The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





This chapter, in the natural sequence of events, appears late in the book, although in the matter of importance it deserves to be at the beginning.

The directors of the Montgomery County Historical Society, situated at Amsterdam, N.Y., have long desired to possess the first baronial mansion of Sir William Johnson, known since 1755 as Fort Johnson.

This old structure is situated on the Mohawk River about three miles from the city of Amsterdam, N.Y., and within two hundred feet of the New York Central Railroad on the north, and is plainly visible to tourists from the windows of the cars.

Between 1859 and 1905 the property belonged to and was the home of the family of Ethan Akin, who died in 1897. In 1905 this property was sold, in order to settle the estate. In order to save the old building from being put to improper use the Historical Society above mentioned obtained an option on the property for sixty days by making a cash payment of five hundred dollars. Before the sixty days had elapsed, Major-General J. Watts de Peyster, of "Rose Hill," Tivoli, N.Y., became interested in the preservation of the old mansion for family reasons, and offered to purchase Fort Johnson (price $5900) and deed it to the society, provided the said society would assume to care for and maintain the same and to install a suitable bronze tablet in the interior. The society having agreed to these provisions, the General proceeded to carry out his part of the contract and the transfer of the property was made on November 9, 1905.

J. Watts de Peyster, From a steel engraving.

Suitable resolutions were engrossed and sent to the General and in various other ways the people of the city of Amsterdam have expressed their appreciation of his generous gift.

Below will be found a short sketch of Major-General de Peyster and some of his notable ancestors:


John Watts de Peyster, brevet major-general, by special act of New York State Legislature, for "meritorious services rendered to the National Guard and to the United States, prior to and during the Rebellion." On his father' s side he can trace back his descent under the most favorable circumstances for six hundred years in Flanders, especially in Ghent, where his people continually held offices which to hold was peculiarly the right of those of noble or aristocratic lineage. As far back as the thirteenth century they suffered on account of their acceptance of the Protestant or Reformed doctrines and were faithful, even to the death, to their opinions. They were termed Huguenots, although it is generally considered the term is only applicable to Frenchmen, but the de Peysters belonged to districts which are now French territory, constituting the "Nord" and the "Pas de Calais." On his mother' s sides, Watts, the record is equally striking and honorable. The family residence was a very imposing building 60 feet square, besides the offices, three stories high, originally just outside but latterly within the city limits of Edinburgh. The site was remarkable as affording exquisite views to the northwest, west and southwest. This Watts residence - still standing within half a century - was torn down and the site and domain became the property of the Caledonian Railroad. John Watt, whose daughter married Sir Walter Riddel, whose baronetcy dated back to the reign of King David I. (twelfth century), was a very remarkable city functionary and held the office of dean of the guilds, or deacon-convener then a most important position of authority and influence. When his King, James VI. of Scotland, was besieged in the old Tolbooth and the lives of himself and his court were threatened by a vicious mob incited by the Calvinist clergy, John Watt called his guilds to arms and rescued the King, and thereby saved his native city from the punishment of military execution. This brave gentleman was afterwards assassinated in revenge for his loyalty, instigated by the same Calvinist ministers and party, and his murderer escaped through their influence. His grandson Robert Watt emigrated to New York and for some unknown reason added an s to the name and thus became Watts, and at the same time the Nichols family, his wife' s, dropped the s and became Nichol.

The subject of this sketch is remarkable for the variety of distinguishing features which have been shown by his successful powers of practical and elegant designs, powers of research and composition in painting and sculpture and architecture, wherein, as professionals admitted, if they had listened to him success would have rewarded them for their attention, and failing to do so, they came short of success. The first was displayed in the membership diploma (the handsomest in the States) of the Holland Society, for which he received a most flattering vote of thanks or resolution; and this power is also shown in his practical plans of public buildings which he has erected, i.e., his church as a memorial of his two daughters, his fireman' s hall in memory of his two eldest sons, both in the village of Madalin, and his Watts de Peyster Home for Invalid Children in the township of Unionvale.

The first public building in which he was interested was the completion of an Episcopal church at Natchitoches, which was the first Protestant place of worship in that district. When a regiment from Dutchess County, N.Y., occupied that city during the Red River expedition the men climbed into the belfry, and were surprised at finding a bell bearing a dedicatory inscription and the name of the donor, a fellow-countryman. During the slaveholders' rebellion the edifice was so neglected so it had to be entirely restored, which was done in 1900 at the expense of General de Peyster, by whom it was originally completed. The General seems to have survived almost every one with whom he was intimate of his associates of boyhood days and his school companions, and, when he applied to the first rector of the Maria de Peyster Memorial church at Natchitoches for interesting particulars in regard thereto, the answer was the Rev. Thomas Scott Bacon had just died.

Memorial Tablet Erected in Honor of Major General John Watts de Peyster.

A short time since General de Peyster conveyed Rose Hill - named after his ancestral home in Scotland, above alluded to - his home near Tivoli station, to the Leake and Watts Orphan House at Yonkers, founded and endowed by his maternal grandfather, John Watts, reserving for himself the use of the property for life. He has just presented Fort Johnson, a historic family property, at Akin, N.Y., to the Montgomery County Historical Society. Among other benefactions of the General are: A home for consumptives in Unionvale, Dutchess County, the first of the kind so devoted, which was burned; St. Paul' s Training School for Boys, at Unionvale; established and endowed the Watts de Peyster Industrial Home and School for Girls, with its buildings and extensive grounds, at Madalin. To the city of Kearney, Neb., General de Peyster presented a bronze bust of his cousin Major-General Philip Kearney. He erected a chapel at Nebraska City as a memorial for his dead soldier sons - afterwards pulled down and the Watts de Peyster tablets transferred to a church in Kearney. At Altoona, Pa., he finished a church and built a memorial parish school and parsonage in memory of his daughter, Maria Beata. For Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa., he erected and equipped a very fine library building, and to the Leake and Watts Orphan House, at Yonkers, N.Y., he gave funds for an annex and added a donation of property valued at $200,000. To the State capitols of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey General de Peyster has presented bronzes and oil paintings of various distinguished relatives. He has given a most valuable and in some respects inestimable collection on Napoleon and on other subjects, comprising objects of art, bronzes, pictures, etc., to the library of the Smithsonian Institution, to which he is still adding.

In the city of New York are several statues of heroic size in commemoration of historic members of his family. In Trinity churchyard stands a bronze statue of the General' s grandfather, the Hon. John Watts, Jr., the last Royal recorder of New York; in the Bowling Green is a bronze statue of his famous ancestor Colonel Abraham de Peyster, a public-spirited citizen of the early period of Manhattan' s history. Opposite this statue General de Peyster was himself born, in the old Watts residence at No. 3 Broadway, 9th March, 1821. No. 1 Broadway was built by his great-uncle the Earl of Cassilis.

General de Peyster is a life member of the Royal Historical Society of Great Britain, honorary fellow of the Society of Science, Letters and Arts of London, and member of the Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde of Leyden, Holland, etc., etc. He is of the seventh generation resident of the first ward, city of New Amsterdam, afterward New York, and the sixth born therein in the course of two centuries and a half, and his family' s connections with Dutchess County has extended over seven generations.

The General was sent to Europe in 1851 as military agent of the State of New York. One of the results of that commission was the establishment of a paid fire department with steam fire engines and the organization of the present municipal police of New York city. In proof the General holds letters or certificates and testimonials from the highest officials.

At the beginning of the Civil War General de Peyster offered his services as Brigadier-General, with three picked regiments, to President Lincoln. Conditions prevented the acceptance of the offer, but two of his sons served with credit throughout the struggle, and all three of his sons were brevetted colonel for services rendered before they came of age. He repeated his offer of troops, but it was again refused. He was reviled by his neighbors for suggesting the use of negroes as soldiers in the Civil war, and Southerners upbraided him for defending John Brown, but he upheld his opinions. He saved the Italian soldier, Siro Pesci, a follower of Mazzini, from condemnation to a living death in the salt mines of Sardinia and smuggled him from Italy into France, and subsequently to Switzerland.

Part of Richmond Collection of Aboriginal Antiques.

Both his maternal and paternal ancestors suffered greatly in body, person and property for their loyalty, "faithful even unto death," to their kings and religious beliefs in Europe and America, and it was only when the slaveholders' rebellion that they had the good fortune of finding themselves on the winning side. It was religious persecution that drove the de Peysters of Flanders to seek refuge in England and Holland, and from the latter country the General' s g.-g.-g.-g.-grandfather emigrated to the New Netherlands, where he immediately exerted influence in city offices; and his great-grandson, whose statue adorns the Bowling Green, opposite the new custom-house, on the spot where he presided as receiver-general of the port in 1705, held in the course of his long life every possible office, even that of acting governor under the Crown, in his native city.



On the opposite page will be seen an illustration of a portion of the museum of the Montgomery County Historical Society. As Old Fort Johnson is destined, in the near future, to be the home of this museum, it seems proper that a description of the collection of aboriginal relics which comprise the major part of the museum should appear in these pages.

As a rule historical societies are not blessed with large bank accounts, and the above society is no exception to the general rule, the highest ambition of its directors having been to so conduct its affairs as to keep it alive from year to year, doing what little good might come in its way by marking historic sites and preserving records, with an occasional social function during each fiscal year.

At a little village a score of miles away from the city of Amsterdam, bearing the Indian name of Canajoharie, lived Mr. A.G. Richmond, an enthusiastic antiquarian who from boyhood had been interested in locating Indian sites and the collection of aboriginal relics. As his collection grew, through research and by purchase, his knowledge of the uses of the strange stone implements that he had obtained grew also, until at the maturity of his manhood he became an authority on Indian sites both historic and prehistoric, and also became noted as being the possessor of the largest and finest collection of Indian articles of warfare and the chase, and various domestic utensils of the Amerinds, to be found in the Mohawk Valley.

Unfortunately Mr. Richmond died, in the full vigor of his manhood, mourned by many loving friends, and regretted by his colaborers in this fascinating field of research. Fortunately, however, for antiquarians he had prepared, in manuscript, a valuable catalogue of the twenty-two thousand articles comprised in his collection, with most complete details of the uses of these articles, the place where found, and other information valuable to students in this branch of historic research.

Many looked with longing eyes and coveted the possession of these rare articles, but none more eagerly than the president of this association, J.H. Hanson. I know not what trick of alchemy, what persuasive power, what nimbleness of tongue, was used, but suddenly, and as unexpectedly as the glare of the lightning flash from a cloudless sky, it was announced that gold had been given to purchase the coveted Richmond collection.

Hon. Stephen Sanford.

A man whom all delight to honor, a gentleman whom it is a pleasure to meet, a scholar with mind stored with a rare fund of information and a delightful manner of imparting the same, a man with a generous and beneficent heart and well-filled coffers, Hon. Stephen Sanford, had again given of his wealth to assist a struggling society.

More surely than "storied urn or animated bust" will his many acts of beneficence perpetuate his name to generations yet unborn, a name inseparably connected with the history and prosperity of the city of Amsterdam. Other evidences of his interest in history and historic sites and kindness to the society of which he is an honorary member are his material assistance in the renovation of Old Fort Johnson, and in publishing that valuable book entitled Minutes of the Committee of Safety of Tryon County. But the crowning act is the endowing of this historic building with a sufficient sum to perpetuate it and care for it until its time-worn timbers cease to exist and its stone walls crumble to dust.

The total amount given the society up to date by Mr. Sanford is $21,600, as follows:




Richmond Collection


To publish book


Renovation of Fort Johnson







Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 12/11/99.

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