The Mohawk Valley of New York State was one of the crucial areas of early American history. The Mohawk River was an important east-west route between Niagara and the Hudson. The valley was also the home of the Iroquois Confederacy Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and Tuscaraoras. These six tribes dominated not only New York but also much of the old Northwest Territory and the Great Lakes.
In 1737, Irishman William Johnson came to New York to manage the huge estate of his uncle, Sir Peter Warren, vice-admiral in the British Navy. He was only 23, but he soon became a force on the frontier, building a trade business with the Iroquois which made him a rich man.
During the French and Indian War, he persuaded the Iroquois to side with the British; and he was a major general of militia when the French forces under Baron Dieskau were defeated at the Battle of Lake George in 1755. Largely as a result of this victory, Johnson was made a Baronet by King George II and commissioned "Superintendent of all the Affairs of the Six Nations and northern Indians." In 1759, he took Fort Niagara
The French gave up North America in 1763, but no peace came to the frontier. That same year, the Ottawa chief Pontiac led an uprising against the British. Johnson managed to keep most of the Iroquois neutral, but the Senecas joined Pontiac. After Pontiacs defeat, Johnson concluded a 1766 peace treaty at Oswego; and then, at Fort Stanwix in 1768, he made a formal treaty with all the Indians which set out the boundaries between the American colonies and Indian country.
Unfortunately, the colonists refused to honor the treaty; and their trespassing on Indian lands contributed to a growing split between the colonists and Britain. The Indians demanded that the colonists abide by the treaty and constantly came to Johnson to complain.
During one such conference, in July 1774, Johnson suddenly died. His son-in-law Guy Johnson became Six Nations Superintendent and his son John Johnson became major general of the militia. Both, however, remained loyal to Britain; and during the Revolutionary War, John Johnson teamed up with his neighbors, the Butler family, and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant to terrorize the valley.
Guy Johnson lacked Sir Williams success with the Six Nations, however; and the Confederacy was split forever as the Oneidas and Tuscaroras fought for the colonists while the others were British allies. At the wars end, most of the Iroquois moved to Canada with Guy and John Johnson.
Left behind was Fort Johnson, a large three-story stone house, designed and built in 1749 by Sir William a mile west of Amsterdam, N.Y. Today, the preserved structure is owned and maintained by the Montgomery County Historical Society.
On a sunny, warm June 7, my wife Polly and I got a private tour of the house from the site manager Scott Haefner. The Society has restored the interior authentically; and we felt transported back in time. I almost expected to see Iroquois camped on the lawn as we gazed out the old glass windows.
The attic is a mini-museum of the area with many kinds of displays and artifacts. The house has a well-founded reputation for being cold; and it was at least 20 degrees warmer outside as we visited the Johnson privy for historical purposes. A two-holer, it was built in 1749, renovated in 1770, and exists today much as it must have been when George Washington visited it in 1783. (There are modern restrooms nearby.)
Fort Johnson is open May 15 to October 15 Wednesday through Sunday 1-4 p.m. Adults: $2; children: free. No parking fee.
After leaving Fort Johnson, we drove a few minutes down Route 5 and half a century through American history to Schoharie Crossing, a New York State Historic Site. There, we walked along the towpath of the old, overgrown Erie Canal. Dandelion seeds floated on their white parachutes like snow, and birds sang in the trees. We viewed the remains of Empire Lock (#20 of 83) and even sang ourselves: "Low bridge, everybody down. Low bridge, for were comin to a town." There was also the remnant of an old aqueduct which gave the place its name. The aqueduct took the canal and its barges over Schoharie Creek (hence "crossing"). Only seven of its original arches stand today but the mere idea of canal over creek is still mind- boggling.
Hungry from our mornings walking, we motored west to Fultonville, where we had sandwiches and a dessert of ice cream with rhubarb sauce at Sundaes Past. Then it was back on the Tollway and west to Rome, N.Y. an important town on the Canal and also the site of Fort Stanwix National Monument, a reconstructed colonial fort maintained by the National Park Service.
The fort is the stopper in the bottle of the Mohawk Valley, and it was here in 1777 that the Americans held off British General Barry St. Leger for 21 days to keep him from joining General Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Theres a short movie about the siege and self-guided tours of the restored buildings. Cannons peer out of diamond-shaped bastions at the corners of the fort. Artisans recreate crafts and others simulate life in the 18th century. You can view William Johnsons Indian treaty; and the gift shop has books and pamphlets as well as the usual souvenirs.
The usual entrance to the fort is over a drawbridge; but the parking lot was being rebuilt when Polly and I visited, and we entered by mistake through the southern sally port. The fort is open 9-5 every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. No admission fee!
Wed hoped to take in the Erie Canal Village northwest of Rome, but the restored site is not open on Mondays. I also wanted to see Oneida or Whitesboro, but we were feeling the effects of our day of walking so we decided to follow the westering sun.
As a result, we stayed in a third-rate motel in a nowhere town which I wont even honor by naming them. Nothing to see but the backs of my eyelids which was fine by me!
NEXT: COMPLETING THE CIRCLE