History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Story of Old Fort Plain and the Middle Mohawk Valley
by Nelson Greene
O'Connor Brothers Publishers, Fort Plain, NY 1915
Thanks to James F. Morrison for letting us use his book!
1781-June, Col. Willett, Appointed Commander of Mohawk Valley Posts, Makes Fort Plain His Headquarters -Dreadful Tryon County Conditions -July 9, Currytown Raid-July 10, American Victory at Sharon-Fort Schuyler Abandoned.
Of the conditions in the Mohawk country at the opening of 1781, Beer's History of Montgomery County has the following:
"Gloomy indeed was the prospect at this time in the Mohawk valley. Desolation and destitution were on every side. Of an abundant harvest almost nothing remained. The Cherry Valley, Harpersfield, and all other settlements toward the headwaters of the Susquehanna, had been entirely deserted for localities of greater safety. Some idea of the lamentable condition of other communities in Tryon county may be obtained from a statement addressed to the legislature, December 20, 1780, by the supervisors of the county. In that document it was estimated that 700 buildings had been burned in the county; 613 persons had deserted to the enemy; 354 families had abandoned their dwellings; 197 lives had been lost; 121 persons had been carried into captivity, and hundreds of farms lay uncultivated by reason of the enemy.
"Nor were the terrible sufferings indicated by these statistics, mitigated by a brighter prospect. Before the winter was past, Brant was again hovering about with predatory bands to destroy what little property remained. Since the Oneidas had been driven from their country, the path of the enemy into the valley was almost unobstructed. It was with difficulty that supplies could be conveyed to Forts Plain and Dayton without being captured, and transportation to Fort Schuyler was of course far more hazardous. The militia had been greatly diminished and the people dispirited by repeated invasions, and the destruction of their property; and yet what information could be obtained indicated that another incursion might be looked for to sweep perhaps the whole extent of the valley, contemporaneously with a movement from the north toward Albany. Fort Schuyler was so much injured by flood and fire in the spring of 1781, that it was abandoned, the garrison retiring to the lower posts; and all the upper part of the valley was left open to the savages. [The Fort Schuyler troops went to Forts Dayton, Herkimer and Fort Plain.]
"Gov. Clinton was greatly pained by the gloomy outlook and knowing that Col. Willett was exceedingly popular in the valley, earnestly solicited his services in this quarter. Willett had just been appointed to the command of one of the two new regiments formed by the consolidation of the remnants of five New York regiments, and it was with reluctance that he left the main army for so difficult and harassing an undertaking as the defense of the Mohawk region. The spirit of the people, at this time lower than at any other during the long struggle, began to revive when Col. Willett appeared among them. It was in June that he repaired to Tryon county to take charge of the militia levies and state troops that he might be able to collect. In the letter to Gov. Clinton making known the weakness of his command. Col. Willett said: 'I confess myself not a little disappointed in having such a trifling force for such extensive business as I have on my hands; and also that nothing is done to enable me to avail myself of the militia. The prospect of a suffering county hurts me. Upon my own account I am not uneasy. Everything I can do shall be done, and more cannot be looked for. If it is, the reflection that I have done my duty must fix my own tranquility.'" Willett made his headquarters at Fort Plain, which continued to be the valley headquarters during the rest of the war. He had not been long at Fort Plain before his soldierly qualities and great ability as a commander were brought into play. Willett came to his valley headquarters in June and, in a month's time, occurred the first raid he had to combat-that led by Dockstader.
The following is largely written from Simms's account of the Currytown Invasion and Sharon Springs battle:
1781, July 9, 500 Indians and Tories entered the town of Root on one of the raids that devastated Montgomery county the latter years of the war. Their commander was Capt. John Dockstader, a Tory who had gone from the Mohawk country to Canada. The settlement of Currytown (named after William Corry, the patentee of the lands thereabout) was the first objective of these marauders. Here a small block-house had been erected, near the dwelling of Henry Lewis, and surrounded with a palisade. At about ten in the morning the enemy entered the settlement. Jacob Dievendorf, a pioneer settler, was at work in the field with his two sons, Frederick and Jacob and a. negro boy named Jacobus Blood. The last two were captured and Frederick, a boy of 14, ran toward the fort but was overtaken, tomahawked and scalped. Mrs. Dievendorf, in spite of being a fleshy woman, made for the fort with several girl children and half a dozen slaves and reached it In safety, on the way breaking down a fence by her weight in climbing over. Peter Bellinger, a brother of Mrs. Dievendorf, was plowing and hearing the alarm, unhitched a plow horse and, mounting it, rode for the Mohawk and escaped although pursued by several Indians. Rudolf Keller and his wife happened to be at the fort, when the enemy appeared; Keller, Henry Lewis and Conrad Enders being the only men in the blockhouse at that time. Frederick Lewis and Henry Lewis jr. were the first to reach the fort after the invaders' appearance. Frederick Lewis fired three successive guns to warn the settlers of danger and several, taking the warning, escaped safely to the forest. Philip Bellinger thus escaped but was severely wounded and died with friends shortly after. Rudolf Keller's oldest son, seeing the enemy approach, ran home and hurried the rest of the family to the woods, the Indians entering the Keller house just as the fugitives disappeared into the forest. Jacob Tanner and his family were among the last to reach the blockhouse On seeing the Indians corning, Tanner fled from his house, with his gun in one hand and a small child in his other arm, followed by his wife with an infant in her arms and several children running by her side holding onto her skirts. Several redmen with uplifted tomahawks chased the Tanner family toward the fort. Finding that they could not overtake them, one of the Indians fired at Tanner, the ball passing just over the child's head he carried and entering a picket of the fort. The defenders fired several shots at the savages and the fleeing family entered the blockhouse safely.
The Indians plundered and burned all the buildings in the settlement, a dozen or more, except the house of David Lewis. Lewis was a Tory and, although his house was set on fire, an Indian chief, with whom he was acquainted, gave him permission to put It out when they were gone. Jacob Moyer and his father, who were cutting timber in the woods not far from Yates, were found dead and scalped, one at each end of the log. They were killed by the party who pursued Peter Bellinger.
The lad, Frederick Dievendorf, after lying insensible for several hours, recovered and crawled toward the fort. He was seen by his uncle, Keller, who went out to meet him. As he approached, the lad, whose clothes were dyed in his own blood, still bewildered, raised his hands Imploringly and besought his uncle not to kill him. Keller took him up in his arms and carried him to the fort. His wounds were properly dressed and he recovered, but was killed several years after by a falling tree. Jacob Dievendorf senior, fled before the Indians, on their approach and, in his flight, ran past a prisoner named James Butterfleld, and at a little distance farther on hid himself under a fallen tree. His pursuers enquired of Butterfleld what direction he had taken. "That way," said the prisoner, pointing in a different direction. Although several Indians passed by the fallen tree Dievendorf remained undiscovered.
An old man named Putman, captured at this time, was too infirm to keep up with the enemy and was killed and scalped not far from his home.
The Currytown captives taken along by the enemy were Jacob Dievendorf jr., the Negro Jacob, Christian and Andrew Bellinger, sons of Frederick Bellinger, and a little girl named Miller, ten or twelve years old. Christian Bellinger had been in the nine month [militia] service. He was captured on going to get a span of horses, at which time he heard an alarm gun fired at Fort Plain. The horses were hobbled together and the Indians, with a bark rope, had tied the hobble to a tree in a favorable place to capture the one who came for them, who chanced to be young Bellinger. His brother (Andrew) was taken so young and kept so long-to the end of the war- and was so pleased with Indian life, that Christian had to go a third time to get him to return with him. Michael Stowitts (son of Philip G. P. Stowitts, who was killed on the patriot side In the Oriskany battle) was made a prisoner on the Stowitts farm, and is credited with having given the invaders an exaggerated account of the strength defending the fort, which possibly prevented its capture; but it is well known that even small defenses were avoided by the enemy, who did not like exposure to certain death.
On the morning of the same day of the Currytown raid (1781, July 9) Col. Willett sent out, from Fort Plain, Capt. Lawrence Gros with a scouting party of 40 men. Their mission had the double object of scouting for the enemy and provisions. Knowing that the settlements of New Dorlach and New Rhinebeck were inhabited mostly by Tones and that he might get a few beeves there, Gros led his men in that direction. Near the former home of one Baxter, he struck the trail of the enemy and estimated their number from their footprints at 600 men at least. Gros sent two scouts to follow the enemy and then marched his squad to Bowman's (Canajoharie) creek to await their report. The scouts came upon the enemy's camp of the night before after going about a mile. A few Indians were seen cooking food at the fires-making preparations, as the Americans supposed, for the return of their comrades who had gone to destroy Currytown. The two rangers returned quickly to Gros and reported their find, and the captain dispatched John Young and another man, both mounted, on a gallop to Fort Plain to inform Col. Willett. The commandant sent a messenger to Lieut. Col. Vedder, at Fort Paris, with orders to collect all troops possible, at his post and elsewhere, and to make a rapid march to the enemy's camp. Col. Willett detailed all the garrison of Fort Plain he could, with safety detach from that post, for the field. In addition he collected what militia he could from the neighborhood and set out. Passing Port Clyde in Freysbush, Willett drafted into his ranks what men could there be spared and about midnight he joined Capt. Gros at Bowman's creek. The American force numbered 260 men, many of whom were militia. Col. Willett's battalion set out and, at daybreak, reached the enemy's camp, which was in a cedar swamp on the north side of the western turnpike, near the center of the present town of Sharon and about two miles east of Sharon Springs. This camp was on the highest ground of the swamp, only a few rods from the turnpike. On the south side of the road, a ridge of land may be seen and still south of that a small valley. By a roundabout march, Willett reached this little dale and there drew up his force in a half-circle formation. The men were instructed to take trees or fallen logs and not to leave them and to reserve their fire until they had a fair shot.
The enemy was double the number of the patriot force and stratagem was resorted to by the Fort Plain commandant. He sent several men over the ridge to show themselves, fire upon the raiders and then flee, drawing the foe toward the American ranks. This ruse completely succeeded and the entire Tory and Indian band snatched up their weapons and chased the American skirmishers who fled toward Willett's ambuscade, Frederick Bellinger being overtaken and killed. The enemy was greeted with a deadly fire from the hidden soldiers and a fierce tree to tree fight began which lasted for two hours until the Tories and Indians, badly punished, broke and fled. John Strobeck, who was a private in Captain Gros's company and in the hottest part of the fight, said afterwards that "the Indians got tired of us and made off." Strobeck was wounded in the hip. During the battle, from a basswood stump, several shots were fired with telling effect at the patriots. William H. Seeber rested his rifle on the shoulder of Henry Failing and gave the hollow stump a centre shot, after which fire from that quarter ceased. About this time. It is said, the enemy were recovering from their first panic, learning they so greatly outnumbered the Continental force. A story is told that Col. Willett, seeing the foe gaining confidence shouted in a loud voice, "My men, stand your ground and I'll bring up the levies and we'll surround the damned rascals!" The enemy hearing this, and expecting to be captured or slain by an increased American body, turned and ran. In the pursuit Seeber and Failing reached the stump the former had hit and found it was hollow. Seeing a pool of blood on the ground, Col. Willett observed: "One that stood behind that stump will never get back to Canada."
The enemy, in their retreat, were hotly pursued by the Americans, led by Col. Willett in person and so complete was the defeat of the raiders that Willett's men captured most of their camp equipage and plunder obtained the day before in the Currytown raid. Most of the cattle and horses the raiders had taken found their way back to that settlement. Col. Willett continued the pursuit but a short distance, fearing that he might himself fall into a snare similar to the one he had so successfully set for the enemy. The American force returned victorious to Fort Plain, immediately after the battle, bearing with them their wounded. Their loss of five killed and about the same number wounded was small and due to their protected position and the surprise they sprang on their foe.
The Indians, in their retreat from Sharon, crossed the west creek in New Dorlach (near the former Col. Rice residence) and made for the Susquehanna. The loss of the enemy was very severe-about 50 killed and wounded-and Dockstader is said to have returned to Canada (after one other engagement) with his force "greatly reduced." Two of the enemy carried a wounded comrade, on a blanket between two poles, all the way to the Genesee valley, where he died.
Five of Willett's men were killed, including Capt. McKean, a brave and efficient officer. He was taken to Van Alstine's fortified house at Canajoharie, which was on the then road from New Dorlach to Fort Plain, and died there the following day, after which he was buried in "soldier's ground" at Fort Plain; which was probably the burial plot about one hundred yards west of that post, remains of which are still to be seen. On the completion of the blockhouse, McKean's body was reburied on the brink of the hill in front of this fortification with military honors.
Among the wounded was a son of Capt. McKean, who was shot in the mouth. Jacob Radnour received a bullet In his right thigh which he carried to his grave. Like that Sir "William Johnson got at Lake George, it gradually settled several inches and made him very lame. Hon. Garrett Dunckel was wounded In the head, "a ball passing in at the right eye and coming out back of the ear." Nicholas Yerdon was wounded in the right wrist, which caused the hand to shrivel and become useless. Adam Strobeck's wound in the hip has been mentioned. All three of the latter came from Freysbush and Radnour, Dunckel and Yerdon were in the Oriskany battle, where Radnour and Yerdon were wounded. All these wounded were borne on litters back to Fort Plain and all recovered.
Finding their force defeated and having to abandon their prisoners in the flight, the Indians guarding them tomahawked and scalped all except the Bellinger boys and Butterfield. The killed at this time included a German named Carl Herwagen, who had been captured by the enemy on their return from Currytown to their camp the previous evening.
After the battle was over Lieut. Col. Veeder arrived from Fort Paris with a company of 100 men, mostly from Stone Arabia. He buried the Americans killed in battle and fortunately found and interred the prisoners who were murdered and scalped near the enemy's former camp. The Dievendorf boy, who had been scalped, was found alive half buried among the dead leaves, with which he had covered himself to keep off mosquitoes and flies from his bloody head. One of Veeder's men, thinking him a wounded Indian, on account of his gory face, leveled his gun to shoot but it was knocked up by a fellow soldier, and the Currytown boy's life was spared for almost four-score years more. Young Dievendorf and the little Miller girl, also found alive, were tenderly taken back to Fort Plain, but the latter died on the way. Doctor Faught, a German physician of Stone Arabia, tended the wounds of both Jacob Dievendorf and his brother Frederick Dievendorf and both recovered. Jacob Dievendorf's scalped head was five years in healing. He became one of the wealthiest farmers of Montgomery county and died Oct. 8, 1859, over seventy-eight years after his terrible experience of being scalped and left for dead by his red captors on the bloody field of Sharon.
The battle of Sharon was fought, almost entirely, by men from the present limits of the town of Minden-the Fort Plain garrison, with additions from that of Fort Clyde, and the Minden militia. Some of the soldiers doubtless came from Forts Willett, "Windecker and Plank. The Port Paris company, as seen, did not get up in time to fight. The list of the Americans wounded at Sharon would indicate that the greater part of Willett's battalion were local men. Probably the men of the Mohawk formed a large percentage of the valley garrisons of that time. There was then little for the men of the Mohawk to do but to guard and fight and, between times, to till the fields which were not too exposed to the enemy's ravages. A considerable population must have clustered in and about the principal forts for protection.
Col. Marinus Willett, who made his headquarters at Fort Plain for the last three years of the war and who was connected with so many of the valley military operations and almost all the patriot successes in the valley, deserves mention here. He was a soldier of the highest qualifications, great courage and daring, a clever and fearless woodsman and an intrepid fighter in the open field. His quick, powerful, decisive blows, such as at Johnstown and Sharon Springs, conspired to end the raids from Canada which had devastated the valley. Marinus Willett was born in Jamaica, Long Island, in 1740, the youngest of six sons of Edward Willett, a Queens county farmer. In 1758 he joined the army, under Abercrombie, as a lieutenant in Col. Delaney's regiment. Exposure in the wilderness caused a sickness which confined him in Fort Stanwix until the end of the campaign. Willett early joined the Whigs, in the contest against British aggression. When the British troops in New York were ordered to Boston, after the skirmish at Lexington in 1775, they attempted to carry off a large quantity of spare arms in addition to their own. Willett resolved to prevent it and, although opposed by the mayor and other Whigs, he captured the baggage wagons containing the weapons, etc., and took them back to the city. These arms were afterwards used by the first regiment raised by the state of New York. He was appointed second captain of a company In McDougal's regiment and accompanied Montgomery's futile expedition against Quebec. He commanded St. John's until 1776. He was appointed lieutenant-colonel in 1777 and commanded Fort Constitution on the Hudson. In May he was ordered to Fort Stanwix, recently named Fort Schuyler, where he did such signal service. He was left in command of that fort where he remained until 1778, when he joined the army under Washington and fought with him at Monmouth. He accompanied Sullivan in his campaign against the Indians in 1779. Col. Willett was actively engaged in the Mohawk valley in 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783. So he spent at least four or five years in military service in the Mohawk valley. Washington sent him to treat with the Creek Indians in Florida in 1792 and the same year he was appointed a brigadier-general in the army which was intended to act against the northwestern Indians. He declined this appointment, being opposed to the expedition. Col. Willett was for some time sheriff and In 1807 was elected Mayor of New York city. He was president of the electoral college in 1824 and died in New York August 23, 1830, in the 91st year of his age. A portrait of Col. Willett hangs, among those of other former mayors, in the City Hall in New York and shows a face of much intelligence, power and forceful initiative. Marinus Willett was one of the men of iron who made the American republic possible. There are few natural leaders and he was one. Simms says Willett was a "large man." He was a direct descendant of Thomas Willett, who was a man of great ability and influence in the early years of New York province, and who was the first mayor of New York city after the Dutch rule, being appointed by Gov. Nicolls in 1665. Col. Marinus Willett had a natural son by a Fort Plain woman. This son he cared for and educated and later, when the son was a grown man, he returned to his birthplace and lived here and hereabouts for several years.
The following, concerning Willett, is taken from "New York in the Revolution:"
"Captain, Major, Lieutenant-Colonel, Colonel and Acting Brigadier Marinus Willett was a gallant officer. He held many commands and his promotion was rapid. In 1775-6 he was captain in Col. Alexander McDougal's regiment, 1st N. Y. Line. On April 27, 1776, the Provincial Congress recommended him to the Continental Congress for major of the same regiment. In November of the same year he was recommended for lieutenant-colonel of the 3d Line [regiment] and in July, 1780, he was made lieutenant-colonel commandant of the 5th regiment of the line. In 1781 as lieutenant-colonel he commanded a regiment of levies [men drafted into military service] and in 1782 was made full colonel of still another regiment of levies. After the death of General Nicholas Herkimer, Colonel Willett commanded the Tryon County militia as acting brigadier-general." The regiment of levies, which Willett commanded in 1781 and which engaged in the Sharon and Johnstown battles, is mentioned in a later chapter dealing briefly with the Tryon county troops. It numbered 1008 soldiers, was largely composed of Mohawk river men, and probably formed all or part of the valley garrisons of the time when Fort Plain was the military headquarters of this section.
At German Flats, 1781, were several encounters. One of them was marked by great bravery on the part of Captain Solomon Woodworth and a small party of rangers which he organized. He marched from Fort Dayton to the Royal Grant for the purpose of observation. On the way he fell into an Indian ambush. One of the most desperate and bloody skirmishes of the war hereabouts then ensued. Woodworth and a large number of his scouts were slain. This was the same Woodworth who so valiantly defended the Sacandaga blockhouse, as told in a previous chapter. His company assembled at Fort Plain only a few days previous to the fatal action, which took place at Fairfield. Some of his men were recruited from soldiers of the Fort Plain garrison whose time was soon to expire.
In this year also occurred the heroic defense by Christian Schell of his blockhouse home about five miles north of Herkimer village. Sixty Tories and Indians under Donald McDonald, a Tory formerly of Johnstown, attacked the place, most of the people fleeing to Fort Dayton. Schell had eight sons and two of them were captured in the fields while the old man ran safely home and with his other six sons and Mrs. Schell made a successful defense. They captured McDonald wounded. The enemy drew off having 11 killed and 15 wounded. Schell and one of his boys were killed by Indians in his fields a little later.
Early in May, 1781, high water from the Mohawk destroyed a quantity of stores in Fort Schuyler. On May 12 this post was partially destroyed by fire. The soldiers were playing ball a little distance away and pretty much everything was burned except the palisade and the bombproof, which was saved by throwing dirt on it. This fire has been said to have been of incendiary origin having been started by a soldier of secret Tory sentiments. Samuel Pettit, who was then one of the garrison, in his old age, told Simms that the fire originated from charcoal used to repair arms in the armory. The post was abandoned and the troops marched down the Forts Dayton and Herkimer, which became now the most advanced posts on this frontier. Some of the Fort Schuyler garrison are said to have been removed to Fort Plain. After the abandonment of Fort Schuyler the principal Mohawk valley posts of Tryon county were, in their order from west to east, as follows: Fort Dayton (at present Herkimer), Fort Herkimer (at present German Flats), Fort Plain, Fort Paris (at Stone Arabia), Fort Johnstown, Fort Hunter. Fort Plain's central position probably influenced its selection as the valley American army head-quarters. Simms says that. In the spring of 1781, Col. Livingston, with his regiment of New York troops marched up the Mohawk valley to Fort Plain. No mention is made of further disposition of the troops, however. Possibly, these may have been part of "the reinforcements lately ordered northward" referred to by Gen. Washington in his letter of June 5, 1781, to Gov. Clinton. Washington advocated the concentration of these troops "on the Hudson and Mohawk rivers."
In the summer of 1781 Col. Willett went with a scouting party from Fort Plain to Fort Herkimer and on his return stopped at the Herkimer house. Here then lived Capt. George Herkimer, brother of the deceased General, who had succeeded to the Fall Hill estate. At this time a small body of Indians was seen in the woods above the house and Mrs. Herkimer went to the front door and stepped up on a seat on the stoop and, with her arm around the northwest post, she blew an alarm for her husband who with several slaves was hoeing corn on the flats near the river. Col. Willett came to the door and seeing the woman's exposed position shouted, "Woman, For God's sake, come in or you'll be shot!" He seized hold of Mrs. Herkimer's dress and pulled her inside the house and almost the instant she stepped from the seat to the floor a rifle ball entered the post-instead of her head-leaving a hole long visible. It is presumed that Willett's men quickly drove off the enemy as Captain Herkimer was not harmed.
In July, 1781, a party of 12 Indians made a foray In the Palatine district and captured five persons, on the Shults farm two miles north of the Stone Arabia churches. Three sons of John Shults-Henry, William and John junior, a lad named Felder Wolfe and a negro slave called Joseph went to a field to mow, carrying their guns and stacking them on the edge of the field, skirted on one side by thick woods. From this cover the Indians sprang out, secured the firearms, captured the harvesters and took them all prisoners to Canada. Upon the mowers not returning, people from the farm went to the field and found their scythes, but the guns were missing. These were the only evidences that the harvesters had been made prisoners. They remained in Canada until the end of the war.
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