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Friday, July 22, 2011

Rumblings in the Valley…

Sir William Johnson

By Pat Iacuzzi

            On a hot 11 July, 1774, Sir William Johnson stood in the sun speaking with a  band of Iroquois who had come to Johnson Hall seeking his advice. Shortly after, he collapsed and died at the age of 59.
            By the time of his death, the Revolutionary movement was well underway in the Mohawk Valley. Residents had objected to new regulations by the English Parliament increasing taxes and raising prices on sugar, paper, and tea. They opposed the aristocratic establishment that the Johnsons and Butlers represented in the valley.
            Meetings were held by settlers favoring fewer regulations and more opportunities to participate in political decisions that influenced them. Feelings ran high as families and neighbors, split in their loyalties took opposing sides in the dispute.
            Sir William had denounced “the audacious behavior of New-Yorkers” who sought a democratic system and encouraged “that spirit of libertinism and independence daily gaining ground.” His relatives thus sided with the English Crown and became leaders of the Loyalist movement in the area.
            In the month following Sir William’s death, more than August temperatures rose in the valley. Tempers were rising too; the Tryon County patriots assembled in Stone Arabia to organize a Committee of Safety, an organization in which they could express their fiery and subversive new ideas. Patriots in Schenectady lifted their banners proclaiming liberty and organized a Committee of Correspondence to help keep them informed about those who might be hostile to their beliefs. The dispute between the two factions boiled over in a confrontation at the Johnstown Jail (erected in 1772 under direction of Sir William).

Sir John Johnson
Joseph Brant
            In a period marked by increasing division, Sir John Johnson, (Sir William’s son) fearing an imminent attack on Johnson Hall, fled from the homestead on May 1, 1776. With friends, tenants and an armed militia, he made his way north through the Adirondacks to Canada. Soon after his arrival, he formed the battalion of the “King’s Royal Regiment of New-York”, also known as Johnson’s Greens, and together with Butler’s Rangers and Iroquois led by Joseph Brant, (Thayendanega) Mohawk protégé of Sir William, returned to become the scourge of the Mohawk Valley…. (to be continued)       


  1. Pat, I find New York's Revolutionary history so compelling. Both Johnson and Brant were intriguing characters. I've read several books about Brant, and it just tears at my heart the position he was in during this conflict. Looking forward to reading "the rest of the story" in your posts.

    I bet you've seen the movie "The Broken Chain," with Pierce Brosnan as Johnson and Eric Schweig as Brant? It isn't completely historically accurate, but worth watching.

  2. Thanks for the post, Pat, and thanks Lori for the info about the movie. I would love to watch that! Johnson was an interesting person.

  3. Thanks Carrie for invaluable help on getting this posted...am slowly learning all the ins-and-outs.

    Lori--I had to go back and review--been awhile since seeing it; But, I've posted a snippet on my personal blog. Thanks so much for the reminder!

    I noticed Wes Studi was in it too; he's one of my faves; especially after Last of the Mohicans. And where they got that "Irish" accent for Brosnan (he is Irish)I have no idea but it had kind of a Scottish lilt to it. It might have been influenced--in those days--by British and Scots-Irish. Eric (Joseph) still has that great Native American drawn-out upward lilt at the end of his statements. Might that also sound Canadian(?)

    I know too, that Johnson, a Baronet, married his German bondservant, Catherine. When she passed away, he took Molly Brant (Joseph's sister) as his.... Wife? Some say no, that he never actually married her. Anyone have any concrete info on this?

  4. Pat, Isabel Kelsay has a bit about it in her biography of Joseph Brant. According to Kelsay there was no formal marriage, only common law. But the Mohawk at least looked upon her as William Johnson's lawful wife after their first son was born in 1759, and it created strong ties with the Canajoharie Mohawks.

  5. Johnson and Brant are definitely two figures whose influence on the Revolution far outstrips the degree of familiarity most Americans outside of N.Y. have with them. My WIP deals with the Tory and Iroquois threat to the Susquehanna frontier of PA, so I've become quite familiar with them in my research (although I'm not planning for them to have major roles as characters in my story).

    I've often wondered how things might have gone differently had Johnson lived longer. Perhaps he might have kept the Iroquois Confederacy intact, and the Continental Army would not have had the benefit of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras scouting and spying and fighting for them. Similarly, the morale of the rest of the Six Nations might have remained higher had their confederacy survived. And at the end of the war, even if the British had still lost, Johnson certainly would have tried to ensure that His Majesty's Government made some accommodation for their Indian allies in the land partition settlements with the U.S.

    For Brant's part, he personally swayed so many Mohawks through the power of his oratory and persuasion skills. Many Iroquois originally wanted to stay neutral, seeing the Revolution as an intra-family fight that did not concern them. Brant played a huge role in convincing them otherwise.

    I would highly recommend a novel by Robert Moss, "The Firekeeper," which follows Johnson's life from Ireland to NY and paints a compelling portrait of this larger-than-life man and makes clear just how he was able to overcome Indian suspicions and become "one of them." The Indian characters are also portrayed with complexity and nuance, treating them as real people with strengths and flaws rather than either romanticizing or demonizing them as a group.

  6. "Johnson and Brant are definitely two figures whose influence on the Revolution far outstrips the degree of familiarity most Americans outside of N.Y. have with them."

    Well-said, Matt. I believe it to be reflective of what is considered a "depressed area" of small cities and towns in the semi-rural and still-beautiful valley too-- yet they played a major role in the Revolution. The Battle of Oriskany and the Saratoga Campaign played a major role in keeping the colonies from being torn apart.

    Differing loyalties,--whether English, Patriot or Iroquois caused dissension in many families; Sir William was a nephew of Sir Peter Warren, related to the famous Dr. Joseph Warren of Boston who took part in the American Revolution as a Patriot and member of the "Sons of Liberty".

    Much more complex than one side vs. the other.
    Have heard of "The Firekeeper"...but have yet to read it. It'll be next on my list!

  7. Pat, Wonderful post - something I've missed while away. The history here is so real and inspiring, and the comments great, too. I've always been intrigued by WJ and his Molly. Wish there were more TV/Movie options for us with this history. But so thankful we have books!


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