History From America's Most Famous Valleys
Frontiersmen of New York
by Jeptha R. Simms
Albany, NY 1883
Volume II, Page 103
The Bayonet Tree.--Among the incidents of Oriskany, authenticated by Asa Simms, an uncle of the writer who saw the tree, is the following: One of Gen. Herkimer's men was held up, dead or alive, and pinned to a tree several feet from the ground with a bayonet, driven into the tree several inches, where it remained until its own decomposition caused the carcass to fall to the ground and the bones to become scattered. Whether this subject was an officer or a private, or whether the act was instigated by the malice and hellish spirit of some of the Tories is unknown; but what seems the most probable is, that the Indians visiting the ground for plunder after the battle, may have fallen upon a surviving soldier with a loaded fun, who on their approach, shot one of their number, and that after securing his scalp they disposed of his body in the novel manner. This bayonet was to have been seen in the tree for more than a quarter of a century, and until the tree had grown so as to bury most of the blade. Could all the thrilling events which transpired at Oriskany, be gathered in, what an interesting volume they would make, and yet not any one, as we imagine, would have been more unique than the one here related.
Maj. John Frey's Bloody Shirt.--Major Frey, of Palatine, one of the most daring and patriotic men of the period, was brigade Major in the staff of Gen. Herkimer, and in the Oriskany battle he was severally wounded in one arm and made a prisoner. He suffered much on his way to Canada, nor did he fare much better for a long time after he arrived there, where he was retained as a prisoner until the next season.
The following incident was related to the writer by the late Joshua Reed, an innkeeper at Palatine Bridge, where in the balmy days of carriage traveling he kept the stage house. Col. Hendrick Frey was often his guest, and at such times related scenes of his earlier life. He had been an officer in the British service before the Revolution, and his sympathies were ever with royalty, while those of his brother, Major John Frey, were with the young republic. The brothers sometimes met at Reed's and passed such interviews pleasantly, for they were both intelligent and well posted on the topics of the day, unless their conversation took a political turn, when they became antagonistic and would begin to raise their canes threateningly, on which occasions the landlord said he more than once stepped between them to prevent a collision.
Col. Frey, in the Revolution, resided in a stone house situated a mile up the Canajoharie creek, at what was known as the "Upper Mill", there having been a grist mill near the cavity in the rock originating the name for the stream, and a mill a little distance below.*
*This old Frey mansion was long owned by Dr. Jonathan Sherman, and finally became the property of Sheriff David W. Erwin, and was accidentally burned down Jan. 22, 1849.
A day or two after the Oriskany battle, a small party of Mohawks, who had participated in it, levied a tax upon Col. Frey's hospitality. As they assembled around a table to eat, a sister of the Colonel, who waited upon them, discovered upon the person of one of their number the shirt of Maj. Frey, their patriotic brothers, one sleeve of which had been perforated by a bullet and left very bloody. Her worst fears were aroused, and, trembling in her excitement, nearly dropped what she held, she ran to her brother Hendrick, and, placing a hand upon his shoulder, exclaimed in a tone of sorrow, "Brother John is dead!" assigning as her reason the bloody trophy before them. The Colonel, who was familiar with the Mohawk dialect, desired his sister not to show any emotion before the Indians, and endeavored to quiet her fears, by remarking that probably the shirt had belonged to some one else. She could not thus be appeased, since she recognized the garment as one she had made. In a little time the Indians left the house and proceeded down the creek. Col. Frey followed them some distance, if possible to learn the fate of his brother, and inquired of its possessor where he got the bloody garment. He replied that he had wounded an officer in the Oriskany battle and make him a prisoner, and said that after taking such of his clothing as he desired, he had sold him to a British officer, probably for the value of his scalp, who would no doubt take him to Canada. Frey hastened home and told his sister what he had learned, which calmed her excitement, for to know that he still lived, although a suffering prisoner, brought the consoling hope of a future meeting. Mr. Reed assured the writer that he had this story from the lips of Col. Frey. Some, not hearing of this incident until in print, were incredulous in believing it; but Mr. Reed was too truthful a man and too careful of his utterances to have been mistaken.
John Petrie was a soldier at Oriskany from one of the western districts. When the thunder shower came up during the battle, and the combatants found temporary shelter as best they could, Mr. Petrie concealed himself under the cover of a large tree. He soon after heard a whooping, and looking in the direction he saw several Indians come together within gun shot; and having managed to keep his priming dry, he instantly drew up his piece and brought down a stalwart warrior. The rain prevented their seeing the smoke to determine from whence the bullet came which laid out their comrade, but they took the precaution to change their position. Having reloaded his gun, sill unperceived by his foes, he got a deadly aim upon another, but just at that moment a drop of water reached his priming, and his gun gave but the ominous "click," hearing which, the rascal fled from that locality and did not again return. This patriot, Petrie, was later in life a member of the State Legislature. Facts from Richard Petrie, a son of John M., at Little Falls, in June, 1845.
Adam Frank takes a Lunch,--As I learned subsequently, Henry Thompson was not the only one of Herkimer's men, who in the Oriskany battle satisfied his hunger. Adam Frank also imitated the example of the former, by opening his knapsack and from its eatables satisfying the craving of his stomach. After his hasty meal he was heard to exclaim in German, as he was dashing into a post of danger, " Jezt drauf auf die kerls!" --"Now we'll give it to them!" --From Cornelius H. Putman, Esquire.
Col. Visscher's Regiment.-- I should, perhaps, say a few words about the retreat of this command. There was, we think, no truer or braver man in that field, than was Col. Frederick Visscher, who found himself forced to retreat. Nor can we justly censure his men without carefully considering the attending circumstances. Many of the men were young and had never been in a battle to test their pluck. Then the yells, and the impetuous onslaught of the enemy were so sudden and terrific, as to unnerve, and for the moment, a fatal one, produce a panic. Now, I venture to say, that the men who retreated were just as brave as those who did not, indeed, could not, retreat. From the acts of Col. Visscher previous to that day as well as afterward, when his own scalp and that of his brothers, Capt. John and Harman, went to Canada, I have never doubted his bravery and moral courage, and have often asked myself the question, which of the other regiments placed in the same position, would not have done the same thing? Many a brave officer has had to follow his men in an unexpected retreat, in order if possible to rally and bring them back at the opportune moment. Such was the case with Col. Willet in the early part of the Johnstown battle in October, 1781; but his men rallied, returned tot he fight and were finally victorious. It has ever been a source of regret that at the end of a mile Visscher's men had not rallied, and returned to aid in ensuring one of the most telling victories of the war.
Incidents at Fort Stanwix; a cannon ball and brood of snakes,--Philip Frey, who went from Palatine district to Canada at the commencement of our national hostilities, was with the enemy at the siege of Fort Stanwix, as a cadet in the 8th or King's regiment. He was one day on picket guard, in sight of the fort near a field of peas, and was pacing back and forth on the trunk of a fallen tree; when an Irish soldier came to the field to pick peas, with a red coat on. Frey remonstrated with him for his temerity, telling him that his red coat would attract notice and draw a fire from the fort, advising him to go back to the camp a get a fatigue dress. "Och," said Pat, "it is not worth the while; it's only a few of the pase I wants to get!" As he would not heed the advice of the cadet, the latter kept his eye on the fort, and soon after, as anticipated, saw smoke at the fort, and well divined that a cannon ball was coming, and instantly dropped down behind the tree. The ball whizzed near the red coat, and its Irish owner scampered off for dear life. The cadet felt something cold under him, and looking down he saw that he was lying upon a large snake with a brood of little ones. He was quickly upon his feet, thinking he would rather take his chance among cannon balls than snakes. Facts from Samuel C. Frey, a son of Philip R. Frey.
After Chickens Once too Often,-- When the siege of Fort Stanwix began, a bar of one of the first settlers, and possibly that of Johannes Roof, was yet standing within musket shot of the fort, and about it the Indians would venture to shoot chickens; probably left by its former owner. On their firing at the fowls, the Americans usually sent a volley of musket balls at the barn, behind which they used to seek shelter; but as the balls passed through the boards, they became so wary as to be screened, if possible, by the protection of a post. One day an Indian shot a fowl, and drew from the fort the usual serenade upon the barn. He had endeavored to find security behind a post, but he was a stout built fellow, and as fortune would have it, a bullet grazed the post, and what was still better, grazed the rascal's spine at the small of the back, causing a complete paralysis of his legs. He could not raise himself from the ground, but called lustily to friends to come to his assistance; and from his position they dragged him out of danger with a tump-line, and took him to their camp. He was taken back to Canada and recovered.--Samuel C. Frey.
Disposal of an Indian Marksman.-- The following incident is given by Judge Pomroy Jones, in his Annals of Oneida County, a local history of much merit, and which entitles the author to the gratitude of the citizens of Central New York.
"A sentinel, posted on the northwest bastion of the fort, was shot with a rifle while walking his stated rounds in the gray of the morning; the next morning the second met the same fate, on the same post: the crack of the rifle was heard, but from whence it came, none could conjecture, and the alarm being given, no enemy could be discovered. Of course on the third night this station was dreaded as being certain death, and the soldier to whose lot if fell, quailed and hung back; but to the surprise of the whole guard, a comrade offered to take his place and was accepted. Towards morning, the substitute sentinel drove a stake into the ground at the spot where his predecessors had been shot, on which he placed his hat and watch-coat, and with the help of a cord and a well stuffed knapsack, he soon had a very good apology for a portly solder, who stood to the life at "support arms," with his trusty shining musket. Having thus posted his (not exactly) man of straw, he quietly sat down behind the parapet, closely watching through an embrasure, for coming events. At early dawn, the well known report of the same rifle was heard, and the column of smoke ascending from the thick top of a black oak tree, some 30 or 40 roads distant, showed the whereabouts of the marksman. The sergeant of the guard was soon on the spot, and the commandant notified that the perch of the sharp shooter had been discovered. A 4-pounder was quickly loaded with canister and grape, and the sound of this morning gun boomed "over hill and dale" in the distance, immediately succeeded by a shout from the garrison, as they beheld one of Britain's red allies tumbling head foremost from the tree top. On examining the counterfeit sentinel, the holes through the various folds of the knapsack were more than circumstantial evidence that the aim was most sure, and that had the owner stood in its place, he would have followed to his account those who had preceded him there. It is hardly necessary to add, that the sentinels on the northeast bastion were not afterwards molested."
How Col. Louis Kills His Man at Oriskany.-- Among the Oneidas who rendered efficient aid to the American cause, was Louis, Looee as pronounced, who was a St. Regis Indian by birth. He was given a Lieutenant's commission, and was ever after called colonel Louis. The Rev. George A. Lintner, late of Schoharie, introduced this anecdote in a lecture before a Fort Plain audience some years ago, no doubt thinking the hero was a white man. Here is the Dominie's story as he gave it:
"A private soldier named Louis, a rough and daring old hunter, who, after the Indian fashion carried his knife and tomahawk with him, became so much excited in the heat of the battle, that one of his comrades occupying a tree next to him, asked him: 'Louis, what is the matter?' 'Matter enough,' said Louis, 'there is one of the black serpents lying in the fork of a fallen tree, and every time he rises up he kills one of our men. I can stand it no longer, either he or I must die.' As he said this he raised his rifle and fired. The Indian leaped into the air and fell dead across the fork of the tree which had sheltered him. Louis gave a wild Indian whoop and then ran up to his victim, tore off his scalp and returning to his comrades, threw it down before them saying: 'That fellow will do no more harm.'" Mr. Lintner assured the writer that he had this story well authenticated.
A Prisoner Howling to some Purpose.--When Gen. Herkimer was advancing to relieve Fort Stanwix, John Spanable, a member of Capt. Rechtor's company of Tilleborough militia, and Jacob I. Klock, were by some means a little distance in the rear of the troops, the latter on horseback, between Fort Dayton and Oriskany, when they unexpectedly fell in with a small party of Indians. The horse of Klock smelt them and gave evidence of fear in time for the rider to discover the cause of his alarm, and taking the back track, he escaped; but Spanable was captured and taken to Canada. How many there were of the enemy, and what other prisoners, if any, they had is unknown; though it is presumed he was taken to the camp at Fort Stanwix, and there kept until after the battle of Oriskany. On their way to Canada, the party of the enemy having him in keeping, one night when they laid down to rest, in consequence of having lost so many friends, crept under their blankets and began a most piteous lamentations and howling in their own dialect, which Spanable, comprehending, also indulged. His voice arrested the attention of the Indians around him, who listened, evidently surprised and much pleased, thinking the prisoner was sympathizing with them. He told his friends when he came back that the felt like mourning for his own condition and the known fate of so many friends at Oriskany, and did so; but the enemy, he said, supposing his apparent grief was on their account, not only treated him with marked kindness during the rest of the journey, but exempted him from running the gauntlet; that terrible ordeal at Indian villages.
After a long imprisonment Spanable returned to his friends, and for many years after the war followed his trade, that of a tailor, by "whipping the cat." He was a large, heavy, jovial man, somewhat eccentric, and often amusing children with his witticisms, or frightening them with specimens of his Indian howling. He was a good-natured man, and in the latter part of his life peculiar in his dress and manners. He wore an old foxskin cap, which was a well known to his customers as any part of their own wardrobes, and not a few of them had seen him deposit in the folds of that cap a quid of tobacco for a third or fourth mastication: thus proving himself a good economist. He died at a good old age in Stone Arabia.
It is believed that Spanable's family remained at their Tilleborough home, until the invasion in sugar making time the next year, and then, with others, precipitately abandoned the settlement. This is inferred from a fact stated by him after the war, which was that the sugar they were boiling when they fled, was still in the kettle in the woods on his return, years after, as hard as stone; neither sun or rain having affected it. It was, however, unfit for any use, being oxidized. From Henry Loucks, Esq., who repeatedly heard Spanable tell this story while at work in his father's family and Henry Smith, a man of his own generation.
After Scenes of the Battlefield.-- It was hoped by surviving friends in the valley below, that the troops advancing under Gen. Arnold, to raise the siege of Fort Stanwix, would be able to perform the melancholy task of burying the remains of our fallen soldiery at Oriskany; especially if possible, those of the brave but rash Col. Cox, and also those of Maj. Klepsaddle, Captains Dillenbeck, Diefendorf, Davis, Herkimer and numerous other officers and privates, if it was practicable, and who it was thought could be recognized by volunteer acquaintances; but as over two weeks of excessively warm weather had transpired, it being then on the 23 or 24 of August, decomposition had so rapidly taken place, that the stench was intolerable, making it necessary for the health of the troops to give the field as wide a berth as possible. So said James Williamson, a soldier under Arnold and who was on duty at Fort Stanwix later in the war, to the writer forty years ago.
I have omitted to mention elsewhere that Col. Gansevoort, for his gallant defense of Fort Stanwix, was promoted to a Brigadier-General.
Nicholas Stoner, a young musician in the regiment of Col. James Livingston, making a part of Gen. Arnold's army advancing to the relief of Fort Stanwix; said that boats laden with provisions, etc.., for the troops were thus taken up the Mohawk. As the army approached Oriskany, evidences of its bloody onslaught greeted them. Here are some things which he noticed, copied from my Trappers: "Near the mouth of the Oriskany creek a gun was found standing against a tree with a pair of boots hanging on it, while in the creek near, in a state bordering on putrefaction, lay their supposed owner. In the grass a little way from the shore lay a well dressed man, without coat or hat, who, it was supposed, had made his way there to obtain drink. A black sill handkerchief encircled his hear. John Clark, a sergeant, loosened it, but the hair adhered to it on its removal, and he left it. He, however, took from his feet a pair of silver shoe-buckles. His legs were so swollen that a pair of deerskin breeches were rent from top to bottom. On their way, nine dead bodies lay across the road, disposed in regular order, as was imagined, by the Indians after their death. The stanch was so great that the Americans could not discharge the last debt due their heroic countrymen, and their bones were soon after bleaching upon the ground. A little farther on an Indian was seen hanging to the limb of a tree by his heels. He was suspended by the traces of a harness, but by whom, was unknown." Such were some of the scenes a mile or two away, but where the carnage had been the greatest they had to make as wide a circuit as possible. Not an American killed in that battle was ever buried.
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