“The Last of the Mohicans”

Meathman, William Johnson, was a pivotal figure in British colonial and early Native American fortunes. Johnson was the model for the dashing hero, Hawkeye, in The Last of the Mohicans, the great classic by James Fenimore Cooper.

William Johnson was born at Smithstown in 1715, the son of Christopher Johnson and Anne Warren. Johnson began his career  as a rent collector for his maternal uncle, Sir Peter Warren, an officer of the British Royal Navy. Johnson left Smithstown in 1738 to move to New York to manage his uncle’s estate in the Mohawk Valley, bringing with him twelve local families to settle on the Warren lands there. He purchased additional land that brought him closer to the trade routes, started supplying Indians with trade goods, buying their animal skins, and cutting out the middlemen between him and New Your City merchants. Between 1738 and 1742 William Johnson became accepted by the Iroquois Indians, especially Mohawks who were his most regular customers in trade business. Winning the friendship of the Indians he held a great influence over the “Six Nations” and became known as the “benevolent dictator” of the Indians.  By 1743 he had moved to several thousand acres of his own land near present-day Amsterdam, New York, where he called his home Fort Johnson. As a landowner and militia officer in the Mohawk Valley, in present day New York State, Johnson cultivated great wealth by the 1740s.

During the 1750s, Sir William Johnson became the most famous American in the British Empire. The Mohawks adopted him and elected him a sachem (chieftain). Johnson was a trusted companion and partner to the powerful Mohawk clan mother Konwatsi’tsiaienni. 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. The Mohawks gave him the Indian name Warraghiyagey (“A Man who undertakes great Things”). During his travels among the Iroquois villages, Johnson accumulated mistresses. One story ran that, when asked the number of his children, Johnson smiled and replied, “That is a question that I cannot answer.”

Johnson rose to distinction as a diplomatic negotiator and cultural go-between for the British and the Iroquois Confederacy; against the French during the Seven Year (1754–63). Defeating the French at Lake George in 1755 he was made a Baron.  Johnson later established Forts Edward and William Henry. In 1756 he was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs north of the Ohio River. In 1759 he was the commander of the British force that, with the help of their Iroquois allies, took Fort Niagara from the French. Granted 100,000 acres on the banks of the Mohawk River he encouraged men from Ireland to settle there.  Johnson is said to have been the first to introduce sheep and blood horses into the province.

Johnson died suddenly of a stroke in 1774. He died as one of the largest land owners in North America of that time.  Over 2000 attended his funeral and he is buried beneath the altar of St. John’s Anglican Church in Johnstown, which he had built. Within a decade the society and estate he had built would be swept away by the American War of Independence. His house in Johnstown, New York is now a museum.

The story of William Johnson is told in Fintan O’Toole’s book White Savage. Johnson was portrayed by Navan man, Pierce Brosnan, in the 1993 television movie The Broken Chain.