History From America's Most Famous Valleys
of Tryon County;
Border Warfare of New York,
During the Revolution.
By William W. Campbell
New York; Printed and Published by J. & J. Harper 1831
"Still in your prostrate land there shall
Proud hearts, the shrines of Freedom's vestal flame.
Long trains of ill may pass unheeded, dumb,
But vengeance is behind, and justice is to come."
The following letter was written by Major Nicholas Fish to Gen. Clinton, under date of:
March 6th, 1781.
"The enclosed letters from Col. Cortland, announce the disagreeable tale of the capture of fifteen men of our regiment, and murder of one, by which the inhabitants of this town, and doubtless of the upper settlements, have their fears very considerably alarmed.
"In consequence of your intention communicated to me when last in Albany, I wrote to the Justices at Canajoharie for a warrant to impress twenty sleights, for the purpose of transporting another supply of provision to Fort Schuyler, and ordered the officer commanding at Fort Rensselaer to furnish men to execute the warrant on Tuesday morning,and forward the sleighs to this place tomorrow evening. Perhaps this disaster may put it out of his power to procure the number ordered; but should the sleighs arrive, I wish to have particular instructions whether to prosecute the first plan of sending on the provision or not: and if you should judge it expedient to send on the provision, notwithstanding the misfortune, I would be happy to know what number the escort must consist of, and from what posts it must be furnished. The company with me amounts to about forty men fit for duty; the companies above average about the same number; to lessen either, you will readily believe, Sir, would increase the uneasiness of the inhabitants.
"P.S. If the present moment for sending and additional supply to the fort is to be embraced, would it not be advisable to call in some aid from the militia."
To this letter Gen. Clinton returned on the same day the following answer, dated:
"Yours of this day's date has been received. The intelligence from Fort Schuyler is too disagreeable to dwell upon; I hope it may put us so much on our guard as to prevent similar accidents. I sincerely wish sleighs could be procured nearer hand than those at Canajoharie. The provision, I should think, ought at least to be sent as far as that settlement by sleighs from the vicinity of Schenectady. However, if a sufficient number are not furnished from that quarter, Mr. Glenn must procure them nearer home. I do not imagine the present escort will run so great a risk as the last; yet I would not wish to subject such an important transport to the least uncertainty. You will therefore detach the company under your immediate command to Johnstown; and as they have been up lately, and consequently fatigued, you will direct them to remain there, and send on the company now stationed there, with twenty men from each of the other companies, and officers proportionate, which will complete the escort to eighty men; the inhabitants in their absence must turn out and defend their posts."
This expedition was undertaken by Major Fish, and the provision safely conveyed to Fort Schuyler; but the labor of transporting it was extremely severe. The snow was so deep that the road was almost impassable, and in many places above Canajoharie, no path had been made. Some day they advanced only two or three miles. This labor of transporting and guarding provision and ammunition for forts Plain, Dayton and Schuyler, was very oppressive upon the inhabitants of the frontier.
Fort Dayton was built 1776, at German Flatts ,and named in honor of Col. Dayton. The old fort at German Flatts was called Fort Herkimer; and in 1758 was commanded by Col. Charles Clinton, father of Gen. James and Gov. George Clinton, and grandfather of DeWitt Clinton, who was a son of General James Clinton. This officer marched from this fort in the summer of 1758, under Gen. Bradstreet, to Oswego, and went thence to the siege of Fort Frontenac. This expedition was completely successful -- the French were not apprised of their approach until they saw them before the walls of their fortress. Among the persons who were afterward distinguished, who accompanied Gen. Bradstreet, were Horatio Gates, then a Captain, and Nathaniel Woodhull, then a Major, afterward first president of the New York provincial Congress,and who in the revolution was a General, and sealed his attachment to the cause of his country with his blood. Col. Charles Clinton wrote a very interesting account of this expedition against Fort Frontenac, which has been preserved, and is in possession of his great grandson, Charles Clinton, Esq., of New York. Through not belonging to the period of which I am writing, yet I will insert the account which he gives of the capture of this fort.
"The fort of Frontenac was a regular square, built on the entrance in the Lake Ontario, on the northwest side of the river. It was built of stone and lime, about fifteen feet high; had all round a platform of timber, boarded with thick plank, on which their cannon were mounted; the embrasures were too narrow to admit of the cannon to be brought to bear on one point. The situation was bad, for it stood in a low place, and rising ground northwest of it; and little hollows, by which we made our approaches with so little loss. The first day we made no entrenchment's, but from behind one of these little heights, fired with our cannon upon them. It was well supplied with all sorts of warlike stores, had above sixty pieces of cannon, and a vast number of beautiful small arms, and powder and ball of all sorts. We brought off from it a large quantity of powder, but the garrison, not expecting the English would ever venture to pay them a visit there, had sent their men to other places of more danger -- I cannot tell how many was in it; we saw but about a hundred; but when they found that the place would be taken, the Indians (and no doubt many of the French) went away, as did the men on board the brig and schooner. I believe the garrison might consist of 200. The destruction of this place, and of the shipping, artillery, and stores, is one of the greatest blows the French have met with in America, considering the consequence of it; as it was the store out of which all the forts in the southward were supplied, and the shipping destroyed those they employed in that service.
"It was concerted and agreed upon in an instant, (though looked upon by some as a chimerical, wild, improbably undertaking,) carried on so secretly that the French never heard of our coming till they saw us where we came to at an island, the evening before we landed. The siege was carried on so vigorously that we invested the place the 26th August, and took it the 27th, about the same time. Here I must observe, that the governor of Fort Frontenac was let go home in exchange for Col. Schuyler; and for the other prisoners, they are to send us as many of ours from Canada, in exchange. -- 28th, Having the evening before put our plunder on board our shipping and battoes, we set sail, and left that neat, handsome garrison and good buildings (where the French lived well) in a heap of rubbish. By this we paid them for the demolition of Oswego, which they served the same way, with this difference, that we neither insulted nor injured any of the prisoners, but rather treated them with more humanity than that nation deserved, whose ambition has embroiled all Europe in war for many years.
"I will conclude my narrative of the taking of Frontenae, by relating a piece of papist superstition, told us by a young man, one of Captain Oglevie's man, who was taken by the Indians, and sold to the Governor of Fort Frontenac, and was in his service when we took the place: He says, that when we invested the place, the priests, or some of their people, says, that when we invested the place, the priests, or some of their people, set the Lady Mary's image on a table, standing, and a number of the people were praying earnestly to her to deliver and save them and the garrison from us heretics; but in the height of their devotion a bomb fell near the place, burst, and broke into the windows, and without any regard to the image, drove it in pieces off the table. This struck them with such terror, they all looked up, and cried, Mon Dieu! mon Dieu! all was lost, and Virgin Mary was gone, the heretics would take the place."
During the early part of the summer of 1781, a constant warfare was carried on in the vicinity of the forts; small parties of Indians hovered about Fort Plain, and cut off every soldier or inhabitant who was so careless or unfortunate as to stray beyond its walls.
Col. Willet, who now commanded at this fort, in July sent Lieut. Gros, with thirty-six men, as a secret scout, into Durlagh, now the town of Sharon, in Schoharie County. They discovered, near the borders of that settlement, and Indian trail, and followed it in the direction the Indians had gone. The scout fell in file along side of the path made by the Indians, and by this means ascertained that the force of the enemy was very considerable. Three men were sent on to make further discoveries. After pursuing the trail a short distance, they arrived upon the border of a thick cedar swamp, five or six miles to the northeast of Cherry Valley; here they found the camp of the enemy, in which a few sentinels only were stationed. The main body of the enemy were out on some expedition. One of the men stole up and took a blanket from beneath a tent, without being discovered. Having made the necessary observations, they followed the remainder of the scout back to Fort Plain. It was almost night when the scout arrived, but Col. Willet added seventy men,and ordered an immediate march. They were joined by Major Robert M'Kean, with about 30 men, making their force one hundred and fifty. M'Kean informed Col. Willet that the enemy were about three hundred strong, principally Indians, under the command of a Tory, by the name of John Doxtader -- and that the day previous they had destroyed Currytown, a small settlement near the Mohawk, a short distance above Schenectady. The night was very dark, and there was no road, nothing but a path through the woods. Their progress was very slow. About daylight they came in sight of the camp. A scout sent forward reported that the enemy had just returned. Col. Willet drew up his men in two parallel lines, and then ordered them to fall back and conceal themselves behind the trees. His plan was favored by the thick cedar swamp in the neighborhood of the enemy's camp. Major M'Kean with 50 men occupied the right, and Col. Willet commanded the left body, composed of his 100 men. Two men were then sent forward to pass over a piece of open ground in sight of the enemy. When discovered they were directed to lead in between the two lines. The expectations of Col. Willet were realized; the Indians, as soon as they saw these men, raised their war cry and commenced and immediate pursuit. As they followed in, the troops of Major M'Kean opened a galling and destructive fire upon them, which was warmly seconded by Col. Willet's men on the left. The Indians were beaten at their own game; they sought shelter behind the trees, but were driven back and routed at the point of the bayonet. Col. Willet led the van, and waving his hat cheered on his men. The camp of the enemy and all their plunder was taken. They retreated down toward the Susquehanna,and were pursued with considerable loss. Shortly after the first fire Major M'Kean received two severe wounds, but he continued his command until the rout of the enemy was complete. His faithful soldiers carried him back to Fort Plain, where he survived but a day to two. The victory was dearly won by the loss of this brave and hardy chieftain.
In August following, Major Ross and Walter Butler came from Canada by the way of Sacandaga to Johnstown, with 507 men -- 477 British and 130 Indians. They encamped on the elevated ground a little to the north of Johnson Hall. This edifice, erected by Sir William Johnson, in which he resided at the time of his death, is situated about one mile distant from the court house, in the center of the village, and upon ground descending gradually from the northwest to the south and southeast. The village plot descends to the north, thus forming a small valley between the Hall and village. To a person in the village, Johnson Hall appears to be situated on a lawn, beyond which no prospect opens to the sight. When arrived at the Hall, he perceives in an easterly direction, about nine miles distant, the range of May field hills or mountains, while to the south are seen Anthony's Nose, on the Mohawk; beyond that Charleton, and still further on, the hills between Canajoharie and Cherry Valley; and at a distance of between thirty and forty miles, the blue cloud-like mountains leading to the Catskill and Delaware.
Col. Willet moved from Fort Plain with about 300 Levies. On the 22d of August, he determined to attack the enemy in their camp. He detached 100 men under Col. Harper to make a circuit through the woods and fall upon the enemy's rear, while he should attack them in front. A short distance above the Hall, Col. Willet was met by Rose with all his force, and his men on the first fire gave way and retreated. Willet endeavored to rally them at the Hall, but failed. At the village he succeeded in stopping them; here he was joined by 200 militia just arrived. The detachment under Harper had gained the rear, and had now opened a fire upon the enemy. The attack was now renewed by Col. Willet, and the enemy were finally driven from their ground with loss. Thirteen Americans, and seventeen British and Indians, were killed.
Major Ross retreated up the north side of the Mohawk, marching all night, after the battle. In the morning he was pursued by Col. Willet, but was not overtaken. The region of country over which Ross retreated after he had passed the settlements, lies twenty or thirty miles north of Fort Schuyler, and at that time was uncultivated and desolate; his army suffered much from hunger.
It was on this retreat that Walter Butler was killed; he was pursued by a small party of Oneida Indians; when he arrived at west Canada creek, about fifteen miles above Herkimer, he swam his horse across the stream, and then turning round, defied his pursuers, who were on the opposite side. An Oneida immediately discharged his rifle, and wounded him and he fell. Throwing down his rifle and his blanket, the Indian plunged into the creek and swam across; as soon as he had gained the opposite bank, he raised his tomahawk, and with a yell, sprang, like a tiger, upon his fallen foe; Butler supplicated though in vain, for mercy; the Oneida, with his uplifted axe, shouted in his broken English, --"Sherry Valley! remember Sherry Valley!" and then buried it in his brains: he tore the scalp from the head of his victim, still quivering in the agonies of death,and ere the remainder of the Oneidas had joined him, the spirit of Walter Butler had gone to give up it account. The place where he crossed is called Butler's Ford to this day.
Col. John Butler had some good traits of character, and in his calmer moments would regret the ravages committed by the Indians and Tories; but Walter Butler was distinguished from youth for his severe, acrimonious disposition. After the massacre at Cherry Valley, he went to Quebec; but Gen. Haldiman, governor of Canada, gave out that he did not wish to see him.
It may be remarked here, that many of the British officers did not approve of the conduct of the Indians and Tories. In that war, though we had many a bitter, we had also many a generous and warmhearted foe. They said it was a disgrace to the English army, thus to carry on this predatory warfare,and to make prisoners of women and children.
In the winter of 1781-82, Col. Willet undertook a hazardous expedition -- an expedition suited to his bold, persevering genius. He marched a body of his men, in the dead of winter from Fort Plain to Oswego, passing up the Mohawk on ice, and using snow shoes the remainder of the way; his object was the capture of Fort Oswego; but on his arrival near the fort, he learned that the preliminary treaty of peace had been signed; he therefore immediately abandoned the enterprise.
Col. Marinus Willet died at New York, August 22, 1830 -- the anniversary of his battle with Major Ross and Walter Butler -- aged 90 years. The following notice appeared in one of the city papers:
"The coffin of Col. Willet, who died recently in the city of New York, was made of pieces of wood, collected by himself many years ago, from different revolutionary battle grounds. The corpse, in compliance with a written request of the deceased, was habited in a complete suit of ancient citizens' apparel, including an old fashioned three cornered hat,which had been preserved for that purpose. It is estimated that several thousand persons passed through the house for the purpose of viewing the remains."
The incursion of Ross and Butler was the last made into the County of Tryon. Indeed, there was no longer any thing to destroy. The inhabitants lost all but the soil which they cultivated; their beautiful county, except in the vicinity of the forts, was turned into a wilderness. During the war, famine sometimes appeared inevitable, and it was with difficulty that they preserved from the ravages of the enemy sufficient grain to support their families during the winter. The resistance of the inhabitants of the frontier settlements, however unimportant it may seem, because no great battles were fought, or important victories won, was of very considerable moment in the cause for which they struggled; they kept back the enemy from the towns on the Hudson, and thus frustrated the plan of the British for establishing a line of posts along that river. And while we admire the heroism and patriotism of those worthies of the revolution, whose names have come down to us surrounded with a halo of glory, we should not withhold our praise from those obscure individuals in the frontier settlements, who, amid the most appalling dangers, surrounded on all sides by enemies and traitors, still refused to submit to oppression and arbitrary exactions, though allured by assurances of safety and promises of reward. Many left their homes; many fell in battle in the regular army, and in skirmishes and battle with the enemy at home, and many fell silently, by the rifle, the tomahawk, and the scalping knife of the Indians.
"Their ashes flew, no marble tells us whither."
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