White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America by Fintan O’Toole

FSG 2005   383 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Americans raised on Hollywood films have a choice in understanding relations between American Indians and the invading Europeans: Indians are vicious savages, out for scalps and our women (most any John Wayne Western), or they are a misunderstood band of brothers and sisters living close to the earth, horrified by the vicious savagery of the Europeans (Dances With Wolves).  By contrast, Fintan O’Toole’s detailed and fascinating biography of Irishman William Johnson demonstrates how complex relations can be between two cultures, and how mutual respect and careful diplomacy can advance the interests of both parties.

Born in 1715, Johnson found himself in a complex national and religious conflict between his Irish Catholicism and ruling Britain’s Protestantism.  Ever pragmatic, he abandoned his faith in the interest of getting ahead.  Sent to the wilds of New York in 1738 by a relative to trade, he settled in the woods halfway between Albany and Utica.

“The land was both forbidding and fruitful, blueberry and bilberry bushes springing from the crags, strawberries carpeting the alluvial flats after the snows thawed, the rapids teeming with pike, eels, perch, sturgeon and catfish.  And all of it had … the thrilling and terrifying sense of being up for grabs.”

Threatened by the French Canadians to the north, Johnson soon struck out on his own as a trader with the Iroquois, who “far from being a primitive and anachronistic survival of prehistoric man, were at the very cusp of global modernity. … The Iroquois and other Indians of north-eastern America more accurately reflected Europe’s future than its past because they were all consumers.  Their entire societies came to depend on the purchase of manufactured goods.”

While becoming increasingly wealthy, Johnson recognized that his power lay in respecting his neighbor’s culture, understandably quite different from his own.  “What distinguished William Johnson from the run-of-the-mill European trader was that he understood this ritual dimension of exchange in Indian cultures and paid as much attention to it as he did to the accumulation of profits. … The sachem’s [tribal leader’s] role was to procure those goods and share them with the village.  His status depended on his success in doing so.”

Such was Johnson’s success that around 1742 he himself became a sachem, a member of the Iroquois ruling council.  “His name was Warraghiyagey, which means ‘A Man who undertakes great Things.’”

As the British conflict with the French became more complicated and violent (both nations had acquired Native Americans as allies), Johnson’s knowledge of Indian society and his position within the Iroquois nation made him invaluable to the British government.  The British king, in gratitude for his work, made him baronet of New York.

In addition to his skills as a trader and a diplomat, Johnson had a powerful sexual appetite.  Although the legal status of his relationships with women was cloudy, he had children with a servant girl, Catharine Weisenberg, who bore him three children, eight with a Mohawk woman, Mary (Molly) Brant, 20 years his junior, and O’Toole speculates, a child with one of his Black slaves.  One of the many ironies of his life was that “Johnson, friend of the Mohawk and protector of the Iroquois, was also an enthusiastic slaveholder.”

After several failed diplomatic attempts to defend the Indians’ need for unspoiled hunting grounds, an aging Johnson found his diplomacy further complicated by a rising and sometimes violent desire of his fellow Americans to be politically separated from Britain.  Indeed, after his death in 1774 from a bowel complaint, “William Johnson’s ancestors had had their property seized for being disloyal to Britain.  His heirs had their American property seized for being loyal to Britain.”

Fintan O’Toole gives us a fascinating window into early Indian-European relations and a demonstrates how the exercise of naked, violent power by a nation against a group of tribes dooms everyone to death and unhappiness.  The tribes of O’Toole’s tale, however, were the Mohawks, the Iroquois, Ottawas, not the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shi’as.