William Johnson was born in County Meath, Ireland, and immigrated to the American colonies in 1738 at the invitation of his uncle, Peter Warren (who later figured prominently in the siege of Louisbourg). Johnson settled in the Mohawk Valley about 25 miles west of Schenectady, New York, where he established a trading post to serve the needs of white settlers and the natives.
Johnson is noted for establishing strong relations with the native tribes, in particular the Mohawks. He learned their languages, dressed in their clothing, welcomed them into his home and labored to preserve their lands from encroachment. He also provided the natives with educational opportunities and religious instruction. In 1744, Johnson was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Six Nations by the governor of New York.
Johnson accumulated huge land holdings, much of which came as gifts from thankful Mohawks, and he became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies.
Johnson’s diplomatic skills were put to work during King George’s War (1744-48) when he enlisted Iroquois warriors in the war against France. In 1754, he led the negotiations with the Native Americans at the Albany Congress. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Johnson's military assault against Crown Point was a failure, but he successfully defeated the French at Lake George where he erected Fort William Henry. His success was rewarded with a baronetcy.
In 1756, Johnson was appointed the superintendent of all of the northern tribes, a position he held until his death. In 1759, Johnson’s forces seized Fort Niagara, the key to the West, and in the following year he served under Jeffrey Amherst at Montreal. Johnson was rewarded by a grateful king with a grant of 100,000 additional acres in New York.
In 1762, Johnson founded a community that became Johnstown, New York. During 1763 and 1764, he won prominence by persuading the Iroquois to stay out of Pontiac’s Rebellion. In 1768, Johnson was the lead negotiator in the first Treaty of Fort Stanwix in which the Iroquois ceded lands in western Pennsylvania and New York, as well as their dubious claims to territory in Ohio, for a payment of £10,000.
Johnson lived out his life on his massive estate, raising sheep and racehorses. His home, Johnson Hall, had the air of a baronial manor, except for the frequent presence of many native visitors. After his wife’s death, he married two successive Native American women. The latter was Molly Brant, sister of the famed chief Joseph Brant.
See also Indian Wars.