Our History

The History Of The Sir John Johnson Manor House

The national historic significance of the Sir John Johnson House lies in its historical association with Sir John Johnson, its age as one of the oldest surviving buildings in Ontario and in its architectural design.

In 1776, at the start of the American RevolutionaryWar, Sir John Johnson left his substantial estate in the Mohawk Valley in New York, and came to Canada. During the war, he organized, funded and led the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, which was involved in many border skirmishes. In 1784 he became responsible for the settlement of Loyalists who had fled the United States, in the area from Lake St. Francis to the Bay of Quinte. He was given a substantial grant of land for himself, part of which included the land on which the hamlet of Williamstown is located today. On his Williamstown property, sometime between 1784 and 1792, Johnson had built a one and a half story, five-bay log structure on a rise of ground, near the Raisin River. A grist mill and a saw mill were built on the river in the same period.

While there is little to suggest Johnson ever lived in his Williamstown house, the mills were the focal point in his vision for the community he hoped to encourage at that location. The house was occupied by the overseer of the mill for at least part of Johnson’s ownership of the site. The features which can be associated with this period include the original portion of the house and the sites of the former mills.

Before 1820, the house and lands were purchased by Hugh McGillis, a retired fur trader. He continued to run the mills, and, in addition, developed the land agriculturally. He is believed to be responsible for the addition on the west end of the house. The ice house may date from this time. In 1849 the house passed to his nephew, John McGillis, who lived there with his family until 1872. It was likely during this occupancy period that the eastern Gothic Revival addition was made. John McGillis further expanded the agricultural concerns.

Ownership passed in 1872 to Murdoch McLennan, then in 1897 to D.R. Robertson and then to Lionel Deveaux in 1938. By the turn of the century, the mills were silent and the land use became exclusively agricultural. By the early 1900’s, there were a number of outbuildings associated with the farming activity on the property, including two barns, and a shed. A fire in 1954 destroyed the main outbuilding complex. From 1956 until 1971 the property was owned and occupied by Les Soeurs du Sacré-Coeur.

The House was declared a place of national historic significance in 1961 on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The house and property were acquired by Parks Canada in 1971 and became a part of a national system of historic sites. Since 1975, the Williamstown Branch of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry library has been located in the east wing. In 1994, the Sir John Johnson Manor House Committee, a local not for profit group began to take a role in helping to operate the site.