The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





Lady Mary Watts Johnson, the wife of Sir John Johnson, is, in memory, a picturesque personality that hovers amid the stirring scenes of the Revolution that were enacted around her old home, Fort Johnson, on the Mohawk.

She was a scion of a family of old New York whose ancestors were among the makers of that lordly city, and whose descendants have filled many positions of trust and honor in commerce, literature, and statecraft, on the battle-fields, and in the legislative halls of the nation. She came, in 1773, as a bride to the home of her husband, a beautiful young girl of nineteen fresh from the glitter and wealth of the fashionable society of New York and the post-nuptial feasts and entertainments at Albany and Schenectady.

The voyage of the bridal party up the Hudson was almost equivalent, in point of duration, to a voyage to Europe at the present day, occupying, as it did, about six or eight days.

We can imagine that the sloop was selected with care and that much thought was bestowed upon the arrangement of the cabin and the necessary stocking of the larder with wines and the delicacies of the season. The party consisted of Sir John, Lady Johnson, and her brother, Stephen Watts, and probably a maid for the lady, and servants for the gentlemen. If they were very much in love with each other or at all romantic, they must have looked forward with pleasure to this week of idleness in which to enjoy each other's presence untrammelled by requirement of social feasts and functions on shore.

Washington Irving has given a description of a voyage up the Hudson under the white wings of early days:


What a time of intense delight was the first sail through the highlands. I sat on deck as we slowly tided along at the foot of those stern mountains, and gazed with wonder and admiration at cliff impending far above me crowned with forests, with eagles sailing and screaming around them; or listened to the unseen streams dashing down precipices; or beheld rock and tree and cloud and sky reflected in the glassy stream of the river. And then how solemn and thrilling the scene as we anchored at night at the foot of these mountains clothed with overhanging forests; and everything grew dark and mysterious; and I heard the plaintive note of the whip-poor-will from the mountain-side, or was startled now and then by the sudden leap and splash of the sturgeon.


From Schenectady the journey of the bridal party was not made in a palatial railroad coach of the twentieth century, but on a rude Mohawk River flatboat propelled by a half-score of half-naked polemen into the heart of the wilderness, into the Mohawks' country.

Have you ever imagined the feelings of this young bride as she contemplated the environment of her new home, and contrasted it with the social pleasures with which she was surrounded at her home in the metropolis?

It is true that the stone baronial mansion, rising grim and gray from the midst of a grove of young locust, was imposing in size and appearance, and its environs pleasing to a lover of nature.

Thirty paces to the east a forest stream ran gurgling and seething through the grounds, and, two hundred paces to the south, lost itself in the flood of the Mohawk. The high grounds immediately to the north had been cleared of forest growths, but the ravine through which the Kayaderosseros Creek flowed was dark and damp under the shade of towering pines and rank undergrowth. Stretching to the east and to the west, on both sides of the river, was a long, narrow line of fertile flats, a section of the great granary of the Mohawk which the stream with its silvery glint cut in twain. The building itself seemed to wear an air of hospitality, which was even more apparent when the portal was crossed.

The interior of the house was finished with panelled walls and wide heavy mouldings, each of its eight rooms being of generous size. A wide hall on the main floor, with its stairway guarded by a narrow mahogany rail and slim baluster, was repeated above, while the stairs continued on to the large garret with huge beams and dormer windows.

The store which formerly flanked the building on the west side, but a little in front, had been removed, but the two smaller stone buildings, one on each side of the house, for kitchen and servants' quarters, still remained. Back of the house, just at the entrance of the high grounds of the ravine through which the stream flowed, stood the grist-mill, with flume leading to the dam a few hundred feet to the north, while on the left bank of the creek were barns, storehouses, and one or two dwellings.

The East Room, Old Fort Johnson.

Of the domestic affairs at the mansion we know nothing, but it is assumed, that, with wealth at his command, Sir John's retinue of servants must have been ample and the regime adequate.

It is said that Lady Johnson was accompanied by her brother, Stephen Watts, and that frequent visits to friends at Schenectady and Albany relieved somewhat the monotony of her existence.

It is true that the Hall was but ten miles away, but what sort of companionship would Molly Brant and her brood of half-savage half-breeds afford to a young girl fresh from the pleasures of the social life of the city and the fond care of parents, relatives, and friends? Before the end of a twelvemonth, death invaded the hall at Johnstown, and left vacant a space in the life of Tryon County and the home life of Sir William that Sir John was called upon to attempt to fill. How inadequate his attempt and how futile his endeavor history records.

How long Molly Brant and her children remained at the Hall I have no means of knowing, but it is probable that it was for a number of months or perhaps a year; but it is safe to assume that she went with Guy Johnson, Brant, and the Mohawks when they disappeared in the Indian country in August, 1775, as she is known to have been living in Joseph Brant's home at Indian Castle previous to active hostilities in the Mohawk Valley; was at Saratoga with the Mohawks previous to the surrender of Burgoyne; and went to Niagara with the Indians during Sullivan's raid in 1779. She died in 1805, presumably at Niagara, but up to the present time no knowledge of her burial place can be obtained.

Nevertheless, Lady Johnson lived at Johnson Hall, Johnstown, after Sir William' s death, doing the honors as hostess and mingling in the society of that frontier village. The family of John Butler lived about two miles south of Johnstown and were intimate friends and frequent visitors at the Hall, Walter N. Butler, the son of John Butler, being a close friend of the new Baronet, and a comrade in the subsequent raids through the valley which made their names notorious in history, and, in the case of Lieutenant Walter N. Butler, infamous.

Mention has been made in a previous chapter of the removal of Lady Johnson from the Hall by Colonel Dayton immediately after the exodus of Sir John and his Highlanders and their fearful march through the Adirondack wilderness, at which time she was taken to Albany, nominally under arrest. Here she remained some time, until it was discovered that she was in communication with Sir John in Canada, giving him valuable information detrimental to the cause of the patriots, when she was removed and placed under closer surveillance.

It is said, and it is conceded to be true, that Lady Johnson was held as a hostage for the good behavior of her husband, and that she was threatened by the officer in charge in the following terms:


"My command does not extend beyond this province; but if Sir John comes one foot within my district with his murderous allies -' your fate is sealed!" "How, sir, what do you mean? What can I do?" gasped the lady. "I mean, madam, that if your husband lets his Indians go on scalping our people, we cannot prevent them from shooting you. . . . Your case is different from all others. Sir John has power over the Indians whom no one else can control. We have no wish to injure you individually; but we must save our people from his savages. We hold you and your children as hostages."


If such language was used to a delicate, helpless woman, it was certainly brutal, but it is also true that no such action would or could have been enforced, and the threat must be considered as the vaporing of an irresponsible mind. No one supposes for a moment that General Washington or General Schuyler would permit a woman, however high or however lowly her station, to suffer for the acts of her husband.

Lady Johnson at this time was undoubtedly an irritable, petulant woman (made so perhaps by her delicate condition), imbued with a very exalted idea of her station as the wife of a baronet of the realm of Great Britain, and, because she was restrained from communicating with Sir John while within the lines of the patriots, she rebelled and resented the restraint that was accorded to the wives and families of the Tories of the valley who were fighting in the ranks of the British troops.

In January, 1777, Lady Johnson made her escape from her captors, in disguise "through deepest snow, through extreme cold weather, through lines of ingrates and enemies, into the loyal city of New York."

The following incidents of her escape are related by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Christopher Johnson:


Having obtained passes, the party, which consisted of Lady Johnson, her maid, three children, and Tony, an old family slave, fled in disguise. The children were, probably, William, born in 1775, a little daughter born in 1776, and an infant born during her captivity and at the time of her escape (?) not many weeks old. Horses and a sleigh had been secured and they proceeded on their way without obstruction, except that they were occasionally obliged to show their passes until they were in the vicinity of Grove house, which was only a short distance from the British lines. Here, under some cattle sheds, they left their equipage, without going to the house, and made their way towards the Hudson. Travelling all day, each one carrying a child, they were fortunate in finding a resting place towards evening, where they received food and shelter, but the infant, who had to obtain its nourishment from its mother' s breast, suffered from the physical exhaustion of my lady and became a source of great anxiety.

They arose in the morning, however, to find that they were only two miles from the river, but the problem of crossing could only be solved at its banks. Hurrying forward with all speed to escape a Continental soldier who they understood was hunting for the party, they reached the river only to find that the ice was breaking up and floating down the stream in great masses, occasionally leaving openings between. The centre of the river seemed to be comparatively clear, and if a boat could be secured, and they could take advantage of an opening between the cakes and get through to the open water before the masses of ice came together, they stood a fair chance in reaching the opposite bank of the river.

A boat and boatman was fortunately found and by the use of gold, of which Lady Johnson had a good supply, the man agreed to make the attempt. Clasping her infant closely in her arms to give it warmth, its little chilled face and closed eyes giving her the greatest anxiety, she watched Tony' s guidance of the boat with fear and trembling until they were at last in midstream, clear of the threatening masses of ice, and in half an hour reached the opposite shore.

The British tents were in sight; gold was thrown to the boatman, and though the snow was deep and soft the lady, staggering with weakness, struggled through the mile which yet separated them from the first line of sentries. Indians were the first who spied the party, and, though they received with their usual composure the announcement of the lady' s name, a glance sent off two of their number towards the camp while the others, wrapping some furs around the lady and her infant, lifted them with the utmost care and tenderness in their powerful arms, till they were met by the messenger returning with blankets and mattresses hastily formed into litters. On these all were carefully deposited and carried on swiftly, Tony weeping in joy and thankfulness over his mistress and trying to comfort her by telling her that Sir John was coming.

The poor mother cast one hopeful glance toward the distance, and another of anxiety upon her infant, who just opened its little eyes, and ere she could see that it was the last convulsion of the shrinking frame she was clasped in the arms of her husband and was borne, insensible, to the quarters of the commander-in-chief, where every care and comfort was bestowed upon her and her children that their exhausted state required.

The first delight of being restored to her husband and seeing her children at rest and in safety was marred by the anguish of missing the little loved one whom she had borne through so much sorrow and suffering. "But a few hours sooner," she thought, "and my little pretty one had been saved." But the joy and thankfulness of those around her soon stilled her repining. Both her surviving children appeared to be entirely restored to health; but with the little girl the appearance was fallacious. After the first week her strength and appetite declined, and her parents had the grief of laying her in an untimely grave, from the destructive effects of cold and exposure on a frame previously debilitated by illness during her mother' s captivity, when she could not procure either advice or proper medicines.


After a short stay in New York city Sir John returned to Canada, and from that time until the close of the war his energy was devoted to strenuous aggression against the inhabitants of the territory of his birthplace. Subsequently Lady Johnson joined her husband in Canada, her principal dwelling place being in Montreal, although the summer months were spent, frequently, on Sir John' s seigniory at Argenteuil on the Ottawa River. She also visited in England, where she was much admired in court circles. Lady Johnson bore her husband ten sons and four daughters. One son, James Stephen Johnson, was killed at the siege of Badajoz, in 1814; one daughter, Catherine Maria Johnson, married Major-General Bernard Foord Bowes, who fell at Salamanca, in 1812, while leading the troops to an assault. A public monument was erected to his memory in St. Paul' s Cathedral, London. Lady Johnson died in Montreal August 7, 1815. Her husband survived her, and died at the same place, January 4, 1830. Both are buried at "Mount Johnson," near Chambly, Province of Quebec. (General J. Watts De Peyster' s Sir John Johnson.)

Much has been written about the first raid of Sir John Johnson, which is said to have been undertaken not alone in revenge for the alleged cruelty to his wife and the death of his two children through the hardships and exposure incident to Lady Johnson' s escape through the American lines to the city of New York, but also for the sordid reason of regaining his buried treasures and papers left behind in his flight through the Adirondacks in 1776. These treasures consisted of a large quantity of plate and other valuables together with papers and documents whose intrinsic value is not known. The plate was undoubtedly of great value, as it is said that it was packed in the knapsacks of forty soldiers.

Without doubt other valuable plate was also removed to Canada at the same time by the Mohawks. Upon their first flight from the valley the communion service and paraphernalia of Queen Anne' s Chapel at Fort Hunter, given to the Mohawks in 1712, was placed in a hogshead and buried on the Hudson farm west of the mouth of the Schoharie River. This plate was dug up uninjured, but the more destructible ornaments of the altar were destroyed. The plate is now in the custody of the descendants of Joseph Brant at Brantford and Deseronto, Ontario, Canada, in an excellent state of preservation, an almost fabulous value being placed upon it.

Whether the Johnson' s valuables were placed in hogsheads or chests we do not know, as the faithful slave who was left behind to watch over and guard the secret place of burial was true to his trust, although he became the property of an American upon the flight of Sir John, and returned to Canada with him at the time of its removal. The route taken was north from Johnstown to Sacandaga River, thence to the Hudson and Scroon rivers, to Scroon Lake and Lake Champlain, via Crown Point to Canada. It is said, however, that this plate, which was handled by hands imbued with blood of the Vischers, the Putmans, the Fondas, and other residents of the old town of Caughnawaga, was never destined to be of any profit to Sir John, for the papers and documents were destroyed through dampness and, "the silver and other articles retrieved at such a cost of peril, of life, of desolation, and of suffering, was not destined to benefit any one. What, amid fire and sword and death and destruction, had been recovered was placed on shipboard for conveyance to England, and by the irony of fate the vessel foundered in the gulf of St. Lawrence, and its precious through blood-stained freight sank into the abyss of the sea."

With Sir John Johnson' s second raid, in October of the same year, 1780, his mission of vengeance ended, although he still continued to be a "menace" to the northern frontier.

It is said that the history of one century should be written by the people of the next. It is now a century and a quarter later than the period of Sir John Johnson' s raids of vengeance. What is the verdict of its historians? Are the people of old Tryon County ready to rehabilitate the man whose war-cry was vengeance, whose instruments of death were the scalping-knife, the tomahawk, and the torch, inflicted for the loss of wide domains and for fancied indignations to his young wife? Was it for love of Old England, of which he was an alien, that he refused to sign a pledge and keep his parole? His conduct at Oriskany and Fort Schuyler was legitimate, heroic warfare, and if he had continued to meet the American soldiers face to face and trusted to the God of battles to decide, we might attribute his zeal to loyalty to the King and love of the fatherland; but the desolation of fair fields, the burning of granaries, the sacking of homesteads, the failure to restrain the hands that carried the torch and the scalping-knife, be those hands red or white, can never be condoned in one century or many. {Since the above was put in print it has been ascertained through the inspection of the Archives of the province of Ontario, that Sir John Johnson received from the British Government $221,000 for his losses by confiscation and sequestration after the War of Revolution.}



Mention has been made of the serious and almost fatal wounding of Major Stephen Watts, the brother of Lady Polly Watts Johnson. As Major Watts was a guest of Sir John at Fort Johnson and Johnson Hall it is probable that he fled to Canada through the Adirondack wilderness with Sir John and his Scotch retainers in May, 1776, although it is possible that he may have gone with Colonel Guy Johnson when he disappeared in the Indian country in May, 1775.

However, in July 1777, we find him with St. Leger' s army in front of Fort Schuyler, and in command of the second detachment of "Johnson' s Greens" at the battle of Oriskany, August 6, 1777. This body of soldiers was composed almost entirely of Tories who had fled from the valley with the Johnsons, and now returned as British subjects to fight for the King and to regain, if possible, the lands and homesteads they had abandoned.

Stories of heroism in battle, although accompanied with a display of brutal passions, often engage the attention of the most gentle of readers at their recital, causing them to forget for the time being the barbarity of war, and constraining them to rejoice in a victory which has all the elements of beastly conflict.

Such I think is the case with that part of the engagement which relates to the fratricidal combat between the American and Major Watt' s detachment of "Johnson' s Greens," which resulted in victory for the patriots.

This part of the Oriskany engagement has always fascinated me, and the old proverb, "When Greek meets Greek then comes the tug of war," seems peculiarly apt when applied to that gruesome conflict.

It was at the time of the cessation of that terrific thunder-storm which drenched friend and foe alike and caused even the Indians to scurry to cover like a covey of partridges, and the Americans were fighting with a fury that was slowly but surely turning the tide of battle in their favor, that the troops of Major Watts dashed forward against the ranks of the nearly exhausted but still fearless Americans. As they drew near it was observed by this patriotic band that they were former neighbors, and in some cases relatives, who had fled from Tryon County with the Johnsons and now returned with arms in their hands and bitter hate in their hearts. After the first discharge of their muskets the recognition seemed mutual, as with a snarl and howl of rage they leaped upon each other with the fierceness of tigers. Clubbing their muskets, or discarding them entirely, they drew their knives and grappled each other, or throttled with bare hands, sometimes dying together in one another' s close embrace.

IT was a terrible struggle, exhibiting all of the cruelty and brutality which distinguished civil war in all its gruesome details.

It was in this fierce combat that Major Watts was wounded, about the time that the Indians raised the retreating cry "Oonah! Oonah!" and fled, the Tories soon following them, leaving their dead and wounded to the care of the victorious though sadly stricken Americans.

Mrs. Bonney, according to Colonel W.L. Stone, gives the following account of the wounding and subsequent rescue of the Major.


Major Watts was wounded through the leg by a ball and in the neck by a bayonet which passed through the back of the windpipe and occasioned such an effusion of blood as to induce not only him but his captors to suppose (after leading him two or three miles) that he must die in consequence. He begged his captors to kill him; they refused and left him by the side of a small stream under the shade of a bridge, where he was found two days subsequently, his wound in bad condition, but still alive. He was borne by some Indians to Schenectady, where his leg was amputated, and where he remained until sufficiently recovered to bear a voyage to England.


It is said on the authority of General de Peyster, his grand-nephew, that soon after his arrival in England he married a Miss Nugent, and lived and died in elegant retirement surrounded by a noble family of equally brave sons.

J.R. Simms gives some additional details of the finding of the desperately wounded Major:


Being discovered by Henry N. Failing, a private soldier of the Canajoharie district, he kindly carried him to a little stream, that he might slack his thirst and die more easily. To his thanks for kindness he added the gift of his watch, a silver-cased one, and of a style known at that period as a "bulls-eye" from its resemblance in shape. Two days after, Major Watts was discovered alive by some straggling Indians. . . . The subsequent history of this watch was as follows: Not long after he obtained it, Failing sold it to a Marten G. Van Alstyne for $300 Continental money (value at that time about $30), who retained it in his possession during his lifetime. What finally became of this relic of that bloody field is unknown.



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