Tuesday, November 27, 2012

November Rambles through Molly Brant Country

At Fort Johnson, on the western edge of Amsterdam, NY, I got my first look at the Mohawk River. Here on the riverbank in 1749 Sir William Johnson, one of the most powerful white men in 18th century America, built his third Mohawk Valley residence. He was thirty-four.

The Mohawk River, the largest tributary of the Hudson, flows generally east through the Mohawk Valley. It was the waterway used by many British sympathizers in their flight to Upper Canada during and after the American Revolution. (Laura Secord's family, the Ingersolls, travelled 100 miles against the current of the Mohawk before portaging to Oneida Lake. Then it was on to Port Oswego and the final leg of their journey across Lake Ontario.)

Fort Johnson, home of William Johnson & Molly Brant

Around 1759, Sir William brought the young Mohawk woman, Molly Brant, to live with him as his wife in Fort Johnson, the name he gave this stone manor house. William Johnson was forty-four; Molly in her early twenties. Here at Fort Johnson a number of their children were born.

Plaque showing a northern view of Fort Johnson, Sir William's estate.  

From Fort Johnson we followed Route 5 along the Mohawk River, west towards Palatine Bridge where we crossed to the south side of the waterway and the village of Canajoharie. This village is named after the Upper Mohawk Castle where Molly was born, about 1736.

Unfortunately, Wintergreen Park that affords public access to the overlook above Canajoharie Falls was closed for the season. Here, millions of years ago a glacial river cut a three-mile gorge through the rock.

"Canajohie" means "a pot that washes itself" and it was so-called by the Mohawk people because of a large circular pothole, ground into solid rock near the lower end of the gorge through which the creek flows. The name was used for the Upper Mohawk Castle as well as the creek, the gorge, the falls, and today's village.

Village sign with photo of "the pot that washes itself."

Back in town, we visited the very attractive Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery, one of the finest small art galleries in the US. Here we were able to pick up brochures and maps of the area and talk to the very helpful staff. The art gallery's core collection consists of 350 paintings by American artists, including 21 oils and watercolours by Winslow Homer. It is well worth a visit.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On the Trail of Molly Brant

Johnson Hall
We spent a few days last week on the trail of Molly Brant, the subject of my latest research. I always find it helps me get to know someone if I can spend a bit of time poking about in their familiar surroundings.

With Johnstown, NY as our destination we crossed the border and headed south east, following Rte 12, which we later discovered was not the shortest route but certainly the most attractive. We'd left the traffic behind on the interstate and now travelled winding country roads, up and down hills, and round endless curves.

Just as I was thinking that whatever was at the end of the narrow twisting, road wasn't going to be much, there it was — a city, no less!

Where does a retired librarian go to get information? To a library, of course, and we were there almost as soon as it opened the next morning. I wish I'd gotten the name of the woman at the circulation desk, who was so patient with my questions and who went to no end of trouble digging up maps and information for me. Yes, all librarians are supposed to be that helpful. but we know it isn't always true.

Before leaving Johnstown we visited Johnson Hall, the home Sir William Johnson (1715–1774) built for Molly Brant and their family in 1763.
Cobblestone courtyard behind Johnson Hall and east stone house.

The Georgian house, built of wood and clapboard cut to look like stone, was the second manor house Sir William, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Colonies, had shared with his partner, Molly Brant. It was the centre of Sir William's estate and the scene of many Indian conferences, and here Molly had presided as housekeeper and gracious hostess to a long line of important diplomats and their wives. Many of the original buildings in Johnstown were built under the direction of Sir William, and as activity increased around the Hall the surrounding community grew.

Well-tended grounds at Johnson Hall.

Although Johnson Hall was closed for the season, all locked and shuttered, when we visited, we were able to stroll the grounds that included a cobblestone courtyard behind the house, the two stone blockhouses, and vast surrounding park.

Then it was time to head on to the next stop on our self-guided tour: Fort Johnson and the house where Sir William brought Molly, the young Mohawk maiden, to live as his wife.

Stay tuned!