Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY

John Abeel and the Corn Planter (Vol I, p 364-373)

The name of Abeel, (By some means this name has crept into print as O'Bail, leading many to suppose he was of Irish origin. The name is written in some places ABeal, but the correct orthography is in the context.) which Lawrence Gros said was Low Dutch, appears at an early date among the respectable names of Albany. John Abeel is named as early as 1692, as an alderman of Albany; and for the next 10 or 12 years as an alderman, merchant, city treasurer and Commissioner of Indian Affairs. (Brod. Papers. vols. 4, and 5.) Others of the name are mentioned; but it is believed that John Abeel, the Indian trader of a little later period, sprang from this Albany family. Before he settled in the Mohawk valley, he was an Indian trader in Western New York, but where, or at what age, he commenced such a career is unknown.

In his first visit he was enamored with a beautiful squaw, the daughter of a Seneca chief. The result was, this Albany tradesman had a little name sake in its western home.

The first definite knowledge we have of this Abeel, is found in a letter from Gov. Clinton to the Governor of Canada, dated October 10, 1748, in which, after stating that he had sent back so many French prisoners, who had been well used, he said that some British subjects, with the French, had been retained, and adds: "I must also complain that you still keep the English prisoners in close confinement, especially Anthony Van Schaick and John Abeel, who have been so long detained, and who, I am credibly informed, have been treated with a severity not commonly practiced among civilized nations." (Brod. Papers, vol. 6, p. 492)

Under the same date, in giving instructions to Capt. Benjamin Stoddard about an interchange of prisoners between himself and Go. Galissoniere, of Canada, His Excellency directed him to get an exchange of all the prisoners without distinction, and adds: "If this cannot be done, that whereas Anthony Van Schaick and John abeel and the Indians taken with them, have been kept in prison above______months, and used with greater severity than is usual among civilized nations; and that since, many who have been taken since they were, have been set at liberty, and they are still confined in close imprisonment. That considering the severe usage they have received, you are to make it a condition previous to your entering into any agreement for the delivery of the French prisoners now in the hands of the Mohawks. That Anthony Van Schaick and John Abeel and the Indians taken prisoners with them be set at liberty, and sent to Albany as soon as the season of the year will permit them to travel." (Brod. Papers, vol. 6 p. 495) In case of noncompliance with such terms, or a refusal to set the above named prisoners at liberty, Capt. Stoddard was to protest against the "inhuman usage," as a breach of the cessation of hostilities as agreed to between the crowns of Great Britain and France, and return home as soon as the season would permit.

The French Governor in his reply to Clinton, claimed not to consider the Six Nations as the subjects of Great Britain--confessed his astonishment that the English should allow English subjects above the common rank, to suffer more than six months imprisonment to gratify a handful of Mohawks. He spoke of the Dutchmen taken disguised as Indians--thought the masquerade unworthy of Englishmen and of all civilized nations, and said that such disguises were not tolerated among the French. He spoke very kindly of Capt. Stoddard, who he said had acquitted himself, well in his commission. He thought the French had better be allowed to negotiate for the exchange of prisoners, directly with the Mohawks, etc. Letters continued to pass between the interested parties, but the prisoners remained unexchanged. August 22, 1749, Marquis de la Jonquiere, the new Governor of Canada, wrote to Gov. Clinton that he had given permission to David Abeel to conclude upon an exchange of prisoners, with permission for him to remain; and September 1st Col. Johnson wrote to Gov. Clinton of the arrival of this Abeel and three French attendants at Mount Johnson. (Brod. Papers, vol. 6. p. 627.) Who David Abeel was is left to conjecture, but he was doubtless a kinsman of John Abeel.

At this period to which some allusion has already been made, a faction in the Legislature prevented the appropriation of any money for the Governor's use for presents or the redemption of Indian prisoners, literally standing directly in the way of retaining the Six Nations in the English interest: and in a letter to the Lords of Trade, October 17, 1749, said Governor Clinton: "As things stand now I cannot command a single farthing for defraying the expenses of any service, however necessary, though there be monies sufficient in the treasury. (Brod. Papers, vol. 6. p. 529.) This faction headed by James DeLancey, as I have shown, nearly brought Col. Johnson to bankruptcy, in not repaying advances he had made to retain the friendship of the Six Nations in the English interest. In a letter to Gov. Clinton dated November 22, 1749, he said: "Your Excellency has been pleased to approve my conduct and that is the only encouragement I have to continue to act. The Assembly of this province have injured my fortune much by delaying my just dues, and it is impossible for me to proceed unless there be some appointment from home, independent of the Assembly, to defray, from time to time, the expenses I am daily obliged to be at in treating with all sort of Indians; The well ordering of which, is of much more importance to the welfare of his Majesty's government, than the whole act of governing the unruly inhabitants, etc." (Brod. Papers, vol. 6. p. 540.)

I am not able to learn just when John abeel was liberated from a Canadian prison. When captured he was, no doubt, disguised as an Indian, and was retained as an Indian prisoner. January 22, 1750, Col. Johnson wrote to Gov. Clinton as follows: "I am very glad your Excellency has given orders to have the Indian children returned, who are kept by the traders as pawns or pledges, as they call it, but rather stolen from them (as the parents came at the appointed time to redeem them, but they sent them away beforehand); and as they were children of our friends and allies, if they are not returned next spring it will confirm that the French told the Six Nations, viz.: that we looked upon them as our slaves or Negroes, which affair gave me a great deal of trouble at that time to reconcile. I cannot find that Mr. Abeel--who has a Seneca child--or Vandriesan--who has got a Missisagey--are to deliver their, which I am apprehensive will cause great disturbance, etc." (Brod. Papers, vol. 6. p. 546.)

This is, no doubt, the first mention made in history of the celebrated Cornplanter, for he was Abeel's child here alluded to. Whether this child was with his father as a prisoner or not is unknown, but from the tone of the Johnson's letter it would seem as though he was; nor is there any certain clue to his age or condition at that period, as yet published. An early record of the Reformed Dutch Church of Canajoharie, situated westward of Fort Plain (now possessed by Lyman Horning), fortunately contains a notice of the death of this John Abeel. The record was made by Rev. D. C. A. Pick, or Peek is in German and Latin, as follows: "John Abeel, gestorben den 1 December, 1794, alt 70; beerdigt den 3 ejusd mensis anni alt in Michal.' John Abeel died 1 December, 1794, buried the 3, same week, same month and year, aged in the day of St. Michael 70 years.

The widow of John Abeel is said by friend who well remember her, to have died about the year 1824, at the age of 82 years. This would place his birth in 1724 and here in 1736, making him 12 years her senior. In 1866 an act passed the Legislature of Pennsylvania to erect a monument to Cornplanter, at a cost of $500, at Jennesadaga, Cornplanter's village, in Warren county in that State. It was placed at his grave the same season, and on its completion, with befitting ceremonies, its dedication took place October 18. To Hon. Samuel P. Johnson the matter of erection was entrusted, and Hon. James Ross Snowden delivered the oration, which was repeated before the member of both branches of the Legislature on the 14th of March, 1867. The proceedings were published in a neat pamphlet of 115 pages not long after, entitled: The Cornplanter Memorial, with a picture of the monument.

The following are the inscriptions on the monument. On the spire facing west is cut, in large raised letters,

"GIANTWAHIA, The Cornplanter"

Upon the die, on the same side, is inscribed:

"John O'Bail alias CORNPLANTER died at Cornplanter town, February 18, 1836, aged about 100 years."

On the die fronting south, the following inscription is handsomely lettered:

"Chief of the Seneca tribe and principal of the Six Nations, from the period of the revolutionary war to the time of his death. Distinguished for talents, courage, eloquence, sobriety, and love of his tribe and race, to whose welfare he devoted his time, his energies and his means, during a long and eventful life."

On the east side of the die is engraved--


The reader will perceive that not only is this old chieftain's name wrong on the monument, but his age is given in round numbers at 100 years, supposing him to have been born in 1732. But the reader will see, by the record of his father's death, that Abeel was born in 1724, making him only eight years old at the time given for the birth of this waif of a son. At what age he began the life of a frontier tradesman is left to conjecture; but supposing his first visit to Ganowagus, the home of the mother of Cornplanter, to have been at about his majority in years, that would place his birth at about 1746, and his age at his death at 90 years, making him older, if born before his father was 22, and correspondingly younger is his father was older than that at his birth. This showing would make the boy about two years old in 1748, when his father was a Canadian prisoner, as complained of by Gov. Clinton. Col. Johnson, in 1750, spoke of him as a child which he would hardly have called him had he then been 14 years old. My belief is, that Cornplanter was about 90 years old at his death.

Just how long John Abeel continued to trade among the Indians, we believe his traffic was usually with the Senecas, is unknown, but tradition says until he was robbed of his goods on the way up. Here is possibly a key to the reason why he abandoned the business. Myndert Wemp, a blacksmith was sent by Sir William Johnson to reside in the Seneca's country, to follow his trade for their benefit. He stayed until a scarcity of provisions (corn had been mostly destroyed the year before), compelled him to leave his charge; and he reported himself at Fort Johnson, April 19, 1756. After stating the condition of things he said: "Last winter John Abeel brought so much rum and sold it amongst the Indians and caused so much drunkenness, that he was greatly molested and hindered in his work by it, and when he threatened Abeel that he would complain against him, he said he did not care, he would not sell it, and that for every quart of rum he sold he got a Spanish dollar: and that when the Senecas had heard Sir William had stopped his goods from coming up, they expressed great joy and approbation." (Brod. Papers, vol. 7, p. 101.) It is not probable he lost any of this property unless it was forfeited as contraband, but it is believed this ended his western hazardous adventures.

Connected with what was called one of his last enterprises, I find the following mention in a journal of proceedings with the Indians, made at Fort Johnson, July 27, 1756. (Brod. Papers, vol. 7. pp. 172, 173.) "Six Seneca warriors (who came with one Abeel, and Albany trader, to help him down with a parcel of skins, which he fraudulently got in the Seneca country), arrived here and told Sir William they were very ill used by one Capt. Williams, who was posted a the Oneida Carrying Place," who accused them of being in the French interest, and disarmed them; pretending to act under instructions from Sir William Johnson. The latter told them it was a villainous falsehood of Williams, who was then a prisoner at Albany, for using Oneida and other Indians in the same manner: he being a bad man. They were treated kindly, kept over night, furnished with provisions, clothed and armed; and they set forward with thankful hearts. At a formal interview with the Senecas in the evening, Sir William gave them eight strings of wampum, desiring them as soon as possible to undeceive their nation about the falsehoods of Capt. Williams, and the assurance that he was imprisoned. Thus was Sir William often misrepresented in his doings by dishonorable men.

It could not have been long after this mortifying rebuff to the pride of Abeel, that he made the Mohawk valley his home, and agriculture his principal pursuit. He located a short mile to the westward of the present village of Fort Plain, where his grandson, the late Jacob Abeel erected a substantial brick house about the year 1860. He settled upon lands secured by patent, by Rutger Bleecker, Nicholas Bleecker, James Delancey and John Haskoll, September 22, 1729. They secured 4,300 acres in a body along the Mohawk, each side of the Otseuago, extending up that creek several miles. Here it is believed he secured several hundred acres, but from whom is unknown. Soon after his settlement he erected a stone dwelling on his land, upon a knoll just above the river flats, about which time he took a wife. I have elsewhere alluded to the custom of obtaining marriage licenses from the State authorities, and in their midst in the following record:

September 22, 1759, John Abeel to Mary Knouts.

Among the Germans who settled in this town prior to the period indicated, there was one or more families of this name, from which it is presumed she was taken. Abeel spent the remainder of his days where he located on coming hither. His wife, who is represented as a short, stout built friendly woman, had three children, a son named Jacob, who married Elizabeth, a daughter of William Fox; and two daughters, Catharine, who married Joseph Wagner; and Mary, who married Jacob Radnour, who was killed at Oriskany, after which she married Nicholas Dygert.

Captivity of John Abeel. During the invasion of the Canajoharie settlement, as this was then called, in August, 1780, (In 1845 I published the captivity of Abeel by Cornplanter, as occurring in 1779, but the event occurred at the time his house and the church near it were burned, which, was in August, 1780). when John Abeel was about 56 years old, just before dinner time, he was about 56 years old, just before dinner time, he was captured by a party of Indians of which Brant was leader, though it is not certain that either Brant or Cornplanter, who accompanied him, were in the party who took Abeel prisoner. He was taken on the flats between the house and river. The family were preparing dinner and the table was set with food upon it, when an alarm gun at Fort Plain, near by, caused the female members to flee to the fort for safety. Arriving at the house and finding a good dinner before them, the enemy fell to devouring it. The little garrison would not admit of a sally, indeed, some of the female inmates of the fort stood with hats on and poles in their hands, to make the enemy believe it was better garrisoned. At this time a wagon stood before the door without a box, with boards upon its running geer, and some of the Indians brought out food and seating themselves upon it, began to eat. Henry Seeber, who had a good and well loaded gun at the fort, although it was at a long descending range, fired at one of the Indians on the wagon. There was commotion among them at once, and they precipitately scattered, but before they left the premises they fired the dwelling. As bloody were found there, it was evident the bullet of Seeber had done its bidding. --Seeber.

A Surprise--It is believed that Cornplanter did not know of his father's captivity under several hours, when some war parties came together not very distant from the river. He had not been a prisoner long,w hen he addressed his foes in their own language which he spoke fluently, inquiring what they meant to do with him? This led at once to the inquiry where he had learned the Indian tongue, and also to his name. These facts made known in the camp, Abeel was at once confronted by a chief of commanding figure and mien, who addressed him much as follows: "You I understand, are John Abeel, once a trader among the Senecas! You are my father! My name is John Abeel, or Gy-ant-wa-chia, the Cornplanter. I am a warrior and have taken many scalps! You are now my prisoner, but you are safe from all harm! Go with me to my house in the Seneca's country and you shall be kindly cared for! My strong arm shall provide you with corn and venison! But, if you prefer to go back among your pale faced friends, you shall be allowed to do so, and I will send an escort of trusty Senecas to conduct you back to Fort Plain!" The parent chose to return, and early in the evening an escort of Seneca braves left him near the fort, apprised no doubt, that his dwelling had shared the fate of that of the late William Seeber's and the church near by, reduced to an ash heap. At the close of the war Mr. Abeel erected another house upon the site of the one burned.

At quite an early period, John Abeel began to manifest the evidence of insanity. In a letter from the Rev. Joh. Casp. Lappius to Sir William Johnson for pecuniary aid, dated at Canajoharie, December 29, 1763, and sent by his friend William Seeber, the first Canajoharie merchant, is the following: "P.S. My neighbor, John Abeel acts the madman." (Doc. His., vol 4, p 214) After the war this inclination to insanity became more fully developed in Mr. Abeel, and being incompetent to manage his farm, William Seeber, son of the one above named, went upon it. On some occasion when a wagon load of husked corn was at the door, Mr. Abeel had some words with a Negro slave of his own, who was on the wagon putting the corn into baskets. For some cause the master became very angry, and threatening to shoot the Negro went into the house. It was supposed an idle threat, but he soon after came out with his gun, and in the next instant he had sent a bullet through the Negro's head. When this act became known, some neighbors when to arrest him, but he had again loaded his rifle, and when they approached the house, he seated himself in his door, and threatened to shoot the first one that attempted his arrest. No one cared to become a second victim and the party dispersed. An opportunity was found soon after to arrest him, when it was decided that, as he was insane and the Negro was his own property, and he amenable to no one for his value, he should be confined. There were then no insane asylums in the country, and a room was prepared in his own house, where he could be chained to the floor so that he could reach neither a door or a window from which to escape. He had periodical turns of being very ugly and troublesome, and on such occasions he would clank his chain and continue a kind of Indian war dance nearly all night.

A small hole with a slide was prepared in the wall, through which his food was handed to him by the female members of his family. He had at some time, taken a serious dislike to Mr. Knouts, his wife's mother, an old lady then living in his family, who often gave him his meals through the little window. Waiting a favorable opportunity at the window, with malice prepense he dashed the impure contents of a vessel in the old lady's face,which not only sent her into a fit of just anger, but, getting into her hair, cause her a world of trouble. She avoided a repetition of his willful displeasure ever after. At a period of his greatest bewilderment he got off his chain, escaped from the house, and fled stark-naked down upon the flats; and it was after a long chase that he was captured near the river, and again taken to his room. How long he was thus confined is unknown, but as he advanced in years and became enfeebled, it is evident that he was allowed to wander about his farm, for on such an occasion was gored to death by a bull. --W. H. Seeber.

Miss Mary Knouts, the wife of John Abeel, came with her parents from that part of Germany called Schwartz Waldt, Black Woods, the dark, dense forests of which were famed for basket making. She is remembered, when quite old, as climbing the hill to visit her daughter, Mrs. Dygert, whose husband kept a tavern where the late Christian Bellinger lived, a little to the westward of the old Sand Hill church. On those occasions Maria Dygert, a girl living with her, afterwards the wife of Adam A. Nestell, used to accompany her, carrying along a chair, upon which the old lady took several rests in climbing the hill. She is also remembered by the aged, who speak of her as a kind hearted old lady, who had evidently been well-fitted to become the wife of a pioneer settler.

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