Synopses & Reviews
A provocative new biography of the man who forged America's alliance with the Iroquois.
William Johnson was scarcely more than a boy when he left Ireland and his Gaelic, Catholic family to become a Protestant in the service of Britain's North American empire. In New York by 1738, Johnson moved to the frontiers along the Mohawk River, where he established himself as a fur trader and eventually became a landowner with vast estates; served as principal British intermediary with the Iroquois Confederacy; command British, colonial, and Iroquois forces that defeated the French in the battle of Lake George in 1755; and created the first groups of "rangers," who fought like Indians and led the way to the Patriots' victories in the Revolution.
As Fintan O'Toole's superbly researched, colorfully dramatic narrative makes clear, the key to Johnson's signal effectiveness was the style in which he lived as a "white savage." Johnson had two wives, one European, one Mohawk; became fluent in Mohawk; and pioneered the use of Indians as active partners in the making of a new America. O'Toole's masterful use of the extraordinary (often hilariously misspelled) documents written by Irish, Dutch, German, French, and Native American participants in Johnson's drama enlivens the account of this heroic figure's legendary career; it also suggests why Johnson's early multiculturalism unraveled, and why the contradictions of his enterprise created a historical dead end.
"At the center of drama critic O'Toole's new book is an Irishman who migrated to New York in the 1730s. William Johnson began to trade with nearby Indians and quickly became knowledgeable about and beloved by the Mohawks, who adopted him as a sachem. Johnson, who became a key figure in the coexistence between Mohawks and Europeans, emerges as charismatic, a tad vain and very libidinous. He took a paramour, a German servant girl named Catharine Weisenberg, with whom he had children and whom he may or may not have married. Before Catharine's death, Johnson took Mohawk lovers and fathered Mohawk children; after her death, he married an Indian woman, Molly Brant. O'Toole reads Johnson's 1774 death as a turning point in Anglo-Indian relations; within three years, the Mohawks were siding with Brits in the American Revolution. Johnson, O'Toole argues, embodied the colonists' fantasies about the Indians i.e., that their barbarity could be civilized and diluted by contact with enlightened colonists. O'Toole (A Traitor's Kiss) brings together great man history and real analytical rigor; this book should be a winner with academics and history hobbyists alike. 8 pages of b&w photos, 2 maps, not seen by PW. Agent, Derek Johns of A.P. Watt." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] fascinating account." Booklist
"This is a well-rounded and densely detailed biography worth reading and studying." Library Journal
"O'Toole portrays Johnson as a complex character tormented by a psychological tension between his past and present, and between his inner and outer selves....O'Toole's book appeals to the current taste for a secret reality cleverly revealed by gathering deeply hidden clues to subvert an official story. The beauty of secret histories and conspiracy theories is that they need not weigh the preponderance of evidence. Instead, they can freely connect disparate slivers into an ominous pattern mandated by prior conviction." Alan Taylor, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
This provocative biography profiles William Johnson, an Irish immigrant to Britain's North American empire who became instrumental in forging America's alliance with the Iroquois.
About the Author
Fintan O'Toole, columnist and drama critic for the Irish Times, is the author of seven books, including A Traitor's Kiss (FSG, 1998). His work frequently appears in a number of American magazines. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.