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.



THE British and Indians planned the destruction of the entire chain of frontier settlements in 1780. The loyalists, who had lost their property and their homes, were very bitter against their rebel neighbors, as they called them, and many were the cruel deeds which the brutal men among them perpetrated in this border warfare, though these indeed were greatly exaggerated in the partisan accounts of the day. The Indians, too, were bent on retaliation for the destruction of their villages. Sir John Johnson first made an attack upon the settlement in which he was born. Some of his neighbors were killed and others were taken captive. Sir John himself marched to Johnson Hall. The faithful Negro slave who alone knew of the buried family silver had been living with a former neighbor of Sir John's, but had never disclosed the secret. Assisted by four soldiers he now dug up the silver, which filled two barrels, and, carrying it upstairs, laid it at his master's feet. It was distributed in the knapsacks of some forty soldiers, whose names were taken down, and thus it was carried off.

In August Brant planned the destruction of the settlement at Canajoharie, the home of his childhood. A large quantity of stores were being moved to Fort Schuyler. Hovering around the settlements, Brant spread a rumor that he was about to attack these stores. The militia in the settlements lower down the Mohawk Valley was immediately moved to protect the stores. Having thus diverted attention, Brant now passed around the convoy and attacked the unprotected settlements. When the Indians approached a woman gave the alarm by firing a cannon, but the able-bodied men were nearly all absent, and there was no one to defend their homes. Sixteen people were killed, fifty or sixty taken prisoners, over fifty houses and as many barns burned, with a mill, a church, and two small forts. Fields were laid waste, and some three hundred cattle and horses driven away. Even the tools and arms of the farmers were destroyed. The women and children were carried into captivity, but no outrages were committed upon them. The rising smoke was seen at Johnstown, fifteen miles away, and the militia marched to Canajoharie, but Brant had already gone with plunder and prisoners.

The great blow was yet to be struck. About a thousand whites and Indians, under Sir John Johnson, Brant, and Cornplanter, were preparing to invade the settlements. Every man was provided with eighty rounds of cartridges, and, by way of artillery, the army had two small mortars and a brass three-pounder, which they called a grasshopper, because it was mounted on legs instead of wheels. They moved first upon the Schoharie settlements. They slipped by the upper fort in the night unobserved. The middle fort was garrisoned by some two hundred men, under Major Woolsey. The first intimation the garrison had of the enemy's presence was the kindling of a fire early on an October morning in some buildings near at hand. The firing of three cannons from the upper fort announced the discovery in that quarter. The whole settlement was soon in a blaze. The farm-houses and the barns, well filled from a bountiful harvest, were quickly destroyed. About sunrise the army began investing the middle fort. The "grasshopper" and the other artillery were planted upon high ground commanding it.

The garrison was in a very poor condition for defence, being almost entirely destitute of powder. Major Woolsey was inclined to surrender immediately. It is said that this officer was so cowardly that he ran into the quarters of the women and children to conceal himself when the fort was attacked. The inmates quickly drove him out by their ridicule ; and it is related that he actually crawled about the intrenchments on his hands and knees, to the great merriment of the soldiers, whose spirits were much raised by the hearty laughter they enjoyed at the expense of the commander. The women in the fort showed a great deal of courage. A girl, who observed some reluctance in a soldier who was appointed to get water from a well outside the fort, seized the pail from his hands and walked coolly to the well many times for water.

A white flag approached the fort to demand a surrender. The order was given to cease firing. Within the fort was the irrepressible Murphy. He feared lest the garrison would surrender if terms were offered. He announced his determination to fire upon the bearer of the flag. The officers of the regular troops forbade it, but the militia supported him. Murphy fired, and the messenger was forced to return without an answer. The "grasshopper" and its companions did not produce much effect. Some of the shells fell short of the fort, others went over it, and some exploded in the air. One shell fell through the roof of a house within the fort, sank into a featherbed, and exploded; another set the roof afire, but a pail of water quickly extinguished the blaze. The siege was carried on in the way customary with Indian besiegers. Now the savages would attack the fort from a distance, again they were busied in plundering and burning a house or barn. There was one large barn surrounded with wheat stacks near the fort. Several times the Indians tried to fire this, but Lieutenant Spencer with forty men sallied forth and protected it.

Sir John Johnson did not know but that the fort was well garrisoned and supplied with ammunition. The manner in which his flag had been received made him think that the garrison was resolved to hold out. He sent a flag of truce again during the forenoon toward the fort. Murphy again threatened to shoot at the bearer. The regular officers objected as before; one of them threatened to run him through with his sword if he did it. But Murphy persisted, saying that he believed Woolsey intended to surrender the fort, and, in such a case, he for one would certainly not be spared at the hands of the Indians. The militia encouraged him, and the bearer of the flag again returned discomfited. Orders were given for a white flag to be raised upon the fortifications, but Murphy threatened to shoot any man who made the attempt. Sir John finally formed his forces under cover of a small building near the fort, preparatory to making an assault. He again sent a flag toward the fort. Murphy again raised his rifle to shoot.

" Don't shoot," cried a regular officer.

" Shoot," commanded a militia officer standing at Murphy's side.

The regular officer began to draw his sword on the militia officer, but the latter threatened him with the butt of his gun, which caused him to step back. Murphy again frightened the flag away with a shot from his rifle. There had been an attempt to arrest Murphy for insubordination, but he was too great a favorite with the militia; they would not allow it. Meantime Sir John called a council of war. The invading army had not completed their plans for destruction, and they must hasten before reinforcements should be sent to the aid of the settlements. It was resolved to abandon the siege of a post so well defended.

The invading army made a rapid march down the Schoharie-kill to its junction with the Mohawk River. Everything in their road met with destruction. They made a short stand at the lower fort, where they were attacked by some sharpshooters stationed in the church-steeple. They brought "grasshopper" to bear on the steeple, but did not succeed in bringing it down, for they were just then treated to a shower of grape-shot from the fort. They reached Fort Hunter, on the Mohawk, during the night, leaving the Schoharie Valley behind them, a scene of desolation. Some of the inhabitants had been killed, of whom a part were women and children; some had fled to the woods, and many were made captive. The only houses which remained standing were those belonging to Tories, but their exasperated neighbors did not long leave these.

After destroying the settlements in the neighborhood of Fort Hunter the army began a destructive march up both sides of the Mohawk. As heretofore, houses and barns were destroyed, inhabitants killed or taken captive. Major Fonda, a confidential friend of Sir William Johnson, had incurred the especial enmity of the loyalists because he had sided with the colonies. He was absent, but his mansion was burned, and property amounting to sixty thousand dollars in value destroyed. His wife escaped by the help of a dense fog, and made her way, twenty-six miles on foot, to Schenectady.

When the invasion was known at Albany, General Van Rensselear marched against Sir John Johnson with a force of militia. He ordered Colonel Brown, who was in command of a small fort at the settlement of Stone Arabia, to attack Johnson's forces in front while he attacked in the rear. Colonel Brown gave battle as directed, but Van Rensselear's advance was impeded in some way, and he was not there to support Brown. The brave colonel fell with some forty of his men, but his force was not sufficient to accomplish anything alone, and the survivors retreated to their fort. The settlement was immediately destroyed, and the army proceeded to a spot known as Klock's Field. Here the men, being worn out with their arduous work of destruction, and heavily burdened with plunder and provisions, were forced to stop, though Van Rensselear was in pursuit of them.

The general was unpardonably slow in his movements. He had arrived opposite Brown's battle-ground in the morning immediately after the action. The river was easily fordable, but Van Rensselear had delayed under various pretexts. The army was finally marched across on a bridge made of baggage-wagons, and this process of crossing took a long time. Meanwhile the general was enjoying a leisurely dinner. He arrived at the wagon-bridge about four in the afternoon, just as the last man crossed over. An Oneida chief who had joined the army with an Indian force, impatient of this delay, shook his sword at the general and called him a Tory when he appeared on the scene. The American forces now marched upon Sir John Johnson, who was prepared for them. He was stationed at a bend in the river, and was surrounded on three sides with water. Across the front he had thrown up a slight breastwork. Brant and his Indians were advantageously posted in a thicket of shrub oak. When the American army approached, the ambushed Indians raised the war-whoop, which was answered by the Oneidas from the other side. They rushed to the attack of their own countrymen. Captain M'Kean with some eighty volunteers followed the Oneidas in their attack upon the Indians. Colonel Dubois also charged them with his regiment. For a moment they withstood the charge, and then they fled, Brant receiving a wound in the heel. According to some accounts, Sir John fled with the Indians. The regulars and rangers of the enemy, however, fought bravely for a short time. They were on the point of being conquered, when Van Rensselear, in spite of the eagerness of his men to charge them, ordered a cessation of hostilities that he might finish the battle more advantageously in the morning. In the morning the enemy was gone. While the American forces were crossing the river, preparatory to pursuing the enemy, some of the volunteers, who held themselves independent of the main army, were strolling around and found a block-house where nine of the enemy where imprisoned.

"How did you get here?" the soldiers exclaimed.

" Why, I am ashamed to tell," answered one of them, a Johnstown loyalist. " Last night, after the battle, we crossed the river. It was dark. We heard the word, ' Lay down your arms.' Some of us did so. We were taken, nine of us, and marched into this little fort by seven militia-men. We formed the rear of three hundred of Johnson's greens, who were running promiscuously through and over one another. I thought General Van Rensselear's whole army was upon us. Why didn't you take us prisoners yesterday after Sir John ran off with the Indians and left us ? We wanted to surrender."

The British and Indian army pushed directly for Onondaga Lake, where their boats were concealed. The American army followed, the Oneidas and volunteers having been sent in advance. These came up with the rear of Sir John's army, but found that Van Rensselear had given over the chase, and so the invading army escaped unmolested.

We have one incident of Brant's behavior during this cruel border invasion. Among the bereaved settlers was a woman whose husband and other friends were missing, but worst of all her little baby had been taken from its cradle. The next morning, while the officers of Van Rensselear's advancing army were at breakfast, a young Indian came bounding into the room with a baby in his arms. He brought a letter from Brant addressed " To the commanding officer of the rebel army." It ran:

" Sir: I send you by one of my runners the child which he will deliver, that you may know that, whatever others may do, I do not make war on women and children. I am sorry to say that I have those engaged with me in the service who are more savage than the savages themselves." The child was found to belong to the mourning mother, and was restored to her.

There was another curious incident which is said to have happened in connection with this expedition. The famous Cornplanter, who commanded with Brant, was a half-breed. He said of himself: " When I was a child I played with the butterfly, the grasshopper, and the frogs. As I grew up I began to pay some attention, and play with the Indian boys in the neighborhood, and they took notice of my skin being a different color from theirs and spoke about it. I inquired of my mother the cause, and she told me that my father was a resident of Albany."

Cornplanter's father was, in fact, a trader named O'Beel, who was settled down somewhere in the Mohawk Valley at the time of its invasion. During the progress of the army Cornplanter went with a band of Indians, to his father's house, and, taking him prisoner, marched off with him. After going some ten or twelve miles he stopped abruptly, and, walking up in front of his father, said:

" My name is John O'Beel, commonly called Cornplanter. I am your son. You are my father. You are now my prisoner and subject to the customs of Indian warfare. But you shall not be harmed. You need not fear. I am a warrior. Many are the scalps which I have taken. Many prisoners I have tortured to death. I am your son. I am a warrior. I was anxious to see you and greet you in friendship. I went to your cabin and took you by force, but your life shall be spared. Indians love their friends and their kindred, and treat them with kindness. If now you choose to follow the fortunes of your yellow son, I will cherish your old age with plenty of venison, and you shall live easy. But if it is your choice to return to your fields and live with your white children, I will send a party of my trusty young men to conduct you back in safety. I respect you, my father. You have been friendly to Indians ; they are your friends."

The old man preferred to go back, and Cornplanter sent him with an Indian escort.

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