Guy Johnson, Benjamin West, and Cohoes Falls: Issues of (Mis)Identification

One of the most widely reproduced paintings of the American eighteenth and early nineteenth century artist Benjamin West is a double portrait of a person partially in Native North American dress but of European ancestry with a Native North American male standing at his side.[1] The painting is now part of the Andrew W. Mellon Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. While documentation on this painting is scanty, West undoubtedly painted this work at his studio in London where he produced most of his work, including his even more famous works, The Death of General Wolfe and Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. We only know of the provenance of the painting from the early twentieth century, when the painting under discussion had been owned by Ethel Dixon Brown of Henfield, Sussex. It was sold in 1927 at Sotheby’s as a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks. Sometime before 1940, a descendent of Sir William Johnson asserted he knew the painting and identified the two persons portrayed as Colonel Guy Johnson (Sir William’s nephew and son-in-law) and the Mohawk Joseph Brant.[2]

In this paper we focus on three issues of identity in the painting. All three have involved misidentification in the past, the identities ascribed being more familiar to the modern reader than those actually depicted by Benjamin West. It has been asserted that the person of European ancestry is Sir William Johnson, that the Native American is Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), and that the waterfall in the background of the painting is Niagara Falls. We believe the correct identification of these three is Guy Johnson, David Hill (Karonghyontye), and Cohoes Falls. While the National Gallery of Art concurs with the first two identifications and the evidence supporting that conclusion has been published,[3] we feel it worthwhile to restate the case so that David Faux, George Hamell, and Gunther Michaelson receive proper credit for the identification of David Hill (Karonghyontye).[4] It is also worthy of note that Arthur Einhorn developed a healthy respect for the accuracy of Benjamin West’s depictions of Native North Americans beginning in the 1960s when he conducted an analysis of Native North American artifacts in paintings by Benjamin West. Einhorn originally conducted this study for art historian and West scholar Helmut von Erffa.

The Native North American

The easiest misidentification to dismiss is the assertion that the Native North American male in the painting is Joseph Brant. The first of three examples of this misidentification was in a 1958 catalogue for the exhibit The Noble Savage mounted at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania by Robert C. Smith who, commenting on a painting not even included in the exhibition, argued that:

West also revealed the other side of the Indian’s character: that of the terrible chieftain of the Six Nations in war paint and feathers, whose raiders harassed the colonists of New York State and Pennsylvania. In this guise Thayendanegea appears in West’s double portrait at the National Gallery in Washington, darkly plotting with his friend the English Colonel Guy Johnson.[5]

Incidentally, in many reproductions of the painting, the Native North American male is barely visible, because of the darkness of the shadows. Lightening the image reveals a rather benign and peaceful presentation of self by the sitter for the portrait and certainly “war paint” appears to be absent.

Janson and Janson in their 1966 art survey also identified the figure as Joseph Brant, although unlike Smith they did not see Brant and Johnson “darkly plotting” but rather “a bit self-consciously heroic, as if the two were ancient Romans,” and Thayendanegea is characterized as (in what would now be deemed politically incorrect language) “the noblest redskin of them all.”[6] Ruthven Todd joined the chorus identifying the Native American in the painting as Brant in an article published six years later.[7] Even more recently Beth Fowkes Tobin leaves open the possibility that “the shadowy figure in the Johnson painting is indeed Brant.”[8]

One does not require a particularly sophisticated or detailed knowledge of Mohawk Valley history to determine that the image in West’s painting is not that of Joseph Brant. The figure in the painting exhibits a fashion which was common, though far from universal, among Mohawk males in the late eighteenth century. His auricles have been severed and decorated with silver wire.[9] There are numerous portraits of Brant which document the fact that his ears were pierced, but only to hold rather small earrings suspended from the lobe of the ear. Portraits of Brant by George Romney (1776), Gilbert Stuart (1786), William Berczy (1794 [1807]), Charles Willson Peale (1797), and Ezra Ames (1806—later copied by George Catlin) all attest to this.

The Non-Indian in Indian Dress

We noted above that the non-Indian in the double portrait was initially identified as Sir Joseph Banks in the painting’s first recorded sale in 1927. Banks does not have a connection with the Iroquois or the Mohawk Valley, but he did accompany Captain James Cook on a voyage around the world. Among the later achievements of Banks, who had a strong interest in ethnobotany and who served as director of the Royal Gardens at Kew, was his enlisting the transfer of Tahitian breadfruit trees to the West Indies on HMS Bounty. Benjamin West did indeed paint him wearing an indigenous cloak, albeit a Maori garment of tapa cloth. West exhibited this painting with the Royal Academy in 1773 under the title A Whole Length of a Gentleman with a New Zealand Mantle around Him.[10] It is perhaps this reference to a “New Zealand Mantle” which led to the misidentification of the non-Indian in West’s double portrait under discussion here. The foreground figure in the double portrait is clearly wrapped in a mantle of non-European origin. However, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the material culture of either Polynesia or North America would recognize that the robe has its origins in the latter rather than the former region.

In their massive study of the paintings of Benjamin West, Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley suggest that the non-Indian in the double portrait is not Guy Johnson but rather his uncle, Sir William Johnson.[11] This is despite the fact that West pursued his artistic career in London and Sir William Johnson was never in London after West emigrated to that metropolis. In papers that focus upon other works by Benjamin West, both Vivien Green Fryd and Anne Cannon Palumbo have accepted this misidentification of the sitter for the double portrait.[12] Most recently, the double portrait adorns the book jacket of Fintan O’Toole’s biography of Sir William Johnson and O’Toole argues it depicts the elder Johnson rather than his nephew. He speculates that West depicted Sir William Johnson in three paintings, General Johnson Saving a Wounded French Officer from the Tomahawk of a North American, The Death of General Wolfe, and the double portrait being discussed.

In The Death of General Wolfe, the figure whose dress suggests he is a North American Ranger fighting in the British service carries a powder horn on which is clearly inscribed “Sr. Wm. Johnson.” This has been interpreted as signifying that it is Sir William’s powder horn, an argument which O’Toole accepts. However, a close examination of the powder horn reveals that it is in fact engraved with a crude map of the Mohawk River valley (powder horns contemporary with the one in the painting survive which similarly are engraved with maps). The inscription of Sir William’s name on the horn simply locates his residence at Johnson Hall, a landmark anyone traveling through the valley would note. It does not indicate that the person carrying the powder horn was Sir William Johnson.

To return to the double portrait, O’Toole writes:

Though variously catalogued as a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks and of Guy Johnson, it was almost certainly commissioned from West in the mid-1760s as an idealized portrait of Sir William. Niagara Falls, in the background, represents Johnson’s most significant military victory and stakes his claim as a hero of the conquest of North America.[13]

David Hill’s Testimony

Contrary to Fintan O’Toole, we feel the National Gallery is correct in its current identification of the subject of the double portrait as Colonel Guy Johnson and Captain David Hill. David Hill (Karonghyontye) himself provided the most important piece of evidence in the puzzle surrounding the identities of the sitters for West’s double portrait. That evidence lies in a letter written in Mohawk by David Hill and sent to Guy Johnson’s brother-in-law, Daniel Claus (both Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus had married daughters of Sir William Johnson).

On 14 February 1988 David Faux wrote to George Hamell at the New York State Museum because of common interests they shared in Mohawk history and genealogy. In that letter Faux called Hamell’s attention to a letter found in the Claus Family Papers in the National Archives of Canada.[14] The letter was written in Mohawk and addressed to Daniel Claus, who had served as deputy superintendent under his father-in-law, Sir William Johnson. Of German origin, Claus like others in the Johnson family was fluent in both Mohawk and English. Moreover, many of the Mohawks themselves were literate in their first language. Thus when David Hill wrote to Daniel Claus on 6 November 1784, he wrote in Mohawk. The archives in Ottawa translated this letter, and many others written in Mohawk found in the Claus family papers, and that translation indicated that David Hill wished Claus to locate a picture which had been painted of Guy Johnson and himself.[15] An obvious conclusion is that David Hill recalled posing for a double portrait with Guy Johnson, the double portrait by Benjamin West being discussed here.

The text of the National Archives translation of the final paragraph of Hill’s letter reads:

Brother-in-law, I want you to bring back with you the picture of my late brother, John Hill. The paper tells that ‘Tha yen da ne gen’ (Capt Jos. Brant) has already paid for it. The picture of ‘Ga ragh gwa dir on’ and I, Governor Haldimand took it with him. We two really want to have one, ‘Tha yen da ne gen’ and I, if you could get another one made and bring along with you, we would be glad.

Hamell was excited enough about this that he wrote to William C. Sturtevant, general editor of the Handbook of North American Indians with a longstanding interest in early images of Native North Americans. Sturtevant was excited enough that he replied quickly, that “the information about David Hill is new.”[16]

Hamell felt it necessary to verify the translation, so he wrote to a Canadian with a long interest in Mohawk language and culture, Gunther Michelson. Michelson replied with “a literal translation of the last paragraph of Captain David Hill’s letter of Nov. 6, 1784,” a task he described as “a challenging and rather time-consuming job.” Michelson’s reply also included a rendering in a modern Mohawk orthography of the content of the paragraph. Michelson confirmed that David Hill was indeed writing about a double portrait depicting Guy Johnson and himself.[17]

On 14 September 1988 Hamell wrote to Sydney J. Freedberg, Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Art, to inform the gallery of the possibility that the Indian in their painting might well be David Hill and to inquire what documentation, if any, that the gallery had on the painting. Deborah Chotner, Assistant Curator, American Art, replied on 20 September asking Hamell to send them copies of the letter and the translation. She also indicated that she thought the portrait owned by the National Gallery was of Guy Johnson rather than Sir William Johnson, as Allen Staley had suggested. Hamell sent copies of the information requested to Chotner on 8 November 1988, and on 20 March 1991 he forwarded the results of his research to Leslie Reinhardt at the National Portrait Gallery.[18] This information led to the National Gallery’s decision to designate the painting as Colonel Guy Johnson and Karonghyontye (Captain David Hill) and provided the backbone of Reinhardt’s two papers cited above.

Some support for the identification of the Native American in the double portrait as David Hill is provided by a description of him written in 1789 by twenty-year-old Ann Powel.

… his hair was all shaved off except a little on the top of his head to fasten his ornaments to; his head and ears were painted a glowing red; round his head was fastened a fillet of highly polished silver; from the left temple hung two straps of black velvet covered with silver beads and brooches. On the top of his head was fixed a Foxtail feather, which bowed in the wind, as did a black one in each ear; a pair of immense earrings which hung below his shoulders completed his head-dress, which I assure you was not unbecoming, though I must confess somewhat fantastical.

She further describes him as “tall and fine as it is possible to conceive, his features handsome and regular, with a countenance of much softness.”[19]

We would not deny that this identification does leave open some questions. One might question whether severed auricles are compatible with the description quoted above. We do not have documentation that David Hill was ever in London. We do know that Guy Johnson and a large contingent from the British Indian Department sailed from Quebec City to England in November 1775. It does seem likely that Guy Johnson sat for his portrait with Benjamin West on this visit to London. Passage was secured on the Adamant, and when the merchant ship left Quebec, its passengers included a substantial portion of the British Indian Department, assorted family members and Joseph Brant and several other Mohawks.

One Mohawk on board was Peter Johnson, Joseph Brant’s nephew, the son of Sir William Johnson and Joseph’s sister Molly. It was he, just sixteen years of age, who had in September outside of Montreal captured Ethan Allen, the notorious rebel leader who had taken Fort Ticonderoga from the British the previous May. He was hoping for a commission as an officer in the British army. Another was John Hill (Oteronganente). The New York State Museum has a silver King George III medal in a mount engraved with Lt. John Hill’s Mohawk name and the date “1776.” This would seem likely to have been presented to him on this journey to London. There is no solid evidence that Brant and John Hill were accompanied by John Hill’s brother, David Hill (Karonghyontye). However, this remains possible, even probable.

This visit by Joseph Brant to London provides us with two portraits of the Mohawk leader. One of these resulted when Brant and Gilbert Tice, an Indian Department employee, encountered a young journalist named James Boswell. Two days later Boswell met with Tice and the Mohawk leader and over the course of a week conducted three interviews. The result was an article, published with a portrait of Joseph Brant “from an Original Drawing in the Possession of James Boswell Esqr,” in London Magazine.[20] Brant also became friends with the Earl of Warwick, and this lord of the realm commissioned no less a painter than George Romney to produce a likeness of Thayendanegea. Brant sat for Romney twice, in late March and early April. The painting is now part of the collections of the National Gallery in Ottawa. Brant’s was not the only portrait produced of the Mohawk visitors to London. John Hill was painted by Alice Richardson. Alice Richardson exhibited “Portrait of Oteronganente, one of the American chiefs now in London; in crayons” at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1776.[21] David Hill mentions a portrait of John Hill in the same letter which discusses his double portrait with Guy Johnson and he notes it had already been paid for.[22] Unfortunately that portrait has disappeared.

Thus the well-documented activities of the Mohawks who accompanied Guy Johnson to London in 1775–76 would lead us to expect that one of them might have posed with Guy Johnson for a dual portrait, but as yet we do not have sufficient evidence to say with absolute certainty that Guy Johnson’s dual portrait with David Hill was produced at this time.

Another dead end, thus far, is David Hill’s reference to the dual portrait having been owned by Governor Frederick Haldimand. It would be positive to find a document in addition to Hill’s letter suggesting that Haldimand owned a portrait of Guy Johnson and a Mohawk chief and also to find a paper trail leading to Ms. Ethel Dixon Brown of Henfield, Sussex. Nothing has surfaced thus far. Hamell’s correspondence to find records of Frederick Haldimand’s estate or will failed.[23] Haldimand actually left Quebec for London the same month that David Hill wrote to Daniel Claus about the paintings and it may very well be that it was seeing the double portrait being packed to leave the continent which spurred David Hill and Joseph Brant to write about obtaining a copy.

Niagara Falls or Cohoes Falls?

In the issues of misidentification considered thus far, many, including one or two prominent participants in this conference, might disagree with our conclusion, but there have also been a substantial number of scholars who reached the same conclusions that we reached. The final issue of misidentification to be discussed, however, is one in which all of the published literature we have surveyed is unanimous. In the background of the painting, Benjamin West, as everyone says with great confidence, depicts Niagara Falls. Some, as Fintan O’Toole, link Niagara Falls to a military triumph of Sir William Johnson (ignoring the fact that Sir William’s victory was the capture of Fort Niagara, on the shores of Lake Ontario far from the sight of Niagara Falls). Others who accept the evidence for Guy Johnson and David Hill still insist that the falls are Niagara Falls.

While all readers of this paper, indeed all North Americans, are very aware of Niagara Falls, Niagara is not the only waterfall in the homeland of the Iroquois. All of us are familiar with that great landmark in eastern North America. We regularly take visitors from elsewhere to see the wonderful spectacle. However, we feel those who have seen Niagara and its gorge would agree with us that the waterfall in the West double portrait does not resemble Niagara in which the water drops perpendicularly from a great height.[24]

Instead West depicts a waterfall in which the water descends at an angle. This suggests a structural geological undercutting with corresponding breakdown and boulder accumulation. In this respect, the falls resemble more closely another important and impressive waterfall, but one at the opposite end of the Iroquois longhouse from the falls at Niagara. This is Cohoes Falls, where the Mohawk enters the Hudson, about ten miles north of Albany.

Given the connection of the Mohawk Nation and the Johnson family with the Mohawk River and its valley, Cohoes Falls would certainly appear to appropriate as a backdrop for the double portrait. These falls are nearly as spectacular as Niagara during the spring high-water flow. Cohoes Falls are thirty miles east of Guy Park, Mohawk Valley home of Guy Johnson. The Mohawks view Cohoes Falls as the eastern boundary of their territory and it also figures in some variants of the story of the Peacemaker and the founding of the Iroquois League. The Peacemaker had made a camp beneath a tall tree at Cohoes Falls and it was after the Peacemaker survived a fall into the waters of Cohoes Falls that the Mohawks took hold of the Great Peace.[25]

As far as we know, Benjamin West never visited Cohoes Falls. He also never visited Niagara. West did have available, however, two images of Cohoes Falls published in London. The first is a copperplate engraving by William Elliot after a sketch by Massachusetts Governor Thomas Pownal, probably printed in London in 1761. The second view is by Thomas Davies and published circa 1768. Either or both of these could have informed Benjamin West of the details of Cohoes Falls, but we are particularly impressed by the similarity of the image produced by Thomas Davies, but laterally reversed, to that painted by West as background to his portrait of Guy Johnson and David Hill. One can also compare West’s image with the Cohoe Falls as they continue in full flow today.


It would appear that this painting by Benjamin West has been subject to the phenomenon of associating items or artifacts surviving from the past with subjects whose fame brings them to the forefront of the consciousness of modern (or post-modern) observers. The subjects in the modern or post-modern mind might be persons, events, or geographic locales. Two subjects from colonial New York, two of the most widely known (to modern Americans) of Mohawk Valley residents were Sir William Johnson and Joseph Brant. Niagara Falls remains in the consciousness of anyone with the slightest acquaintance with North America. Thus it is not surprising that the identities in West’s painting have been ascribed to Sir William Johnson, Joseph Brant, and Niagara Falls. To the authors of this paper, and possibly to its readers, it seems much more likely that Benjamin West in this iconic portrait of British-Mohawk relations in the Mohawk River Valley was depicting Guy Johnson, Karonghyontye (Captain David Hill), and those impressive and marvelous falls on the Mohawk River, Cohoes Falls.

1.� The National Gallery of Art provides discussion and digital images of this painting on its web site at: <>.
2.� Leslie Kaye Reinhardt, “Colonel Guy Johnson and Karonghyontye (Captain David Hill),” in American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century, by Ellen G. Miles with contributions by Patricia Burda, Cynthia J. Mills, and Leslie Reinhardt (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1995), 321, 327.
3.� See Reinhardt, “Colonel Guy Johnson …,” and Leslie Kaye Reinhardt, “British and Indian Identities in a Picture by Benjamin West,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 31, no. 3 (1998): 283–305.
4.� Reinhardt does acknowledge the contributions of these three (although misspelling Hamell’s name in her 1998 paper) in endnotes to her papers.
5.� Robert C. Smith, “Catalogue Introduction,” in The Noble Savage (Philadelphia, Pa.: The University Museum, 1958).
6.� H. W. Janson and Dora Jane Janson, The Story of Painting: From Cave Painting to Modern Times (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1966), 110.
7.� Ruthven Todd, “The Imaginary Indian in Europe,” Art in America, vol. 60, no. 4 (1972): 40–47.
8.� Beth Fowkes Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999), 94–95.
9.� See Arthur Einhorn and Thomas S. Abler, “Tattooed Bodies and Severed Auricles: Images of Native American Body Modification in the Art of Benjamin West,” American Indian Art Magazine, vol. 23, no. 4 (1998): 42–53, 116–17.
10.� Tobin, Picturing Imperial Power. 87, 89 (Fig. 11), 175–77. Stephanie Pratt, American Indians in British Art, 1700–1840 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, 173.
11.� Helmut von Erffa and Allen Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986). 523–25
12.� Vivien Green Fyrd, “Rereading the Indian in Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe,” American Art, vol. 9, no. 1 (1995): 73–85; Anne Cannon Palumbo, “Averting ‘Present Commotions’: History as Politics in Penn’s Treaty,” American Art, vol. 9, no. 3 (1995): 29–55. However, Kevin R. Muller, “Pelts and Power, Mohawks and Myth: Benjamin West’s Portrait of Guy Johnson,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 40, no. 1 (2005): 47–76, accepts the Guy Johnson identification.
13.� Fintan O’Toole, White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), quotation from caption to Fig. 5.
14.� David Faux to George Hamell, 14 February 1988. Letter in Hamell’s possession.
15.� The Mohawk original of the letter is found on pp. 57–60 in vol. 4 of the Claus Family Papers (MG 19, F1) in the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa. The translation is found on pp. 22–23 in vol. 24, Claus Family Papers (MG 19, F1).
16.� George Hamell to William C. Sturtevant, 23 February 1988; William C. Sturtevant to George Hamell, 7 March 1988. Letters in the possession of George Hamell.
17.� George Hamell to Gunther Michelson, 10 August 1988; Gunther Michelson to George Hamell, 2 September 1988. Letters in the possession of George Hamell.
18.� George Hamell to Sydney J. Freedberg, 14 September 1988; Deborah Chotner to George Hamell, 20 September 1988; George Hamell to Deborah Chotner, 8 November 1988; George Hamell to Leslie Reinhardt, 20 March 1991. Letters in the possession of George Hamell.
19.� Frank H. Severance, “Two Early Visitors,” Buffalo Historical Society Publications, 15: 231.
20.� James Boswell, “An Account of the Chief of the Mohock Indians, Who Lately Visited England (With an Exact Likeness),” London Magazine 45 (1776): 339.
21.� Reinhardt, “British and Indian Identities,” 284 n.9.
22.� See Joseph Brant Papers, Draper Manuscripts, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, 15-F-87, which records that 4/4 was paid to John Hill to pay for “his picture by Mrs. Richardson.” This does not completely agree with the statement by David Hill, however. David Hill says his brother’s portrait was paid for by Joseph Brant.
23.� See George Hamell to Timothy Dubé, Archivist, British Archives, National Archives of Canada, 30 November 1988; George Hamell to The Society of Genealogists, London, 11 January 1989; Anthony Camp, Director, Society of Genealogists, to George Hamell, 27 January 1989; George Hamell to The Public Record Office, London, 15 February 1989; George Hamell to Archivist, Sotheby’s, London, 9 May 1989; James Miller, Sotheby’s, London, to George Hamell, 25 May 1989. Letters in the possession of George Hamell.
24.� A detail from West’s painting clearly depicting the falls is found in the National Gallery of Art’s web site at: <ℑ=1631&c;=gg62>.
25.� Paul A. W. Wallace, White Roots of Peace (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946), 18–19.



By Thomas S. Abler