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History of Sir John Johnson

 

Sir John Johnson, 1741-1830

John Johnson was the oldest son of Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, province of New York. He fought beside his father at the Battle of Lake George, in 1755, and at age seventeen, took part in the siege of Fort Niagara. The following year, he entered Montreal, with the British Army. Following the death of Sir William in 1774, John inherited his father’s title and vast estates in Tryon County, New York.

When the American Revolution broke out, Johnson's job was to ensure the Six Nations' loyalty to the Crown or, failing that, ensure their neutrality. The Patriots acted swiftly to place him on parole, but Johnson escaped with his family to Canada. He moved quickly to raise the first of his King's Royal Regiment of New York (Provincial Corps), eventually raising two battalions, who served in the Canadian command, mounting numerous successful raids back in the Kingsborough area of the Mohawk Valley, and bringing out many of his former tenants and neighbours.

His estate at Johnstown, N.Y. was confiscated, and he eventually settled at Mount Johnson (Mont St. Gregoire) Quebec. He continued to work for his former tenants, members of the KRRNY and fellow Loyalists after the War. He also served as a member of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada, and as a Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Quebec. He died in his Montreal home in 1830. Click here for further information.

Lady Johnson's Escape from the Rebels

Original Source: Cataraqui Loyalist Town Crier Vol 26 No. 5 November 2007.

A poem about the United Empire Loyalists written by William Kirby in 1894 contains the following lines:

They left their native soil, with sword belts drawn
The tighter; while the women only wept
At thoughts of old firesides no longer theirs

Studies of the American Revolution and the experience of those who were on the losing side demonstrate clearly just how far from the truth Kirby’s idea of Loyalist women actually was. Certainly they had just cause to weep, but little or no time for such luxuries as self-pity and tears.

The experience of Lady Mary Watts Johnson, wife of Sir John Johnson, provides a good example. The blow fell on 19 May 1776. A messenger arrived at the door of Johnson Hall with a letter from Sir John’s friend, Daniel Campbell, of Schenectady. “I have just received word,” Campbell had written, “that a detachment left Albany this morning and are now just east of this place. Their precise orders could not be learned but they march for Johnstown.” There was no doubt in Sir John’s mind as to what the orders were, and he realized he had very little time.

Lady Johnson wasted no time weeping about the sad turn of events or begging her husband not to leave her in the clutches of the enemy. She helped while Sir John buried the silver and the family papers in the basement, gathered up some necessaries to carry with him, and summoned the 170 friends and tenants who were to go with him.

She said good bye to her husband as he left to take a little known route through the Adirondacks, not knowing if he would ever arrive at his planned destination or what on earth would ever happen to her and her two little children, Mary, less than two years old and William, less than one. And to make matters worse, she was pregnant again. What would she do? Where could she go?

She had little time to think about her future, for soon General Schuyler’s officers were pounding at her door. Sir John was not at home, she told them. He and some men were on their way to Niagara, she said, hoping to give her husband a little more time. She, no doubt succeeded, for very few of the colonists knew of the existence of the route he had actually taken. And it was only a few days until Schuyler’s officers were back again, this time for Lady Johnson. She was arrested and taken to Albany. At least, she wasn’t put in irons and, being seven months pregnant, was allowed to travel in her own carriage with her sister, Margaret, and her two little children. In Albany she was allowed to live with an elderly aunt, at whose home she gave birth on 7 October 1776 to her third child, a son whom she named John.

Lady Johnson was not at all happy with her situation and resolved to make some change. The problem had nothing to do with her aunt; it was Albany, which was not home. She was barely settled in her aunt’s house when she took up her pen and wrote to the Albany Committee of Correspondence asking permission to go to New York to live. The Committee replied by referring her to the Provincial Committee at Fishkill, which granted her permission to move to Fishkill. In Fishkill she was permitted to live at the home of Cadwallader Colden, former governor of the province, a friend of both the Johnson and the Watts families. Life was good here, but Fishkill was not New York, and staying with friends was not like living with your parents in a luxurious mansion. Lady Johnson was determined to go to New York even though her petition was rejected. as the contemporary historian Thomas Jones, who never let objectivity spoil a good story, wrote “in a manner infamous, scornful, and brutish.” She realized she must make other plans.

Polly Watts Johnson was possessed of a courage and determination which the gentlemen in the Rebel Congress had not anticipated. No sooner had she received their message of refusal than she began to lay plans for her escape. One winter’s day disguised and aided by Loyalist friends and a good team of horses she and her party made it to Paulus Hook across the river from Manhattan. Sir John was waiting for her on the other side, and the story has it that after leaping across the numerous cracks in the ice, exhausted, she handed the infant to his father, who, looking at his son for the first time, realized that the baby was dead, that the exposure to the cold and excitement had been too much for him. So much for melodrama; the baby was certainly not dead. The records show that little John Johnson died in Montreal on 14 September 1778 less than a month before his second birthday. The Johnson family spent the winter in New York, no doubt with Polly’s mother and father. They arrived in Quebec on board the Nottingham on 27 May 1777 and left immediately for Montreal, which became their home.

- by Earle Thomas

Loyal Sir John Johnson

Original source: Cataraqui Loyalist Town Crier Vol. 26 No. 4 September 2007

Sir John Johnson was the leader of the Loyalists in the part of Canada which later became Quebec and Ontario. He was the commandant of the King's Royal Regiment of NewYork, superintendent-general of Indian affairs, and supervisor of the movement of the Loyalists from the Montreal area to their settlement on the upper St. Lawrence River and the Bay of Quinte. Thus he became the trusted friend and adviser of the Loyalists in what became Upper Canada in 1791, and they expected he (not John Simcoe) would be chosen lieutenant governor.

At the onset of the Revolutionary War, Sir John Johnson was one of the richest men in the Province of New York. His father, William Johnson, had emigrated from Ireland to manage a 13,000-acre tract of land on the south side of the Mohawk River, acquired by his uncle Peter Warren , an officer in the Royal Navy who had married into the wealthy De Lancey family. The young Johnson managed his uncle's property very well and at the same time did very well for himself. At his death in 1774 he owned approximately 200,000 acres of land on the Mohawk River as well as two mansions, Fort Johnson on the north bank of the Mohawk a few miles west of modern Amsterdam, NY and Johnson Hall in the nearby town of Johnstown. And, in recognition of his military success against the French, the Crown had granted him a baronetcy.

Sir John Johnson was born in Mount Johnson in 1741 on the bank of the Mohawk and lived there until he moved with this parents and two sisters into the recently built stone Fort Johnson, a few miles west on the Mohawk. Here he remained until he grew up and returned to after his two-year "grand tour" in the British Isles. Here he lived during the blissful years spent with his love, Clarissa Putman, the birth of their two children, the continued refusal of Sir William to permit their marriage, Clarissa's removal to Schenectady, and Sir John's marriage to Mary Watts from a wealthy New York family, the sort of marriage Sir William had in mind for his son and heir. When Sir William died in 1774, Sir John moved into Johnson Hall in Johnstown, inherited most of his father's property as well as his baronetcy (he had been knighted while in England on his "grand tour").

The Revolution began. Sir John and his two brothers-in-law, Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus, were as uncompromisingly loyal as Sir William had been. During the first few weeks after Lexington, it was Colonel Guy Johnson who, of the Johnson family and their Loyalist friends, attracted the most attention among the rebellious element of the Mohawk valley. Perhaps it was because he was more vociferous and aggressive in his attempts to promote the Tory point of view or perhaps because less than a year had elapsed since he had succeeded his late uncle and father-in-law, Sir William Johnson, as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the northern district and was as a result in a position to exert great influence among the Six Nations. Whether because of fear or resentment, Colonel Guy reached the conclusion that he and the Johnson family along with others who were against the Revolution were not safe in their Mohawk valley homes.

Accordingly, in June 1775 he set out with his pregnant wife and children and 150 friends for the safety of Canada.Their route was up the Mohawk to the portage at Fort Stanwix, then by way of Lake Oneida, Wood Creek, and the Onondaga River to Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario and the rest of the way by ship. On 17 June they arrived at Oswego, where Guy's wife, Mary, died in childbirth. The group crossed the Lake and proceeded down the St Lawrence to Montreal, where they were greeted by Daniel Claus, his wife Ann Johnson, and their children, Daniel having been posted there previously to carry on his work in the Department of Indian Affairs.

Sir John and his wife and their little daughter at Johnson Hall were the only members of the Johnson family left in the Mohawk valley. Sir John tried to carry on his life as usual but soon discovered that such a course of action was impossible. Neutral was not in the vocabulary of the Tryon Committee of Safety; there was only for and against. The Rebels of the Mohawk valley could not bring themselves to trust Sir John. They were afraid he might use his influence with the Six Nations to persuade them to make an attack on their white neighbours. When Sir John prevented them from arresting Sheriff Alexander White, an avid Tory, by harbouring him in Johnson Hall, there was a great hue and cry, but it died down somewhat when Sir John turned his attention to domestic affairs: his wife's second pregnancy and the birth of their son, William.

So deceived were the Rebels of Tryon County by the peace and quiet at Johnson Hall that Nicholas Herkimer, the Committee chairman, wrote to Sir John requesting that he allow his tenants to "form companies for the defense of our County's cause." Sir John lost no time in replying that his people were free to do as they wished, but he knew they would never consent to such conduct. As for himself, "sooner than lift his hand against his King, or sign any association, he would suffer his head to be cut off."

Herkimer and General Philip Schuyler of Albany finally recognized Sir John as the categorical and irrevocable Royalist that he was and always had been. They came to realize that he could never be persuaded to join the American cause and a different course of action was required on their part.

Sir John decided to form a regiment to protect the King's interests and his own at the same time. He wrote a letter in early 1776 to Governor Tryon for permission, but the loyal Governor by this time was aboard a British ship in New York Harbour and the letter was forwarded to the British prime minister. When news of this letter leaked out, the Tryon County Committee of Safety decided it was time to take action. They ordered General Schuyler to proceed at once to Johnson Hall to order Sir John to disarm. The General stopped at Schenectady and wrote and sent a letter to Sir John apprising him of the Committee's demand.. Sir John was furious. How dare these ordinary people make demands of him, the richest man in the Mohawk valley, if not the entire Thirteen Colonies, a baronet, a man who had been knighted by George III himself! At the same time he was cautious - Schuyler was after all in command of a force of 3,000 men. He held back from refusing the demands categorically. He turned the matter over and over in his mind and finally sent a reply stating which of the demands he would meet and which he would not.

Sir John's arrogance infuriated General Schuyler, and he hastened to inform the presumptuous baronet of his displeasure. He wished to avoid "the effusion of blood," he said, and consequently he would allow Sir John until midnight to agree to the terms he had set out. Sir John at last saw the writing on the wall. He knew what he must do, but he certainly would not hurry. Precisely on the strike of twelve his letter of capitulation reached the hand of the irate general.

Sir John, of course, failed to live up to the terms of the "agreement" and was suspected of much that he was innocent of as well as much that he was guilty of. It was decided that he was too dangerous to be allowed to remain at Johnson Hall and that he should be arrested and sent to New York for General Washington to deal with.

The day was 19 May 1776. Colonel Elias Dayton, with his detachment, was on his way to make the arrest. Sir John had received a letter of warning from a close friend in Schenectady, with a postscript which read: "Do not let mere bravado, anger or regret at leaving your family delay your departure for I make no doubt, if found, you will be taken. Let me remind you that you can accomplish nothing confined within prison walls."

Colonel Dayton was too late. Sir John had already left his pregnant wife and two little children and the valley he loved so dearly. Accompanied by 170 tenants and friends, he set out for Canada, not by the conventional route, which his relatives had taken, but by a safer, more obscure way. They headed due north, with three Iroquois guides, through the rugged terrain of the Adirondacks, following the Sacandaga and St Regis Rivers. After ten days' grueling march, they ran out of provisions. They were unable to hunt for game for food, having been forced to surrender their arms to General Schuyler the previous January. They were nine days without anything to eat but wild onions, roots, and leaves of beech trees.

The native people at the village of St Regis on the St Lawrence welcomed them, gave them food and a chance to rest, and helped them on their way to Montreal, which became Sir John Johnson's home.

- by Earle Thomas

Sir John Johnson, An Under-Recognized Loyalist

Clearly our Mission Statement (http://www.uelac.org/headoffice.php) encourages members to develop a collective approach to ensuring the place of United Empire Loyalists in Canada’s history.  However, recent personal activities also suggest that by increasing the celebrity status of our heroes we strengthen our understanding of our less famous ancestors.  In particular, by learning more about Sir John Johnson’s role in the development of both Lower and Upper Canada, the challenges faced by our individual Loyalists become clearer.  Discovering the memorials to this 18th century leader only emphasizes the need to secure his place in our history in the lead-up to our one hundredth anniversary celebrations.

In 1961, Colonel Sir John Johnson, Sixth Baronet of New York joined Ontario Premier Hon. Leslie M. Frost and UELAC President Dr. H. G. Walton-Ball to dedicate the memorial To The Loyalist American Regiments in Crysler Farm Battlefield Park adjacent to Upper Canada Village, Morrisburg, Ontario. On the western side of the stone wall, a plaque near the flagpole commemorates “Sir John Johnson, Knight and Second Baronet of New York, Major General of Militia New York Province, Lieut. Colonel Commandant of the Kings Royal Regiment of New York, Superintendent and Inspector General of the Six Nations Indians, Colonel in Chief of Militia Eastern Townships, and Member of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada.” The plaque was presented and the first flag raised by Sir John Johnson, Sixth Baronet of New York on the 24th of June that year.

Further to the northeast, those who attended the 2001annual conference in Cornwall were able to visit the Sir John Johnson manor house in Williamstown, Ontario.  Built between 1784 and 1792, the home was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1961 and a plaque was erected in 1995. (http://www.uelac.org/Loyalist-Monuments/SJJ-Plaque.php)

However, it is at the base of Mont St. Gregoire that we face our greatest challenge in establishing a suitable memorial to Sir John Johnson.  In 1794, Sir John purchased the Seigneurie de Monnoir, later to build a summer home on the south side of the mountain as well as a family crypt.  Vandalized some time during World War II, the family burial vault was accidentally bulldozed in the 1950’s.  Years later, the gravestone was recovered, secured in a niche in the outside wall of the Missisquoi County Museum and plaqued by the newly formed Sir John Johnson Centennial Branch.  Less than ten years ago, on May 13, 1998, members of the SirJJCB and Haut-Richelieu Historical Society formed La Société de restauration du Patrimoine Johnson to restore this actual historic site.  As a key feature of its new website, www.uelac.org/SirJohnJohnson, the SirJJCB has attempted to pull together a comprehensive history of this ongoing project.  Separate reports answer questions regarding ownership and archeological discoveries but there is still much to do.  The challenges faced by the newly combined organization are reminiscent of the difficulties endured by the early United Empire Loyalists who wanted to settle in the Eastern Township region in the face of government opposition. Keeping the broader community up to date with developments definitely will help raise the recognition factor of Sir John Johnson. 

Finally, it should be noted that there has been a recent use of print media as well to tell the story of Sir John Johnson.  The First Forty Years, published in honour of the 40th Anniversary of the SirJJCB, features an account on Sir John Johnson, his life, burial and the attempts to restore the family vault.  In addition, the September 2007 Cataraqui Loyalist Town Crier, the Kingston and District Branch’s newsletter, also includes a lengthy article on the early life of Sir John Johnson by Earle Thomas.  As more information is shared, the value of name recognition will increase across Canada.  In time, we will be more familiar with his relationship with the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, his role in the Legislative Council of Lower Canada and as the Grand Master of the Masonic Order of Quebec.  In time, Sir John Johnson will be recognized as a Canadian hero, a United Empire Loyalist to honour.

Fred H. Hayward UE, Sr.Vice President, UELAC.

 

Page last updated Friday, July 29th, 2016