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“The uncommon increase of Settlements in the back Country”: Sir William Johnson Watches the Settlers Invade Indian Lands

As North American colonists, eager for land, spilled over the Appalachian Mountains in the 1750s, British concern and Indian anger over the expansion rose. Sir William Johnson, a migrant from Ireland who had settled in central New York, was a British official with ties to the Iroquois; in 1756 he was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies. In 1772, after British victory in the Seven Year’s War, he wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, describing the abuses of the traders and the Indians’ complaints about the settlers. Johnson feared the loss of authority by the established government, and judging of the settlers that “they are in general a lawless sett of People. ”

Sir William Johnson to the Earl of Dartmouth.

Johnson Hall Nov 4th 1772

My Lord

I have had the honor the receive your Lordships letter of the 2d of Sept[embe]r with the inclosures acquainting me with His Majestys Royal Intentions respecting the Government on the Ohio and directing that I should signify the same to the Six Nations which I had an immediate opportunity of doing, as I shall shew your Lordship presently.

My last letter to the Earl of Hillsborough was No 18 of the 29th of June, on which (as I presume it is in your hands) I need not to add more than to remind your Lordship that I therein gave an account of the departure of the 6 Nations Deputys for the second great Congress at Sioto and of the murder of the eight Mississagaes & Chippewaes by one Ramsey a small Trader on Lake Erie in which he appeared to have been actuated by wanton cruelty more than by any other consideration. Since that letter I received an account that the conferences to the Southward were ended, and about a fortnight since, the Cheifs and principal Warriors of the Six Nations came to this place where they held a Congress and related the transactions of their Deputies, a Copy of the most material parts whereof, I have now the honor to transmit to your Lordship, —The Sum of what they said was, That as the Waubash Indians, Kicapous & Piankashaws notwithstanding they waited for them a considerable time did not attend the Congress at Sioto, by reason or under pretence that some of their people had last year been killed by a party of Six Nations & Cherokees, the Deputys laid their Belts and Messages before those present reprimanding those concerned with their past misconduct, and charging them with what they had to say to those absent, which they promised faithfully to deliver. The Deputys likewise demand[e]d those mischeivous Belts &ca. which had been circulating & particularly those said to have gone from Agaustarax a Seneca Cheif of great influence, but without the knowledge of the rest of the Six Nation confederacy. The Indians there accordingly directed all the adjoining Nations to collect all such Belts as were liable to suspicion, on which several Belts were brought in, and delivered to the Deputys, some of which came from the West side of Mississipi containing assurances of Assistance and advising all Nations to rise against the English but the Belts from Agaustarax were not in the hands of any then present, having been stopped by the Cherokees. However the Deputies were assured that they should be collected, and that the Cheifs of all the Nations there absent as well as present should shortly bring them, and attend a General Congress at Onondaga where they would hear the sense of all the Six Nations and ratify all proceedings. The Belts before mentioned were delivered up to me by the Deputies and one of them, which is one of the largest I have seen is evidently a French Belt, and from what I can find came from Mons[ieu]r St Ange on the Mississippi in the name of the French King, which St Ange was an active Commander under the French and is now I am of opinion a secret Agent to heighten the Prejudice of the Indians, and prepare them for cooperat[in]g with the Enemy in case of a War.

As these Indians however have not fulfilled their promise in coming to the Grand Fire place (as it is called) at Onondaga within the time limited, I spoke warmly to the whole confederacy charging them to see that these people attended without further delay, or that these remaining Belts were immediately delivered into my hands, which the Six Nations have promised to see performed, as well as that at the proposed congress they will convince all Nations of their fidelity to Us, and their resolutions to compell the rest to act in the same manner as a proof that they the Six Nations have no part in their designs[.]

They next represented the great irregularities in the present state of the Indian Trade, the promises made to them that the same should be put on a good footing, the want of Regulations therein the abuses committed by Traders rambling where they pleased with strong liquors and the General discontentment amongst all the Nations on that account, to which I made them the best answer I could considering the little prospect there is of any such Regulations being made in the Colonies.. Just before their departure I was honored with your Lordships second letter and accordingly communicated to them His Majestys Intentions respecting the Establishment of a Government on the Ohio which I observed would rather be attended with advantage to them & to their Allies than the contrary. That it was in consequence of their public Sale at the greatest Congress ever held and therefore it was their duty to support their just rights, and remove any evil impressions which a few weak People their Dependants had conceived thereon to all which they made suitable answer. I likewise advised them to withdraw the Senecas of Ohio from thence and sett1e them nearer their natural friends as at present by their Connections with others they bring disgrace & suspicion on their own confederacy, and this I was the readier induced to do, as Kayashota, the cheif of those on Ohio, a man of universal influence was present & had privately assured me that it was agreeable to him.

I shall now, my Lord, beg leave to offer my thoughts on some of the foregoing particulars in as few words as possible, and first with regard to the new Government I have the strongest reasons to beleive that the Six Nations are disposed to consider it in a favorable light, and that the Tribes who since the Cession have appeared otherwise have no just pretension or Title there, at the same time I should remark that as all Indians are naturally jealous of their liberties and extremely suspicious of our designs. And as the reduction of Canada, the imprudence of our own people since that event, and the artifices of our secret enemies all contribute to encrease these sentiments in the Indians, It is not at all surprising if any amongst them particularly, to the Southward should alltho' they accord to the Cession be alarmed a any uncommon increase of Settlements in the back Country all which whatever else may have been surmised must be attributed to this cause following, They discover that the back inhabitants particularly those who daily go over the Mountains of Virginia employ much of their time in hunting, interfere with them therein, have a hatred for, ill treat, Rob and frequently murder the Indians, that they are in general a lawless sett of People, as fond of independency as themselves, and more regardless of Governm[en]t owing to ignorance, prejudice democratical principles, & their remote situation. The Indians likewise perceive & frequently observe that our Governments are weak & impotent, that whatever these people do their Jurys will acquitt them, the Landed men protect them, or a Rabble rescue them from the hands of Justice, The truth of all which I am equally sensible of, the Indians are therefore certain that they will he troublesome neighbors and that they can expect no redress from them. These are material considerations which principally induced me to extend the purchase a little farther down the Ohio, the Indians; being willing to sell it, but more especially as I knew that at that time these frontier People were daily pushing into that fertile country and would continue to do so without any title whatsoever (a circumstance they little regard) & that the Colonies, would not, or could not prevent them, this would have been such a disgrace to Government, that I judged it most politick to purchase it for His Majesty, than farther to discover our weakness to the Indians by admitting their Title to Lands which were dayly settling without any Title at all, and contrary to His Majestys orders but as matters now stand a proper authority in the hands of th e Governor of that new Colony with a judicious management at the beginning, joined to the assistance which I shall give by myself and my Deputy in that Country may I am hopefull obviate the difficultys that at first occur, but should some differences at first arise from the Jealous disposition of Indians or any of the causes before mentioned, the establishm[en]t of a Government there will in the end prove a prudential measure, and in proportion to its powers appear to the Indians as the most necessary check that could have been given to the unrestrained licentiousness which prevailed long before the Cession, was daily gathering strength, and, would have done so had no purchase ever been made in that country.

The proper regulation of Trade at certain fixed places there, is a material consideration, and indeed the neglect of the Colonies since it has been left to them, the vast Cargoes of Rum carried into the Indian Country & the unrestrain[e]d conduct of the Traders has occasioned much dissatisfaction and is likely to produce very bad consequences, whilst the Ideas of Oeconomy which prevail in America & the different Interests of the Colonies afford very little hopes of any accordation of Sentiments that might be productive of any salutary establishments.

The Common Traders or Factors who are generally rapacious, ignorant & without principle pretending to their merchants that they can not make good returns unless they are at liberty to go where and do as they please, & present extravagant gain being too much the Object and the only object of all, they are tempted in pursuit of it to venture amongst the most distant Stations where they are daily guilty of the most glaring impositions—of the fatal effects of Rum (so often requested by the Indians not to be brought amongst them) I have Just received a fresh instance in the murder of a Trader and his two servants on Lake Huron by some of the Nation whose people were killed by Ramsay. The Trader sold them Rum and neglecting to leave them, though advised by themselves to do so, on being refused more liquor, they seized it got intoxicated a squabble ensued, which ended in the death of the Trader and his Servants, The Nation have promised to delver the murderer but I doubt it much, as the murders committed by Ramsey can not be easily forgotten by them especially when disguised by Liquor which they always consider as a mitigation of the offence. As I expect to have the honor to write your Lordship soon on the subjects proposed to the Six Nations, I have only at present to request that your Lordship will honor me with His Majestys commands touching any part of this letter that may require it, and that you will pardon its immoderate length as my Zeal would not permit me to abridge a subject which appeared to me of some Importance. I have the honor to be with great respect

My Lord

Your Lordships

Most obedient and

Most faithfull Servant


Source: E.B. O’Callaghan, Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, N.Y.: Weed, Parsons, 1853), Vol. 8, 314–17.