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Sir John Johnson House National Historic Site of Canada

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History

Sir John Johnson

Sir John Johnson
Sir John Johnson
© Parks Canada

The outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776 divided the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies. While the majority favoured independence from the British Crown, a substantial minority maintained their loyalty and were prepared to fight to support the royal cause. In 1776, Sir John Johnson (1742 - 1830) was a wealthy landowner in the Mohawk Valley in what is now New York State. The son of Sir William Johnson who had promoted the settlement of the area and founded the community of Johnstown, he remained true to his allegiance to Britain, at the cost of his fine home in Johnstown and his extensive properties in the Mohawk Valley.

Johnson and his family were arrested very early in the conflict, but he managed to escape, leading a large body of his estate tenants and loyal allies of the Six Nations Confederacy northwards to Montreal. They became the core of the regiment that the British military command authorised Johnson to recruit. Known as the King's Regiment of New York, it saw considerable action under his command during the course of the revolution, and Johnson became a highly respected and decorated military leader for the British, being raised to the rank of brigadier-general in 1782. By that time, however, it was clear that the British cause was lost. Within a year the Treaty of Paris had been negotiated, recognising the independence of the Thirteen Colonies and leaving Johnson and the thousands of loyalists who had fled to Canada in permanent exile from their homeland.

Officer's sword-belt plate, c1780
Officer's sword-belt plate, c1780
© Nor'wester Historical Society, Williamstown, Ontario

The coming of peace left the British with a major problem. The loyalists had made great sacrifices in support of the British cause and something had to be done to help them begin new lives in Canada. Sir John Johnson, having contributed to the King's cause throughout the war, was once again called upon to assist in this difficult task. His specific assignment was to distribute crown lands in the eastern part of what is now Ontario to the loyalists who had come to the Montreal area and then to help them to settle on their new property. It was an enormous task but in the course of the spring and summer of 1784 Johnson had, according to his estimate, organised the movement of 3,776 loyalists to their new lands along the St. Lawrence River and the north shore of Lake Ontario.

Crown lands were distributed to the loyalists on the basis of a detailed formula by which a married civilian was given 100 acres while soldiers received land according to their rank. A man of the stature of Sir John Johnson was eligible to receive very considerable grants and Johnson's holdings eventually extended throughout Eastern Ontario. One of his properties, of about 2300 acres, was in Charlottenburgh township just to the east of present day Cornwall. There he selected a location on the Raisin River to build a house.


Sir John Johnson National Historic Site of Canada

Sir John Johnson House National Historic Site of Canada
© Parks Canada

Sir John Johnson National Historic Site of Canada, located in the historic town of Williamstown is one of the oldest surviving houses in present day Ontario.

Sir John Johnson, a prominent United Empire Loyalist, was responsible for the settlement of fellow loyalists in Eastern Ontario following the end of the American Revolution. On a grant of land that he himself received in the area of present day Williamstown, Johnson had a house, a grist mill and a saw mill built sometime between 1784 and 1792. The house has survived to the present day and is one of the oldest buildings left in Ontario. The original building was enlarged in the 1820s and, in its present form, is a fine example of early Ontario domestic architecture.

In recent years, the Sir John Johnson house known to locals as the Manor House, has found a new role within its community. In 1975, part of the building was leased to the Williamstown Branch of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry library where it continues to serve as an active local library.

In 1996 a group of local citizens committed to raising the profile of the property and working in partnership with Parks Canada to ensure the long-term protection and presentation of the site formed a not-for-profit organization called the Sir John Johnson Manor House Committee. This group holds the Glengarry archives and other genealogical resources within the house, and offers guided tours and special events throughout the year.

The Sir John Johnson Manor House Committee and the Glengarry Archives section of the house is open during the summer months and every Monday throughout the year from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. to the public. For information or to arrange an appointment, please call (613) 347-2356 or e-mail: sirjohnjohnson@sympatico.ca.

We hope that your visit to our web site will be an enjoyable and informative experience: an opportunity to learn more about Sir John Johnson and the story of his Williamstown house.

Sir John Johnson House and Williamstown

The location for Sir John Johnson's house became known as Williamstown, in memory of Johnson's father Sir William Johnson. As a considerable land owner in the area, Johnson's goal was to encourage the settlement and, to achieve that end, he also had a grist mill and a saw mill built on the river, adjacent to the house. It is doubtful that Johnson had any intention of ever living in the house. For the time he owned the property, the house seems to have been occupied only by the man hired to run the mills, while Johnson himself lived in Montreal. But his vision was fulfilled to the extent that Williamstown became a thriving village in the midst of a prosperous farming community.

The early owners of Sir John Johnson House were very important to the local community. Johnson donated land for the Williamstown Fairground www.williamstownfair.com and later sold half an acre to local school board, now the location of the Nor'westers Museum.

Hugh McGillis was a Justice of the Peace in the Williamstown area and donated the land for St. Mary's Church. The grist and sawmills provided an essential service to the settlers and growing community. During the McLennan – Robertson period the house was regarded by the community as the Manor House.

Aerial photograph of Williamstown, 1920
Aerial photograph of Williamstown, 1920
© McCarthy Aero Service Ltd., Toronto

The House

In 1961 Sir John Johnson House was declared of national historic significance because of its historical association with Sir John Johnson, its age as one of the oldest surviving buildings in Ontario and in its architectural design.

The significance of its architectural design can be seen in the evolution of the house over its life. Its initial construction style, that of the piece sur piece technique, coupled with its original centre hall plan, make it an interesting eighteenth century specimen. The additions to the house, the early ones using the original construction techniques, have created an irregular massing, reinforcing the original vernacular character. The resultant structure is an irregularly massed building which provides a remarkable documentary record of vernacular building methods of the 18th and 19th centuries in Canada.

The architectural importance of the house included its sitting and orientation, on a knoll of land with unobstructed view planes out over the Raisin River.

Evolution of House

The Mill

On August 11, 1784 Johnson wrote to Governor Haldimand that he:

Left Montreal with a View to examine the Mill Place on the River au Raisin, which falls in the rear of one of My Lotts, and proves to be a very good situation for Mills – it will admit both Grist and Saw Mills on the same Dam, but it will be a very expensive one … [But] as the Numerous Inhabitants now settling on that River will stand in great need of Board, I mean immediately to set about the Mill, providing your Excellency will be pleased to direct that [Jonathan] Muchmore the Mill Wright, who has charge of the Canalls at the Cedars, may be permitted to superintend the Works, upon my paying him, and his finding a proper person to attend in his absence—and to bring with him such Tools as may be Necessary out of the King's Store.

Muchmore died in June 1787, killed under the wheel at one of the mills, which suggests that at least the sawmill was in operation by that year. By 1792, both the saw and grist mills appear on a map of Charlottenburgh.

Both Hugh and John McGillis continued to operate the mills and farmed the land around the house and mill site. While Hugh may have employed a miller to operate the mills, John definitely did. Census returns for 1861 show that he employed a total of 8 men for both operations. As only 2 men were employed at the mills in 1851, it is likely John McGillis improved or expanded the business in the intervening years.

The grist mill was the larger of the two structures and continued operation long after the saw mill closed down in 1897. Partially or wholly powered by steam from 1897, the grist mill ground grain into livestock feed for local distribution until about 1935.

In 1914 a flood led to the dismantling of the saw mill, and in 1935 the grist mill was demolished.

In Williamstown on the bank of the Raisin River at the second bend in County Road 17 east of County Road 19, the Ontario Archeological and Historic Sites Board has erected a plaque commemorating the Sir John Johnson Mills.

Glossary

Early Ontario Domestic Architecture
Early Ontario domestic architecture refers to the result of additions to small and simple houses, often over a number of years. The original house and each subsequent addition will use different stylistic elements reflecting the fashion of the time it was constructed, the technology available during that period, the financial capabilities and social aspirations of the owner.

Piece sur piece Construction
Piece sur piece construction consists of vertical logs notched into a bottom plate, with horizontal logs filling in between. This is also known as Red River Frame Construction”

Irregular Massing
Irregular massing is when the footprint of the building is not a simple square or rectangular shape; it may be the shape of 2 or more geometric shapes connected or interlocked

Vernacular Buildings
Vernacular buildings are built of readily available local materials, to suit the local climate and conditions. While they may borrow stylistic elements from particular architectural styles, their form adapts to the materials used.