By Dan Weaver
We usually associate Sir William Johnson with the village of Fort Johnson and the city of Johnstown, not the city of Amsterdam, even though he lived within the current boundaries of the city for 11 years. Johnson arrived in 1738 to administer his uncle Peter Warren’s 14,000 acre estate on the south side of the Mohawk. He established a trading post in the vicinity of what is now Cleveland Avenue. Some historians say it was in the town of Florida, but a 1792 report of the Western Inland Lock Navigation Company places it one half mile east of the Chuctanunda Creek, putting it within Amsterdam’s city limits. While there, he settled 23 tenants on his uncle’s land and bought the indenture of Catharine Weisenberg from the Phillips family down the road. But he could see the future was on the north side, where there was more traffic. He purchased land there in 1739.
Johnson addressed a letter from Mount Johnson on Feb. 19, 1740, for the first time. By Mount Johnson, Johnson meant his first estate and house on the north side of the Mohawk, located just inside the city’s current boundary near the Amtrak station. In 1769, Richard Smith of Burlington, N..J., described this house as a one-story stone residence. Johnson continued to address his letters from Mount Johnson long after he moved from his first house on the north side of the river to the two story limestone building, which was not called Fort Johnson until after it was fortified during the French and Indian War.
Johnson’s two daughters and son were born to Catherine Weisenberg while Johnson lived in Amsterdam’s west end. During the years he was there, he established himself as a trader and first revealed his skills in diplomacy, making friends of the Palatine Germans and Mohawk Indians. Johnson wrested control of the fur trade from Albany. He also bought and sold grain, “Indian truck,” horses and people (both white and black). He learned Mohawk and was appointed a justice of the peace in 1745.
During King George’s War (1744-48) also known as the Old French War, Johnson was commissioned to provide men and material for the British fort in Oswego. He was also commissioned a colonel and ordered by Gov. George Clinton to raise a regiment of “Christians and Indians” to harass the French, take prisoners and scalps. Later he was appointed colonel of the Albany regiment, and when Albany refused to send men, he raised an army of 331 Mohawk Valley whites and 318 Native Americans. Johnson spent a lot of his own money on the war, including paying rewards for enemy scalps.
On Nov. 23, 1746, after Albany residents accused Johnson of not prosecuting the war, he took 10 of his scouts and 12 Mohawks with the scalps of a man, two women and a boy, and eight white prisoners — a French militia captain, two Canadians, two women and three French girls to Albany to shut the Albanians up. He bought one of the prisoners, Angelique Vitry, a French girl between 13 and 15 years of age, whom he may have had an affair with. He sent her back to Canada in 1748 with other French prisoners who were on his estate in Amsterdam’s west end.
The first recorded instance of the celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day in New York State was on March 18, 1746, when Johnson drank so many toasts at Mount Johnson, he could “scarce write.” Other firsts include holding the first council fire ever, defending Indian land claims and being put in charge of NYS’s Indian relations. Also for the first time, the French put a price on his head.
While living in the west end, Johnson built mills and other outbuildings, but by 1748, the 33-year-old Johnson was ready to move. He ordered a vast quantity of material from England for the new house he was building a mile away on the Kayderosseras Creek. The two-story limestone house we now call Old Fort Johnson was completed in 1749.
Eventually Johnson’s property included all the west end of the city from about Northampton Road to the city line and north from the river to near Van Dyke Avenue. Johnson built Guy Park Manor for Guy and Mary Johnson in 1766. Daniel and Ann Johnson Claus moved into Johnson’s old house about the same time and renamed it Williamsburg. Nevertheless, Johnson owned these lands until he died in 1774 when he bequeathed them to his sons-in-law.
Dan Weaver lives in the town of Florida and owns a business in downtown Amsterdam.