Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Border Wars

by Elizabeth Eggleston Seelye
Assisted by Edward Eggleston
New York
Dodd, Mead and Company, Publishers, 1879.



IN a communication to the besieged garrison, St. Leger represented the result of the battle of Oriskany as favorably for the English side as possible. Along with this letter he sent a verbal demand to surrender.

" I will answer no verbal summons but at the mouth of the cannon, unless delivered by Colonel St. Leger himself," said Colonel Gansevoort to the messenger.

Next day a white flag approached the fort with a request from its bearer that Colonel Butler, a loyalist of the Mohawk Valley, and two other officers might be admitted to the fort with a message. Consent was given, and the messengers were blind-folded and conducted within the fort to Colonel Gansevoort's dining-room, where the blinds were closed, candles lighted, and the table spread with refreshments. The room was filled with American officers. The bandages were removed from the messengers' eyes, and wine was passed.

" I am directed by Colonel St. Leger, the officer commanding the army now investing this garrison," began one of the messengers, Major Ancrom, " to inform the commandant that the colonel has with much difficulty prevailed upon the Indians to agree that if the garrison, without further resistance, shall be delivered up, with the public stores belonging to it, to the investing army, the officers and soldiers shall have all their baggage and private property secured to them. And in order that the garrison may have a sufficient pledge to this effect, Colonel Butler accompanies me to assure them that not a hair of the head of any one of them shall be hurt. That, I think, was the expression made use of, was it not ?" turning to Colonel Butler.

" Yes," was the answer.

" I am likewise directed to remind the commandant that the defeat of General Herkimer must deprive the garrison of all hopes of relief, especially as General Burgoyne is now in Albany; so that sooner or later the fort must fall into our hands. . . . Should, then, the present terms be rejected, it will be out of the power of the colonel to restrain the Indians, who are very numerous and exasperated, not only from plundering the property, but from destroying the lives, probably, of the greater part of the garrison. Indeed the Indians are so exceedingly provoked and mortified by the losses they have sustained in the late actions, having had several of their favorite chiefs killed, that they threaten-and the colonel, if the present arrangements should not be entered into, will not be able to prevent them from executing their threats-to march down the country and destroy the settlement and its inhabitants. In this case, not only men but women and children will experience the sad effects of their vengeance. These considerations, it is ardently hoped, will produce a proper effect and induce the commandant, by complying with the terms now offered, to save himself from future regret when it is too late."

" Do I understand you, sir ?" answered Colonel Willett, hotly. " I think you say that you come from a British colonel, who is commander of the army that invests this fort; and by your uniform, you seem to be an officer in the British service. You have made a long speech on the occasion of your visit, which, stripped of all its superfluities, amounts to this: that you come from a British colonel to the commander of this garrison to tell him that if he does not deliver up the garrison into the hands of your colonel, he will send his Indians to murder our women and children. You will please to reflect, sir, that their blood will be on your heads, not on ours. We are doing our duty, this garrison is committed to our charge, and we will take care of it. After you get out of it, you may turn round and look at its outside, but never expect to come in again, unless you come as a prisoner. I consider the message you have brought a degrading one for a British officer to send, and by no means reputable for a British officer to carry. For my own part, I declare, before I would consent to deliver this garrison to such a murdering set as your army, by your own account, consists of, I would suffer my body to be filled with splinters and set on fire, as you know has at times been practised by such hordes of women-and-children-killers as belong to your army."

The American officers received this speech with applause. This was all the answer the British officers could get to their demand for a surrender. Colonel Gansevoort agreed, however, to the proposal of a three days' armistice-his ammunition being scarce. The besieging army now issued an appeal to the inhabitants signed by their old influential neighbors, Sir John Johnson, Colonel Claus and Colonel Butler. This was very much the same as Major Ancrom's speech: the settlers were promised favor in case of submission, threatened with destruction by the Indians if they did not submit, and advised to employ every means to overcome the " mulish obstinacy" of the garrison of Fort Stanwix. Messengers were sent through the neighboring country with this paper.

Meantime the situation of the garrison was indeed becoming desperate in spite of their brave refusal to surrender. The British artillery was not heavy enough to make much impression on the defences, but the provisions within the fort would not last much longer. Colonel Willett was very popular among the inhabitants of the neighboring settlements of Tryon County, and it was thought that if he showed himself among the militia he might still rally a force large enough to raise the siege. The brave officer determined to attempt to pass the enemy's lines, and to make his way some forty or fifty miles through marsh and woods infested with Indians to the settlements. Taking with him Major Stockwell, Willett prepared for the daring attempt. They dressed themselves as lightly as possible. For weapons they each took a spear, for provisions some crackers and cheese, and a canteen of spirits. At ten o'clock at night they left the sally-port, and were lost to the eyes of the anxious garrison.

Meantime Colonel St. Leger pushed the siege vigorously. He began to approach the fort by sap, digging trenches which protected his men and came every day nearer to the works. As the trenches neared the defences, the garrison succeeded in annoying the enemy a great deal. Still, when the mining had approached to within a hundred and fifty yards of the fort, they began to grow uneasy. All this time they knew nothing of the fate of Colonel Willett and his companion. Their provisions were fast going, and there began to be whispers among the soldiers that it would be better to surrender and save the garrison from another Fort William Henry tragedy. But their commander was firm in his determination. Colonel Gansevoort knew well that in any case the exasperated Indians were not to be trusted with defenceless prisoners. He resolved that if the worst came to the worst, no assistance arrived and provisions were exhausted, he would make a night sally and attempt to cut his way through the enemy's lines.

Meantime the bold officers who had gone for reinforcements, issuing from the sally-port, crept on their hands and knees along the edge of a marsh to the river. They crawled over this upon a log. They passed very near the enemy's sentinel, but succeeded in getting by unseen. They next entered the forest, where they lost their way in the darkness. After groping a time they heard the barking of a dog. They were now really in danger, for this announced the neighborhood of an Indian encampment. They therefore stood perfectly still for several hours. When daylight appeared they started cautiously forward, making a zigzag course toward their destination, sometimes walking through the beds of streams or stepping from stone to stone along their banks to conceal their trail, after the Indian manner. They travelled thus all day without halting once. When night again came on they dared not strike a light, but lay down in each other's arms to sleep. The next day their provisions were exhausted, but they fortunately found plenty of raspberries and blackberries in an opening in the woods made by the blowing down of trees. At three o'clock in the afternoon they arrived at Fort Dayton. Colonel Willett here heard that General Arnold had been ordered to march to the relief of Fort Stanwix. He immediately took horse for Albany to join Arnold.

Meanwhile the enemy had been busy in trying to influence disaffected inhabitants. Colonel Weston, the commander of Fort Dayton, heard of a secret Tory meeting at the house of a Mr. Shoemaker in the neighborhood. He sent there a detachment of troops, who took the meeting by surprise, just as Lieutenant Butler from St. Leger's army was making a speech. This young man had come into the country secretly with fourteen soldiers and as many Indians, for the purpose of distributing the paper which had been prepared for this purpose. He was tried by court-martial, Colonel Willett, who had returned from Albany, presiding as judge. Lieutenant Butler was sentenced to death. A number of American officers who had been college students with him interceded for him, and his life was saved by a reprieve. He was imprisoned, but he subsequently ran away, to return with the Indians in their border warfare upon his native Mohawk Valley.

Arnold was all this time waiting at Fort Dayton for supplies and reinforcements before he marched to the relief of Fort Stanwix. Among the Tories captured at the secret meeting with Lieutenant Butler was a half-fool named Hon-Yost Schuyler. Hon-Yost is a nickname for Johannes Justus. Living on the border, Hon-Yost associated much with the Indians, and was regarded by them with the superstitious reverence which they have for simple-minded people. He had taken the loyalist side, and now when he was captured he too was tried by court-martial and condemned to die.

His mother, an old half-gypsy creature, and his brother Nicholas came to General Arnold to beg for Hon-Yost's life. The old woman pleaded for her son eloquently, but Arnold was inexorable. Still she begged and implored passionately. She became almost frantic in her grief, and Arnold at last proposed terms on which he would grant Hon-Yost's pardon. He must hurry to Fort Stanwix and alarm St. Leger's army, so that he would raise the siege. The half-fool immediately accepted these conditions, and his old mother eagerly offered herself as a hostage for its faithful performance. Arnold, however, preferred to imprison the brother Nicholas in Hon-Yost's stead. Nicholas readily consented to forfeit his life if Hon-Yost proved untrue to his commission. Hon-Yost now made an arrangement with a friendly Oneida Indian to aid him. Before he set out his rough backwoodsman's clothes were hung up and several shots were fired through them. He then started by one route for St. Leger's army, and the Oneida took another.

Brant's Indian warriors had been morose and dissatisfied since the battle of Oriskany. They had been promised an easy success and much plunder, and they had found neither the one nor the other. They were now holding a great pow-wow to consult the spirits about the success of the present siege. In the midst of the ranting, and drumming, and dancing, and other mysterious jugglery, Hon-Yost arrived in camp. The Indians had already heard some indefinite rumors of Arnold's approach. Hon-Yost was well known to be on their side, and they crowded around him to hear the news. With the trickiness of a half-witted man he did not deliver his message in plain words. He knew the effect of mystery with an Indian. He shook his head ominously; he pointed to his riddled clothes to denote his narrow escape from the oncoming foe.

" How many men-how many men are there ?" asked the eager Indians.

Hon-Yost looked up and pointed to the leaves of the trees over his head. The report ran like wild-fire through the camp. It quickly reached the ear of the commander. St. Leger sent for Hon-Yost. The wily fellow adopted a different policy in talking to the English commander. He told a straight and pitiful story : how he had been captured, tried, and condemned ; how, on the way to his execution, finding himself carelessly guarded, he had fled, thinking he would die any way, and he would as soon be shot as hung. His escape had indeed been narrow, as the colonel might see by looking at his clothes. And the Americans were coming in great force to raise the siege.

While Hon-Yost was being interviewed at headquarters the Oneida messenger arrived with wampum to say that the Americans were indeed coming in great force. On his way the Oneida had met several Indian friends, whom he had engaged to assist the scheme by following him at intervals and confirming his story. Thus, from time to time, excited Indians would drop into camp from different directions with alarming rumors. Birds had brought them momentous news, they would say. Even the spirits consulted in the powwow gave ominous warnings, St. Leger saw that the Indians were about to decamp. He tried to reassure them. He called a council, but neither the influence of Brant nor that of Johnson and Claus was of any avail.

" The powwow says we must go-the powwow says we must go," persisted the Indians. The beleagured garrison looked on with wonder to see the enemy hastily retreat, leaving tents, baggage, and artillery behind them. Arnold, meantime, had heard that St. Leger had pushed his sapping process to within a short distance of the ramparts, and, fearing lest the brave garrison would fall victims to the Indian tomahawk, he pushed forward without waiting longer for reinforcements. He had marched but ten miles when an express from Colonel Gansevoort reached him with the good news that the siege had been raised. Gansevoort knew not how, but Arnold knew full well.

Meantime the sullen savages in the retreating army were amusing themselves at the expense of the loyalists. They would raise a shout that the Americans were upon them, and then their mocking laugh would arise on all sides at the panic they thus produced. It is related that Colonel St. Leger and Sir John John son at one time had a dispute. They were standing quarrelling, the colonel reproaching the baronet for the defection of the Indians, and the baronet charging St. Leger in turn with indifference in prosecuting the siege. It was just at dusk on a summer evening. Two Indian chiefs were not far behind the officers and overheard the high words.

" They are coming ! they are coming !" cried the chiefs, instantly putting a stop to the dispute, for the officers quickly resumed the retreat. The troops threw away knapsacks and arms that they might proceed the faster. The Indians kept up the grim joke from time to time all the way. They were by no means in a pleasant frame of mind. They robbed the officers at their pleasure and plundered several of the army's boats. They even murdered some of the straggling soldiers of the British army before the retreat was ended.

Hon-Yost accompanied the army a little way and then returned to Fort Dayton, where his brother was released, to the great joy of the old mother. He nevertheless took the first opportunity to join the Tories, running away with some of his neighbors to Sir John Johnson's forces.

"Britons never go back!" Burgoyne had exclaimed at the triumphant beginning of his campaign. But St. Leger's retreat was but one of the many disasters which accompanied that great expedition. American farmers, in the simple uniform of shirt-sleeves and armed with fowling-pieces, rose up to meet the disciplined forces of the invading army.

At Schuylerville, on the Hudson, a decisive battle was at length fought between the royal forces and the American army, the latter headed by an indifferent general. Burgoyne's whole force, including the brave German mercenaries who had been sold by their princes, was surrendered into the hands of the Americans.

Copyright 1998, -- 2003. Berry Enterprises. All rights reserved. All items on the site are copyrighted. While we welcome you to use the information provided on this web site by copying it, or downloading it; this information is copyrighted and not to be reproduced for distribution, sale, or profit.

Contents Introduction Links Home