'We came here to serve God, and also to get rich', announced Bernal Diaz with the Spanish explorer and conqueror Hernán Cortés: so much for Spanish motives. The situation for Indians was considerably less destructive in Canada where French commercial interests centred on the fur trade.[1] Many Indians were vital suppliers of beaver, otter, muskrat, martin, mink, and other valuable pelts. It would have been bad business for French traders to mistreat such useful business partners: it was also unnecessary. The lure of trade goods was sufficient incentive for the Indians to transport the pelts to Montréal, Trois-Rivières, or Québec.

While the French generally regarded Indians as equal allies and intermarried, the English did not. English scorn for Indians (often by them termed savages) stemmed from the tensions and friction generated by the English desire to acquire more and more Indian lands. Unlike the French in Canada, the English settled the Atlantic seaboard of Colonial America on a relatively massive scale, and in the process displaced many more Indians. Moreover, Indians were not considered nearly as important to the English economy as they were to the less-populous French. The result was that the English generally viewed them as an obstacle to progress and a nuisance—except when war with France threatened; at such times the English attempted to purchase the support or neutrality of the Indians with outlays of gifts.[2]

Canadian Indians suffered less than did the Indians of Latin or English America. This was partly because of the fur trade and the need for nearby wilderness and fur-bearing animals. Furthermore, French settlement in Canada was restricted to a thin line of seigneuries (large tracts of land) and villages along the banks of the Saint Lawrence and lower Ottawa rivers. This demographic and commercial legacy continues in Canada, where numerous indigenous groups may be found living in a more or less traditional manner, at least for part of the year.  In contrast, English-Indian relations in the 17th and 18th centuries were marked by a series of particularly vicious wars won by the English. English victory forced Indians submission to English sovereignty and confinement to tracts of land near English settlements, or to move west beyond the frontier.[3] Disease was also a grim factor in the American colonies, where the majority of the Eastern Woodlands people lived as village farmers. Severely affected by smallpox and war and harassed by settlers, many Indians sought refuge west of the Appalachians.

Indians and Exploitation

Ohio Territory: c1758


The primary North-eastern regional Indians were the Iroquois. The Iroquois were an important confederacy consisting of five tribes of the Iroquois language family living in the tenth century in New York. The Iroquois called themselves the Haudenosaunee and appear to have formed their confederacy in 1142.[4] The original confederacy consisted of five tribes—the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca—and was known as the Five Nations, or the League of Five Nations. Hiawatha lived about 1570, and he is credited with having brought about the union of the Five Nations of the Iroquois.  This confederacy was for their mutual protection against the aggressive and stronger Algonquin people. The Mohawk lived in the Mohawk River valley, were semi-sedentary and were once the chief people of the Five Nations. As in other Iroquois tribes, families lived together in large bark-covered long houses. A ruling council and a village chief governed each community. About 1720, the Tuscaroras were formally admitted to the confederacy, which became the League of Six Nations. After the American Revolution many Mohawks took refuge in Canada.

In their relations with white settlers, from the start the Iroquois acted independently of the Europeans. During the colonial period they held the balance of power between the French and English, particularly in New York and the area around the Canadian border. With few exceptions, the Iroquois allied themselves with English interests. They bitterly opposed the extension of French settlement southward from Canada, and they were responsible for preventing the English colonies from being flanked on the west by the French. The British soon realised that coordinating actions with the Indians was more complex than they had at first thought.

An Irishman who was a nephew of Vice Admiral Sir Peter Warren, William Johnson had established a merchant-trading business in New York, north of Albany, and he had a good relationship with the Indians. In 1746 Governor Clinton of New York appointed Johnson for the task of supplying the then remote garrison at Fort Oswego. Clinton also appointed Johnson as Commissary for Indian Affairs, to regulate the trade with them, and made him 'Colonel of the Forces to be raised out of the Six Nations'.[5] In 1750, Johnson had been commissioned as a member of the Governor's council. Governor Shirley also saw Johnson's ability in dealing with the Indians; in 1754 he wrote to Johnson stating he would recommend him to be appointed in the capacity best suited to his talent. The reason for alarm was a growing drift to war in the colonies.

George Washington's war had begun on 28 May 1754 in the struggle for control of the Ohio Valley.[6] For more than a generation, the powerful Iroquois Confederacy had dominated a middle ground between the French and the uncoordinated British colonies in North America. The Iroquois gained control of a vast region in the interior of the continent by alliances with other Indian tribes and tried to exclude the Europeans from the Ohio territory. The Iroquois were able to maintain their power against both the British and French intrusions, but this three-way balance of power began to break down during the 1740s. British traders penetrated deep into the Ohio country and established direct relations with tribal groups who previously had been controlled by the Iroquois or who had traded only with the French. There was a parallel land-rush underway with settlers pouring in from Pennsylvania, Virginia,, New York, and Connecticut. These issues all led to the need for permanent colonial Indian Superintendents.


The Seven Year's War

William Johnson had established friendly relations and learned several different Indian-language dialects as a trader with the Mohawks. Largely through Johnson's influence, the Iroquois were allied with the British during the French and Indian, or Seven Years' War (1754-1763). New York’s location made it important in the wars fought between the English and French after 1689 for domination of the North American colonies. Moreover, New York gave access to the key Ohio Territory in dispute. The side that controlled lakes Champlain, Ontario, and Erie and the Mohawk and Hudson rivers had a commanding position in North America.[7] The Iroquois were the key and both sides sought their aid. Initially the neutral Iroquois respected trading agents, like Sir William, who secured their aid for the English. With the Iroquois’s help, and Johnson’s services in gaining local Mohawk support, also in explaining the British policy, and ensuring reciprocal gifts.

The British Board of Trade had anticipated the outbreak of war, and only weeks before had urged the colonial governors to seek an alliance with the Six Nations. In June 1754, delegates, including Sir William, Guy Johnson, and Daniel Claus (all of whom were fluent in several Indian dialects), from seven colonies had met with 150 Iroquois leaders in Albany, New York. Some members of the Iroquois Confederacy already in alliances with the British colonies complained of poor treatment. The Indians also protested that the British Governor of Virginia as well as the French Governor General of Canada had attempted to seize their lands. After receiving large presents of supplies and arms, the Iroquois grudgingly renewed their alliances with the British colonies.

In 1755 Major General Edward Braddock arrived in Virginia, appointed as the Commander in Chief of British Forces in America. At a meeting with colonial governors in April 1755, Braddock outlined a strategy to attack the French. Among the appointments he made he informed Sir William Johnson that he was to be the Superintendent of Iroquois and other northern Indian affairs, and that he was additionally commissioned as a provincial major general to command an expedition of provincial militia and Indians to seize Crown Point on Lake Champlain.[8] Edmund Atkin was an authorised trader who had a similar type of relationship as Johnson did with the Mohawks, in Atkin's case with the large Cherokee tribe in the Carolinas and Georgia. (Johnson was later followed in command of the Northern Department by Daniel Claus and Guy Johnson. Edmund Atkin was also appointed in 1755 as the Southern Department Superintendent.) (Colonel William Claus and Robert Dickson later filled similar posts in Canada, Claus around Niagara and Dickson in the north west of Ontario and Manitoba.[9])

Johnson's most famous fight was the Battle of Lake George, fought on September 8, 1755, in which a force of French and Indians was defeated by Johnson's British colonial force of militia and, of course, his Mohawk Indians.[10]  That was part of his success.  Johnson had authority to act in both civil and military affairs, as did his Mohawk neighbours. For distinguished services Johnson was formally created a baronet in 1756 - it had been a bleak year in the colonies. Four years later Johnson fielded 1,000 Indian allies, including Iroquois, and Senecas, and on the death of Brigadier Prideaux, commanded the British forces that captured Niagara from the French on 24 July 1759.[11] In 1760, Johnson also sent 600 Indians to help Amherst and take part in the capture of Montréal.[12] Johnson became a major land-holder, and founded Johnstown, New York, in 1762.

Seven Years' War: 1756-1763, North American Theatre

Sir William Johnson defeated the French in 1755 at Lake George, captured Fort Niagara in 1759, and sent 600 Indians to capture Montréal in 1760.

An important topic was a plan of colonial union developed by Benjamin Franklin. His Albany Plan proposed central government for Colonial America.  Each colony would send delegates to a continental assembly, presided over by a British governor general. This council would be responsibility for western affairs, including trade, Indian policy, and defence. The Albany Plan was never implemented because the British feared the consequences of an American assembly, and the individual colonies' assemblies wanted to preserve their autonomy.  But, of course, the Indian Superintendents had already sought agreement from the Iroquois and other tribes and then failed the Indians.

Britain won the War in 1763, expelling France from most of North America (not the Caribbean). However, with the threat of war gone, land speculators and settlers flooded into much of the Iroquois territory, provoking clashes with the Indians. Under the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, the Iroquois ceded to New York all lands east of a line drawn southward from present-day Rome, New York. Johnson drafted that treaty and gained Iroquois support for it.[13] The French and Indian War not only stripped France of its North American empire; it also caused Britain to change its relationship to its colonies, a change that eventually led to the American Revolution; it further sealed the Indians' fate.

Organisation and Duties


Indian land (west of colonies) 1775


Indian Superintendencies were first considered in 1721 by the Colonial Board of Trade as a possible Governor General of Indian relations. By 1746, the Indian Commissioners in Albany were proving inadequate for the task and Johnson was asked to regulate the trade with the Iroquois. In 1748, both Governors Clinton of New York and Shirley of Massachusetts wrote to the Board of Trade recommending Johnson as the ideal candidate to handle Indian affairs. In 1751, the term 'Superintendent of Indian Affairs' was used in a public discussion article. Several tribal chiefs proposed Johnson to be Indian agent for the Six Nations. In 1754, the Board of Trade chose Johnson as a single agent to manage the Northern Department of Indian Affairs. A strategic plan evolved for a large area for the Indians, to be called Transylvania, which was to be their own sovereign state. Sir William Johnson established the eastern boundary with the Iroquois in 1768, in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. The western boundary was to be established with Spain; however, colonial developments pre-empted the idea.

During the American Revolution the British reorganised the Northern Indian Department. It was expanded into different departments to encompass: the Six Nations; Canada; Québec; and the Great Lakes. Sir William Johnson's son Sir John refused to head the Indians in favour of taking a direct military role, and Departmental leadership fell to Colonel Guy Johnson, a nephew of Sir William. (Guy further expanded the department into a military role with a half-dozen subordinate units and an overall operational-planning function.) Sir John migrated to Montréal as a major general and baronet of New York.

The need for a coordinated Indian policy became clear when in 1763 Pontiac's rebellion threatened to do what the French had failed to achieve. The Indians resented that their lands were being taken, and the lack of presents and other more essential goods (such as food, implements and ammunition), led Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, to persuaded Chippewas, Delawares, Shawnees and Senecas to attack Detroit and other forts in the area. Not all of the Western Tribes were involved, the Hurons remained neutral. However, many forts were taken, and their inhabitants often either brutally killed, or captured. In July 1763, Johnson held a meeting with the Six Nations at German Flats to try and negotiate a peace settlement. In September 1763, he held a conference at Johnson Hall and threw down the hatchet to get the Indians to stay loyal to the Crown. In 1764, he held a peace conference at Niagara with 1,400 Indians. London vacillated on Indian policy decisions while colonial revenue fell due to the repeal of unpopular regulations and acts. In 1768, the Colonial Board of Trade returned the regulation for Indian affairs to the colonies. Other matters, such as land purchases, holding Congresses, making treaties and laying down boundaries, would continue to be handled by the Superintendents. Johnson signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 to permanently fix a colonial boundary line, with 3,102 Indians present.[14] In 1774, Johnson held an Indian Congress with the Six Nations just a week before he died.[15]

Often Johnson had to ask permission of his superiors, in Albany or London, as did the Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Johnson and his successors spoke with Indians, lived with Indians, and thought like Indians to gain their respect and support.  His was not a distant bureaucratic relationship, but at a time when Indian atrocities were the talk of every alehouse – he was a successful white Indian.  He brought Indian support and dramatic aid to the colonies: his military successes were due to his ability to gain and keep Indian allies.  He built his house to entertain his Mohawk friends and they were frequent guests. The Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (his Indian name was Thayendanegea), was selected and pushed by Johnson to be an example of Indian capability. When young Brant was sent to an Indian school at Lebanon, Connecticut, by Sir William. In 1774 Brant became secretary to Guy Johnson, a later superintendent of Indian affairs and both Sir William's son-in-law and nephew. Throughout the American Revolution he fought against the American colonials, leading Indians in many raids.

The British became concerned about the colonists’ lack of co-operation during the French and Indian War. The British initially resented the fact that the prosperous colonists were unwilling to undertake their own defence. Even the generous subsidies voted by Parliament at William Pitt's urging did not cause the colonists to respond as the British expected—colonial assemblies still refused to send their militiamen on expeditions to Canada. The colonists claimed that their militias were needed to defend home territory. Colonists demanded greater authority over finances and military appointments in return for their approval of war-related measures. The royal governors, under strict orders from the British ministry to support the war effort in America, often gave in to these demands without resistance. For the colonists, the French and Indian War increased their concern over the permanent presence of a British army. They believed that a standing army threatened liberty and representative government. These fears intensified as the British demanded imperial reform, imposed direct taxes, and stationed army units in the colonial port cities. Britain’s demands soon led the colonists to active resistance and paved the way for the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America.


1               Robert Leckie, A Few Acres of Snow, p. 45.

2               See Fred Anderson, Crucible of War, The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 , p. 284.

3              Fred Anderson, op. cit., pp.529-534.

4               Iroquois, at

5               Paul Redmond Drew, 'Sir William Johnson - Indian Superintendent, The Role of Sir William Johnson In the Colonial Development of America and His Involvement in the Expansionist Policies of the British Imperial Government', at;

6               Robert Leckie, op. cit. , p. 57, and Fort Necessity National Battlefield, at For a full account, see Fred Anderson, op. cit. pp.3-10. Many authors have noted that this was in fact the beginning of the Seven Years' War, variously charged either to the Indian Tanaghrisson or the young and inexperienced Washington. (The Seven Years' War is also known in America as the French and Indian War.) Americans usually see that war in isolation, but since the major players were the European states of Britain and France events in America were rarely isolated from the European theatre of war.

7              John Keegan, Fields of Battle, The Wars for North America, p.26.

8              Fred Anderson, op. cit., pp., 87-88, and Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe, p. 65.

9              Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada, pp. 98,99.  Berton quotes Brock’s letter authorising Dickson to organise and use his initiative.

10           William Smith Jr, The History of the Province of New York, Vol III; p. 73. James Flexner, Mohawk Baronet: A Biography of Sir William Johnson, Parkman, Francsis, "Montcalm and Wolfe"; pps., 63-4, 75, 134-135, 207-226, 233-234, 264, 269, 274-276, 354, 446-447, 513-516. Christopher Moore, The Loyalists, pps. 20, 75, 92, 120, Paul Redmond Drew, op. cit.

11           Frank McLynn, 1759, pps., 146-153, Paul Redmond Drew, op. cit.

12           Paul Redmond Drew, op. cit.

13            Ibid.

14            Ibid.

15            Ibid.

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