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Son-in-law took over after Johnson’s death

June 2, 2014
The Leader Herald

Sir William Johnson died July 11, 1774, at his seat of power, Johnson Hall, having expended his remaining strength orating in the hot sun for several hours during an important Indian conference.

It would be nice if we knew more details about the last day of his life, but we don't. Historians describing Johnson's death most frequently quote Guy Johnson's July 12 letter to General Thomas Gage in faraway Boston. Guy probably dictated this carefully-worded communication early on the morning after Johnson's death, after a night of little, if any, sleep, probably while sipping his first morning cup of tea. It was of much importance to Guy to convince Gage he possessed the leadership qualities to be in charge of activities at the hall. A powerful position had suddenly become available, and he wanted it.

To Gage, Guy wrote, "With the deepest and most sensible concern It is my duty to acquaint your Excellency with the Sudden departure of my much honored & Worthy Father in Law, Sir Wm. Johnson, who died at 8 o'clock last night; he had been for some days afflicted with his former Complaints, which gave him the more Concern as it was at a time when his health and Vigour was much required to Support him thro' the fatigues of a Critical Congress in which he over exerted himself: two days since he seemed somewhat easier, but Yesterday evening he Was taken with a fainting and a sense of suffocation which notwithstanding all the Assistance afforded by his Nephew, Dr. Dease & others, carried him off in two hours."

Considering the almost superhuman mental and physical burdens Johnson created for himself to gain the undying loyalty and respect of his Indian charges, plus laboring constantly to fulfill the crown's expectations of him as their number one Anglo-Amerindian diplomatic problem solver, it's amazing he lasted as long as he did.

While the Indians attending the temporarily-halted Conference wailed and condoled over the sudden loss of their great friend, sons-in-law Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus labored to convince them the superintendency would continue: someone close to Sir William, someone they already knew, would take Sir William's place, in title at least. Apprehensive of approaching death, Sir William first offered his role to Sir John, but John, having observed how the stresses of it had broken his father's health, respectfully declined. Then on April 17, 1774, Sir William wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth recommending Guy "if agreeable to his Majesty."

Who else was there? John opted out, Daniel Claus was eminently more qualified than Guy because his Indian experience, but he couldn't be appointed. He was German, and appointing a non-Englishman to such a high British Colonial position wasn't possible.

Not only did Guy want to become superintendent, but the remaining members of the Johnson dynasty - Daniel Claus, Sir John, possibly also Molly and Joseph Brant - logically wanted it for him. This most valuable office must stay in the family at all costs. Guy's accession to the position would not only keep the power and money the high office delivered in the family, but would also assure them all continued high political and social status.

Guy employed his best rhetoric in this letter to General Gage to legitimize himself as Sir William's successor. He inserted a copy of a recent letter written by Sir William to John Blackburn, a longtime London associate, "from which you will perceive the Opinion with which Sir Wm. was pleased to honor my little abilities, which likewise induced him to recommend me to his Majesty as his successor." Then he informed Gage his appointment was also among "the Ardent desires of the Indians." Knowing he needed Gage's recommendation to influence the home government, Guy ended the subject stating, "If these considerations sho'd incline your Excellency to honor me with your Approbation by nominating me to the Agency of these Affairs in such manner as you shall please to direct, I might then hope for success at home [London]."

No one then realized Guy was unwittingly consigning himself to rueful membership in the "be careful what you wish for" club. While grabbing his father-in-law's lucrative position appeared beneficial in 1774, an unexpected revolutionary war intervened. Guy escaped to Canada and in 1781 was on the governmental carpet for submitting expenditure accounts described as, "extravagant, wonderful and fictitious." Washed up, he died in London in 1788, still attempting to defend his "wonderful" accounts.

Throughout this summer and into the fall, Johnson Hall Historic Site commemorates the 240th anniversary of Sir William's death by presenting many opportunities to understand his life and times.

Please visit Johnson Hall's Facebook site, "Friends of Johnson Hall," where you can download and print the entire 2014 calendar of events. There are simply too many events scheduled to mention all of them here. For example, a June 7 "walking tour" of the hall estate conducted by Senior Historic Site Interpreter Aaron Robinson will give participants a thorough understanding of the hall's importance during the 1770s. On July 19, historians will recreate the final native council Johnson hosted; a recreation of Johnson's funeral procession will take place on July 20. Four anniversary lectures covering Sir William's life and importance in pre-Revolutionary War America will be presented. These are only some of the educational, entertaining events comprising this series.

Peter Betz, a former Fulton County historian, lives in Fort Johnson.



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