Monday, June 15, 2015

Sir William Johnson, The Iroquois, And The Catholic Highlanders – Champion Or Exploiter Of The Oppressed?

This post is by guest writer Helen Gaines.

There are a great many names which stand out in the history of upstate New York, all of which are worthy of considerable exploration. One of these is Sir William Johnson. An ambitious, grandiose, and eccentric man of ambivalent morals, he has made his mark not only on history but within popular culture. In 1993, he was played by Pierce Brosnan in the movie ‘The Broken Chain’, as a foil for the Iroquois heroes. He also features as a villain in the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ video game series [1]. During his time, he was considered a war hero by the British, and evidently (at least until his ambitions got the better of him) held in high esteem by the Iroquois. He also delighted the public with tales of his impetuously eccentric behavior – one account has him expressing his disapproval of another officer’s conduct by stripping naked and parading in front of him [2]. He was most famed, however, for his close relations with the Iroquois, and his prominent role in the settlement of many Catholic Scots families within upstate New York. However, whether he promoted these groups from pure motives or for exploitative ones remains a moot point…

Johnson And The Iroquois

Rather like T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence Of Arabia’) a couple of centuries later, Johnson has been viewed as the kind of semi-mythical colonial-native which the West adores. Tales about him are cut from the same cloth as the ‘Tarzan’ stories (Tarzan, of course, being a member of the English aristocracy) and ‘Dances With Wolves’ – tales in which the white man embeds himself in a ‘savage’ culture, excels at the ways of the natives even better then they themselves do, and ultimately saves the day. Plenty of stories about William Johnson have an uncomfortable tinge of the eternally popular ‘White Savior’ motif [3]. However, it cannot be denied that his conduct with the Iroquois nations, particularly his closest nation, the Mohawk, differed considerably to many approaches of the time. He made a point of learning their customs and ways of doing business, and was deemed useful enough to the Mohawk to be appointed an honorary sachem or civil chief. The Mohawk named him Warraghiyagey which, roughly translated, means ‘Man who accomplishes great things’. He was always careful to deal with the Mohawk according to the customs they preferred, and by all accounts his diplomatic dealings with them were faultless – so much so that he was appointed the British military and diplomatic embassy to them. Indeed, after he left the role, the Mohawk insisted that a faltering agreement with the British would only be upheld if Johnson were to be reinstated [4]. He also included Iroquois women in his numerous affairs.

 Sympathy For The Oppressed?

All of this would seem to paint a picture of a man more enlightened than others of his time, who respected the native way of life and acknowledged a certain indigenous sovereignty. Some have seen him as a kind of kindred spirit of the Iroquois – claiming that his background as a member of an ‘oppressed minority’ may have led him to sympathise with their plight. Notably, later in life he made a point of extending land to Catholic families in Scotland who were losing their land to sheep-farmers in much the same way that the Iroquois were losing their nation to Europeans. Johnson grew up as a member of the Anglo-Irish gentry – not a particularly oppressed group, until the caveat of their Roman Catholicism is taken into account. Roman Catholicism was a powerful force for those families which held it – the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness in particular providing a valuable kind of psychological security [5] denied to the increasingly self-punishing brand of American Protestantism.  At the time, Catholic powers had been making periodic attempts to take the throne of Britain and reinstate Catholicism to the place as National Religion that it had lost some two centuries beforehand. Johnson’s family had even sympathised with the latest attempt – the Jacobite Rebellion. As a consequence, to be Catholic was to be hated, derided, and denied opportunity within Britain. Johnson converted to Protestantism in order to advance his career – but it has been suggested that he retained his Catholic sympathies, and exercised them in his dealings with the Iroquois and the Catholic Highlanders. Whether or not this was true, only the man himself knew. He was vociferous in his defence of the Anglican church [6] against French Catholic attempts to build a place of worship in his town, but this may have had more to do with anti-French sentiment than with religious conviction.

Crafty Exploitation?

But was Johnson really a fair and rational sympathiser with the plight of oppressed peoples? Or was he rather more self-serving than that? It must be remembered that Johnson first came to an acquaintance with Iroquois culture in the pursuance of saleable resources like furs – resources which would ultimately make him rich. This pattern of dealing with the Iroquois only when he wanted something from them followed throughout his life. His main efforts involved persuading them to fight for the British – which he did with gusto and great success. Yet he also did so with notable grandiosity, effectively trying to assert sole control over Iroquois foreign affairs. After the war, his more dubious colors began to show through. Already a very wealthy man, he used his wheedling skills and royally-appointed position to charm, cajole, and threaten the Iroquois out of vast tracts of land. He subsequently became one of the largest landholders in the country. In this, many historians have pointed out that he acted no differently to any other man of his age [7] – but it is curious that a man painted as one so in touch with the Iroquois and thus knowledgeable of the spiritual value of the land they used should appropriate it for his own use in this manner. He even disobeyed the rules of an official Royal Proclamation which sought to restrict the amount of land taken from native groups – and pushed the boundaries of the ‘no settlement zone’ 400 miles west, enabling him and like-minded settlers to grab much more land than even the British Crown approved of. All of this speaks of a man who charmed the Iroquois more for his own sake rather than for theirs. Which brings us to the matter of the Catholic Highlanders.

Tribal Diplomacy

The tale of the Catholic Highlanders can be told in two ways: 1) William Johnson saw that Catholics and Jacobins such as his own family were suffering from shameful oppression in their native land, and invited them over to America, where he provided them with land and a living. 2) William Johnson saw a group of desperate people with tribal leanings he knew he could exploit, and imported them as a tame workforce over which he could lord it. It is doubtful that even the Catholic Highlanders themselves could have told you the truth of the matter. Certainly Johnson invited over the disparate Scots, and certainly he leased them land. He also helped them to improve their land and their stock. But many historians believe that he chose this group of people not because of any cultural sympathy, but because they would be isolated culturally and linguistically from all others surrounding them in America (thus making them more reliant upon him), and because they were already inured with a Georgian-British-style biddable nature towards feudal lords [8]. He became very rich off the rent they paid him, and his practice of using African slaves indicates that he was not averse to using human labor in an exploitative manner.

A Cultural Chameleon

Just as he did with the Iroquois, Johnson used the cultural characteristics of the Scots Highlanders to get what he wanted. He pandered to their traditions, throwing ceilidhs and banquets with one hand and raising the rent with the other. What he seemed to have been very good at was a cultural-chameleon act. He managed to identify and isolate groups which were in need of help, and convince them by mimicking their own cultures that he could help them. He helped himself greatly in so doing. However, whatever the motive, the end result was the same: the Iroquois got a measure of respect under Johnson’s tenure as ambassador to them – much more than they had enjoyed before or would enjoy after in their dealings with Europeans. The Catholic Highlanders got a place to live, and a way in which to preserve their language and culture. Unfortunately, after Johnson’s death, the situation for both groups worsened. Sir William’s son, John Johnson, had none of the diplomatic skill of his father. He was arrogant, and lordly – and ill-suited for warfare. He exhorted the Catholic Highlanders to arm themselves for the loyalist cause during the American Revolution, but his command proved disastrous. Sir John’s conduct during the war meant that the region became highly suspect to the Patriots, and most of the Highland families fled piecemeal to Canada over the course of the War and its immediate aftermath (as did Sir John). As for the Iroquois – well, their diminished state today demonstrates how they fared after the death of William Johnson.

[1] Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed

[3] David Sirota, “Oscar loves a white savior” , Salon, 2013

[4] Timothy J Shannon, “Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier”, penguin Books, Jun 2009

[5] Arthur P Ciaramicoli, “The Heart Of Forgiveness”,, Mar 2015

[6] Alan Taylor, “The Collaborator”, New Republic, Sept 2006

[7] Julian Gwyn, “Johnson, Sir William”, Dictionary Of Canadian Biography

[8] J.P MacLean, “Settlements of Scotch Highlanders in America”, First pub; Royal Society, 1900. Retrieved Electric Scotland 2015

Johnson Hall in Johnstown is a New York State Historic Site and Sir William's earlier home, known as Old Fort Johnson in Amsterdam NY is a National Historic Site. Both are well worth visiting. If you are touring the area, also be sure to stop at Fort Klock in nearby St. Johnsville. A little farther west, the old Indian Castle Church near Little Falls is all that remains of the Mohawk village where Sir William's beloved Molly Brant and her brother, the war chief Joseph Brant, lived. Nearby is the Herkimer Home, the well preserved residence of General Nicholas Herkimer who was fatally wounded while fighting the British and Iroquois led by Sir John Johnson at the battle of Oriskany.

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