William Johnson was made an American Indian and so given the name, ‘He Who Does Much’, so named by the Iroquois Indians, was one of the most influential people in Colonial America. He was born in County Meath, Ireland, a loyal subject of the English Crown, but it was his blood brotherhood with the Mohawks, the Iroquois, and the Tuscarora that he held the most sway.
The eighteenth century of the New World was at best an exciting prosperous opportunity for any man who could tame the frontier and bend it to his will. For most it was a dangerous unpredictable time in history, filled with wild animals, unsettled territory and often hostile Indians. William Johnson conquered both.
Johnson’s uncle, Sir Peter Warren, in the true Irish style, brought many of his family over from Ireland. One being his nephew, William Johnson, who at age 23, he set up to manage 13,000 acres of his own land in the Mohawk Valley. Almost at once, Johnson set up a trading post and general store on the south side of the Mohawk River and began trading with settlers, and to the surprise of everyone around him, with the Indians as well.
Immediately the Indians realized that William Johnson was not like other white men they encountered and more like an American Indian himself. They received equal value for their furs and in return, the items necessary for their survival: nails, fish hooks, pots and pans, blankets, calico, bullets, gun powder, and rum. Word soon spread that this was a white man to be trusted and soon Johnson’s trading post was the only one they would deal with. It became the larges post in the Mohawk valley with branch posts and overseas connections to London. People stopped for miles around for food, for drink, for goods, for news. Indians, who liked Johnson from the start,were welcome and customarily hanging about, much to the surprise of some unsuspecting travelers.
There is some controversy over which of his wives he actually married though if you go back to Celtic Law he was married to each of them, perhaps legally at the same time. See Marriage Customs of Ancient Ireland. Catharine Weissenberg. a fair-haired eighteen year old German Bond Servant whom he bought the indenture of, was his first wife. According to American Heritage Magazine, Johnson would not marry her because she was below his station but changed his mind on her death-bed. She bore him three children, one of which became his heir. Another source lists his marriage to Molly Brant, a squaw he married in a legal ceremony in 1774. Whether he married Molly after Catherine’s death or while she was alive is not clear. It seems likely, to me at least, that Catherine may not have been happy with Johnson’s free associations with the Indians or that he would not marry her and they may have been estranged when he met Molly. He may have had a change of heart on her death-bed in order to keep the three children in his will.
It was Molly who was by his side the rest of his life, taking part in personal and political affairs and bearing him nine children, yet in his will he referred to her as prudent/faithful housekeeper although in all honesty the times, culture and way of referring to situations was quite different from how we would view that statement today. There is no doubt that Johnson had a kind and magnanimous nature and Molly Brant seemed involved in everything, nursing Johnson through sicknesses, playing hostess for British dignitaries and bearing him nine children. There is an added twist to this intrigue though. Molly was the older sister of Joseph Brant who would grow to become a tribal statesman and very involved in the Revolution. Joseph, who resembled Johnson in both courage, decision and physical features was most likely his son.
William Johnson was most at home with his Indians and he became Superintendent of Indian Affairs. After he built his second house, he named Fort Johnson, they made themselves his body guards and moved their Council Fire to his property. The fact that Johnson was so at home with the Indians made them a powerful ally which he used to his advantage in the French and Indian War but on the eve of the Revolution William Johnson died Sadly, the once powerful Six Nations had been through a lot and not having the wisdom of their friend and mentor they divided, with some siding with the British and others with the Americans quest for freedom. In the end, it didn’t matter for they lost their land and homes anyway.Perhaps if there had been more men like Johnson, whom they could trust and rely on, .their outcome would not have been so tragic. For more Irish American history, click here.