Clan Donald Magazine No13 (1995) Online
The Tartan Tomahawk
by William Naylor McDonald III
Before the American revolution, the two largest landholders in the
American Colonies were William Penn and Sir William Johnson.
Johnson, an Irishman born in County Down in 1715, came to America in
1738 to superintend 14,000 acres of his uncle Sir Peter Warren lying
between the Mohawk River and Schoharie Creek west of Albany in
upstate New York.
Thanks to government and Indian grants, his holdings over the
succeeding years grew enormously. When he died in 1774 after a long
period of frail health and growing responsibility pressures as
superintendent of Indian affairs, he owned 173,000 acres north and
south of the Mohawk River. He was made a baronet in 1756.
relations with the tribes of the Six Nations were excellent,
especially with the Mohawks and their chief Joseph Brant. As a
patron of mission schools, Johnson sent Brant to one of these in
Lebanon, Conn., run by a Congregational clergyman Eleazar Wheelock
who later moved it to Hanover, New Hampshire, where it eventually
became Dartmouth College. Brant's sister Molly became his
housekeeper, following the death of his first wife, also his
housekeeper, Catherine Wirthberg, whose family was among the
impoverished farmers of the Rhine
Palatinate who settled in the Mohawk Valley in 1710 (your writer's
maternal ancestor among them).
needed settlers. According to one historian he favoured "such
tenants ... to whom the strictest personal dependence was perfectly
familiar." Scot Highlanders and their inbred obedience to their
chief were ideal.
William thus issued an invitation to Highlanders at a time when the
oppressions of the Clearances directed their attention to North
the heart of Scotland's Great Glen, the MacDonells of Glengarry were
being given a hard time by Marjory, wife of the clan's 14th chief
Duncan who had inherited large debts. Marjory was primarily
instrumental in leasing Glengarry lands to English sheep growers and
applied great pressure on clansfolk for higher rents. Johnson
contacted the Highlanders through Archibald MacDonell, then in
business in New York, a son of MacDonell of Leek, a Glengarry cadet
Word must have spread
through that Highland area like the summons of the fiery cross.
time was lost to accept and in August 1773, more than 600
Highlanders crowded aboard HMS "Pearl" at Fort William and set sail
for America and Sir William. The passengers included the chieftains
of the MacDonells of Leek, Aberchalder, and Collachie, their
clansfolk and a sprinkling of other Highlanders among which we find
the names of grant, Cameron, Murchison, Ferguson, McPherson,
Chisholm, Mclntosh, Ross and Fraser.
their arrival they were treated to a banquet by the Mayor and
Corporation of New York. Then they sailed up the Hudson River to the
mouth of the Mohawk River at Cohoes
above Albany, and west about 50 miles to Johnson country where they
were leased lands on Johnson's "Kinsboro Patent" within about a 30
mile radius from his base, the baronial Johnson Hall he built in
the next few years until the American Revolution, their lives were
idyllic compared with the Highlands. They cleared the thickly
forested land, built log dwellings, made merry with Highland games
at Johnson Hall gatherings with the friendly Mohawks. It was a
period, however short, of peace and prosperity for these Scots after
the dismal years following the Jacobite Rebellion, the scourging of
the Highlands by the vengeful English under "Butcher" Cumberland,
and finally their own chiefs pushing them out of Scotland to make
way for the sheep.
Johnson's happy tenants, they were formed into companies of militia
by their feudal Sir William. Most of them had the military
experience of the Jacobite Rebellion, the MacDonell chieftains as
officers in the Glengarry Regiment at ill-fated Culloden.
William saw the rebellion of the American colonists coming,
oppressed as they were by the British government for taxes to pay
for the French and Indian War from which Johnson emerged as a major
general. It was he who named that beautiful big lake about 50 miles
north of Albany "Lake George" in honor of his king.
William's health was poor, exacerbated by wounds suffered in the
French and Indian War. He died suddenly at Johnson Hall on July
11,1774 not long after a stressful council gathering. He lies in a
solitary vault under St. John's Episcopal Church in his settlement
son and heir Sir John Johnson, knighted during a visit to England,
was a dedicated royalist, a position from which he never wavered.
Dutch and German settlers in the area became increasingly alarmed
over Sir John's efforts to disrupt meetings in favor of the rising
tide of support for the new democratic American cause to the point
where the Safety Committee of
Tryon County in
late October 1775 asked the Provincial Congress of New York to determine
Sir John's allegiance. Tryon then included 30 counties of present
day central and northern New York State. Johnstown today is the
county seat of Fulton County.
John's reply was clear
enough that before he
"would lift his hand up
against his king he
would rather suffer that his head be cut off." There followed
lengthy byplay between the American General Phillip Schuyler in
Albany and Johnson. Schuyler was directed by the Continental
Congress in January 1776 to go to Johnstown. Off he went to meet
with Johnson with his Congressional orders to have all military
stores, arms and so on turned over to Schuyler's men and sign a
"parole of honour not to take up arms against the Americans." The
terms were delivered to Johnson in the presence of "between two and
three hundred" of his Scots Highlander tenants and were signed by
Johnson and Allan MacDonell, the Collachie chieftain.
make it binding, Schuyler took six hostages including all the
MacDonell chieftains and sent them to Lancaster, Pa. where the
Continental Army maintained a prisoner of war encampment.
Johnson continued to incite the countryside against the Americans
and ignored Schuyler's pleas to desist. Therefore Schuyler
sent Col. Elias
Dayton with troop to Johnson Hall to take Sir John and the
Highlanders prisoner and bring them under guard to Albany.
American contingent was met by Lady Johnson to be told the
Highlanders flatly refused "but to go another way" and Sir John with
Dayton got there sooner than Sir John expected. He fled to Canada
with 130 Highlanders and three Indians as guides, leaving the
families behind. Johnson and his followers struck out through the
dense Adirondack forests for Montreal where they arrived the worse
for wear 19 days later.
Johnson was taken to Albany as a hostage until December
when she was allowed to go to British-held New York. The deserted
Highland settlement of some 400 which Schuyler decided to leave
alone soon became a thorn in the Americans' side, serving
a supply source
for marauding Royalists and a hotbed of espionage.
General Schuyler finally decided he had had enough and in the Spring
of 1777 moved to round up the remaining Highlanders and imprison
them at Albany.
Earlier he had allowed Alexander of Aberchalder and John of Leek,
hostage prisoners in Lancaster, to visit their families in the
Johnstown region. They were there when advance word was received of
Schuyler's plan to remove all to Albany whereupon the two visiting
chieftains gathered up the remaining Highlanders and made for
Canada. This of course included aged, women and children trekking
through the Adirondack forests as Sir John and the others had done
long after his arrival in Canada in 1776, Sir John Johnson was made
a British colonel whereupon he organized from his Highlander
followers the "King's Royal Regiment of New York" known by the
Americans as the "Royal Greens" from the color of their uniforms. It
was the Royal Greens who were very prominent in the Mohawk Valley
reign of terror that followed.
harassment of the valley by Brant's Mohawks and Johnson's Royal
Greens ensued almost at once but it was in August 1777 that they
were involved in important numbers against the Continentals. The
colonies in the north were still largely uncertain whether the
Continental Army would win and large numbers of them occupied New
York and New England.
British decided to strike a critical blow which would devastate the
General Howe was to come up from New York, General Burgoyne
Canada, and General St.
Leger across New York
State, all to meet at Saratoga.
were Brant's Mohawks
Royal Green Highlanders. They laid siege to Fort Stanwix, today's
Rome, N.Y. General Nicholas Herkimer
of Palatine German stock, started west at the head of several
hundred Continental militia, mostly German farmers,
to head off St.
Leger. Herkimer's men were ambushed at Oriskany, a few miles west of
Utica, in one of the bloodiest battles of the revolution. There was
a large loss of life on both sides including Lieutenant John
MacDonell, the Leek Chieftain. Captain Angus MacDonell was taken
Sorely mauled, St. Leger's army turned back to Canada. Its failure
to continue to Saratoga is credited for Burgoyne's defeat. This so
impressed the mass of reluctant Americans that they rushed to
Washington's support, one of the war's turning pints.
by their failure at Oriskany, the Canada-based British including
Johnson's Highlander Royal Greens returned south in 1778. The
unfortunate settlers reported the Royal Greens as wearing war paint
and feathers. Some said their savagery exceeded that of their Indian
Alexander MacDonell of Aberchalder appears to have been an active
leader in the post-Oriskany depredations of the Royal Greens. He was
at the Wyoming, Pa. massacre in June 1778. Historians also label
raids of the Greens and Indians on the settlements of Cherry Valley
and nearby Schoharie south of the Mohawk River as "massacres". In
fact the killing of Cherry Valley settlers also included British
Loyalists to the point where Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant stopped it.
Congress at length ordered troops under Gen. John Sullivan into the
region in August 1779 where they successfully turned back MacDonell
and Brant's Indians at Chemung near today's city of Elmira, New
1780 Johnson's raids included Caughnawaga, originally the site of a
major Mohawk Village. Among the victims was Douw Fonda, a Dutchman
who had come up from Schenectady, 15 miles east, to establish a
trading post and inn. When word reached the settlement raiding
Mohawks and Royal greens were on their way, there was a flight to
the hills. Douw Fonda said he would stay put claiming friendship
with the Mohawks. He was tomahawked. His descendant, the actor the
late Henry Fonda, not only sent all his Christmas cards to the
Fonda, N.Y. post office, pre-Revolutionary Caughnawaga, to bear the
Fonda postmark but also volunteered to play the part of General
Herkimer when the Oriskany battle was re-enacted
on its 200th anniversary in August
Daughter Jane visits the area periodically for family research in
the gold-domed Montgomery County Court House, across the New York
Central mainline tracks from the Fonda railroad station. In fact it
was here that Walter Edmonds did most of his research for his
acclaimed "Drums Along The Mohawk" in the film of which Henry Fonda
had a starring role.
Johnson's MacDonell-led Royal Greens and Indians fell upon Johnstown.
John's birthplace, in the dead of night in May 1780 leaving
a trail of
scalped dead and
burned homes in their wake. They descended on Johnstown
summer and fall of 1781 with and army of Royal Greens, the
Rangers of Col.
Walter Butler, a Connecticut loyalist, and Mohawks, Scot
route a band under the command of Donald MacDoneII
fell upon Shell's
Bush, four miles north of present Herkimer,
NY , then Fort Dayton in
Settler John Christian Shell had built a large blockhouse which the
raiders could not overcome even after an all-day fight.
Mrs. Shell did her important bit when the enemy thrust their guns
through the fort's loopholes by rendering them useless by bending
the barrels with an axe. Commander Donald MacDonell tried to force
the door with a crowbar whereupon Shell threw it open and drew
MacDonell inside a prisoner, whereupon MacDonell's men withdrew.
According to Stone's "Life of Joseph Brant", "MacDonell wore a
silver-mounted tomahawk which was taken from him by Shell. It was
marked by 30 scalp-notches, showing that few Indians could have been
more industrious than himself in gathering that description of
late October that year Major Ross and his Canadian invaders
following a raid on Johnstown were confronted by a force of Valley
militia under Colonial Willett
on the Hall Farm near Johnson Hall and were chased back north. Many
historians regard this as the last pitched battle of the Revolution.
did the Scots in the north and the south side with the British? In
North Carolina the emigrants were ignominiously defeated at the
Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge where the husband of Flora MacDonald,
Scottish heroine as the result of her four days in 1746 leading
Prince Charles Edward Stewart's escape from South Uist to Skye, was
captured. Hard-pressed by the same economic pressure which
influenced the Glengarry MacDonell emigration to the Mohawk Valley
in 1773, she and her family went to North Carolina the same year.
North Carolina and Mohawk Valley Scots were undoubtedly motivated in
siding with the British for the same reason that the Continentals
were not expected to succeed and the Scots did not want to lose the
new prosperity they had won in America.
Highlanders never returned to the Mohawk Valley region. "Kingsboro
Patent" where most of them had been settled by Sir William is now a
corner of Gloversville, N.Y., without any indication or tradition
whatsoever of there having been any Scottish presence there.
Following the close of the revolution, New Englanders came west to
take over the lands.
Johnson and his "Kingsboro Patent" tenants lived happily ever after
in Canada in Ontario's Glengarry County where they have become
prominent in government and business. The crown appointed Sir John
Superintendent of Indian Affairs in North America. He died in 1830.
notable exception to this
Scottish emigrants with the British was Sergeant Donald MacDonald,
the son of General Donald MacDonald, leader of the North Carolina
Highlanders and taken prisoner by the Continentals after the Moore's
Creek Bridge debacle.
Sergeant MacDonald who later became a valued scout for General
Francis Marion when asked why he had joined the patriots said, in
part:"... Instead of murdering the prisoners as the English had done
at Culloden, they treated us with their usual generosity. And now
these are the people I love and will fight for as long as I live."
thanks to Bonnie Pulis, interpretive program assistant at Johnson
Hall, for her extensive help.
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