Duality of (One) Man
Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 402 pages, $26
William Johnson is forgotten by everybody except schoolchildren
who live in a little stretch along the Mohawk River. Yet if
it were not for Johnson, there’s a good chance the people
of upstate New York would be speaking French, and this area
would be part of Canada.
Johnson, born in Ireland around 1715, arrived in this country
around 1738. He came to seek his fortune here—here being dense
forest on the south side of the Mohawk River, west of Schenectady.
His uncle, a rising star in the British navy, had taken a
liking to him and had seen in him a way to get even richer
by sending young William with a load of cloth and trinkets
to trade with the Indians.
In a few years, Johnson became not only a successful trader,
he also entered Mohawk society, became expert in their customs
and ceremonies, and grew to be one of the most powerful figures
among the Iroquois. While doing this, he also made his way
up in colonial British society, built a grand Georgian-style
house overlooking the Mohawk, and brought up his children
to be ladies and gentlemen, himself becoming a baronet. How
he led both these lives at once is the fascinating story told
by Fintan O’Toole in White Savage: William Johnson and
the Invention of America.
Johnson was extraordinary in his ability to live in two cultures
at the same time. Indeed, that ability was the foundation
of his success. Others have written about him, but O’Toole
gives us a fresh view and certainly the best explanation of
why Johnson was able to be Sir William the gentleman and Warraghiyagey
the Mohawk simultaneously. Unless you’re Irish, you may have
forgotten that, a generation before Johnson’s birth, the British
had finally crushed Catholic Ireland at a battle on the Boyne
River. Under the civilizing British, Johnson’s Catholic religion
was demoted to a superstition, his clergy were banished, his
language displaced, his customs derided. The British restricted
Irish Catholics’ right to own or even lease land, excluded
them from Parliament and the professions (including the military),
forbade them to teach, barred them from universities, and
deprived them of the right to vote.
Johnson grew up in Catholic Gaelic culture and the Protestant
society of his British oppressors at the same time. Inhabiting
a borderland between being British and being Irish, he learned
how to get along with both people’s customs and ways of doing
things. That was survival. Of course, the way to get ahead
was to become Protestant. His uncle, the one who set him up
as a trader, had dropped his Catholic religion and joined
the navy, and was growing very rich. Young William Johnson,
hauling his furs into Albany, was by then a Protestant loyal
to the King of England.
What distinguished Johnson from other traders was his treatment
of the Indians: He treated them decently. He learned their
language, respected their customs and, within four years,
was initiated into the Mohawk nation as a sachem. O’Toole
points out some striking similarities between social forms
of Gaelic Ireland and those of the Iroquois.
The Mohawks were part of the 300-year-old Iroquois League.
This confederacy—Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas,
Tuscaroras—stretched westward along the Mohawk river and far
beyond. In Johnson’s time the Iroquois lands were being nibbled
at by the British from the south and east, and by the French
from the north and west. The French and British were already
battling each other in Europe, and their competing claims
to the land between the Mohawk and the St. Lawrence led to
bloody clashes here. Neither the British nor the French armies
were designed to fight in thickly wooded terrain, and both
sides enlisted Indians to help them. The encounters were small
but notable for their butchery. Thanks to Johnson, the British
had the Iroquois League on their side.
Johnson didn’t want to be a soldier, but he was put in command
of colonial troops and Iroquois. His first foray at Lac Saint
Sacrament—which he renamed Lake George after his king—was
a series of blunders, and Johnson carried a French bullet
in his hip for the rest of his life. The French won the battle,
but their wounded general was left behind. He was protected
by Johnson, and the two became close friends; for Johnson,
though he painted his face like a Mohawk, could also play
the part of a gentlemanly European commander. And Johnson
was a quick study. He did better in his later campaigns, was
decisive in his victory at Niagara, and responsible, through
his knowledge of the Indians, for the relatively easy victory
By now it should come as no surprise that Johnson’s first
common-law wife, Catherine Weisenberg, was an immigrant like
himself, and his second, Molly Degonwadonti, was a Mohawk.
Nor should it be a surprise that the children of both these
frontier women were raised in gentility suitable to a patrician
family. Johnson was the only Mohawk sachem who studied Newton
and imported electric apparatus from Philadelphia.
William Johnson, baronet of New York, died in July 1774. Nine
months later, the first shots were fired in a revolution against
King George. Alas, our Billy from county Meath had succeeded
too well as the King’s man; his property was seized by patriots,
his family chased into Canada, and his Iroquois hunted down.
His story had no place in the great saga of a nascent nation.
Fortunately, the New York State Library and Archives contains
a staggering amount of material on Johnson, and Fintan O’Toole
has made a fascinating and lively book of it.