There’s beauty in serendipity, especially when traveling. Yesterday afternoon while driving from Rochester, New York to Saratoga Springs, New York Waze sent me off the highway onto Route 67, which is a shortcut that cuts off a good chunk of highway. The drawback of course is that you’re on back country roads in farm country, but I haven’t met an off-the-beaten-path route that I didn’t want to try anyway. As a history buff I’ve long circled Old Fort Johnson as a place to visit. It’s hard to hear the whispers of history when you’re blowing by at highway speeds, so having Waze take me off the highway less than three miles from this historic site seemed, well, serendipitous.
Here’s the thing, small historical sites like Old Fort Johnson aren’t open year-round. I’ve experienced this many times over in my travels, but you make the most of the opportunities fate throws your way. The site is open to walk around, and I stepped gingerly in my dress shoes around the main house doing my best to avoid mud on a wet afternoon. Sure, I could’ve put on my hiking shoes, which were sitting right in the car, but why dabble in logic when the ghosts are calling? I walked across the bridge onto the mowed lawn surrounding the historic house, touched the limestone walls and felt the vibration of the colonial history… or maybe it was the Amtrak train roaring down the tracks between the house and the Mohawk River.
Okay, this was a quick stop, and not as meaningful for me as visits to battlefields or the homes of poets and writers. But still meaningful. This site was where William Johnson settled in a place he called Mount Johnson. He was a fur trader and as such became friendly with the Iroquois, eventually building enough wealth and influence to be quite a power broker in the wilderness of Upstate New York. When hostilities with the French broke out, he led the local militia as a Major General and was Commander when the French were defeated at the Battle of Lake George and other monumental victories at Fort Niagara and in Montreal. In defeating the French at these three key sites, the British would control the waterways to the interior and forever evict the French from New York.
This large home that Johnson built would eventually be passed on to his son John and other members of the Johnson family. But here’s where things took a turn. The Johnson family were Loyalists, and with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, they chose to fight on the British side just as the Iroquois did. When the British lost, they were evicted from New York, just as the Iroquois were. There’s a profound sadness in the history of this place. Where once there was a thriving collaboration between the Johnson’s and the Native Americans, there was now a void, still felt to this day. Be careful which side you choose, for you may lose everything you’ve built for yourself in the process. The house remains a monument to a greater glory, and to all that was lost in the next generation.