Dr. Robert Venables
While William Johnson did have a claim to the lands around Onondaga Lake, this claim was nullified by the Patriots during the American Revolution.
1750: The French proposed a fort at Onondaga. On August 18, 1750, William Johnson wrote to Governor George Clinton: “I yesterday received a piece of News from Lieutenant Lindesay [sic], that an Onondaga Indian told him (as a secret) that the French were endeavouring all they could to get liberty to build a Fort at Onondaga where they promise the Indians they shall always be supplied with power, Lead, Clothing &C in plenty.”
1751: William Johnson paid the Onondagas £350, using his own money but as a representative of the Crown, for the lands two miles around the lake, amounting to between four and six thousand acres. Johnson later claims he did so to block the possibility that the French might establish a trading post/fort at Onondaga Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James Thomas Flexner erred when Flexner noted that Johnson made the purchase on behalf of the Crown and, in Flexner’s words (not Johnson’s), “with a promise to keep it unimproved” – that is, undeveloped by whites.
But apparently Johnson had already decided to buy the land along with two associates and friends, Thomas Butler and John Butler, as the following May 16, 1751, petition demonstrates:
16 May 1751
To His Excellency the Hon.ble George Clinton, Captain General and Governour in chief in the province of New York and Territories thereon depending in America[.] Vice Admiral of the same and Admiral of the White Squadron of his Majesty’s Fleet, in Council.
The Petition of William Johnson Thomas Butler and John Butler
That there is yet unpurchased of the native Indian Proprietors thereof a certain parcel of vacant Land lying in the County of Albany near and adjoining to the Lake called by the Indians Canunda which is about two Miles distant from the Onondaga Castle[.] And your Petitioners being desirous to purchase the said Lake as also six thousand acres of the Lands around it extending two Miles into the Woods[.] In order to obtain his Majesty’s Letters Patent for four thousand acres thereof and the said Lake Canunda.
Your Petitioners therefore humbly pray your Excellency will be favourably pleased to grant them your Excellency’s Lycense to purchase in his Majesty’s Name the vacant Lands and Lake abovementioned and described.
The petition was granted by Governor Clinton on May 16, 1751, the very same day the petition was drawn up! The wording of the petition “your Excellency’s Lycense to purchase in his Majesty’s Name” can be taken two ways: all lands had to be purchased by a license from the Crown, which would technically be in “his Majesty’s Name” but still in private hands for sale or occupation, or the phrase could actually mean that the land was being purchased for the Crown. However, if Johnson wanted to purchase the land only for the Crown, he would not have had to associate himself with Thomas Butler and John Butler.
Background. The era 1748 to 1755 was a brief peace between the wars of Britain and France. Each side jockeyed for position both in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere. The context of the Onondaga Lake issue must first be seen in this broader context.
As will be seen in an extensive quote below, in 1750 or 1751 (the exact date is never given), William Johnson reported that the Senecas sold the Crown lands around Irondequoit Bay (today’s Rochester) so that white farmers could settle there – perhaps the Senecas hoped the white farmers would teach them white agricultural techniques because the Senecas volunteered to transport any farming equipment. When no English-speaking settlers showed up, the Senecas decided to invite the French to settle there instead.
At the same time, 1750-1751, Johnson reported that the French were proposing to build a fort at Onondaga Lake.
While the French were indeed pressing the Haudenosauee to join them at this time, Johnson may have lied about the specific circumstances or the circumstances may have actually existed. In any case, Johnson, bought the land around Onondaga Lake, probably in the summer or perhaps early fall of 1751. Presenting himself to the Onondagas as a representative of the Crown, he purchased the land for £350, using his own money. By November and perhaps earlier, he expected to be reimbursed by the Crown, with the land become Crown lands. But if Johnson’s expectation of reimbursement was genuine and not simply a ploy to cover his own private purchase, the Crown never paid Johnson.
At a council in New York City on November 19, 1751, Johnson described what he defined as the circumstances of the 1751 purchase. It seems probable that his explanations are lies or half-truths, intended to cover up his private purchase. In the following quote from the minutes of the council meeting in New York City, the original spelling is maintained. The brackets indicate where words were crossed out in the original. And the “y” in the first word is a letter we no long use called a “thorn” and is pronounced “th,” thus making “ye” actually sound like “the”):
“ye Commanding Officer at Oswego acqd. him that some of the Onondaga Indians was inclined to dispose of some Lands about the Lake Onondaga and that an [Onondaga] Indian of the same nation had told him as a great Secret that one of the Principal Sachims, Called the Red Head (well known to be the most attached to the French) was gone to Canada upon the Earnest Sollicitations of some Agents employed by the French Governour, to give up a [certain] tract of Land, near, and about the [Onondaga] said Lake [& at the Same time, told the Officer that] where the French were to build a House [there] under colour of tradeing, and beged that whatever Use he might make of this Information, his name might not be mentioned the Red Head having such a sway over their Tribe, that [not knowing which way it might turn, he not being as yet arrived from Canada] it might endanger his Life, whereupon He Collo. Johnson imediately dispatched a Belt of Wampum to the Sachims of that Tribe to come down & speak to him. on the delivery of which they Came when he [importuned]urged them to use their utmost endavours, to hinder the French their Ancient Enemies, from Settling among them. Setting forth [by Sundry Arguments], the Ill consequences of their haveing such bad Neighbours, and also required them unanimously to oppose the Red Head when he returned. Should he be Strenuous in Countenanceing the French in any such purchase. All this they promised to Effect & returned to their Castles. That he heard afterwards from the Interpreter (then at the Onondaga Castle) that they were much divided between the two Factions, English and French, the Red Head Haveing made some overtures to the latter, [in regard to the Sale of these Lands that] from which it was difficult to recede [from], namely [that], If those lands were to be sold, the French should have them; [but in Order]To evade this Severall of the Principal Sachims Sent to acquaint him the Said Collo. Johnson that if he would send up a Deed of gift they would Sign it as a token of their Love, [for which they] Signifying He should not delay it. that he Sent up such a Deed, which was Executed by all that Tribe, the Red Headnot excepted. That those Lands being two Hundred Miles Distant from his House In the Mohawks Country, it could not be supposed he had accepted of the Deed with a view to his own private Interest, that he was led into this Expence and trouble, by the Indians offering him the Deed [for these Lands] of which he could not avoid accepting, in the Situation he was therein. as Principal Agent with them Under his Excellency the Governour and to evince this, that he is ready to relinguish all right or pretension to the Lands on being reimbursed. That he is of the Opinion that those Lands ought not to revert to the Indians, but be as soon as possible appropriated by the Crown.”
In 1766, fifteen years later, William Johnson had still not been compensated by the Crown, and Johnson wrote a memorial for payment to King George III and his Council on July 8, 1766. This request for payment could have been another step in a long deception: a new monarch, George III, had been on the throne since 1763, but Johnson had been very involved in a war against Indian nations being rallied by Pontiac from 1763 to 1766. Or it is possible that this 1766 request for payment is an honest one and confirms that Johnson had decided, at least by November 1751, to define the purchase of Onondaga Lake as a representative of the Crown acting in the Crown’s best interests:
“That in the year 1751 upon receiving an authentick account of the steps then taken by the Governor of Canada to erect a Post at Onondaga Lake in the center of the Country of the six Nations, to which a number of the chiefs of the Indians had agreed, your Majestys Memorialist (sensible how necessary it was to prevent an establishment which supported by the influence and address of active Jesuits must not only totally alienate the whole six Nations from the British Interest but prove the ruin of the Frontiers) immediately summond the Chiefs of the Onondagoes [sic] to a conference when after laying before them the danger of such a settlement and exhorting them to lay it aside he desired that as a proof of the esteem they professed for him they would grant him that Lake with the Land about it of the distance of two miles for which they should have a handsome present, to this they agreed and accordingly affixed their signatures to a deed for that purpose, after which your memorialist paid them in the presence of witnesses the sum of £350 Sterling.”
1768: The (First) Treaty of Fort Stanwix was negotiated between the Haudenosaunee and Sir William Johnson as the Crown’s representative. The treaty drew a line that delineated the “Boundary Line between the Provinces [New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia] and Indians.”The treaty is silent on the rights of the British west of the line, but the British did indeed have rights west of the line. For example, the lands west of the line include a strip of land, including a military road, connecting Fort Niagara and Lake Erie. There is also a British fort at Oswego. These are clearly under British authority but are not mentioned in the 1768 treaty. The treaty also does not refer to Onondaga Lake or to any British or Johnson claim to the lands around Onondaga Lake. There was a British-funded fort at Onondaga, just as there was at Niagara and Oswego, but it was usually in ruins, making a “claim” by whites less justifiable if not invalid.
January 27, 1774: because Johnson was never compensated by the Crown, he includes the lands around Onondaga Lake in his will, granting the land to his son John.
July 11, 1774: When Sir William Johnson died on July 11, 1774, his will granted all his property, including the claim to the lands around Onondaga Lake, to his son, who also inherits the bulk of Sir William’s lands and the baronetcy, becoming Sir John Johnson. The provision in the will related to Onondaga Lake is as follows:
“I also devise and bequeath to my said Son John Johnson all my right and Title to the Salt Lake at Onondaga & the lands around it Two Miles in depth, for wh. I have a firm Deed, & it is also Recorded in the Minutes of Council at New York.”
April 1775: the American Revolution begins in Massachusetts.
1779: New York passed the “Confiscation Act” that allowed the state to seize the property owned by prominent Loyalists, including the lands of Sir William’s son, Sir John Johnson. This act ended any Johnson claim to Onondaga Lake.
1785: During negotiations between New York and the Oneida Nation, Petrus the Minister, also known as Good Peter, noted that Sir William Johnson had discussed the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix with them and had stated that
no lands which had been sold were beyond that Line.
This leads to a question: In 1768, why didn’t Sir William mention his claim to Onondaga Lake and the surrounding lands when he addressed the Haudenosaunee at Fort Stanwix?
William Johnson, August 18, 1750, to Governor George Clinton, in E.B. O’Callaghan and B. Fernow, eds.,. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (15 vols.; Albany, New York: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1854-1883), VI, 590.
William Johnson, Thomas Butler, and John Butler, May 1, 1751, to Governor George Clinton, in James Sullivan, et al., eds., The Papers of Sir William Johnson (14 vols.; Albany, New York: University of the State of New York, 1921‑1965), I, 923.
James Thomas Flexner, Lord of the Mohawks: A Biography of Sir William Johnson (2nd edition; Boston: Little Brown, 1979), p. 107,
“Albany County” was a legal designation of the westernmost lands of New York. That the lands of Albany County included the lands of the Haudenosaunee was a claim, not a reality. This outrageous claim was altered by the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, ironically negotiated by Johnson, in which the treaty separated the lands of the colony of New York from some of the Oneidas’ lands and all of the lands of the Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. In 1772, a new county, Tryon County, was formed, including the lands west of Schenectady all the way to the 1768 line drawn by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.
William Johnson, November 19, 1751, Council at Fort George, New York City, in James Sullivan, et al., eds., The Papers of Sir William Johnson (14 vols.; Albany, New York: University of the State of New York, 1921‑1965), I, 926.
Minutes of the Council of New York, November 19, 1751, in E.B. O’Callaghan and B. Fernow, eds.,. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (15 vols.; Albany, New York: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1854-1883), I, 926. This Council included Governor George Clinton, Cadwallader Colden, the Chief Justice, and William Johnson.
Sir William Johnson, July 8, 1766, to King George III in Council, in E.B. O’Callaghan and B. Fernow, eds.,. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (15 vols.; Albany, New York: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1854-1883), VII, 840.
Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1768, in E.B. O’Callaghan and B. Fernow, eds.,. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (15 vols.; Albany, New York: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1854-1883), VIII, 135.
Will of Sir William Johnson, January 27, 1774, in in James Sullivan, et al., eds., The Papers of Sir William Johnson (14 vols.; Albany, New York: University of the State of New York, 1921‑1965), XII, 1066.
Edward Countryman, “From Revolution to Statehood” in Milton M. Klein, ed., The Empire State: A History of New York (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 261.
Petrus the Minister (Good Peter), speech at Fort Herkimer, June 25, 1785, in Franklin B. Hough, ed., Proceedings of the Commissioners of Indian Affairs, Appointed by Law for the Extinguishment [sic] of Indian Titles in the State of New York (Albany, New York: Joel Munsell, 1861), 94.