With the exception of Benjamin Franklin, Sir William Johnson (1715-1774) likely enjoyed wider renown than any man living in British North America. An Irishman who settled in New York's Mohawk Valley during the late 1730s, at the age of twenty-three, the ruthless and charismatic Johnson went on to become one of the continent's largest landowners, a hero of the Seven Years' War, and, most famously, Britain's premier diplomat to the Indians. But he was perhaps best known, both there and abroad, for having gone a bit native and for his flagrant sexual liaisons with Indian women, with whom he was rumored to have "as many children... as the late emperor of Morocco."
Sir William Johnson did not, in fact, have seven hundred children. But he did have at least a dozen with several Mohawk women, the most legendary of whom, Molly Brant (1735-1796), lived with him in baronial splendor at his Mohawk Valley estate, Johnson Hall. There at the western edge of Britain's empire - in the wilds of colonial New York - the couple raised eight children and presided over what one historian has called "a remarkable biracial manor court." Johnson's Georgian manse (which still stands) served as the Crown's informal embassy for negotiating with the Indians and emerged, in the 1760s, as a popular destination for curiosity-seekers.
The death of William Johnson in July 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, brought to an abrupt end the empire he'd created within the Empire. It also opened a jagged rift between his Mohawk heirs and their older whilte half-siblings. All members of Johnson's fractured family sided with Britain; like so many Loyalists, they lost everything. In this lecture, Kirk Davis Swinehart - a writer-in-residence in the Library's Allen Room - will tell the story of the clan's rise, fall, and extraordinary role in the War of Independence.
Kirk Davis Swinehart, a historian and book critic, is completing a book about Sir William Johnson and his Mohawk family, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He holds a Ph.D. from Yale and has written for the Washintgton Post, the New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal.
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