming: the art and life of William H. Johnson, Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; New York: Rizzoli, 1991.