The Mohawk Valley in which Sir William Johnson spent his adult life (1738-17 74) was the fairest portion of the domain of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. In this valley William Griffis had lived nine years, seeing on every side traces or monuments of the industry, humanity, and powerful personality of its most famous resident in colonial days. From the quaint stone church in Schenectady which Sir Johnson built, and in whose canopied pews he sat, daily before his eyes, to the autograph papers in possession of his neighbors; from sites close at hand and traditionally associated with the lord of Johnson Hall, to the historical relics which multiply at Johnstown, Canajoharie, and westward, — mementos of the baronet were never lacking. His two baronial halls still stand near the Mohawk. Local traditions, while in the main generous to Johnson’s memory, was sometimes unfair and even cruel. The hatreds engendered by the partisan features of the Revolution, and the just detestation of the savage atrocities of Tories and red allies led by Johnson’s son and son-in-law, had done injustice to the great man himself. Yet base and baseless tradition was in no whit more unjust than the sectional opinions and hostile gossip of the New England militia which historians have so freely transferred to their pages.
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In the manuscript no attempt at either laudation or depreciation was made. His purpose has been simply to set forth the actions, influence, and personality of Sir William Johnson, to show the character of the people by whom he was surrounded, and to describe and analyze the political movements of his time. He does not depict New York people in the sectional spirit and subjective manner in which they were so often treated by early New England writers. The narrow and purely local view of some of these who have written what is called the history of the United States, greatly vitiates their work in the eyes of those who do not inherit their prejudices. Having no royal charter, the composite people of New York, gathered from many nations, but instinct with the principles of the free republic of Holland, were obliged to study carefully the foundations of government and jurisprudence. It is true that in the evolution of this Commonwealth the people were led by the lawyers rather than by the clergy. Constantly resisting the invasions of royal prerogative, they formed on an immutable basis of law and right that Empire State which in its construction and general features is, of all those in the Union, the most typically American. Its historical precedents are not found in a monarchy, but in a republic. It is less the fruit of English than of Teutonic civilization.
Living also but a few yards away from the home of Arendt Van Curler, the Brother Coriaer of Indian tradition, and immediately alongside the site of the old gate opening from the palisades into the Mohawk country, the author could fix his study windows look daily upon the domain of the Mohawks, — the places of treaties, ceremonies, and battles, of the torture and burning of captives, and upon the old maize fields, even yet rich after the husbandry of centuries. Besides visiting many of the sites of the Iroquois castles he again and again traversed the scenes of Johnson’s exploits in Central New York, at Lake George, in Eastern Pennsylvania, and other places mentioned in the text. With his task is associated the remembrance of many pleasant outings as well as meetings with local historians, antiquarians, and students of Indian lore. Griffis treated more fully the earlier part of Johnson’s life which is less known, and more briefly the events of the latter part which is comparatively familiar to all. He struggled with his task of not being unfair to the Indian while endeavoring to show the tremendous influence exerted over them by Johnson; who, for this alone, deserves to be enrolled among the Makers of America.
Griffis’ chief sources of information have been the Johnson manuscripts, which have been carefully mounted, bound, and are preserved in the State Library at Albany. The printed book to which he used as a basis for details into Johnson’s life was Mr. William Stone’s “Life and Times of Sir William Johnson, Bart.” These two superbly written octavo volumes, richly annotated and indexed, make any detailed life of Johnson unnecessary, and form a noble and enduring monument of patient scholarship.
Table of Contents
- The First Settlers of the Mohawk Valley
- Johnson as an Indian Trader
- The Six Nations and the Long House
- The Struggle for a Continent
- A Chapter in the Story of Liberty
- A Typical Frontier Fight with Indians
- At the Ancient Place of Treaties
- The Battle of Lake George
- British Failures Preparing for American Independence
- The “Heaven-born General”
- Decline of the Indian as a Political Factor
- Life at Johnson Hall
- Johnson’s Family; Last Days; Euthanasia