Refugees In The Wilderness – Sir John Johnson

In the spring of 1776 events were moving rapidly in America. Lexington and Concord had occurred one year before. The Continental Congress was in Philadelphia deciding the future course of the colonies. People were divided over their loyalties throughout the country including the colony of New York.

At the center of this in New York was Sir John Johnson, the leading loyalist in the Mohawk Valley.

Growing rift

Sir John JohnsonSir John seemed unable to hold back the movement towards independence in the valley. In late August 1774 the first meeting of the Palatine district Committee of Safety met in Stone Arabia. Members discussed the growing rift from England and how to assert their rights in what they felt was increasing oppression. Meetings like this one would continue throughout the colony in months to come. Patriot leaders would begin to fill leadership roles in civil affairs and the militia.  As author Candice Millard states in her book Liberty’s Exiles, these committees administered loyalty oaths that were a marker of differentiating patriot and loyalist. People who refused to swear to them faced jail, banishment, or having their property confiscated.

Johnson disarmed

Principal loyalist leaders would begin to depart the valley to Canada during this time of crisis. Johnson decided to stay for the time being. He worked secretly to bring in arms and build loyalist support. This and the fact that he was surrounded by a few hundred well-armed followers raised the concern of Patriot leaders. In January 1776, under orders of the Continental Congress, General Philip Schuyler was ordered to Johnson Hall to confront Sir John and mustered 4,000 militia for this purpose. At the head of this force General Schuyler proceeded to Johnson Hall. The number of American militia overwhelmed Johnson and his followers and they offered no resistance. Johnson’s followers were disarmed and he was placed on parole under orders not to engage in subterfuge.  Satisfied with these conditions, General Schuyler and his forces departed the area.

Johnson felt he was placed on parole by force under a regime with illegal authority.  He did not stay idle and continued to engage in conveying arms and powder from Canada to local loyalists. Suspicious of his motives and activities, Congress ordered Schuyler to send Colonel Dayton and the New Jersey regiment to apprehend him. Johnson was tipped off about this and understood this time he would be taken into custody. Preparations were made for him and his followers to flee to Canada.

Johnson departs

On May 19, Sir John and 170 people including a handful of women and children departed with three Mohawk native guides.  The launching point for this journey was the Fish House, the Johnson family’s fishing lodge on Sacandaga River. (A New York State Historical marker can be found in the town of Northampton in Fulton County indicating where the Fish House was located. Built in 1762, it was burned by tories and native allies in a raid in 1781.)

The exact route of the journey is not known, as no written record exists of its course. It is most likely they followed geographic features like lakes and rivers as markers they could easily follow. From the Fish House, the party followed the Sacandaga River in a Northwest direction. Some accounts state that they passed the northern shore of Lake Pleasant following an old Indian trail. The Adirondacks had been the traditional hunting grounds of Native American tribes and had several hunting trails meandering through the wilderness. In her book Discover The Southwestern Adirondacks, Barbara McMartin states that earlier references indicate the Remsen Falls trail south of Old Forge follows an old Indian trail.

Racquette Lake

There are some accounts that state the group came upon the southern shore of Raquette Lake. Raquette is the French word for snowshoes. The group had been carrying snowshoes since they were unsure if the interior of the Adirondacks still had deep snow. Satisfied they no longer needed them, the group unpacked their snowshoes and left them on the edge of the lake to lighten their load. Legend states this is how Racquette Lake got its name.

Johnson’s group then proceeded, passed Long Lake and reached the south of Big Tupper Lake. According to H.C. Burleigh in his book Forgotten Leaves of Local History,the group reached the area a few miles south of Big Tupper Lake about eight days into the journey. By this time all food was consumed and the group had to rely on beech leaves, roots and other plants in the wild. They were unable to hunt any game or wildlife for food.   Reasons attributed to this are that the group was so large that they scared any animals away and their weapons were confiscated by General Schuyler’s men earlier in January.

Proceeding past Tupper Lake, the group then made for the Raquette River and followed its route to reach the safety of the Akwesasne Iroquois. This was a group of Mohawks that had settled on the Saint Lawrence River in the mid-18th century. In a letter dated January 20, 1777, Sir John wrote:

“Upon my arrival at St. Regis with my party consisting of one hundred and twenty five men who were almost starved and wore out for want of provisions being nine days without anything to subsist upon but wild onions, roots and leaves of the beech trees, I was received in the most friendly manner by the Indians.”


After replenishing themselves, Johnson then proceeded to Montreal.  Johnson would receive a commission from the Canadian governor to form a military unit. This unit became known as the Kings Royal Regiment of New York or the “Royal Yorkers”. They would participate in several military actions along the New York frontier in the Revolutionary War. After the war the group was disbanded.  Today, military re-enactors portray them in a recreated unit of the Yorkers in Revolutionary War reenactments. (

After the war, in 1784, the British government appointed Johnson to distribute crown lands along the St. Lawrence River and the north shore of Lake Ontario to Loyalists who had come to Canada. The area would be named Upper Canada and settlement was encouraged to help populate the region.  In 1791, Canadian governor Lord Dorchester recommended Johnson as lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, but the British government appointed another.  Johnson would serve in the Legislative Council of Lower Canada and as head of the Indian Department.

Sir John Johnson died in Montreal on 4 January 1830 at the age of 88. His remains were taken across the river by the Indians in canoes, where they were interred in his family vault with ceremonies the Iroquois reserve for burial of their chiefs.

Matt Schmidt