Sir William Johnson, merchant, fur trader, colonial official (born ca. 1715 in Smithtown, County Meath, Ireland; died 11 July 1774 in Johnson Hall, near Johnstown, NY). Johnson played a prominent role in British North America. As a landowner and militia officer in the Mohawk Valley, in present day New York State, Johnson cultivated great wealth by the 1740s. He rose to distinction as a diplomatic negotiator and cultural go-between for the British Crown, helping to secure a strategic alliance with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — also known as the Six Nations Confederacy — against the French in northeastern North America during the Seven Years' War (1754–63).
Education and Early Life
Johnson was born in County Meath, Ireland, around 1715. As the child of Irish gentry, his lineage reveals a family history of Christian conversion, with Johnson himself appearing to have converted from Catholicism to Protestantism around the time he became an agent of British colonization of North America. Before arriving in the Mohawk Valley, Johnson began working in Ireland as a rent collector for his maternal uncle, Sir Peter Warren, an officer of the British Royal Navy. Johnson was soon offered a post working for the British Empire. In 1738 he settled as a fur trader and merchant near the Mohawk River. He prospered economically and politically by forming close bonds with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) on behalf of the British, and quickly became one of the richest men in the colony.
Johnson was a skilled negotiator, effectively using his connections with the Haudenosaunee to secure Indigenous loyalty to the British Crown against French forces during the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War). Johnson rose as a key player in the British colonial apparatus during a time of tumultuous change and political transformations. As an Indian agent from 1746 to 1751 he helped support political stability for the British, ultimately growing commercial wealth in New York and eventually becoming the British Crown’s first superintendent of Indian Affairs for the colony in 1756. He was also responsible for the negotiation of strategic alliances under the Covenant Chain — a complex set of relationships that governed the political, social and economic obligations between Anglo-American colonies and the Haudenosaunee since the early 17th century. Johnson was a significant player in British efforts to negotiate a definitive boundary of “Indian territory” following the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War)
William Johnson led several successful campaigns against the French and their Indigenous allies during the Seven Years’ War, including at Lake George (1755), Fort Niagara (1759) and Montréal (1760). After his success at the Battle of Lake George, he was granted a British baronetcy. Johnson remained central in negotiations between the British and the Haudenosaunee up until his death in 1774.
Johnson’s success was closely connected to the general prosperity of the time for merchants and traders exploiting the riches of North America. At a time when supremacy over the St. Lawrence was crucial to competing populations of traders, Johnson was well-placed to prosper in the sale of commodities amid a rapid growth in trade of material goods in British North American mercantilist enterprises, and also efforts to extend the reach of the empire politically and economically. In addition to dealing in furs, domestic goods and luxury items, Johnson was known to purchase and sell African American slaves and also rely on the labour of indentured servants.
William Johnson’s bond with the Mohawks was particularly significant, and deepened the relationship shared between the Loyalists and allied members of the Haudenosaunee, who joined the conflict on the side of the British during the American Revolutionary War in 1777. Johnson was a trusted companion and partner to the powerful Mohawk clan mother Konwatsi’tsiaienni, also known as Mary (Molly) Brant. Konwatsi’tsiaienni’s brother — famed Mohawk chief, warrior and statesman Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) — was also a close confident, friend and translator to Johnson.
In the late 1750s, Konwatsi’tsiaienni became the mistress of Johnson’s home, and eventually became Johnson’s wife and the matron of Johnson Hall, a grand home where the family hosted large peace gatherings up until Johnson’s death. After he died, and amid the outbreak of the American Revolution, Konwatsi’tsiaienni and the Mohawks remained loyal to the British Crown. With increased pressure on the Haudenosaunee to side with the British or American patriots, the Iroquois League succumbed to internal divisions as British Loyalists and Indigenous peoples were pushed north from the Mohawk Valley, losing their lands in New York State and elsewhere. They were among the roughly 2,000 Haudenosaunee forced to abandon their ancestral lands for Upper Canada, where they joined others who were loyal to the British Crown.