WHITE SAVAGE by Fintan O’Toole


William Johnson and the Invention of America
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A displaced Irish Catholic dreams of home, but instead creates a Celtic homeland in the heart of Iroquois country.

Building on recent studies of the Indian-white frontier (e.g., Shirley Christian’s Before Lewis and Clark, 2004; and Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, 1998) and the mixed society that formed in the margin between nations, Irish Times columnist O’Toole (A Traitor’s Kiss, 1998, etc.) recounts the life of the soldier-adventurer William Johnson. The scion of a landowning family whose holdings had been badly reduced by the English conquest of Ireland, Johnson followed the example of his older cousin, a hero of the Royal Navy, and served the Crown, but always with qualifications, and always with one overarching imperative: to “get back the ancestral lands.” Johnson found himself deep in the forests of northern New York, where, setting the stage for the French and Indian War, he negotiated alliances with the Iroquois nations and organized raids into French Canada. The war he and his rangers fought was much different from the stand-and-shoot model of European conflict. One young French officer, for instance, fought bravely but was killed when he asked for quarters; Johnson recorded that the young man’s wounds were so bad that it was a mercy killing, but, writes O’Toole, “the pretence that killing him was an act of kindness does not alter the evident reality that his scalp was worth £10.” So it was on the frontier, where ordinary laws did not apply and Johnson, in fact, was more or less free to set his own rules. And so he did, sometimes violating the directives of the Crown to his advantage. O’Toole capably recounts Johnson’s achievements in making peace, however tenuous, on the frontier, and making a refuge for displaced Catholic Scots and Irish—a place that would become an extraordinarily bloody battleground soon after Johnson’s death, at the start of the Revolution.

A welcome addition to the literature of the colonial frontier.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-374-28128-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2005


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