JOHNSON, Sir JOHN, army officer, Indian Department official, politician, landowner, and seigneur; b. 5 Nov. 1741 at Mount Johnson (near Amsterdam, N.Y.), the only son of William Johnson* (later Sir William) and Catherine Weissenberg (Wisenberg, Wysenberk); m. 29 June 1773 Mary Watts in New York City, and they had 11 children who survived to adulthood; d. 4 Jan. 1830 in Montreal.
John Johnson spent most of his childhood at Fort Johnson (near Amsterdam) on the Mohawk River. He received his formal education at home and sporadically at the College and Academy of Philadelphia from 1757 to 1760. At 13 he had served as a volunteer under the command of his father in the battle against the French at Lake George (Lac Saint-Sacrement); as a young man he accompanied him on expeditions to Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) and Detroit. He attended most of Sir William’s conferences with the Indians, including the one at Fort Stanwix (Rome), N.Y., in 1768 when a boundary between white and Indian territory was agreed upon. In 1764, during the aftermath of Pontiac*’s uprising, he acquitted himself satisfactorily when he led an Indian expedition into the Ohio country. He went on a two-year “grand tour” of the British Isles in 1765–67 and was knighted by George III in fulfilment of a promise made to Sir William.
Sir John Johnson came home a staunch supporter of his king, almost contemptuous of anyone who dared disagree with royal policy. He settled at Fort Johnson and took Clarissa Putman as his common-law wife, but in 1773 he yielded to his father’s wish that he marry into the New York aristocracy. He brought his new wife, Mary Watts, to Fort Johnson and set Clarissa Putman aside, although he continued to support her and their two children. He did not, however, accede to his father’s wish to groom him as the next superintendent of northern Indians, for he preferred the diversions of a country gentleman. In 1774, on Sir William’s death, he moved to Johnson Hall (Johnstown), having inherited the baronetcy and close to 200,000 acres of land. He assumed responsibility for the numerous tenants and accepted the commission of major-general of the district militia.
During the early years of the American revolution Sir John and his brothers-in-law Christian Daniel Claus* and Guy Johnson* strove but failed to keep the Mohawk valley loyal. His brothers-in-law fled to the province of Quebec in 1775 and Sir John followed in the spring of 1776, narrowly escaping the military detachment sent to arrest him. Upon his arrival in Montreal he was commissioned to recruit the first battalion of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and in 1780 a second one. He participated in the ill-fated siege of Fort Stanwix in 1777 [see Barrimore Matthew St Leger*] and commanded the force which defeated the Americans at nearby Oriskany [see Kaieñˀkwaahtoñ*]. In 1780 he led raids into the Mohawk valley, laying waste the countryside and burning vast quantities of grain and flour intended for the use of the Continental Army.
In the first half of 1782 Sir John was appointed brigadier-general on the American establishment and, by a commission dated 14 March 1782, “Superintendent General and Inspector General of the Six Nations Indians and those in the Province of Quebec.” During his long association with the Indians he never failed to champion their cause and to demonstrate his concern for their interests and rights. He was as well the defender and friend of the loyalists in the province. In 1784 Governor Frederick Haldimand* appointed him to supervise the settlement of loyalist refugees on the upper St Lawrence and the Bay of Quinte and, for many years after, these new settlers regarded him as their leader. In the winter of 1785 he presented a petition on their behalf to the king, praying that the new settlements might be separated from the rest of the province in order that they could enjoy freehold tenure of lands and English civil law. When Upper Canada was created in 1791, it was generally expected that Sir John would be named its first lieutenant governor.
Bitterly disappointed when the post went to John Graves Simcoe*, Johnson resolved to seek a place for himself elsewhere. He moved with his wife and children to London, where a stay of four years was sufficient to convince him that his abilities and contributions were quite unappreciated in England and that the Canadas offered the best opportunities after all for himself and his family. Accordingly, he moved back to Montreal in the fall of 1796. Shortly thereafter he was appointed to the Legislative Council of Lower Canada; from 1786 to 1791 he had been a member of the same council for Quebec. He also resumed his duties as head of the Indian Department.
In the latter capacity, Johnson continued his efforts to provide the Indians with their needs and to serve as the guardian of their rights and interests, as well as to maintain an efficient and orderly department. As chief officer, he was not expected to make policy for the department’s operation, but he volunteered his opinions when important issues arose. He “made strong opposition” in 1796 to the placing of the responsibility for Indian affairs in the hands of the civil authorities in the two Canadas; however, his advice went unheeded. He was not consulted when in 1815 the control of the department was once more assigned to the commander of the forces, but it seems certain that he approved of the move for he knew it “would give great satisfaction to the Indians.” When in the early 1820s the British government considered the abolition of the practice of giving presents to the Indians, he made it known that he was emphatically opposed to the idea, and the presents continued.
During the years when the department was under military control, Johnson’s influence depended on the pleasure of the commander of the forces and varied from one to another, being perhaps greatest with Haldimand and certainly least with Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], whose interference in the affairs of the department was limitless. Nevertheless, it was Sir John Johnson who was held responsible for the peace, contentment, and welfare of the Indians. When unrest appeared imminent among them, it was he who talked to the chiefs individually and held council with them collectively; dispelling their fears and suspicions. In the fall of 1782 at Niagara he convinced them that the king was not about to sacrifice their interests in peace negotiations with the United States. Again at Niagara in the summer of 1783 he succeeded in assuring them of something he did not himself believe, that the Americans would honour the boundary line agreed upon at Fort Stanwix in 1768; although on the occasion he knew he was feeding them with false hopes, he prevented them from embarking on a war that could only have brought disaster to themselves. In 1799, by visiting the posts of Upper Canada and conferring with the chiefs and warriors, he allayed the fears expressed by the governors of the two provinces of unrest among the native people. In the 1820s he carried on a bitter and protracted quarrel with Dalhousie over an unwise appointment the governor had made without consultation, and at the same time he tried to prevent construction workers on the Lachine Canal from stirring up trouble in the Indian village of Caughnawaga (Kahnawake).
Johnson also put a great deal of effort into the acquisition of property. Having renovated the palatial Château de Longueuil on Rue Saint-Paul in Montreal, he took up residence there late in 1798. Determined to recover at least the equivalent of what he had lost in New York, he became engrossed in the relentless pursuit of more real estate. He already owned a country residence in Lachine and another in the suburbs below Montreal; in Upper Canada he had a house on a large lot in Kingston, a property in Cornwall, and large tracts on Lake St Francis and the Raisin River, at Gananoque, and on Amherst Island; in addition, he had sundry smaller holdings in various parts of the Canadas. In 1795 he purchased the seigneury of Monnoir, roughly 84,000 acres, and a few years later the seigneury of Argenteuil, about 54,000 acres. Even so, he was not satisfied and all the rest of his life sought to augment his land holdings.
Johnson never lost his sentimental attachment to the valley of his youth. Although he built beautiful manor-houses at Monnoir and Argenteuil, the terrain surrounding the cone-shaped Mont Sainte-Thérèse (Mont Saint-Grégoire) on Monnoir reminded him of his homes in the Mohawk valley. He renamed the hill Mount Johnson, built a small house at its base, and lived there much of the time in the twilight of his life. Dalhousie described him as “very lively in countenance & speaks rapidly Very gentlemanlike manners, & with all that a kind of wildness, as if he wished to appear a character tinctured with the habits and the intercourse he has had with the Indian tribes.” He died on 4 Jan. 1830 in Montreal. The military and masonic funeral, attended by 300 Indians as well as throngs of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and admirers, was colourful and impressive. The ancient Mohawk orator at the ceremony referred to him as the Indians’ “friend and fellow warrior.” His remains were conveyed to Mount Johnson for burial.
Portraits of Sir John Johnson can be found in the MTL, J. R. Robertson coll.; in Johnson Hall; and in the masonic temple on Rue Sherbrooke in Montreal.
BL, Add. mss 21755: 13, 137, 258, 287; 21756: 1–2; 21818: 88, 90, 92, 95, 97, 126, 128, 152, 158, 162, 170 (transcripts at PAC). McGill Univ. Libraries, ms coll., CH104.S122. PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 14: 132–35; 62A, pt.ii: 339; 77: 256–62; 336, pt.ii: 337–49, 396–97, 402–4, 411–18, 430–36, 441–62, 465–66, 484–85; MG 19, F1, 1: 230–33; 3: 115–17, 143, 245–48; 5: 23–26; 14: 66, 75–78, 88–89, 92, 99–100, 104–5, 124–25; 15: 84, 108–15, 187–94, 250–53, 268–71; F2, 3; F6, Brant to Johnson, 20 March 1799; RG 1, L3L: 2870–86, 2955–63, 54788–90; RG 10, A3, 493: 30523–24, 30583–85, 30679–83. PRO, AO 12/20: 324. Corr. of Hon. Peter Russell (Cruikshank and Hunter), vol.3. The documentary history of the state of New York . . . , ed. E. B. O’Callaghan (4v., Albany, 1849–51). Documents relative to the colonial history of the state of New-York . . . , ed. E. B. O’Callaghan and Berthold Fernow (15v., Albany, 1833–57). The papers of Sir William Johnson, ed. James Sullivan et al. (14v., Albany, 1921–65). Ramsay, Dalhousie journals (Whitelaw), 1: 147–48. Montreal Gazette, 24 Dec. 1798, 11 Jan. 1830. Quebec Gazette, 15 Dec. 1774, 11 April 1793. Joseph Bouchette, A topographical dictionary of the province of Lower Canada (London, 1832). Mary Archibald, “Sir John Johnson, knight of the revolution,” Eleven exiles: accounts of loyalists of the American revolution, ed. P. R. Blakeley and J. N. Grant (Toronto and Charlottetown, 1982), 197–225. M. W. Hamilton, Sir William Johnson, colonial American, 1715–1763 (Port Washington, N.Y., 1976). [John Johnson apparently believed he had been born in 1742, and gave his birth date as 5 November. Hamilton points out, however, that he was baptized on 7 Feb. 1741/42 and, supposing that Johnson was more likely to be wrong about the year of his birth than about the day, concludes that he was actually born in 1741. e.t.] Earle Thomas, “At home with Sir John Johnson” (paper delivered at the national convention of the United Empire Loyalists’ Assoc., Kingston, Ont., 1984); “Sir John Johnson: loyal American knight,” The heroic age: loyalists in Montreal, 1775–1975 (Montreal, 1984). M. W. Hamilton, “An American knight in Britain; Sir John Johnson’s tour, 1765–1767,” N.Y. Hist. (Cooperstown, N.Y.), 42 (1961): 119–44. F. B. Risteen, “Children of Sir John Johnson and Lady Mary (Polly) Johnson, married at New York, June 30, 1773,” OH, 63 (1971): 93–102; “Notes on Sir John Johnson’s postwar activity, 1781–1800,” Loyalist Gazette (Toronto), 13 (1975), no.2: 6–7; 14 (1976), no.1: 6–7. Earle Thomas, “Sir John Johnson and Kingston,” Historic Kingston, 33 (1985): 56–68.
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Cite This Article
Earle Thomas, “JOHNSON, Sir JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnson_john_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Earle Thomas|
|Title of Article:||JOHNSON, Sir JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||May 28, 2023|