American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Johnson, William

Title: William Johnson
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Sir William Johnson was probably the most influential single Englishman in relations with the Iroquois and their allies during the French and Indian War. From his mansion near Albany, Johnson forayed on Indian war parties, painting himself like an Indian and taking part in ceremonial dances. He was a close friend of Hendrick (Tiyanoga), a Mahican-Mohawk leader, with whom he often traveled as a warrior. Joseph Brant fought beside Johnson at the age of thirteen. Because he successfully recruited a sizable number of Iroquois to the British interest, Johnson was made a baronet, with a £5,000 sterling award.

Johnson quickly learned the customs and language of the Mohawks. He had a number of children by Mohawk women, many of them with Mary Brant, a Mohawk clan mother and granddaughter of Hendrick. He generally was well liked among the Mohawks. Hendrick himself had a high regard for the Englishman and expressed his regard when he said, " . . . he has Large Ears and heard a great deal, and what he hears he tells us; he also has Large Eyes and sees a great way, and conceals nothing from us" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 185).

In June 1760, during the final thrust to defeat the French in North America, Johnson called for men to attack Montreal. About 600 warriors responded. Many Native warriors living in the Montreal area also responded to his call. Johnson reported he was sending gifts to "foreign Indians" who were switching their allegiance from the sinking French Empire. By August 5, 1760, the Native contingent had reached 1,330.

The defeat of the French and their departure from Canada at the end of the war upset the balance that the Iroquois had sought to maintain. Reluctantly, they attached themselves to the British, but they could no longer play one European power against another. The English now occupied all the forts surrounding Iroquois country. Johnson played a key role in pressing the crown to limit immigration west of the Appalachians, but land-hungry settlers ignored royal edicts, intensifying conflicts over land. In the meantime, Johnson became one of the richest men in the colonies through land transactions and trade with the Indians.

In his later years, Johnson agonized over whether to side with the British crown or the revolutionary patriots. At a meeting with the Iroquois on July 11, 1774, at his mansion near Albany, Johnson addressed the Iroquois in the oratorical style he had learned from them, summoning them to the British cause in the coming American Revolution. Suddenly, he collapsed. He was carried to bed, where he died two hours later. The assembly of chiefs was stunned by his sudden death, but Guy Johnson, Sir William's nephew and son-in-law, stepped in to fill the breach left by his elder.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Flexner, James Thomas. 1959. Mohawk Baronet. New York: Harper & Row.; Graymont, Barbara. 1972. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr. 1977. The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.; Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Henry Holt.; Sullivan, James, et al., eds. 1921–1965. The Papers of Sir William Johnson. Albany, NY: Albany: University of the State of New York.
 

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