The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





The theme of this book being "Old Fort Johnson," it was my intention to confine myself to the history of the old building on the Mohawk River; but there have been so many mistakes made by early writers, and such a confusion in the minds of many in regard to the location of the two homes of Sir William Johnson, that it seems necessary to give more than a cursory allusion to the second baronial mansion of Sir William, located at Johnstown and known as Johnson Hall. The Tryon map of 1779 shows large tracts of land that belonged to his estate situated west, north and south of Fort Johnson, the most notable being the Kingsland patent of forty thousand acres located between East and West Canada creeks. It is said that the tract of land between the creeks mentioned in the patent really contained ninety-three thousand acres instead of forty thousand as mentioned in the Kingsland or Royal grant.

An Attic Window, Old Fort Johnson.

It is known that the Baronet's possessions in the vicinity of Fort Johnson on the Mohawk were somewhat limited on account of earlier grants of land issued to other parties, the Caughnawaga, Hansen, and Butler grants crowding him on the west and the Kayaderosseros patent on the east. In fact the only land he owned on the north bank of the Mohawk he bought at second hand, the Guy Park square mile having been originally granted (Dec. 12, 1727) to Henry Hoofe and known as the Hoofe patent, and the balance of his estate surrounding Fort Johnson was granted to Wilson and Abeel February 22, 1706, and comprised about two thousand acres of land, more or less. John Abeel, one of the patentees, was the father of the celebrated half-breed Corn-Planter, whose mother is said to have been a daughter of a Seneca chief.

John Abeel is spoken of in the Colonial Documents as an Albany trader. He seems to have traded principally with the Senecas, exchanging rum, and other commodities coveted by the Indians, for peltries. That he was a rover, a coureur du bois, seems to be true, but tiring of his roving life he married a white woman named Mary Knouts, settled on land about a mile west of Fort Plain, and became a farmer. He spent the remainder of his days on this farm. Simms tells a story which he terms "Captivity of John Abeel":


During the invasion of the Canajoharie settlement, as it was then called, in August, 1780, when John Abeel was about 56 years old, he was captured by a party of Brant's Indians and taken to the flats between his house and the Mohawk River. It is believed that Corn-Planter, who was with Brant, did not know of his father's captivity under several hours.

During the afternoon Abeel' s captors came up with another party of Indians, whom Abeel addressed in their own language, which he spoke fluently, inquiring what they meant to do with him. This led to the inquiry where he had learned the Indian language, and also his name. These facts being made known in camp, Abeel was at once confronted by a chief of commanding figure and appearance, who addressing him said: "You, I understand, are John Abeel, once a trader among the Senecas. You are my father! My name is also John Abeel or Gy-ant-wa-chia, the Corn-Planter. I am a warrior and have taken many scalps. You are now my prisoner, but you are safe from all harm! Go with me with my home in the Senecas' country and you shall be kindly cared for. My strong arm shall provide you with corn and venison. There my mother awaits you. But if you prefer to go back among your pale-face friends, you shall be allowed to do so, and I will send an escort of trusty Senecas to conduct you back to Fort Plain." The parent chose to return, and early in the evening an escort of Seneca braves left him near the fort. His house had been destroyed and was not rebuilt until the close of the war.

Johnson Hall, Johnstown, N.Y.

A few years afterwards Abeel developed insanity and became incompetent to manage his farm, but at first did not develop any violent mania. Somewhat later he had some words with one of his negro slaves, and, becoming violently angry, went into his house, obtained a gun and, returning to the field, shot the negro through the head, killing him instantly.

An attempt was made by the neighbors to arrest him, but being threatened with the gun they desisted. He was, however, subsequently arrested, but it was decided that, "as he was insane and that the negro was his own property, and he amenable to no one for his value, he should be confined."

A room was prepared in his own house and he was chained to the floor, where at times he would make night hideous by clanking his chains and executing a war dance. Some years later, in his old age, he became harmless and was allowed to wander about his farm, and finally met his death by being gored by a vicious bull.

The Kingsborough patent was granted to Arent Stevens and others on June 23, 1753, and comprised twenty thousand acres, while the Sacandaga patent of twenty eight thousand was granted to Lendert Gansevoort and others December 2, 1741.

During the early years of the settlement of the colony of New York, grants of prodigious size were obtained by single individuals or small companies, but the attempted steal of the immense tract of land comprised in the notorious Kayaderosseros patent aroused Indians and white settlers alike, and a law was passed prohibiting the transfer of more than a thousand acres to one person. This, however, did not prevent an individual from obtaining large tracts of land by forming companies of, say, the purchaser or purchasers and as many dummies or paper men as there were thousands of acres in the tract of land desired.

That the Kingsborough and Sacandaga patents were obtained in this way there is no doubt, and that these tracts ultimately became the property of William Johnson is a well-known fact.

Here was room to expand, here was an opportunity to carry out the scheme of his heart since he had been created baronet - the establishment of a barony with manor house and numerous tenantry.

Already farms had been taken up on the Sacandaga patent, and probably a nucleus of a settlement established before the building of Johnson Hall in 1762-1763, as a rude church was erected and a grave-yard started (?) as early as 1760. This seems to have been a rude affair, constructed of wood, with large door on one side as was usual in all of the wooden churches of that period that Sir William was instrumental in building. It is said that this old wood structure, being inadequate in size for the growing hamlet, was torn down in 1701 and the foundation of a stone church begun on the southwest corner of the lot. After the walls were raised several feet the plan was changed and a new site selected, being the log on which St. John' s church now stands. In 1836 this structure was burned and was replaced by the present building, although the position on the lot was changed at right angles with the old church, which ran north and south, with an entrance on Church Street, whereas St. John' s of to-day stands east and west with entrance on North Market Street.

Cayadutta Creek, Running through the Battlefield of Johnstown.

Johnson Hall was built of wood, and as originally constructed bore a striking resemblance to Mount or Fort Johnson on the Mohawk in everything except the material used, Mount Johnson being constructed of stone, while Johnson Hall was built of wood, the clapboards being arranged to simulate stone blocks with bevelled edges.

There was the same wide hall and open staircase leading to an attic; each story was divided into four rooms, two large square and two long narrow rooms, and the use of panelled walls and wainscoting although not as great extent as at Fort Johnson. The site of each building was bordered on the east by a creek and in each case the buildings were located low on a wide expanse of meadow or flat lands.

Each building had its kitchen and servant' s quarters outside, built of stone, and in each case the lawn in front was dotted with the locust and the lilac. So little taste or originality was displayed in Johnson Hall that it would seem as though it were a temporary structure, one to be replaced by a mansion commensurate with his title and enormous wealthy. At the present time the building has been so changed from its original plain design, so improved, when looked at from the standpoint of the twentieth century, so marred and disfigured, from the colonial point of view, that it cannot be recognized from the cuts that were made before changes were made.

How often the march of time and the requirements of wealth and trade make it necessary to change the appearance or to efface from the face of the earth all track, trace or remembrance of old buildings that become dear to memory as they grow old and fall into decay. The memories are often lasting to the surviving generation that, perhaps, were born and reared within its walls. Such persons will lend an attentive ear to matters pertaining to an old edifice and be in sympathy with efforts made to perpetuate the memory in records of history. Others are somewhat indifferent and are willing to leave the task to some one else. We go across the seas to see ancient castles and cathedrals and look with wonder at their time-worn walls and records, and return to look on with indifference when some old landmark in our own country is ruthlessly destroyed to make room for a structure more to the taste of young America.

Johnson Hall in its present state is an attractive mansion, both the exterior and interior showing evidence of the wealth and refinement of the present owners, but to an antiquary, to a historian, or rather one interested in all the history there is to the valley of the Mohawk and the adjacent country, there is a feeling of disappointment and regret that this building should have been modernized by the addition of piazzas, bay windows, cupola, and sundry changes in the decorations of the interior.

The Mohawk in the Chilly Grasp of Winter.

It is surprising, in view of the manifold points of historic interest existing in the vicinity of Johnson Hall, that the citizens of Johnstown have not manifested greater zeal in the early history of this pioneer village with all of its associations connected with the mature life of Sir William Johnson. I presume that it is owing, probably, to the traditions that have survived "the times that tried men' s souls," when the passions of men were aroused in that cruel fratricidal warfare when families, even, were divided into Tories and patriots, and where, as Oriskany, brothers and neighbors fought and met death with knives buried in each other' s bodies or rigid fingers clasped around each other' s throats. It is said that the "evil men do lives after them, but the good is often interred with their bones." The feeling of rage against the Johnson family, to whom was attributed all of the horror of Indian warfare, survived for a century, and the silly gossip of that period, recorded in the early books of J.R. Simms and others, has perpetuated senseless scandal which have in a measure injured the character of a truly great man in the very place he should be most venerated, the Mohawk Valley.

But a change has come o' er the spirit of their dreams, thanks to two or three vigorous historical societies that in the last two decades have produced great results. In addition to Johnson Hall, Johnstown has many interesting buildings of historic value - the court-house, jail, Drum house, St. Johns Episcopal church, all originally built by Sir William, and his grave in St. John' s churchyard. All of these have been treated at length in a former volume.

The recent erection of a fine granite statue of Sir William, by the Aldine Society, in the small park at the junction of Hall Avenue and West State Street, shows that the historic sentiment had but slumbered and needed but the enthusiastic, strenuous, and united action of the Aldine Society to awaken it to life. It is hoped that the historical societies of Johnstown will not cease their efforts until, either by gift, bequest, or purchase, they become the owners of Johnson Hall and sufficient land surrounding it to constitute a public park. {Since the paragraph was put in print, Johnson Hall has become the property of New York State, which I assume will be guarantee for its perpetual preservation.}



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

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