The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





We call the valley in which we live the Beautiful Mohawk and glory in the varied scenes of beauty that meet our eyes at each successive change of season. When the Ice King has bound river and rivulet in his chilly grasp and the deep azure of running streams has given place to his mantle of white, when the bordering hills, clad no longer in verdure bright, but dotted here and there with patches of sombre green, and whose slopes reflect back to the eye all of the rays of the spectrum combined like a huge cloak of ermine, we marvel at its beauty and are proud of its grandeur.

In the spring, with its budding freshness, and in summer, with its maturity of verdure, we find delight in sunshine and in storm; but autumn, which brings with it thoughts of the dying year, changes the valley into a veritable garden of beauty - not with the sear and yellow leaf of old England, but with the myriad of shades of green and brown and crimson, and all the innumerable tints of gray and olive.

Rocks, rills, and ravines, hills, valleys and flat land, vistas of higher grounds, and misty outlines of distant mountains add color and majesty to the distant landscape.

Did you ever pay an extended visit to the level lands of Ohio or the rolling plains of the prairie lands of the far western States?

And when, on your return, you struck the narrows of the Mohawk Valley at Little Falls and at the Nose, did not your heart swell with pride as you quoted in a whisper - for you dare not trust your voice -


Breathes there the man with soul so dead

Who never to himself hath said,

"This is my own, my native land"?


Into this valley in all its pristine loveliness came William Johnson, in the leafy month of June, 1738.

In the county of Meath, Ireland, and on the upper waters of the river Boyne, whose outlet forms the Bay of Drogheda and whose shores in the eighth century gave foothold to the Scandinavian pirates, is the small village of Smithtown, the birthplace of Sir William Johnson. Not many miles away, but across the border of the adjoining county of Down, lies the estate of the family of Sir Peter Warren and called Warrentown, the home of the mother of Sir William.

The Valley of the Mohawk from Highlands at Hoffman, N.Y.

At the dawn of a beautiful day in the autumn of 1737, a young man, whose every motion gave evidence of vigorous manhood, with grace of movement and strength of limb, was striding along a country highway leading to the port town of Drogheda.

The gray of dawn barely disclosed the flitting forms of trees whose bare trunks rose in small clusters from the bogs on each side of the road. The young man walked with long, swinging strides, switching his high top-boots with a riding whip at every step. As the gray of the horizon gave way to the crimson and gold of the perfect morning, it disclosed the bright colors of the garments of the traveller. His straight and vigorous limbs were seen to be encased in buff knickerbockers and high top-boots, while his broad shoulders and well-turned arms were clothed in the green coat and long buff waistcoat frequently worn by the Irish gentlemen of the eighteenth century.

The hat that adorned his head was of conical shape, with broad band ornamented with a polished silver buckle of large size in front, and on the lapel of his coat was a bow of orange ribbon.

The sun rising above the bleak moor disclosed the handsome features of a young man of twenty-three, whose dark gray eyes and full crimson lips broke into a happy smile as he espied the drooping form of a comely girl leaning on a stile constructed in a break in the hawthorn hedge which formed a border to the road he was travelling.

Pale and trembling, and with eyes disclosing the agony of grief and a long night's vigil, the young maiden swiftly approached the young man, and with the abandon of perfect love flung herself into his outstretched arms, exclaiming: "O Will, my darling, I cannot, cannot let you go; take me, oh, take me with you! do not leave me to die, as I surely will if I am left alone with my grief." Pressing her yielding form close to his breast, and arresting her frantic words with a long, clinging kiss, he replied, with intense fervor in his voice: "Ah, mavourneen, do not grieve so, do not look upon this as a final parting. It is true that America is a long way from dear old Ireland, and the wilderness will be dreary without your dear presence, but if there is a way of reaching its distant shores there is a way also of returning. Cheer up, my darling: through the kindness of dear old Uncle Peter I am to be placed in a way to make my fortune and a home for us two in this grand New World, to which so many are hastening.

"Think of the happiness to come, when I am rich enough to build a home and then return for you, my love. What will the terrors of the forest lands amount to, when, with a home for you and me, we will be safe and happy from the stern edicts of parental authority? Kiss me, my love, and give me God-speed and a cheerful good-bye."

Stifling her tears she raised her eyes to his, and with one hand on his breast, clasped closely in his own, and with the other pointing to the golden disk of the sun whose rounded edge was illuming the dreary moorland, she said:

"Will, as surely as that sun will rise and at the close of day sink from sight in the west, so surely are you going out of my life in your voyage to the western world - but not out of my heart, love, not out of my breaking heart. Kiss me, dear, I hope that your dreams will prove true."

He clasped her in his arms again, protesting that he would prove true to his Irish lass and that he would build a home for her in the forest lands of the beautiful Mohawk. Gently disengaging herself from his strong arms, with a smile on her lips more expressive of grief than her tear-laden eyes, she leaned against the stile as she watched his form disappear in the distance. Then, with arms outstretched toward the sea, she exclaimed in an agonizing whisper, "Oh, my sweetheart, my darling, will never come back to me; never come back!" and sank unconscious on the dew-laden turf at her feet.

We know not the name of this maiden; we know not the reason why Sir Peter Warren offered the superintendence of his lands on the Mohawk River to his nephew, William Johnson. All that we are told is that, on account of an unfortunate love affair, he was induced by his uncle to emigrate to America.

Very little has been written of the boyhood of William Johnson, but the late Augustus C. Buel, a descendent of Sir William by one of the daughters of Caroline, his first Indian wife, has given us some facts not hitherto printed.

It is said that he was the son of Christopher Johnson and Anna Warren, a sister of Admiral Warren. Christopher Johnson may have been a school teacher in his younger days, but from 1692 to 1708 he was an officer in a cavalry regiment then known as Cadogan's Horse.

At the time his son William was born (1715), he was a local magistrate for Carlingford. It is said that he was a "cripple," as the result of a wound from a French bullet received at Oudenarde.

In May, 1726, Admiral Peter Warren wrote in his diary: "Visiting me Mistress Nancy (Anna) Johnson with her Young Son, William, aged eleven. William is a Spritely Boy, well grown, of good parts, Keen Wit but mostly Onruly and Streperous. I see in him the Makings of a Strong Man. Shall keep my Wether Eye on this lad."

From the little that we can learn of his school days it would seem as though the opinion of his Uncle Peter, that he was most unruly and "Streperous," was correct. His family wished to make a soldier of him, but he declared against this scheme and announced that he wished to become a barrister. He grew rapidly, but the development of his body seems to have outrun that of his mind, and his school days at the Academy ended suddenly in expulsion. It seems that an attempt on the part of the moderator to chastise young William resulted in failure on the part of the instructor, and the haling of the lad before a magistrate on a charge of assault and battery, who was fined seven guineas and "put on the limits" for twenty-one days, followed by a flagellation from his crippled father upon his return home.

The Great Falls of the Mohawk, Cohoes, N.Y.

For the next three or four years he studied law with a barrister named Byrne and was listed for examination in the spring of 1737, but a month or two before the assizes met he received an offer from his uncle Peter to go to America and take charge of a large tract of land, consisting of 14,000 acres situated in the Mohawk Valley and now known as the town of Florida, N.Y.

Late in the summer of 1737 he sailed for America, arriving in New York in December. The young man spent the winter in New York as guest of his aunt, Sir Peter Warren's wife.

Lady Warren was a daughter of Stephen De Lancey, one of the richest merchants in New York, whose family held leadership in the most refined and aristocratic society of the provincial metropolis. It was in this social environment William passed the winter, and it is said that "he bore himself with tact, dignity, and grace worthy of wider experience and maturer years"; during which period he met many influential men and women whose interest and influence were vastly useful to him in later years.

Although young Johnson was not knighted until about eighteen years later, in order to save confusion I will in future pages speak of him as Sir William, a title by which he is so well known in history.

We have seen that Sir William came in contact with men of influence in the affairs of the colony, particularly the De Lanceys. Hon. James De Lancey, a brother of Lady Warren, was commander-in-chief of the province of New York, and Lieut.-Governor in 1754, '55, '57, and became a firm friend of Sir William.

Although his school days ended somewhat disastrously, the months he spent in the law office of barrister Byrne prepared him for the various duties he was called upon to perform as land agent for various persons on both sides of the Atlantic; and although, perhaps, the diction of his letters to the Lords of the Board of Trade does not compare very favorably with those of Secretary John Pownell and others, his letters were models of good reasoning and rare judgment, and his suggestions in regard to the conduct of his affairs as Indian Commissioner received the utmost consideration of that august body and were generally adopted.

The Bluff below the Falls, Cohoes, N.Y.

In most of the stories of the life of Sir William Johnson the early years of his sojourn in the valley are disposed of in a very few words, and even then the writers show a lamentable ignorance of the geography of the valley.

Some content themselves by stating that he built a trader's store west of Schenectady, and others locate his headquarters near Fort Hunter. W.L. Stone's statement would naturally convey that impression.

The facts are that the location selected by Sir William for his storehouse and dwelling was about a half a mile east of the Mohawk River bridge at Amsterdam, on the south side, his nearest neighbors at that time being Alexander and Hamilton Phillips about two miles farther east, and Philip Groat on the opposite or north side of the river at Adriutha or Cranesville. In time other buildings were erected, until the place was dignified with the name of "Johnson's Settlement." It was so called during the Revolution and as late as 1795. Somewhat later, or after the construction of the Erie Canal, a Roman Catholic chapel was erected there or in that vicinity, which was the beginning of the immense parish of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church of Amsterdam, N.Y.

Here Sir William lived for five years, when he moved into the large stone house at Akin which he called Mount Johnson until 1755, when the place was surrounded by a palisade and renamed Fort Johnson.

While living on the south side Johnson diligently worked to improve and develop the large estate of his uncle Sir Peter Warren, who desired to keep its 14,000 acres intact by renting sections of the lands to tenants on long leases. Sir William, however, early found that such a scheme was impracticable, and with the consent of his uncle soon sold a large portion of it in farms of 150 to 300 acres.

(W.L. Stone quotes a letter from Sir Peter to Sir William in which is this sentence, "My love to Mick." He says: "This name occurs twice, but I do not know who Mick is." It was probably Michael Byrne, who somewhat later was closely connected with Johnson, and whose son married one of Sir William Johnson's daughters by his Indian wife Caroline.)

It is said that the rude storehouse and dwelling were completed in 1738, and a housekeeper secured of Lewis Phillips in the person of a young Dutch girl whose services the said Phillips had secured by paying fifteen pounds due the captain of the ship that brought her across the Atlantic, as passage money. At the suggestion of Phillips, Sir William paid his friend the fifteen pounds and took the girl. This girl, whose name was Catherine Weisenburg, afterward became the mother of his son John and his two daughters Anna and Mary, and at some subsequent period, the exact date of which is not known, was married to William Johnson by the Rev. James Barclay, missionary of Queen Anne's Chapel at Fort Hunter.

Very soon after Sir William had erected his buildings at "Johnson's Settlement" he purchased land on the north side of the Mohawk River on both sides of the Kayaderoseros or Old Fort Creek, for the purpose of erecting a grist-mill. In 1742 the mill was erected, and also the substantial stone building now known as Fort Johnson.

The thought has often come to me, for whom did he build this stone structure? Was it for his servant Catherine, or was it to be a home for his sweetheart in old Ireland?

Suffice it to say that Mount Johnson, as it was then called, was constructed in a style that in those days may well have been termed magnificent, and even to this day bears the impress of the brand of an experienced architect. Here his daughters Anna and Mary were born and here his first wife, Catherine, died. His son, known after Sir Williams's death as Sir John Johnson, was born at the "Johnson Settlement," on the south side.

It was while living in this grim, gray stone mansion that nearly all of the notable events of this notable man's strenuous life transpired.

It was here that his two daughters received their educational instruction from governesses, and were married. Here also he installed King Hendrick's niece Caroline as companion, by whom he had three children, two daughters who married white men, and one son, the half-breed Teg-che-un-to or William of Canajoharie, mentioned in Sir William's will. It was in this building in 1752 that Caroline died and was succeeded by Molly Brant, the majority of whose children were born here.

In 1746 Johnson was made Indian Commissioner, having by kindness and tact obtained almost complete control of the warlike Iroquois. One of the historians of the valley says:


The distinguishing feature of Sir William Johnson's character was strict integrity. In this is to be found the great secret of his marvellous ascendency over the Indians. Cajoled and cheated by English traders and land agents for a long series of years, the Amerind had learned to regard the name of Englishman as a synonym of fraud and deceit. From the time, however, of the Baronet's settlement in the valley of the Mohawk until his decease, they had ever found him true to his word and conscientious in his dealings.

Another trait of Sir William's character - and which added not a little to his influence over the Indians - was his power of adaptation. This he possessed in a remarkable degree. He was at ease whether entertaining in his baronial mansion on the Mohawk the polished scion of nobility, or the rude savage; whether mingling in the salons of wealth and fashion, or seated on the earthy floor of a bark wigwam. The same facility of action was shown in all his varied relations. A trader in peltry, he was upright and affable; a counsellor, he was sagacious and prudent; a major-general, courageous but cautious; superintendent of Indian affairs, wise and discerning; a baronet of the realm, courtly in his hospitalities; a large landed proprietor with a numerous tenantry, kind and just.

Old Fort Johnson in 1753. (Drawn by Col. Guy Johnson.)

Somewhat later, through the jealousy of Governor Shirley, he was constrained, in order to sustain his dignity and honor, to resign his office of Indian Commissioner, but the Iroquois were so aroused and so vociferous in their demand for his reinstatement that he was reappointed with almost unlimited powers.

The old stone house during the French and Indian war was the scene of great activity. This was the headquarters of the militia of the valley, over which Sir William was commandant, and which in May, 1756, he led to German Flats to check the advance of the French, who were said to be marching down the valley. It proved to be a false alarm. In June, an Indian runner brought news that a large force of French and Indians was organizing on the Canadian border for a raid through the valley. One section of this body of troops was directed to kill or capture Sir William and to destroy Fort Johnson and all property in its vicinity. It was during this period of unrest that the old building was fortified by a palisade and the name changed from Mount Johnson to Fort Johnson.

Notwithstanding the jealousy and enmity of Governor Shirley, Captain General of the provinces of New York and New England, he appointed Sir William Johnson Major General and commandant of four thousand troops raised in the above provinces for the purpose of capturing Crown Point, a French fortress on Lake Champlain.

The story of the battle of Lake George, as it is called, has been so often told that I will not attempt to describe it at this time, although it seems to me as though the denizens of the Mohawk Valley deserve more than a passing credit for that victory. In the first place Major General Johnson, the commandant, was a resident of this section of the valley. In June, 1755, more than eleven hundred Indians were in camp on the flats in front of old Fort Johnson, not three miles west of the city of Amsterdam. Of this number three hundred were warriors equipped for war; the balance consisted of women and children, gathered here to subsist on the bounty of Sir William while their warlike sons and husbands followed their friend to victory.

It must, indeed, have been a picturesque sight. Imagine a motley array of Indian families around hundreds of camp-fires extending along the flats east and west for a mile or more; women cooking their food while the kids foraged far and near; painted warriors lounging on the ground in graceful attitudes; sachems and chiefs thronging the halls of the building in consultation with Sir William, whose word was law unto them; the octogenarian {original text has "octogenraian".} King Hendrick, his large form grown stout and unwieldy, striding majestically to and fro, his ample blanket covering his gorgeous attire, his broad, heavy face seamed by age and further disfigured by broad bands of black and vermilion.

On June 17, 1755, Sir William wrote to Governor De Lancey:


I am working with the sachems and leading men from morning until night. The fatigue I have undergone has been too much for me. It still continues and I am scarcely able to support it. I am distressed were to get victuals for such numbers; they have destroyed every green thing upon my estate and destroyed all my meadows. But I must humor them at this critical juncture.


In 1760-61 the last French war, as it is called, ceased. At this period of comparative peace Sir William Johnson, having secured entire control of the Kingsboro Patent of twenty-six thousand acres in the vicinity of the present town of Johnstown, turned his attention to the improvement of that estate, it having become more valuable and important than his smaller estate at Fort Johnson. Here he built a commodious mansion and gave it the name of Johnson Hall. This was completed in 1763 and Sir William moved into it in the early spring, leaving Fort Johnson and the lands adjoining in possession of John Johnson, his eldest son, who continued to occupy it until the death of his father, July 11, 1774.

Except the trouble arising out of the Pontiac war, which was practically crushed in 1763 although Pontiac did not smoke the calumet of peace with Sir William until July 23, 1766, the Baronet's life was comparatively free from the hardships and turmoils which marked the two decades of his residence on the Mohawk River. In fact, treaties then made with all the Indian tribes practically ended his direct personal attention to Indian affairs, and he only retained under his personal supervision the faithful Mohawks, Oneidas, Oghwagas, and Tuscaroras, his three deputy superintendents, George Crogan, Daniel Claus, and Guy Johnson, relieving him of the care of the "far Indians."

At Johnson Hall, Johnstown, Sir William died, as he lived - in harness - after a long speech to about six hundred Indians, mostly Iroquois, who had assembled at Johnson Hall to invoke his influence to prevent the invasion of the Indian country on the Ohio, known as Dunmore's war.

He was at the time much weakened by a chronic disease, and the excessive mental effort and exposure to an extremely hot sun brought on prostration, which culminated in a cerebral apoplexy, from which he died in about two hours. Sir John Johnson was at his home, Fort Johnson, when his father was prostrated, - ten miles from Johnson Hall.

Young William Johnson - the half-breed son (Teg-che-un-to) - mounting a blooded horse from Sir William's racing stable, reached Sir John with the news at five o'clock in the afternoon, although the horse he rode was ruined. Sir John instantly mounted his own best steeple-chaser and covered nine miles of the distance in thirty minutes; but the horse fell dead within a mile of Johnson Hall, and Sir John borrowed a horse from a farmer and soon arrived at his father's bedside. But his father was unconscious and in a few minutes ceased to live.

Of Sir John's life at Fort Johnson we know but little. It is said that he was just twenty-one years old when Sir William moved to Johnson Hall and left him in charge of the fort. In early life he wooed, won, but did not wed a very pretty girl of good family, named Miss Clara Putnam, by whom he had a son and a daughter. Miss Putnam was keeping house for him at the old Fort Johnson mansion when, on June 29, 1773, he married Miss Mary Watts of New York city, a woman noted for her great beauty and accomplishments, but before Sir John returned from New York he caused Miss Putnam and her children to be sent across the river into the town of Florida. Late in life he gave her money, and a house and lot in Schenectady, where she died about the year 1840.

Ghost Room and a Ghostly Vision, Old Fort Johnson.

The first tenant of Fort Johnson, after Sir John fled to Canada and Lady Johnson was held as hostage at Albany was Albert Vedder, the founder of the city of Amsterdam, 1779. In 1800 the property belonged to Jacob C. and John C. Cuyler. The successive purchasers were as follows:

Jeremiah Schuyler, February 22, 1817;

John J. Van Schaick, January 8, 1820;

George Maxwell, December 14, 1824;

George Smith, January 26, 1826,

George Smith died intestate and the property was divided into nine parcels and all sold between 1836 and 1844.

Fort Johnson mansion and lands were purchased by Dr. Oliver Davidson who afterward sold the same premises to Almarin Young, from whom they were purchased by Ethan Akin. While living at Fort Johnson, Dr. Davidson's daughter wrote the well-known poem entitled "The Sale of Old Bachelors."

It would indeed be strange if tradition did not point to a tragedy connected with this old building. In the early part of the nineteenth century a country store stood where Mr. Shepard's residence stands, on the corner east of the creek. Tradition says that one night a drunken fellow whose name was Joe Burke entered the store and got into a fight with the storekeeper, punishing him severely, and then fled pursued, by the angry merchant with a gun. The merchant followed him into Fort Johnson and saw him pass up the stairs toward the attic. Just as Burke reached the attic stairs his pursuer fired and killed him, his blood spattering the stair-casing. Subsequently the body was removed to the cellar, placed in a cask of whiskey in one of the wine vaults constructed in the foundations of the large chimneys, until the ice broke up in the spring, when it was rolled to the river and sent floating on its way to the sea. The matter was hushed up, and is only known now by tradition.

Of course there is a ghost room, but the ghost seems to have been a very mild character.

In preparing this chapter, it has been my desire to make plain to you the very prominent part that Fort Johnson played in the early history of the valley and to establish the claim made that this grim, gray stone mansion is entitled to the designation of the first baronial mansion in New York State.

After the battle of Lake George Sir William was notified (November 11, 1755) that King George II. had conferred upon him the dignity of baronet of the realm of Great Britain and also a gift of $20,000 as a reward.

Thus you see that Sir William was not only created a baronet before he had secured the Kingsboro grant of 26,000 acres and while Johnstown was yet a wilderness, but for eight years after he was knighted and entitled to the title of Sir William he resided at Fort Johnson.

In studying the life of Sir William Johnson in the light of the twentieth century, my mind frequently reverts to the heart-broken Irish lass, lying on the dew-laden turf, in the dawn of the summer morning so long ago. How true was her prophecy - her lover never came back.



Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 12/10/99.

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