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.

His 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 Valley’s Palatinate who settled in the Mohawk Valley in 1710 (your writer’s maternal ancestor among them).

He 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.

Sir William thus issued an invitation to Highlanders at a time when the oppressions of the Clearances directed their attention to North America.

In 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 chieftain. Word must have spread through that Highland area like the summons of the fiery cross.

No 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.

On 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 1763.

For 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.

As 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.

Sir 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.

Sir 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 Johnstown.

His son and heir Sir John Johnson, knighted during a visit to England, was a dedicated royalist, a position from which he never wavered.

The 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.

Sir 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.

To 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.

But 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.

The American contingent was met by Lady Johnson to be told the Highlanders flatly refused “but to go another way” and Sir John with them.

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.

Lady 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 as 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 in 1776.

Not 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.

Minor 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.

The British decided to strike a critical blow which would devastate the rebels.

General Howe was to come up from New York, General Burgoyne down from Canada, and General St. Leger across New York State, all to meet at Saratoga.

With St.Leger were Brant’s Mohawks and Johnson’s 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 prisoner.

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.

Stung 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 allies.

Capt. 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 York.

In 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 1977.

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. Sir 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 in the summer and fall of 1781 with and army of Royal Greens, the Rangers of Col. Walter Butler, a Connecticut loyalist, and Mohawks, Scot Major Ross commanding.

En 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 August.

Settler John Christian Shell had built a large blockhouse which the raiders could not overcome even after an all-day fight.

Even 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 military trophies.”

In 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.

Why 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.

The 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.

The 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.

One notable exception to this siding of 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.”

Our thanks to Bonnie Pulis, interpretive program assistant at Johnson Hall, for her extensive help.