The Mohawk Valley, New
York, was, for more than a century before the birth of our great republic,
the border line of two struggling civilizations, and its history and
legends possess an interest scarcely surpassed by that of any other part
of earth, save perhaps the "Holy Land."
On that line occurred those
two important engagements, which cannot be omitted from the historical
series which eventuated in the firm establishment of the Republic of
America: Johnson's victory over the French at Lake George in 1755, and
Herkimer's stubborn resistance of the English under St. Leger, at Oriskany,
which made possible the victory over Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777.
Prof. Parkman, in his
summarizing upon the historical events connected with the French
settlements in America, and the long and bloody conflicts, in which the
aboriginal savage was made participant on both sides—the French and the
English—makes it quite clear that more than a hundred years of such
experience was but a schooling of the English colonists for the final
effort of declaring and maintaining independence.
It was at a period of great
doubt and uncertainty among the colonists of New England, New York, and
the colonies southward, as to whether they could successfully resist the
encroachments of the French, with Indian allies ever alert in destroying
villages, hamlets, and homes on their borders, and fortified positions
extending from Louisburg and Quebec along the line of the St. Lawrence and
lakes, at Pittsburg— Fort Duquesne—and on to the Cresent City at the mouth
of the Mississippi, when there came to the Mohawk Valley a young Ulsterman
named William Johnson, a native of Warrentown, in the county Down. He was
in the twenty-third year of his age, had been brought up to trade, was
reputed to have suffered some disappointment in a love affair, and was
persuaded hither by his uncle, Capt. Peter Warren, who achieved renown in
the royal navy. He came to care for and develop certain lands which the
captain had acquired in the Mohawk Valley. His equipment was: a good
business education, thoroughly honest purposes, a relish for adventure,
and manifest loyalty to his country and his countrymen.
In 1738 Mr. Johnson began, in that beautiful
valley, a career which is totally without parallel in all its
distinguishing features, and which made him a chief character in those
achievements upon which Prof. Parkman places such high estimate.
Our young Ulsterman went at the duties of
business life in heroic style—clearing lands and improving them ; building
mills and houses (some of the latter still stand to this day to testify to
his skill and energy)—and he entered upon a very successful trade in
merchandise and peltry, soon establishing a character among the scattered
settlements, and in business channels abroad, as well as among the
aboriginal inhabitants, which endeared him to all, and likewise brought
him abundant thrift. He became the largest land owner in all the colonies.
Among the great variety of his acquisitions which are well authenticated,
the following is selected as most characteristic of the man and worthy of
narrating. He had gone among the Onandaga tribe of Indians to endeavor to
defeat a scheme of the French Canadian governor, who had partly arranged
with the Onandagas for the planting of a mission and fort on the shore of
the Onandaga Lake. As a last argument he offered to purchase the debatable
ground, and his offer was accepted. They conveyed to him, for a cash
consideration of £300, a tract two miles in width around the whole of
Onandaga Lake, embracing what is to-day the city of Syracuse and its
Mr. Simms, in his "Frontiersmen of New York,"
gives an amusing version of one of Mr. Johnson's land deals with King
Hendrick, a renowned chief of the Iroquois, who fell in battle fighting
against the French at Lake George. King Hendrick resided at Canajoharia,
only a few miles from Johnstown, the residence of Sir "William, and the
two maintained most intimate relations, often paying visits to each other.
On one of those occasions Sir William Johnson, who had been knighted and
commissioned to various civil and military positions of prominence, was in
receipt of a new uniform, just ordered from England, of a pattern and
quality suited to the highest military command in the colony. King
Hendrick looked upon the goodly apparel with wondering eyes, and as the
sequel disclosed, with something of covetousness. He returned to Mr.
Johnson after a few days and informed Sir William that he had had a dream,
and dreamed that Sir William had made him a present of the fine military
suit; which meant that, according to the usage among the Mohawks, Sir
William must make true the dream, and this he did without reserve or
hesitation. But before many moons had passed, as the story goes, Sir
"William announced to King Hendrick that he had had a dream: dreamed that
Hendrick had presented him lands fronting a league or more on the Mohawk,
and extending to the farthest limits of the Iroquois possessions,
embracing several hundred thousands of acres. King Hendrick promptly said:
"The land is yours, Sir William, but don't dream any more dreams."
Hon. William L. Stone, in his
well-authenticated biography of Sir William Johnson, is careful to
repudiate this old legend as purely fiction.
Sir William was one of the very few
distinguished white men adopted as chief by the Iroquois, and his
influence was supreme with all the tribes east of the Mississippi River,
and from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf. His supervision of Indian affairs,
assisted by George Croghan, was advantageous to all colonial settlers
alike, except to the traders who sold rum to the Indians, whom he
perpetually worried; and his vast correspondence shows that the lords of
trade in England who looked closely after colonial interests, and
successive Premiers and Colonial Secretaries, easily regarded Sir William
as the most valued representative of the British Government, and the
truest and wisest friend of the colonists in America.
Without early military education, perpetual
strife with the Canadian French and their Indian allies, had educated him
in arms, and he in turn organized and instructed the rugged settlers of
the Mohawk Valley in the arts of defensive warfare.
The purpose was finally formed in England to
send a body of regular troops under Gen. Braddock, with authority to
employ provincials and their Indian allies in such numbers as were needful
to dislodge the French from various strategic points so dangerous to the
colonists. Accordingly Gen. Braddock arrived early in the year 1755, and
called a council of colonial Governors to meet in Alexandria in April
following, which was attended by Govs. Shirley, of Massachusetts; DeLancey,
of New York: Morris, of Pennsylvania; Sharpe, of Maryland, and Dinwiddie,
of Virginia. Sir William Johnson was also present by invitation of Gen.
his instructions from the Crown, Braddock, with the council, proceeded to
plan four separate expeditions against the French. The first for the
complete reduction of Nova Scotia, to be commanded by Lieut. Gov.
Lawrence, of that province; the second was to recover the Ohio Valley by
reducing Fort Duquesne, under command of Braddock himself; the third,
under command of Gov. Shirley, was to capture Fort Niagara and form a
junction with Braddock's forces; the fourth was to be under command of
William Johnson, who was promoted a major general, and under instructions
to proceed against Crown Point, on Lake Champlain. The latter to have
under him the provincial militia and the warriors of the six nations.
All these expeditions sadly miscarried, except
only that under Maj. Gen. Johnson, which achieved signal success in a
battle, as sanguinary as decisive, on the shore of Lake George, September
8, 1755; the French being under command of the brave and accomplished
Baron Dieskau, who was badly wounded and brought a prisoner into Johnson's
camp. Johnson was himself badly wounded in the battle, but persistently
declined the attentions of his surgeon until after the captive baron had
been properly cared for. The brave King Hendrick, of the Mohawks, was
killed in this engagement.
Another notable casuality in this engagement
was the death of Le Gardeur de St. Pierre, who had defeated George
Washington the previous year on the Ohio. His dying words to his comrades
on the field were: "Fight on, boys; this is Johnson, not Braddock."
Rev. Cortlandt Van Rensselear, D.D., a native
of Albany, in a commemorative discourse, thus estimated this important
achievement of Maj. Gen. Johnson:
I. The battle of Lake George is memorable in
defeating a well-laid scheme of the French., and in saving the provinces
from scenes of bloodshed and desolation. If Dieskau had succeeded in
overthrowing Johnson in his intrenchments, . , his march to Albany would
have been triumphant. Old Hendrick, at the convention of the preceding
year, had warned the province of its danger. "You are without
fortifications," said he. "It is but a step from Canada hither, and the
French may easily come and turn you out of doors." . . . The victory of
Lake George undoubtedly rescued the provinces from injury and woe beyond
computation. Considered, therefore, in its immediate strategical results,
this battle was one of the important engagements in American history.
II. The battle of Lake George was remarkable
for its influence in rallying the spirit of the American colonies. Much
had been expected from the three expeditions sent against the French, but
disappointment and sorrow had followed Brad-dock's terrible defeat. . . .
All the provinces were amazed, awe-struck, paralyzed for a time. . . .
Their hopes were turned to Lake George and Niagara. (Niagara proved
another failure under Gov. Shirley.) Johnson's victory was received as the
precurser of a recovered military position and fame, and was hailed as the
means of deliverance from a bold and cruel foe. Few battles ever produced
more immediate results in rekindling the martial enthusiasm of the
colonists. Congratulations poured in upon Gen. Johnson from every quarter.
Not only were the colonies tilled with rejoicing, but the influence of the
triumph went over to England, and the deeds of our fathers at Lake George
became familiar to the ear of royalty, and were applauded by the eloquence
of Parliament. The moral effects of a battle . . . have rarely been
greater and more decided in the whole range of military annals.
III. Viewed simply in a
military aspect, the battle of Lake George was the only successful
achievement within the thirteen colonies during the campaign of
IV. The victory of Lake George occurred in a series of campaigns that
ended in the conquest of Canada and of the valleys of the great West......
V. The battle of Lake George was, furthermore,
remarkable in its suggestions of provincial power and its lessons of
warfare to the colonies preparatory to their independence. The battle was
fought by provincial troops. . . . The veteran regulars of old England had
been beaten in the forests of Western Pensylvania, or remained inactive in
the Niagara expedition. . . . On these shores provincial power signalized
its self-relying and unaided capabilities, and in this battle and in this
war the colonies practically learned the value of union and the
unconquerable energies of a free people.
The year 1776-77 passed by, witnessing no
successes to British arms, by reason of the failures of Lord Loudon, Gens.
Abercrombie, Amherst, Webb, Gage, and others, and the sudden death of the
chivalrous Lord Howe. The trained and seasoned soldiers of Europe did not
seem able to grasp the problems presented in American wilderness warfare.
Johnson, meantime, was kept busy in Indian diplomacy, and fully
communicated with the authorities of the home government across the
waters; no step, offensive or defensive, seemed likely to succeed which
had not at heart his sanction. In 1758 the campaign against Canada and the
French was reopened with apparent spirit. Louisburg was captured by
Admiral Boscawen and Gens. Amhurst and Wolfe. George Washington, a
subordinate of Gen. Forbes, with his Virginia men, compelled the
evacuation of Fort Duquesne, henceforth called Pittsburg, for the great
minister of that date. But Abercrombie, with a splendid outfit, was
defeated by Gen. Montcalm, in a movement against Ticon-deroga. So
disgraceful and complete was this disaster that Johnson was presented with
a Herculean task: to quiet the disaffection and heal the demoralization
which was found to exist among the Indians, and extended to the region of
the Ohio River, among the Delawares and Shawnees. But this chieftain of
chieftains was everywhere successful, and the great body of the Indians of
America were kept loyal to our colonies; in the year following (1759) Gen.
Johnson joined Gen. Prideaux at Oswego with a large body of Indian allies,
to move upon Fort Niagara, as it was, in his estimation, a very important
military as well as trading point. Early in the siege Gen. Prideaux was
accidently killed, and the command devolved upon Gen. Johnson, who
achieved a signal triumph over D'Aubrey, taking him prisoner, together
with the famous French partisan, Marin, and capturing Fort Niagara. Thus
"was broken the last remaining link in the chain of fortresses which had
served to unite Canada with Louisiana," and a fatal blow given the
aspirations of the French in America. The brave, impetuous Wolfe completed
the job and settled the question of American civilization on the Plains of
government of England and colonial authorities in America were lavish of
their praises as well as rewards and emoluments bestowed upon Sir William,
who devoted his remaining days most unselfishly to the well-being of the
colonists; in building churches, establishing schools —himself educating
young Joseph Brant—Thayendanagea, who badly distinguished himself, as did
Sir William's son, in the Revolutionary War, on the side of King George.
The best informed and most intimate friends of
Sir William Johnson, in the Mohawk Valley, the biographers and historians
of the period, all agree that his well-known and ardent sympathies with
the popular cause, had he lived, would have made him a leader on the side
of Washington and the provincials. A wound received in the battle of Lake
George, aggravated by constant labors, many journeyings and privations in
Western wilds, in behalf of his countrymen, cut short his grandly useful
war," and the wanton butchery of the Logan family and other friendly
Indians in the Ohio Valley, so wrought upon the "six nations" and their
allies that Sir William was obliged to call into exercise all the power
and influence he possessed for their pacification. He called a council
meeting at his home in Johnstown, which was attended by six hundred
Iroquois, and under a burning sun, July 11, 1774, he stood for over two
hours addressing them, with a force of argument and appeal which, while
very affective for the purpose he desired, proved an overtask for the
baronet, and scarcely had his audience dispersed when he was seized with a
sinking fit, from which he never revived. He died in his sixtieth year,
amid the lamentations of the whole valley, and reaching through all the
May we not
confess that we owe to the memory of this early Ulster-man, doubly our
countryman, an expression of profoundest gratitude and praise?