The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





The domestic affairs of Sir William Johnson have received a great deal of criticism from the historians of the valley, and the intemperate zeal of some of them in putting in type racy bits of gossip of doubtful authenticity, that floated around the valley a half-century after his death, would have made them in this century good yellow journalists.

These stories have marred the character of an otherwise great man. His first wife, Catherine Weisenburg, seems to have been a handsome, companionable girl, with whom he was unavoidably brought into close relation through the exigencies of a forest life, at a time when the custom of bundling was not considered a heinous crime by the old Dutch families who were his neighbors. (See Professor Pearson's Schenectady Patent, p. 366.)

The poor girl, far from home and relatives, practically a slave for a term of years, perhaps did not until after years consider her relations with Sir William as unlawful or sinful, and should not be mercilessly condemned when the situation is thoroughly understood. That Sir William married her soon after the birth of his children indicates a desire to atone as far as was in his power for the social sin they had committed.

Soon after her death, and at a time when his influence over the Iroquois was being made manifest, he took to his home the daughter of Chief Abraham, who was also a niece of King Hendrick, the most powerful chief of the tribe of Mohawks. She became his Indian wife by the laws and usages of the Indians, and I have always thought that the selection was made as a matter of policy, in order to please the Mohawks, who had nominally made him a chief. Caroline was her English name.

This occurred in 1747. By Sir William she had two daughters and a son: the daughters were named Charlotte and Caroline, and the son was called William for his father. He was the first born and is the "William Johnson alias Teg-che-un-to" who is mentioned in his will as William of Canajoharie. In 1753 Caroline died in childbirth of her second daughter, who was also named Caroline.

This gives us approximately the date of the installation of Molly Brant as Sir William' s second Indian wife, or housekeeper, has she has been variously called, which was subsequent to that date and probably soon after the death of Caroline Hendrick, as she is sometimes called.

As Molly Brant was her niece it would seem as though she must have been a frequent visitor to her aunt and well known to Sir William, as the daughters were adopted by her as her own, and lived with her at Fort Johnson, while William, the half-breed boy, was brought up by his grandfather Abraham or his uncle "Little Abe," at Canajoharie Castle at Danube, New York.

William Johnson (Teg-che-un-to) the half-breed was educated by Sir William at Dr. Wheelock' s school at Lebanon, Conn., and was killed by the Oneida half-breed Thomas Spencer at the battle of Oriskany.

Molly Brant, who was a sister of Thayendanega (Joseph Brant), was about sixteen years old when her aunt Caroline died, in 1753, and lived at Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall until Sir William' s death in 1774, a period of about twenty years, during which time she had eight children.

There is nothing that is recorded about this picturesque character who came into Sir William' s life accidentally, we might say, to lead us to suppose that the unique union of this strong, forceful man with the handsome and intelligent though unlettered maiden of the forest was not in every way a union of affection and fidelity, unto death.

During the Revolutionary period and subsequent to that time she and her half-breeds, with the exception, probably, of Peter, her eldest-born, seem to have reverted to savage impulses, tempered somewhat by the civilizing education of twenty years' life in a family who associated with the foremost people in the colonies.

What seems very strange is the fact that she does not appear to have taken an exalted station in the new settlements of the Caniengas or Mohawks on the shores of Grand River and at Deseronto in Canada. The fact is that with the exception of the date of her death (1805) she appears to have dropped out of the pages of history entirely after her flight to Niagara in 1779.

Sir William Johnson, Bart. From an old print.

Reverting to the daughters Charlotte and Caroline: Charlotte, the eldest, married a young British officer shortly before the Revolution, but who afterward joined the Continental army and fell at Monmouth Court-House. His name was Henry Randall. They had two children, one named Charlotte Randall, who married George King. George and Charlotte King had a daughter Charlotte, who was the grandmother of my informant.

The other daughter of Molly Brant' s predecessor (Caroline), whose name was also Caroline, married a man named Michael Byrne, a clerk in Sir William' s office of Indian affairs. Byrne was killed at Oriskany in Butler' s Rangers. His young widow, Caroline Johnson, went with the Brants to Canada, and afterward married an Indian agent named MacKim, whose descendants are still living in Canada.

A description of Sir William is given by Mrs. Julia Grant, an artist who painted his portrait in 1751:


A little scant of six feet - five feet eleven and one-half inches - neck massive, shoulders broad, chest deep and full, limbs large and showing every sign of great physical strength. Head large and finely shaped. Countenance open, frank and always beaming with good nature and humor - a real Irishman as he is for Irish wit. Eyes large, a sort of black-gray or grayish black. Hair with a tinge of auburn in certain lights. In conversation he is a most delightful person.

His mode of living is that of an English gentleman at his country seat, and I was astonished to find on this remote frontier, almost in the shade of primeval forests, a table loaded with delicacies and Madeiras, ports and Burgundies of the rarest vintage. His table is seldom without guests, and his hospitality is a byword the region round.

During my stay he had Indian chiefs to dine with him several times. Their attire was the same as white people' s and for the most part they conversed in English. This disappointed me, because I wished to sit at table with genuine Indians in blankets and leggings and talking nothing but gibberish through an interpreter. Among those I met at Colonel Johnson' s table were the venerable and noble-looking old chief Hendrick, now over seventy years of age; his brother Abraham, about sixty years of age, chief of a Mohawk clan and father of Caroline the beautiful young Indian woman who was mistress of the household; also Nicklaus Brant, chief of the Upper Castle of the Mohawks, a man of most prodigious silence and the most grave and solemn courtesy.

Colonel Johnson is the soul of method. He must have fifty or sixty people in his employ besides the negroes, and he oversees everything they do. Marvellous! And then he attends to a mass of complicated public business besides!


The different names that have been applied to the baronial mansion of the Mohawk are somewhat confusing and somewhat misleading. We hear it called Mount Johnson, Castle Johnson, and Fort Johnson.

When it was erected (in 1742) Sir William named it Mount Johnson, which was a misnomer, as it was built on a flat, and the hills in its vicinity could not by any stretch of imagination be called mountains. At the time of its construction, or soon after, the mansion as it now stands, and which has been described elsewhere, was flanked to the east and to the west by two low stone buildings used respectively for kitchen and servants' quarters. A little to the south and in front of the servants' quarters was a structure of stone, two stories high, used as a store. Until 1755 this collection of buildings was called Mount Johnson.

At the date named a feeling of unrest and insecurity led Sir William to fortify his home by erecting a stockade around it, said stockade being made of palisades sharpened at one end and set firmly in the ground closely together and reinforced by long timbers spiked horizontally to the palisades, binding the whole firmly together. Each of the four corners was fortified by a bastion. In the curtain on the south side was a gate heavily ironed. Judging from the distance given from the river bank to the south curtain, the stockade was not more than sixty feet from the stone mansion which it protected. No trace of this wooden fortification is visible at the present time. A picture made by Guy Johnson previous to 1755 shows a small guardhouse situated on the slope of a hill about one third of the distance from the top. This hill is on the east or left bank of the Old Fort Creek, one hundred and fifty paces from the stone building.

The following order, copied by a Colonel T. Bailey Meyers from the original, will give an idea of the care taken by Sir William for the protection of his home during that period of the French war embraced between 1755 and 1761. The order is addressed to Lieutenant Alexander Turnbull, Aug. 9, 1756.



1st. You will keep your Party sober and in good order and prevent their having any unnecessary Intercourse with the Indians lest any difference might arise between them from too much familiarity.

2d. If any difference should arise between them, if the Indians use any of your party ill, I am to be immediately acquainted with it.

3d. The Sergeant to take care that the Men' s Quarters be kept very Clean and that they wash well and freshen their Salt Provisions, the neglect of which makes the subject to many disorders.

4th. You will in the daytime keep one Sentry on the Eminence to the Northward of the House, who upon seeing the enemy advance is to fire his piece and retreat to the fort. Another Sentry to be posted at the Gate of the Fort on the outside, who is also to enter the Fort on the advanced Sentry alarming him.

5th. When there are no Indians here the Gates to be locked at 8 o' clock in ye evening and opened at six in the morning, first looking around about to see that all is safe and clear, the advanced Sentry then to be posted every Day.

6th. Whenever an alarm is given by the advanced Sentry, you will order three Patteroes [or Peæroes, a very small kind of cannon] immediately to be fired, that being the signal I have given to the Mohawks, and on their approach near the Fort, when challenged, they are to answer "George" as distinct as they can, then to be admitted if practicable.

7th. In case of any attack the 2 Bastions to be properly manned and the 2 curtains also, there mixing some of my People with yours. The remainder of my People to man the Dwelling House and fight from thence, making use of the Four Wall Pieces and Musquetoons and of the windows fitted for them.

The men' s arms and ammunition to be kept in Good Order.

I am Sir




There is another account, by a traveller who is said to have visited Fort Johnson in 1757, which differs somewhat from the foregoing description and which I am now satisfied is incorrect. He says that the Building had port-holes and a parapet. For parapet we should read stockade. Port-holes in the building there were none.

Fort Johnson - The Grove of Locusts

In Sir William' s order to Lieutenant Turnbull he says: "The remainder of my People to man the Dwelling House and fight from thence, making use of the Four Wall Pieces [a small cannon] and Musquetoons and of the windows prepared for them." The house is two stories high, with a large attic in which are four dormer windows with sash opening outward. In the heavy sill of each of these windows is a round hole a little to the left of centre. These holes are about one and a half inches in diameter and were undoubtedly used for the pivot of the small cannon spoken of, and were probably taken for port-holes by the traveller. The walls are intact and show no evidence of any holes having been made in them for the purpose of firing either guns or cannon.



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

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