White Savage

William Johnson and the Invention of America

By Fintan O'Toole

Subjects: Biography, American History, New York/regional, History, Indigenous Studies
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Paperback : 9781438427584, 416 pages, March 2009

Table of contents

1. Tears, Throat, Heart
2. Spectres and Apparitions
3. Amphibians
4. ‘Most Onruly and Streperous’
5. An Outlandish Man
6. How the White Man Came to America
7. The Holy Well
8. Raw Head and Bloody Bones
9. The Power of Absence
10. Force, Motion and Equilibrium
11. The Late Emperor of Morocco
12. Master of Ceremonies
13. An Upstart of Yesterday
14. The Precarious Salvo of Applause
15. Unspeakable Perplexity
16. The Largest Pipe in America
17. Miss Molly
18. Rowing Against the Current
19. Sir William and His Myrmidons
20. Niagara Falls
21. Barbarians
22. Seeds Worth Sowing
23. ‘Intoxicated with Providential Success’
24. A Stop to Their Very Being
25. What the Great Turtle Said
26. Many Civil Things
27. An Imaginary Line
28. The Patriarch
29. Negroes’ Handcuffs
30. Irish Dreamtime
31. A Death Foretold
32. The End of the World
33. The Afterlife

Brings a strikingly original perspective to Johnson’s life, and suggests new ways of thinking about Johnson’s part in creating a nation he did not live to see.


William Johnson was scarcely more than a boy when he left Ireland and his Gaelic, Roman Catholic family to become a Protestant in the service of Britain's North American empire. In New York by 1738, Johnson moved to the frontiers along the Mohawk River, where he established himself as a fur trader and eventually became a landowner with vast estates. Serving as principal British intermediary with the Iroquois Confederacy, he commanded British, colonial, and Iroquois forces that defeated the French in the battle of Lake George in 1755, and he created the first groups of "rangers," who fought like American Indians and led the way to the Patriots' victories in the Revolution.

As Fintan O'Toole's superbly researched, colorfully dramatic narrative makes clear, the key to Johnson's signal effectiveness was the style in which he lived as a "white savage. " Johnson had two wives, one European, one Mohawk; became fluent in Mohawk; and pioneered the use of American Indians as active partners in the making of a new America. O'Toole's masterful use of the extraordinary documents written by Irish, Dutch, German, French, and American Indian participants in Johnson's drama enlivens the account of this heroic figure's legendary career. It also suggests why Johnson's early multiculturalism unraveled, and why the contradictions of his enterprise created a historical dead end.

Fintan O'Toole, columnist and drama critic for the Irish Times, is the author of many other books, including A Traitor's Kiss: The Life of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His work frequently appears in American magazines. He lives in Dublin.


"The narrative moves with the spirited pace that such a storied life deserves, but does not fall prey to the legend making found in other Johnson biographies. Because he has not attempted an exhaustive biography, O'Toole avoids exhausting the reader. He presents his tale in short, impressionistic chapters that move between Johnson's private and public lives. " — H-Net Review (H-AmIndian)

"…O'Toole's prose pulls the reader along the journey of Johnson's life. " — History

"O'Toole brings together great man history and real analytical rigor; this book should be a winner with academics and history hobbyists alike. " — Publishers Weekly

"A fascinating account. " — Bookli

"A biography that will enlighten specialists, especially those curious about the Irish roots of Johnson's comfort with split allegiances. " — New York Times