Lord & Tailor: Sir William Johnson and his Clothier (History)

While wealthier residents of colonial Johnstown, New York afforded custom tailoring, almost everyone else wore clothing that itched, chafed, bagged up, or was too hot in summer and not warm enough in winter. Settler’s clothing mostly derived from sheering their sheep, spinning the wool into cloth, and sewing that into ill-fitting, patched breeches and shirts. Meanwhile, the Johnson family quartet – Sir William Johnson, Sir John Johnson, Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus – plus others of wealth and prominence, enjoyed clothing that actually fitted and was reasonably comfortable, being ‘tailor-made.’ Good tailoring has always been appreciated by those who can afford it and envied by those who can’t.

Several tailors resided in pre-war Johnstown according to Robert Adems store ledger accounts, but most tailoring for the Johnsons and their associates, from the mid 1760’s until early 1775, seems to have been provided by one man, John Freil (or Freel).

Sir William Johnson
Sir William Johnson

Butler family Historian William Smy, in his “Annotated Nominal Roll of Butler’s Rangers” states that John Freil was born in Kilkenny, Ireland May 10th 1742, settling in Johnstown in 1767. However, Johnson Papers Volume Thirteen lists a much earlier billing to Sir William by Schenectady merchant Daniel Campbell for textile materials, dated May 6th, 1763, in which Daniel Claus, Johnson’s son-in-law, purchased ½ yard of satin and ¾ yard of almond for “trimming and making a child’s bonnett by Freil the Taylor.” Freil also farmed, holding 100 acres as a Johnson tenant in the Kingsborough Patent, “ten to twenty of which were cleared” before the Revolution.

Whenever he arrived, John Freil appears regularly by the mid 1760’s in both Adems’ and Johnson’s accounts, purchasing bolts of cambric, linen, thread, buttons, “ribbonds” and other tailoring materials, sometimes perhaps grafting a few extra yards for himself. On January 15th, 1771, for example, suspicious Caughnawaga merchant Jelles Fonda wrote Sir William, “I received your favor and have given Freel the things he wanted and made a bill of the same because I thought he had taken more cloath than sufficient for a coat and jacket.”

Friel may have padded Johnson’s account, taking “5 yards of blue ‘cloath’ and 6 yards of shalloon,” enough for a plus-sized garment, but he still earned Johnson’s trust, evidenced by Johnson including Freil’s name – along with other dependable associates – when listing his supposed ‘partners’ in land patent applications. Freil also tailored for Johnson’s Indian allies, as noted in Adems ledger on March 2nd, 1774, when a large quantity of linen was assigned “To John Freil, Taylor, for making a number of Indian coats, laced and plain.”

Somehow during this busy life, Freil courted and married Barbara (some sources say Deborah) Emily Morgan at Johnstown in 1768: at least two children arrived before the Revolution.

Freil may have been content, but even inoffensive tailors can’t sidestep revolutions. During spring 1775, Guy Johnson escaped the valley with a large retinue of Loyalists and Indians, supposedly just to hold an Indian Council at Oswego. Johnson persuaded Freil go along, but when Freil tried returning, he found leaving Johnson difficult. Things also changed drastically back in Johnstown: the Committee of Safety now ruled Tryon County, and didn’t trust anyone formerly associated with the Johnsons. Freil was intercepted with several other returnees when, according to Committee of Safety Document 31, “Capt. George Herkimer took prisoners four suspicious persons as enemies (who) acted against us in the Province of Canada, having now been on their return to our country.”

Ordered to explain himself, Friel answered plausibly. “Col. Johnson sometime in April past required him to go along to help John Thompson, (and) to make some tailor’s work there for his (Johnson’s) family, as he had business there with the Indians for about three weeks, whereupon he the deponent, as a man who must live by his trade, and in particular has earned a great deal of that family, consented and went along, but from hence said Guy Johnson persuaded him further to Oswego, where the deponent desired to go back home, but was refused by said Guy and stopped by force under threatenings to flock (flog) anyone who would insist on returning back – from hence he was commanded to go in a battoe with said Guy and his party to Montreal, where on arrival he was discharged, yet said Guy endeavored to engage him in the King’s service, which he refused, and did work at his tailor’s trade in Montreal until he found opportunity to return in a battoe.”

Accepting this statement, the committee allowed him back. Whether Freil meant what he told the committee we’ll never know, nor can we know if after returning he was harassed and still suspected of Loyalism by his Whig neighbors. What we do know is, during spring 1777, he was motivated to return to Canada and enlist on May 6th in Sir John Johnson’s Kings Royal Regiment, Capt. Daly’s Company, transferring to Butler’s Rangers in 1781 and the Indian Department in 1783. Governor Clinton’s Papers document him allowing Loyalist families including Freil’s to immigrate to Canada during late winter 1780.

John Freil died at 42, on March 9th, 1784, shortly after resettling in Niagara Township. Mrs. Freil submitted a war-loss claim of 186 pounds, eventually receiving 55 pounds sterling and 200 acres of land. She died in 1816. The Freils are buried in the Butler cemetery at Niagara-On-The-Lake. According to U.E.L. genealogical records, descendants still reside in Canada.

–Peter Betz

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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Leader-Herald.

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