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The Duality of (One) Man
By Gene Mirabelli

White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America

By Fintan O’Toole

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.

William 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 at Montreal.

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.

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