Blogs > Cliopatria > Alan Taylor: Review of Fintan O'Toole's White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America

Sep 13, 2006 1:26 am


Alan Taylor: Review of Fintan O'Toole's White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America



During the 1750s, Sir William Johnson became the most famous American in the British Empire. Not even the amateur scientist and professional lobbyist Benjamin Franklin could compare. George Washington, a wealthy planter and provincial politician in Virginia, lagged far behind. Franklin and Washington now loom much larger in American memory because they won the revolutionary independence that Johnson resisted to his death in 1774. And those revolutionaries erased the Indian power that Johnson had exploited to make himself indispensable to the lost empire.

Born into Irish obscurity, Johnson achieved wealth and power after emigrating to colonial America during the late 1730s. Settling in the Mohawk Valley of New York, he lived on the dangerous margins of colonial society, where the British Empire encountered Indian peoples. He arrived as the imperial wars escalated between Britain and France for control of North America. Rather than blanch at the dangers, Johnson shrewdly exploited his frontier land and his violent times. Adapting quickly, he founded settlements, built mills, traded with Indians, and became the primary colonial official for dealing with them.

Unlike most colonists, who disdained the Indians, Johnson took pains to learn their customs and their words. Remarkably accessible and relatively fair, he impressed the local Mohawks, who ritually adopted him with the apt name of Warraghiyagey, which meant "a man who undertakes great things." A colonial admirer attributed Johnson's influence among the Mohawks to his "compliance with their humours in his dress and conversation."

Johnson saw opportunity in the friendship of his five hundred Mohawk neighbors. Although diminished by disease, war, and migration, they had important allies to the west among their fellow Iroquoian speakers of the Six Nations. By pleasing the Mohawks, Johnson won influence among all the Iroquois--deemed the most important of the Indian tribes because they occupied the strategic nexus of waterways between French and British America. The Iroquois were the gatekeepers of imperial war. At least, an Iroquois alliance would screen New York from invasion by the French and their Indian allies in Canada. And at best, that alliance would allow the British to invade Canada. Early and often, Johnson pitched himself as the one man who could sway the Iroquois, swinging the balance of power in North America.

By cultivating Mohawk chiefs and royal governors, Johnson became the indispensable broker of imperial relations with the American Indians. During the climactic war of 1754-1763, Johnson secured enough Iroquois support to facilitate the British conquest of Canada. During that war, he led small armies to victory at Lake George in 1755 and Fort Niagara in 1759. But his greatest triumphs came in shaping opinion. A masterful publicist and correspondent, Johnson won extra credit for his victories by dazzling the press and imperial officials. To reward Johnson, Parliament gave him £5,000, while the Crown knighted him as a baronet: he was only the second colonist to be so honored. In 1756 the Crown also promoted him to superintendent of Indian affairs in the northern colonies, with an impressive salary of £600. These rewards from Britain enhanced Johnson's clout in the colonies. ...

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