The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





Pontiac - what visions of horror and blood-thirsty cruelty are evolved in the mind at the mention of that savage name - massacre, treachery, the vanishing of households, flames, the scalping knife, the wail of infants, the despairing courage of men, the devoted sacrifice of women. Even after a century and a half it chills the blood and arouses murderous though of retaliation against the fiendish savages that wrought such widespread desolation, and deluged the western and southern frontiers of civilization in blood and ashes.

Francis Parkman, whose interesting histories impress one with careful research and painstaking accuracy, has recorded in detail the destruction of many of the frontier forts and the heroism of their defenders.

He tells how in 1760 Major Rodgers, an English officer, was sent into the country of Pontiac to drive the French out. He met Pontiac and told him his errand and delivered to him several belts of wampum. Pontiac replied, "I stand in the path you travel until to-morrow." This the officer understood to mean that he was not to march further without his leave. The next day Pontiac assured him that he might pass through his country and he would protect him and his party. In this manner the wily chief completely deceived the English by professions of friendship until he had united his tribes and arranged his system of warfare. He appointed a commissary, and issued bills of credit, all of which he carefully redeemed. These bills were made of birch bark, on which was drawn the article wanted, with the figure of an otter, the insignia of the Ottawas.

He relates how the fort at Michillimackinack was captured. It is said that four hundred Indians gathered in the vicinity with presumably friendly intent. On June 4th, the Indians, as if for amusement, began to play ball. Such was the exciting character of the game that many of the soldiers went out to see it. Suddenly the ball was thrown over the stockade as if by accident, and the Indians rushing for it completely surprised the garrison and took the fort. Seventy of the soldiers were butchered and the other twenty reserved for slavery.

Within fifteen days, Pontiac was in possession of all the western garrisons except three, Detroit alone remaining in the distant region of the Northwest.

The garrison of Detroit consisted of three hundred men under Major Gladwin. When Pontiac came, which was before the news of the massacre at Michillimackinack had reached the fort, his warriors, intermixed with many women and children, brought so many articles of trade that suspicion was lulled. Pontiac encamped some distance from the fort and sent word to Major Gladwin that he had come to trade and wished to hold a talk with him to "brighten the chains of peace" between the English and the Indians. The Major readily consented and the next morning was fixed for the conference.

The same evening, when the fort was cleared of strangers a young and comely Indian woman was found loitering, and being asked what she wanted made no reply. The Major, having noticed her presence in the fort, directed her to be conducted to him. Upon being questioned her answers were confused and constrained as though through fear. The Major talked with her kindly and urged her to tell what she knew, as he would protect her from all harm. Thus assured she told him that the chiefs who were to meet him in council the next morning had formed a plan to murder him and the garrison, and capture the fort; that each chief would come to the council with his gun under his blanket, and when Pontiac gave the signal, which was the delivery to the Major of a belt of wampum, they were to begin their work. Having confidence in the tale of the young girl he at once took every precaution to put the garrison in the best possible state of defence.

At the appointed hour of ten o' clock the next morning Pontiac and his chiefs and a train of warriors filed into the fort, the gates of which were quietly closed and securely guarded. Soldiers were lounging in groups here and there, but did not wander far from their carefully loaded firearms placed near at hand. While some were drilling on the parade ground the vigilant eye of the chief evidently noticed an unusual activity among the garrison, but his fears were somewhat quieted by being told that the men were exercising.

The council opened and Pontiac began his speech, but when he came to the signal of presenting the belt, the peculiar attitudes of the men and officers, with guns in readiness and hand on sword told the chief that his plot was discovered. The belt was not given, and Pontiac closed his speech with many professions of good-will to the English. Major Gladwin, however, reproached the chief with his treachery and told him that he knew the whole of his diabolical plot. The Indian made an effort to deny that he intended any injury to his English friends, when the Major stepped to the side of one of the chiefs, pulled aside his blanket, and disclosed the loaded weapon. Pontiac and his warriors were then ordered to leave the fort. The next day began the siege of Fort Detroit, which lasted for twelve months. Sallies were made and frequent attempts of rescue by land and water resulted in many men being killed on both sides.

During this period, Fort Pitt (now known as Pittsburg, Pa.) was closely besieged by a large body of Delawares, Shawnees, and Indians from the Northwest. Although the fort was not strong, it was only garrisoned by a small number of troops under Captain Huger, and was the refuge place for many homeless women and children from the marauding Indians. A body of troops under Colonel Bouquet was sent to the assistance of the place.

Proceeding by forced marches, he gained the valley of Bushy Run. The defiles appeared free. But on the 5th of August, 1763, they were assailed by swarms of Indians who surrounded them on all sides in this narrow passage. The Indian mode of fighting gave them great advantage in this woody country, and the end of the day found Bouquet' s troops still in possession of their camp, but the horses of their large convoy were stampeded, and many of the brave soldiers killed and a large number wounded. As the Indians retired when the darkness of night fell around them, the Colonel barricaded his camp and protected his wounded with sacks of flour and other material of which the convoy was composed. The troops, especially the wounded, suffered terribly from the absence of water, of which not a drop could be had.

In the morning the savages again surrounded the camp at a distance of about five hundred yards, their shouts and yells showing that the cordon was complete, and they made several bold efforts to penetrate the camp, and though repeatedly repulsed, could not be drawn close enough to allow the English to use the bayonet.

At last Colonel Bouquet executed a man˙uvre which accomplished the desired purpose. Two companies were withdrawn to the interior of the camp, leaving a thin line of soldiers in front. Other companies were ordered to make a short detour through the wood to the right and left. The Indians observing only a thin line in front of them, and thinking that the further movement of troops in the rear indicated a retreat of the English, rushed headlong towards the weak spot, pouring in a heavy and galling fire. As the Indians neared the camp of the wounded, the Highlanders who had gone to the right came round upon the flank of the assailants and fired a close volley into the midst of the crowd, and then with yells as wild as their own fell on them with the bayonet, killing many and putting the rest to flight. But as they turned to run they were met by the two companies of hardy frontiersmen, who charged them from the left, poured among them a second volley, completing the rout. The four companies, uniting, drove the flying savages through the woods, giving them no time to rally or reload their empty rifles, killing many and scattering the rest in hopeless confusion.

Litters were soon made for the wounded, and, the flour and camp equipage being destroyed for the want of horses, the troops moved on in the direction of Fort Pitt. At their first camp they were again attacked, but their assailants received such a warm welcome from the hardy woodsmen that they soon retired. The next day they renewed their march to Fort Pitt, where they arrived on the 10th of August, 1763.

Looking back from the standpoint of the twentieth century, however, we can reflect calmly on the cause and effect of that awful "conspiracy of Pontiac" and give credit to that rude and untutored savage, whose sagacious mind saw in the advance of the English, after the defeat of the French and the conquest of Canada, the gradual extinction of his people.

Pontiac seems to have a born leader of men, a skilful strategist and fearless warrior. Although we cannot refrain from condemning his methods of warfare, we can appreciate his lofty, savage patriotism. With the skill of a practised diplomat he aroused to fury the savage tribes of the West and cemented them together for the salvation of their country against the advance of the English, who were slowly but surely driving them towards and beyond the Mississippi.

The Ottawa Confederacy, so called, was composed of many western tribes, the chief of which were the Wyandots or Hurons, Pottawatomies, Ojibwas, and Ottawas. Pontiac, although closely identified with the Ottawas, was by birth a Chippewa or Ojibwa. But Pontiac' s influence extended farther that the Ottawa Confederacy and included the Delawares, Susquehannocks, Shawnees, and a large portion of the Senecas of western New York.

At that time (1763) the English frontier did not extend beyond the Alleghanies, and, in the province of New York, the German Flats, on the Mohawk. A portion of the Senecas openly espoused the cause of Pontiac, but the Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Cayugas indignantly rejected the overtures made by the rebellious westerners. Sir William Johnson' s influence, however, prevented some of the Senecas from joining Pontiac' s forces, but a large majority could not be restrained. "Had the Six Nations gone over to the side of Pontiac, all the horrors that the French war had witnessed on the borders of New England would have been renewed with even greater ferocity in the province of New York; while with the convoys cut off, and the reinforcements waylaid and killed in passing from Albany to Oswego, Detroit must inevitably have succumbed to the savage."

At this critical period in the history of the province of New York, Sir William Johnson came to the front and placed a firm hand on the Iroquois. He had discovered that the Senecas had sent belts of wampum to the tribes of the Northwest, inviting the Wyandots in conjunction with the Delawares and Shawnees to fall treacherously upon Niagara and Fort Pitt.

The Islands of the Mohawk. A Vista from "The Antlers."

Under these circumstances Johnson set out on a wearisome journey through forest, stream, and lake to Detroit, to hold a general Indian council. At Niagara he called a council of the Senecas. He told them about the discovery of their plot, and asked the meaning of such conduct. They replied, denying all knowledge of such a conspiracy, and put on an air of innocent surprise at the accusation. But Sir William was not in the mild mood he commonly used when dealing with the Indians. He had gained their respect and affection by his kindness, and now, when he thundered forth with righteous indignation, they quailed before him.

"As this is so villainous an affair" said he, "and carried so far, I must tell you plainly that I look upon what you now tell me as only an evasion and a kind of excuse to blind us. And I tell you that all the excuses you can make, and all the rhetoric your nation is the master of, will not satisfy the General, nor convince me of your innocence unless a deputation of your chiefs appear at the general council which I am now calling at Detroit, and there, in the presence of all the nations, declare your innocence and disapprobation of what has been done by the two messengers last at Detroit. This expect you will do to show your brethren your innocence, and all the Indians your detestation of so vile a plot." Sir William then returned the belt which they had given with their denial, to show them that he did not believe what they said. This staggered the Indians and they consulted together for some time. At last they declared that they would send the belt to their nation with Johnson' s request and had no doubt that some of the chief men would attend the meeting at Detroit.

In due time Johnson met the Indians at Detroit and with the firing of two cannon the great council opened. In immense concourse of savages had gathered from the north, west, and south to see the man at whose house was the council fire of the Six Nations. They were all in gala dress, painted and ornamented. When the council gathered, Sir William and his officers appeared in full uniform. Johnson made them a long, friendly speech, and on the next day the representatives of the Northwest made a satisfactory reply. Kaiaghshota, a Seneca chief, arose, and made an eloquent speech clearing himself and his nation of participating in the recent plot. But Adariaghta, an influential Wyandot brave, sprang to his feet and confronted the Seneca with an exact account of how he had been one of the main plotters, and had been with the messengers sent to the Wyandots by the Senecas. Upon this an Ohio Indian, called the White Mingo, spoke, accusing the Wyandot of endeavoring in his turn to incite the Indians of his locality to a massacre of the English garrisons. A hubbub ensued which was likely to end in blows, when Sir William dissolved the council and the assembly gradually dispersed.

After this Sir William held many councils at Johnstown and the German Flats in order to preserve friendly relations with the Six Nations; otherwise the frontier of New York would have been devastated and all communication with the western parts cut off, but the Senecas continued sullen and rebellious.

In one of his speeches at Johnstown he handed the friendly Iroquois an axe, saying, in regard to the Senecas: "I now deliver you a good English axe, which I desire you will give to the warriors of all your nations, with directions to use it against these covenant-breakers by cutting off the bad links which have sullied the chain of friendship."

Notwithstanding all this the hostile tribes threatened Sir William, and he armed his tenants, numbering some hundred and twenty Highland Scotch families, and fortified his home. The followers of Pontiac were so enraged against Sir William Johnson, whose influence had prevented the Six Nations from joining them, that they swore to take his life. This aroused the faithful Mohawks, who offered to join him against any nation who should attempt to carry such a threat into execution, and eventually led them to join the English in their efforts to suppress the rebellious chiefs. But the Senecas perpetrated one of the most gruesome acts of the war. Parkman thus describes the scene of the awful tragedy called the ambuscade of Devil' s Hole. Allusion has been made to the carrying place of Niagara, which formed an essential link in the chain of communication between the province of New York and the western country. Men and military stores were conveyed in boats up the river Niagara, as far as the present site of Lewiston. Thence a portage road several miles in length, built by Sir William Johnson and finished in 1763, passed along the banks of the stream, and terminated at Fort Schlosser above the cataract. This road traversed a region whose sublime features have gained for it a world-wide renown:


The river Niagara, a short distance below the cataract, assumes an aspect scarcely less remarkable than that stupendous scene itself. Its channel is formed by a vast ravine, whose sides, now bare and weather-stained, now shaggy with forest trees, rise in cliffs of appalling height and steepness. Along this chasm pour all the waters of the lakes, heaving their furious surges with the power of an ocean and the rage of a mountain torrent. About three miles below the cataract, the precipices which form the eastern wall of the ravine are broken by an abyss of awful blackness, bearing at the present day the name of the Devil' s Hole. In its shallowest part, the precipice sinks sheer down to the depth of eighty feet, where it meets a chaotic mass of rocks, descending with an abrupt declivity to unseen depths below, a hundred feet or more. Within the cold and damp recesses of the gulf, a host of forest trees have rooted themselves; and standing on the perilous brink one may look down upon the mingled foliage of ash, poplar, and maple, while, above them all, the spruce and fir shoot their sharp and rigid spires upward into sunlight. The roar of the convulsed river swells heavily on the ear; and far below, its headlong waters, careening into foam, may be discerned through the openings of the matted foliage.


On the 14th of September, 1763, a party of five hundred Senecas lay in wait for a convoy which, having discharged its cargo at Fort Schlosser, was slowly returning escorted by a sergeant and twenty-four soldiers. The party had advanced to that portion of the road which forms the brink of the Devil' s Hole. The gulf yawned to their left, while to the right the road was skirted with wooded hills. Suddenly the Senecas rising from their ambush poured a rapid discharge of musketry, and then rushed forward with their glittering scalping-knives to complete their murderous work. Those who escaped the tomahawk were driven over the precipice and with horses and wagons went crashing down among the trees and rocks of the yawning chasm. Three only escaped.

A Corner in a Cellar under Old Fort Johnson.

Two companies of soldiers, hearing the firing, hurried to their relief, but being led into ambush shared the same fate, being totally destroyed. The Senecas returned to their homes with eighty scalps.

Again the redoubtable warriors of the "Valley," the terrible Mohawks, saved New York province from destruction, through their loyalty to Sir William. The rebellious western tribes, discouraged with their effort to embroil the whole of the Iroquois in the wholesale butchery of the English, threatened the life of Johnson. At once the Mohawks rallied around him and, with Sir William and Brant as leaders, took up the hatchet against the Ottawa Confederacy. Discouraged at the fact that these fierce warriors not alone remained neutral, but were advancing with the English soldiers intent upon the destruction of the rebellious tribes, many of the western savages withdrew from the support of Pontiac. At a meeting of his chiefs and warriors with Crogan, the courageous deputy of Sir William, Pontiac - acknowledged his defeat by offering the calumet and belt of peace. Parkman says:


Crogan' s efforts had been attended with signal success. The tribes of the West, of late bristling with defiance and hot for fight, had craved for forgiveness, and proffered the calumet. The war was over; the last flickering of that wide conflagration had died away; but the embers still glowed beneath the ashes, and fuel and breath alone were wanting to rekindle those desolating fires.


In finally making the great peace, Pontiac said: "I now deliver my pipe to be sent to Sir William Johnson, that he may know I have made peace and taken the King of England for my father in presence of all the nations now assembled; and whenever any of these nations go to visit him they may smoke out of it with him in peace."

After Pontiac had sued for peace, some time elapsed before the turbulent tribes ceased their murderous raids. After raising the siege of Fort Pitt the Indians retreated as far as the Muskingum, where they collected their forces and attached new tribes to their confederacy, and made every preparation for renewing the struggle in the spring, but Colonel Bouquet with a large force was sent against them. Unable to check his advance the Delawares, Shawnees, and Senecas asked for a conference to be held on Oct. 18, 1767. Such conference was ordered, and the chiefs and principal warriors of the above tribes were present. The Colonel informed them peace would not be granted unless they should deliver to him all prisoners whom they had held in possession. The Delawares reported 101 prisoners which they would deliver up. As many of the raids of the Delawares had been made on the borders of Pennsylvania and the southern frontier of New York an exchange was made at Albany, and is thus described by Mrs. Grant in her Memoirs of An American Lady:


The joyful day when the congress was holden for concluding peace I shall never forget. Another memorable day is engraven in indelible characters upon my memory. Madame [Mrs. Schuyler], being deeply interested in the projected exchange, brought about a scheme for having it take place at Albany, which was more central than any other place, and where her influence among the Mohawks could be of use in getting intelligence about the children, and sending messages to those who had adopted them, and who by this time were very unwilling to part with them, in the first place because they thought the children would not be so happy in our manner of life, which appeared to them both constrained and effeminate. This exchange had a large retrospect. For ten years back there had been every now and then, while these Indians were in the French interests, ravages upon the frontiers of the different provinces. In many instances these children had been snatched away while their parents were working in the fields or were afterwards killed.

A certain day was appointed, on which all who had lost their children, or sought those of their relations, were to come to Albany in search of them; where on that day all Indians possessed of white children were to present them. Poor women who had travelled some hundred miles from the back settlements of Pennsylvania and New England appeared here, with anxious looks and aching hearts, not knowing whether their children were alive or how exactly to identify them if they should meet them. I observed these apprehensive and tender mothers were, though poor people, all dressed with peculiar neatness and attention, each wishing the first impression that her child should receive of her might be a favorable one. On a gentle slope near the fort stood a row of temporary huts, built by retainers to the troops; the green before these buildings was the scene of these pathetic recognitions, which I failed not to attend. The joy of even the happy mothers was overpowering, and vented in tears; but not like the bitter tears of those who, after long travel, found not what they sought. It was affecting to see the deep and silent sorrow of Indian women, and of children who knew no other mothers, and clung fondly to their bosoms, from whence they were not torn without the most piercing shrieks; while their own fond mothers were distressed beyond measure at the shyness and aversion with which these long lost objects of their love received their carresses. I shall never forget the grotesque figures and wild looks of these young savages; nor the trembling haste with which their mothers arrayed them in the new clothes they had brought for them, as hoping that with the Indian dress they would throw off their habits and attachments. It was in short a scene impossible to describe but most affecting to behold.



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