The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





In a conversation with a noted author and soldier in regard to history, particularly American history, he remarked that a true history of the Revolution never had been and probably never would be written. His argument was, that the time to gather historic facts was within the memory of men who participated in a particular episode, and from documents pertaining thereto or from persons living in that period and cognizant of the facts from personal knowledge.

It is true that documentary history is most valuable, but it often tells but a fragment of the story. Personal knowledge is also valuable, but as such history is frequently colored by partisan feeling it often becomes misleading from the interests or personal hatred of the relater, or narrator. Then again, the historian has to depend, in a great measure, on the researches of his predecessors and often finds, if his researches have been thorough, errors made and repeated over and over again by previous writers which make the pages of early history as confusing as the doors of Bagdad marked by Morgianna's chalk. It has been said that the history of one century should be written by the people of the next. This may be true in a great measure, particularly in biographies and historic episodes of a particular locality.

Distance of time often lends enchantment to the lives of noted or notorious persons, and strips them of the ignominy that pervaded their lives, robing them with motives for their actions that practically array them in a new character. Witness the change of sentiment in regard to Major André, the spy, and the partial rehabilitation of Benedict Arnold. A century after his vile treason we are beginning to think of him as a brave soldier and a great general, and linger over his charge at the battle of Saratoga, his march to Fort Schuyler after the battle of Oriskany, his terrible march to Quebec in November and December, 1775, and his gallantry under the lamented Montgomery at the storming of that northern stronghold.

Even Judas Iscariot is now claimed by some people as a martyr, although still a murderer. They say that it was ordained from the beginning of the world that one of the disciples should betray the Christ and thereby suffer the torments of the damned. A recent writer makes his hero say:


It is said that Satan entered into Judas, but it looks to me more likely that the Angel of the Lord entered him, he being a good man to start with or our Lord would not have chosen him to be a disciple. Judas knew for sure, after the Lord told him, that one of the disciples would betray the Saviour and go to hell, where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.

Judas loved all of the disciples very much, so he, being imbued with the doctrine of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, thought that it was his duty to save the others from the torments of the damned. So he went out and betrayed his Lord for 30 pieces of silver. He knew that if he did not do it, it might have been Peter, James or John or some other disciple that the Saviour loved, because it had to be done by one of them, for the Lord had said so. After it was done and he knew that the others were saved from the foul deed, he went to the rulers, threw down their money, and went and hanged himself. If he had been a bad man he would have kept the money. Of course Judas knew he would go to hell and Jesus would go to heaven, therefore he (Judas) out of love for his companions committed the deed to save them from torments eternal.

Sir John Johnson, Bart.

I have been tempted to introduce, at this time, the above incidents or examples, to show the vagaries of men's minds and the tendency of the biographers of this age to analyze the motives of men who have performed great deeds or committed great acts of virtue or villany, and to excuse or rehabilitate the character of historic personages who have been contemned by their cotemporaries.



The following is an extract from Maj.-Gen. Watts de Peyster' s sketch of Sir John Johnson in his book entitled The Orderly Book of Sir John Johnson:

"The Past appeals to the impartiality of the Future. History replies. But often generations pass away ere that reply can be given in a determinate form. For not until passionate pulses have ceased to beat, not until flattery has lost its power to charm, and calumny to vilify, can the verdict of history be pronounced. Then from the clouds of error and prejudice the sun of truth emerges."

Sir John Johnson, the son and heir of Sir William Johnson, Bart., was born at Johnson' s Settlement, on the Mohawk River opposite the city of Amsterdam, N.Y., November 5, 1742. In the spring following (1743) the family moved into a large stone mansion, which Sir William named Mount Johnson, situated within 200 paces of the confluence of the Kayaderoseros or Old Fort Creek with the Mohawk River. (The place was also called Johnson' s Castle.) Here John Johnson grew to early manhood, having the companionship of his younger sisters Anna and Mary, and undoubtedly received the rudiments of education from the governess employed by Sir William for the instruction of his children. (It is said that she was the widow of an English officer, but her name is not known.)

Mrs. Grant of Laggan gives a description of the sisters:


These two young ladies inherited in a great measure the personal advantages and strength of understanding for which their father was so distinguished. Their mother dying when they were young bequeathed them to the care of a friend, the widow of an officer who had fallen in battle, who devoted her life to her fair pupils. To these she taught needlework of the most elegant and ingenious kinds, reading, and writing; their monitress not taking the smallest concern in family management, nor the least interest in any worldly thing but themselves; far less did she enquire about the fashions or diversions which prevailed in a world she had renounced upon the death of her husband, and from which she and her pupils seemed to remain forever estranged.

Never was anything so uniform as their dress, their occupations, and the general tenure of their lives. In the morning they rose early, read their prayer-book, I believe, but certainly their bible, fed their birds, tended their flowers, and breakfasted; then they were employed for some hours with unwearied perseverance, at fine needlework for the ornamental parts of dress, which were the fashion of the day, without knowing to what use they were to be put, as they never wore them, and had not at the age of sixteen ever seen a lady (?) excepting each other and their governess; then they read as long as they chose, either romances of the last century [17th] of which their friend had an ample collection, or Rollin' s ancient history, the only books they had ever seen; after dinner they regularly, in summer, took a long walk; or an excursion in a sledge, in winter, with their friend, and then returned and resumed their wonted occupations, with the sole variation of a stroll in the garden in summer, and a game of chess, or shuttle-cock in winter.

Their dress was to the full as simple and uniform as everything else; they wore wrappers of the finest chintz, and green silk petticoats; and this the whole year round without variation.

Their hair which was long and beautiful was tied behind with a simple ribbon; a large calash shaded each from the sun, and in the winter they had long fur-lined scarlet mantles that covered them from head to foot.

Their meals were taken apart from the household and their father visited them every day in their apartments. This innocent and uniform life they led till the death of their governess, which happened when the eldest sister Anne was not quite seventeen.

Midwinter in the Mohawk Valley.

Anne married Col. Daniel Claus and died about 1798. Mary married her cousin, Guy Johnson. She had a daughter Mary, who married Lord Clyde, better known as Sir Colin Campbell, queller of the East India mutiny, and inseparably connected with the siege of Lucknow. You will remember the story: how a small body of British troops under Generals Havelock and Outram were besieged in the residency of Lucknow by ten thousand mutineers. For days and weeks they watched for the coming of relief. At last, when hope is almost gone, a sentry on the walls thinks he hears the pibroch of the Highlanders. With hand to ear he listens with fear and trembling until at last, nearly delirious with joy, he hears the sound again, and shouts to his comrades, "Hark! dinna ye hear the slogan? The Campbells are coming!" and soon the Highlanders under Sir Colin Campbell bring relief to the almost despairing soldiers.

Of Sir John Johnson' s early life, I shall have to follow in the footsteps of earlier writers and state that very little is known of his boyhood days. We do know, however, that at the age of thirteen years he and Joseph Brant, then an Indian lad of the same age of John Johnson, followed Sir William' s troops to Lake George in 1755 and that Brant is said to have participated in the engagement at "Bloody Pond." Sir John Johnson at the age of seventeen years was present at the fall of Fort Niagara, July 24, 1759. The forces in this engagement were under the command of Gen. Sir William Johnson. In 1761 he accompanied his father to Detroit at a conference with the western Indians, and in 1764 John Johnson, in command of three hundred Iroquois, followed the expedition of Colonel Bradstreet from Fort Niagara to Detroit.


In October, 1765, on the return of Lord Adam Gordon to England after a visit to the Baronet at Johnson Hall, the latter sent his son John with Lord Gordon to England, as he said "to wear off the rusticity of a country education." On being presented at court by such a dignitary, he was at once knighted as the son of Sir William who was afterwards very much gratified on hearing of the fact.

Deep Casemented Window in the Lady Johnson Room.

On June 29, 1773, Sir John married the beautiful Mary, affectionately called "Polly," Watts, age nineteen, daughter of John Watts, at his home in New York city. That Sir William did not attend the wedding is proved by the following letter to a friend:


I thank you very kindly for your congratulations on the choice my son has lately made, and am very happy to hear that the young lady appears so deserving in the eyes of my friends, having left it to his own discretion, without tying up his hands in a business on which his future happiness must so greatly depend. The precarious state of my health, however, for some years past, with the often unexpected calls for my presence in the country, put it out of my power to promise myself the pleasure with any certainty of bearing a part on the occasion, notwithstanding the powerful inducements of love and friendship. I am very sensible of the force of both.


On the morning after the ceremony the young couple embarked on a schooner for Albany, reaching Johnson Hall towards the close of July. It is assumed that the happy pair lived at the old baronial mansion, Fort Johnson, where Sir John had been living since 1763, as mentioned in a former chapter. At the death of his father, however, he removed to Johnson Hall, Johnstown.

The death of Sir William was a great blow to his family, and cast a feeling of gloom throughout the length and breadth of the valley of the Mohawk and the adjacent territory. For thirty-five years he had been companion, counsellor, and friend of the sturdy Hollanders, thrifty Palatines, volatile Irish, and steady Scotchmen who had peopled the valley and converted gloomy forest lands into smiling meadowlands within his memory and with his assistance and his advice. His supreme power over those "Indians of Indians," the Iroquois, was an element of safety to them which they were proud to acknowledge and give him full credit for. Owning vast tracts of lands he had become a great factor in the trade and commerce of the valley, and his upright dealing and strict sense of honor had also given to his opinion the force of legal authority in the colonies.

Some historians claim that if he had lived he would have sided with the colonies in the war of the Revolution that was to follow. Be that as it may, I do not hesitate to assert that whatever the course he would have taken, the majority of the inhabitants of Tryon County would have followed him, in which case there would have been no Oriskany, no siege of Fort Schuyler, no Wyoming or Cherry Valley, no Indian raids or desolation of the valley, and possibly no Saratoga.

Sir John, however, being of a different character from his father and not having the same degree of moral power over the population of Tryon County, either Indians or whites, antagonized the yeomanry from the very beginning of his succession to the titles and estates of Sir William, with his arrogance and assumption of superiority on account of his British education, and looked down upon the humble friends of his father as being but little better than human chattels, and not worthy to associate with him, a knight and baronet of the realm of Great Britain.

Wm. L. Stone gives an account of the first clash in Tryon County between the Tories and patriots. Shortly after the news of the battle of Lexington had been received, a public meeting of the patriots was held at the house of John Veeder in Caughnawaga (Fonda). It was attended by about three hundred people, who assembled, unarmed, for the purpose of deliberation, and also to erect a liberty-pole - a most hateful object in that day in the eyes of the loyalists. Among the Whigs on that occasion were Sampson Sammons and his two sons Jacob and Frederick. Before they had accomplished the object for which they had met, the proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of Sir John Johnson accompanied by his two brothers-in-law, Colonels Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus, together with Col. John Butler and a large number of retainers armed with swords and pistols. Guy Johnson mounted a high stoop and harangued the people at length, and with great vehemence. He dwelt upon the strength and power of the King and was very virulent in his language toward the disaffected, causing their blood to boil with indignation. But they were unarmed and for the most part unprepared, if not indisposed, to proceed to any act of violence. The orator at length became so abusive that Jacob Sammons waxing warm and zealous called him a liar and a villain. Guy Johnson descending from his rostrum seized Sammons by the throat and called him a d----d villain in return.

A scuffle ensued, during which one of the intruders struck Sammons with a loaded whip, knocking him down. On recovering from the momentary stupor of the blow he found one of Johnson' s servants sitting astride of his body. A well-directed blow relieved him of the incubus, and springing to his feet he threw off his coat and prepared for a fight. Two pistols were presented to his breast, but not discharged as Sammons was again knocked down by the clubs of the loyalists, and severely beaten. On recovering his feet once more, he perceived that his Whig friends had all decamped with the exception of a few of the Fondas, Veeders, and Vischers. The loyalists also drew off, and Jacob Sammons returned to his father' s house bearing on his body the first scars of the Revolutionary contest in Tryon County.

Although the patriots of Tryon County were well convinced of Sir John' s loyalty to the King and had strong reasons to fear hostile proceeding on the part of Sir John and his two hundred Highlanders, the Tryon County Committee of Safety, determining to probe his intentions at once and to the bottom, sent him the following letter:



Oct. 26, 1775.


As we find particular reason to be convinced of your opinion in the questions hereafter expressed, we require you, that you' ll please to oblige us with your sentiments thereupon in a few lines by our messengers, the bearers hereof, Messrs. Ebenezer Cox, James McMaster, and John James Klock, members of our Committee.

We want to know whether you will allow that the inhabitants of Johnstown and Kingsborough may form themselves into companies, according to the regulations of our Continental Congress, for the defence of our Country' s cause; and whether your honor would be ready himself to give his personal assistance to the same purpose.

Also whether you pretend a prerogative to our County court-house and gaol, and would hinder or interrupt the Committee, to make use of the same public houses, to our want and service in a common cause?

We don' t doubt you will comply with our reasonable requests, and thereby oblige, Honorable Sir,

Your most humble and obedient servants.

By Order of the Committee.



To the Honorable Sir JOHN JOHNSON

Johnson Hall.


To this letter Sir John replied -


That as to embodying his tenants, he never did or should forbid them; but they might save themselves further trouble, as he knew his tenants would not consent. Concerning himself, sooner than lift his hand against his King, or sign any association, he would suffer his head to be cut off. As to the gaol and Court-house, he would not deny the use of it for the purpose for which it was built, but that they were his property until he should be refunded seven hundred pounds. [He further said] he had been informed that two thirds of Canajoharie and German Flats people had been forced to sign the Association.


Although counselled by the Congress to refrain from any overt acts against the Johnsons, the people of Tryon County were much incensed against the Johnstown loyalists, particularly so when it became evident that Sir John was making preparations to fortify Johnson Hall and to garrison the same with his Highland retainers, and, as rumor declared, three hundred Iroquois savages, who were to sally out and ravage the surrounding country. I have called the Iroquois savages, but Mrs. Grant of Laggan, whom {original text has "whom whom" on succeeding lines.} I have quoted before, pertinently asks:


Were they savages, who had fixed habitations; who cultivated rich fields; who built castles (for so they called their not incommodious wooden houses surrounded with stockades); who planted maize and beans and showed great ingenuity in constructing and adorning their canoes, arms and clothing; they who had wise unwritten laws and conducted their wars, treaties, and alliances with deep and sound policy; they whose eloquence was bold and nervous and animated; whose language was sonorous, musical and expressive; who possessed generous and elevated sentiments, heroic fortitude and unstained probity?


In regard to the body of Roman Catholic Highlanders that Sir John had surrounded himself with, they were particularly obnoxious to the Protestant Palatines, not only on account of their swaggering arrogance and belted claymores, but because they detested their religion. The Johnsons and their friends, however, made no further efforts to meet their opponents, but stood strictly on the defensive, and the palisades, if ever completed, were not garrisoned by the Iroquois.

About this time Guy Johnson received warnings of a plot to kidnap him. He at once assembled the officers of his department and a party of trusty men of his own regiment of militia and fortified his house (known as Guy Park, on the Mohawk River about two miles east of Fort Johnson) to resist attack. A body of Mohawks gathered there to defend him and for the time being the mansion resembled a frontier fort. Colonel Guy was closely watched and attacks threatened, but no overt move was made on the part of the patriots.

Fireplace and Oven, Guy Park.

It may be of interest to know that the first trace of actual activity on the part of Joseph Brant (Thayendanega) is a letter written by him at Guy Park, in the name of Aaron, John, and another Mohawk chief, in May, 1775, to the chiefs of the Oneidas urging them to come to the assistance of Colonel Guy Johnson. This letter was intercepted, and as the Oneidas failed to appear, Colonel Guy Johnson, accompanied by the officers of his department, a body-guard of Mohawks, and about a hundred Tories among whom were Daniel Claus, John and Walter Butler, Barent Frey, Han Yost Herkimer, Gilbert Tice, Joseph Brant, William and Peter, half-breed sons of Sir William Johnson, besides other men of weight and influence, marched rapidly up the valley and disappeared in the recesses of the Indian country. A majority of the party arrived in Montreal in August, 1775.

Sir John remained in the Mohawk valley after Colonel Guy Johnson' s departure, and, strong in his tenants and in his local influence, bid defiance to the Committee of Safety, and began to arm his tenants. His intention being suspected, General Philip Schuyler with four thousand troops marched to Johnstown, disarmed his tenants, and took him prisoner. He was sent to Fishkill, where he was liberated on parole. The following May, however, Sir John, regardless of his promise, broke his parole and, accompanied by his Highlanders and other tenants, fled to Montreal by the way of Sacondaga and the Adirondack wilderness. Their route was probably through the lake region of Hamilton and Franklin counties to the St. Lawrence River at St. Regis. This seems to be proved from the fact that near the angle of junction of the St. Lawrence and Hamilton county line, and in the vicinity of Big Tupper Lake, a brass cannon and carriage lies nearly buried in the accumulation of the muck of the forest. It is said that a large forest tree has grown to a great height through one of the tires of a decayed wheel.

The exodus of Sir John and his followers was so hurried that they had no time to collect provisions, and during the nine days they were in the forests the whole party lived entirely upon wild onions, roots, and leaves of beech trees. Their feet became sore from travelling, and several of their number dropped out from exhaustion from time to time in the wilderness and were afterward brought in by Indians sent out for that purpose. During the nineteen days which elapsed between the time he left Johnstown and his arrival at Montreal, the party endured all the suffering that it seems possible for man to endure and live.

Of course Lady Johnson remained at the Hall, but was soon removed to Albany by Colonel Dayton, where she was retained as a kind of hostage for the peaceful conduct of her husband.

Upon Sir John' s arrival in Montreal he was immediately commissioned a colonel in the British service, and raised a command of two battalions, composed of those who accompanied him in his flight, and other American loyalists and others who had followed their example. They were called the Royal Greens, probably from the color of their uniform. In the month of January, 1777, he found his way to New York city, then in the hands of the British forces.

It is probable that the loadstone that drew him there was his young wife, who subsequently escaped from her captivity. From that time he became one of the bitterest foes of his own countrymen of any who engaged in that contest.



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