The American Revolution:
The Mohawk Valley During the Revolution



The site of Old Fort Schuyler

Source:  Harper's New Monthly Magazine, (New York:  Harper Brothers) No. 326,
July, 1877; pages 171-183.

It may be safely asserted that in no section of the northern colonies were the loyalists so numerous or so influential, when the first mutterings of discontent were heard from rebellious Boston, as along the valley of the Mohawk. Many conditions conspired to make the case of the crown popular and powerful there that were lacking to the more ancient settlements; prominent among them, the almost absolute power that Sir William Johnson had obtained over the hitherto hostile Iroquois and white settlers alike. He was the only white man who had any extended influence over the surrounding savages, who, without him, had been the cruel and relentless foe of the young communities, and his noble qualities and gracious deeds had completely won the hearts of the settlers.

By the Indians, not only of the Six Nations, but of further western tribes, he was regarded with the greatest veneration. Long association with him, and great respect for his character, which, from its bluff, unassuming sociability and hearty generosity, was well calculated to inspire the attachment of an unlettered population, had also given to his opinions the force of legal authority among the white inhabitants of the valley. Their faithful, unwearying friend in peace, and their leader in war, his name was a tower of strength throughout Tryon County; and it was very natural that his opinions upon such a momentous question as this should have great weight with them in forming their own.

But, unfortunately for the crown, whose interests, in common with those of his neighbors, he had upheld with such signal success, his services were abruptly terminated at the time when, most of all, they were needed. He died suddenly at Johnson Hall, Johnstown, June 24, 1774.

Neither his son, Sir John Johnson, his successor in title and estates, nor his son-in-law, Guy Johnson, who succeeded to his office of Superintendent of Indian Affairs, possessed the same degree of moral power over the population of Tryon County, Indian or white, as had the late baronet. Sir John was far less popular, being morose and irascible in disposition, and with little knowledge of human nature. The new superintendent, also, was a man of small mental caliber and violent passions; and it was not long before the far-reaching influence that Sir William had wielded over the minds of the colonists was narrowed down by the incapacity of his successors to a sort of feudal domination over a few hundred tenants and immediate retainers.

By the aid of "Miss Molly," a Mohawk woman who had lived many years with the old baronet in an equivocal relation, and the strenuous exertions of her brother, Thayendanegea, better known to fame as Joseph Brant, they still maintained the ascendancy over the Indians that Sir William had exercised, though in a diminished degree. But the white settlers of the valley, consisting for the most part of Dutchmen who had pushed up the beautiful valley from Albany as far as Caughnawaga, and west of that point of Germans who had emigrated from the Palatinate in 1709, and settled upon the rich alluvial bottom-lands, known as the German Flats some ten years later, were ill disposed to submit to the haughty bearing of these new-fledged English aristocrats, who, with other country gentlemen of the same pattern, assumed a high and mighty style of dealing with the poorer colonists; and when the openly avowed sentiments of the rebellious New Englanders found their way across the Hudson and up the Mohawk, they met with hearty approval from these sturdy borders, now thoroughly disgusted with anything English.

The news of the massacre, as it was then termed, at Concord and Lexington, which spread through the colonies like wild-fire, threw the yeomanry of the valley into a fever of excitement. The Dutch nature, proverbially slow to anger, was stirred by this intelligence, and the injudicious reception of it by the Tory element at Johnstown, into an angry activity and impetuosity that no power could subdue. Meetings were called, inflammatory speeches made, and committees of safety appointed in every hamlet throughout the settlements. One of these gatherings, held at Caughnawaga, was broken up by the Johnsons and a party of loyalists with some violence and considerable brawling; and immediately after, Sir John fortified Johnson Hall, and organized a body of Scotch Highlanders, to the number of one hundred and fifty, whom be armed to the teeth, with the intention of suppressing any further exhibitions of disaffection.

In the mean time the Provincial authorities became suspicious that Colonel Guy Johnson was using his official authority with the Indians to alienate them from the cause of their white neighbors, and to induce them to declare themselves unreservedly for the King. He had in January removed the Rev. Samuel Kirkland, a missionary among the Oneidas, who was a staunch patriot, and to whose influence is to be attributed the position taken by the Oneidas during the struggle, and the signal aid which they gave to the Provincial cause; and now positive proof came to the Albany committee's hands that he was inciting the Mohawks to violence. Apprehending some offensive action upon their part, Colonel Johnson left the valley quietly in June, and hastened to Ontario, accompanied by Brant and the two Butlers. Here a grand council was held with the western Indians, with flattering results; and after a few days' parleying with them, he started for Montreal, accompanied by an imposing delegation of sachems and warriors, which latter were upon their arrival persuaded to go into the service of King George.

The Whigs, who were now in a decided majority, had, during this time, been far from inactive. Their committees organized the people into militia, and took upon themselves the civil and military jurisdiction of Tryon County. They deposed the sheriff, a stanch and overbearing Tory, by name Alexander White, intent upon showing his contempt for the Provincials, and arrested a rather boisterous patriot, by the name of Jacob Fonda, upon some trifling pretext, and locked him up in the jail at Johnstown. The same night a mob of infuriated Whigs, under lead of Sampson Sammons, broke into the jail and released him; then, excited by their success, they trooped off the sheriff's lodgings, to the number of fifty, and, noisily enough, demanded his surrender. White opened a second story window, and probably recognizing the leader of the expedition, called out, "Is that you, Sammons?"

"Yes," was the prompt reply, upon which White sent a pistol-ball whizzing uncomfortably near his head. This shot, the first one fired in the war of the Revolution west of the Hudson, was instantly returned by a rattling fire from forty or fifty muskets; but the sheriff escaped with a slight scratch on the breast. The doors were kicked in, but before the assailants could find White, the report of the cannon at the Hall was heard; and as it was a signal for the Highlanders to rally, the Whigs thought better of it, and retired. White was soon after sent a prisoner to Albany. This little incident is related as showing better than any lengthy description could hope to the state of feeling existing in the valley settlements.

Early in the following year (1776) General Schuyler, then in command of the New York Department, being dissatisfied with the equivocal position of Sir John, who was living in a fortified castle, surrounded by 500 retainers, in such the style of a mediaeval English baron, determined to probe his intentions to the bottom, and to that purpose marched upon Johnstown at the head of 3000 men. After some little diplomatic sparring and considerable lying on the baronet's part, the general compelled Sir Johnson to surrender all the arms, ammunition, and military stores in his possession, and to disband his Highlanders. All the prominent Tories of the neighborhood were arrested, and having broken down all symptoms of rebellion to his complete satisfaction, Schuyler left Colonel Herkimer to look after the vanquished baronet, and returned to Albany.

But even this energetic measure did not suppress the spirit of disloyalty, or, as he called it, loyalty, that possessed Sir John. He immediately began to employ moral suasion, since he was powerless to use other means; and soon General Schuyler found that he was, in violation of his parole, secretly instigating the neighboring Indians to hostilities, and was thus likely to work infinite mischief along the frontier. Determining upon vigorous measures at once, Schuyler immediately dispatched Colonel Dayton with a detachment to capture the troublesome baronet, and thus end the matter. But the loyalist friends in Albany sent warning without delay; and as Colonel Dayton arrived at the easterly edge of the village, Sir John, with a large body of tenants and retainers, struck in to the great northern forest, and fled for this life. Being miserably equipped and provisioned, they suffered terribly, and reached Montreal, after nineteen days of incredible hardships, in a most pitiable condition. Sir John's vast estate- with a single exception the largest ever owned by any one man in the colonies- together with the personal property which he left behind in his flight, were confiscated by the Provincial authorities, and subsequently sold at auction. Lady Johnson was removed to Albany as a hostage for the peaceful conduct of her husband.

Upon his arrival at Montreal, Sir John Johnson was commissioned a colonel in the British service, and raised a command of two battalions, recruited for the most part from those who had accompanied him in his flight or subsequently followed his example, which, under the name of the Royal Greens, did most bloody service in the very valley they once delighted to call their home.

After the baronet's flight the few remaining loyalists were no actual demonstrations; and though the Whigs by no means relaxed their vigilance, or forgot that they lived on a frontier that was at all times liable to sudden incursions from the savages, the valley for a time enjoyed something of its old-time quiet and peace. Soon, however, after the fugitive Tories had reached Montreal, rumors came down from Oswego, through the medium of traders and friendly Oneidas, that Sir John Johnson- than whom the Provincial cause had no more fierce and vindictive for in the enemy's ranks- with his associates, Brant and the Butlers, was contemplating an invasion of the valley at the head of a host of Indians and Tories, and that they had sworn to sweep through the valley like avenging demons, exterminating the settlements.

So strong became the impression that the little cluster of communities, which lay, totally defenseless, almost within the grasp of the hostile savages, had not seen the last of these vengeance-vowing Tories, that Congress directed General Schuyler to strengthen the defenses of the exposed valley with all possible speed. Accordingly, Colonel Dayton was sent up to Fort Stanwix, with orders to push forward the work of rebuilding that antiquated fortress with the utmost energy, as in case of an invasion it would be a most harassing obstacle to the enemy's progress.

This fort had been built early in the year 1758, during what is commonly known as the "old French war," by the English General Stanwix, and commanded the famous "great carrying place." The importance of its situation will be readily seen when it is remembered that the Mohawk was at the time the great western thoroughfare to the lake settlements and the Canadas. All the goods to be transported west from Albany were hauled in wagons as far as Schenectady; at this point loaded upon bateaux, and poled up the river to where Rome now stands- the site of Fort Stanwix. Here the German settlers carried them across the country to Wood Creek, distant a little over a mile, where boats again transported them, by the way of Oneida Lake and Oswego River, to the great lakes. A curious old document, addressed to the Lieutenant-Governor of New York, bearing date of June 1, 1754, will serve to illustrate the difficulties under which commercial enterprise labored in those primitive times:

"We, the Traders (or Handlers) to Oswego, most humbly beg leave to remonstrate to your Honour, the many hazzards and Difficulties We are Subject to in our passage thither from the ill treatment we meet with from the Indians (ie) in passing the Mohawks and Canajohary Castles, they Board our Battoes with Axes knives &c and by force take what Rum they think proper hooping and yelping as if they had Gloried in their depradations and threatening Murder to any that oppose them: And on our Arrival at the great carrying place Tthe Oneida Indians force our Goods from us at pleasure to carry over, and not content with making us pay a most exorbitant price for each Freight but rob us of our Rum, Stores and other Goods with a great deal of invective threatening language, and are generally so Numerous that we are Obliged to Submit to those impositions or run the risk of being Murdered and Robbed of everything we have; And to put their Schemes the better in Execution they force away the High Germans who generally attend with their Horses, that we may be under a Necessity of employing them and paying whatever they please to demand…."

From which it may be inferred that the licensed barbarians who, by their importunate cries and clutchings, transform our otherwise peaceful journeyings into fierce struggles for liberty at every station, are not after all, a product of this enlightened age, but are only following in the footsteps of those unlettered, unlicensed porters of the forest.

Notwithstanding the labors of Colonel Dayton upon the dilapidated work, Colonel Peter Gansevoort, of the State line, when he assumed command of the fort in April, 1777, found it not only indefensible, but absolutely untenable, but absolutely untenable; the only improvement accomplished by Dayton being a change in its name to Fort Schuyler. But Gansevoort set to work with a brave heart to better, if possible his condition; and being soon after joined by Colonel Marinus Willett and his regiment, succeeded - hampered as he was by sickness, bad roads, lack of food, and a woefully incompetent engineer - in so renovating and strengthening the ruinously dilapidated old fortress as to be able to hold it, a few months later, defiantly and successfully through the progress of a long and rigorous siege.

During the summer of 1777 Colonel Barry St. Leger, contemporaneously with the descent of Burgoyne upon Northern New York, sailed from Montreal to Oswego, where he formed a junction with the Tories and Indians who, under the lead of Sir John Johnson and Joseph Brant (now a captain in the British army), had congregated in the vicinity of that place to the number of 1300 fighting men. From Oswego he started, at the head of a force of 1700 men, for the Mohawk Valley, by the water route, with the intention of crushing the rebellious element there, and thence marching down to meet Burgoyne at Albany.

This plan had been carefully prepared in London, and upon its successful issue the ultimate success of the British cause depended in a very great degree. It was reserved for a few hardy, resolute farmers to circumvent this design, and to turn into a disastrous defeat what had been regarded by its sage authors as a most masterly movement, destined to meet with eminent and gratifying success.

The leaders to whom was intrusted the conduct of this expedition certainly did every thing within their power to bring it to its destination triumphant. St. Leger, the commander, was an officer of marked ability, enjoying a good reputation. Brant, who had charge of the savage allies, wand whose counsels appear unmistakably in both the formation and attempted execution of the project, was beyond a doubt the ablest general and strategist that the Six Nations ever produced; the order of the invading host's march through the almost primeval wilderness shows not only the exercise of extraordinary care and precaution, but a thorough and profound knowledge of the country and the peculiar character of the enemy they were about to attack.

Marinus Willett

On the morning of August 2, Lieutenant Colonel Mellon, also of the State troops, arrived at Fort Schuyler with two bateaux of provisions and ammunition, guarded by a detachment of two hundred men. Both the soldiers and their addition to the fort's scanty stock of stores were heartily welcomed. The boats were unloaded, and their contents hastily conveyed to the fort; delay, indeed, would have been dangerous, for at the instant the last load reached the door of the stockade, the van of the approaching army broke through the edge of the forest, and so near to the bateaux that the captain in charge of them was taken prisoner. The following day witnessed the arrival of Colonel St. Leger with the remainder of his forces; and after a pompous summons to surrender, which was indignantly rejected, Fort Schuyler, short of ammunition, with 750 men and six weeks' provisions, was formally invested.

The intelligence of St. Leger's advance spread rapidly down the valley, and created every where among the Whigs the utmost consternation and excitement, supplemented almost instantly by a general resolve to protect to the uttermost their homes and families from the horrible results of an Indian conquest. Many remembered the sickening butcheries that followed the conquering French armies in the previous war - carnivals of blood and rapine which the French at least tolerated in their savage allies, and the records of which still make men shudder in horror and disgust. A repetition of these scenes the militia of the county determined, even with their lives, to prevent. Something akin to desperation was to be found in the eager response that met General Herkimer's prompt summons upon the militia of Tryon County. All doubts, fears, and sluggish apathies were forgotten at the approach of the invader.

On the morning of the 4th nearly a thousand men had assembled about Fort Dayton, a little stockade fort built the year before by Colonel Dayton upon the slight eminence some hundred and fifty yards from the site of the present court-house at Herkimer, and which had been selected by Herkimer as a place of rendezvous. Never had a more heterogeneous mass of men been gathered together in the valley of the Mohawk; for the most part sturdy, resolute, square-jawed farmers, clad, some few in uniform, the majority in homespun or leather, with tanned, rough faces, and alert, keen, sparkling eyes, rude in speech and bearing, gathered in little groups, with trusty flint-locks under their arms, and pipes in mouths, conversing excitedly in a jargon of villainous German and worse English. Scattered here and there through these knots of stalwart, burly borders might be seen figures arrayed in blue and buff, with powdered hair, and thin, clear-cut features, white hands fringed with whiter ruffles, and, clattering and clanking with each stride as with long straight swords and jingling spurs they flit about, uttering half-whispered words of command. These last are gentlemen of the country, and, as such, of vast importance - in their own minds. On the whole, there is small regard for discipline or authority existing in this motley, eager-talking crowd; to the contrary, magnifi4ed conceptions each of his own individual prowess and sagacity. But differ as they might in form of dress, in shape of weapons, in sense of subordination, these thousand settlers possessed in common a savage, half-fiendish itching for the meeting face to face with their long-dreaded foe, for a glimpse of the whilom Tory neighbor over the sight of their old familiar flint-locks; for these uncouth men, a short time since peaceful, phlegmatic farmers, dwelling content upon the little oases they had wrought out of the wilderness, are now transformed into little else than savages, and are longing with all their souls for the approaching fray.

Words of caution, of sober advice, are not wanted here; are received at first in stolid, sulky silence, then with loud-rising murmurs of disapprobation, which reach the ears of those in chief command. Within the enclosure of the little fort are gathered around a rude table some dozen officers, busily discussing the task that lies before them. Behind them, pacing up and down with steady tread, is an elderly man, also in buff and blue, of tall stature and commanding mien, with cocked hat pulled down tight over his eyes, with lips firmly pressed together, thinking and listening deeply, stopping now and then to settle, with a quiet, decisive word, some vexed question, and again resuming his march, with a look of troubled responsibility upon his brave face that intensifies as the morning wears o n, and which all his self-confidence and intrepid courage can not overcome of hide. This is General Nicholas Herkimer, a brave man and true, who for many years has served the cause of humanity faithfully; has for many years been a man of might in the valley settlements; has held innumerable councils with the Indians, and led many expeditions through forest defiles and dismal swamps after them when, in the judgment of the colonies, they stood in need of correction or chastisement; and now has, unwittingly, reached nearly the goal of his earthly labors. Through no pleasant means did the brave, bluff old patriot attain this goal. His way is any thing but clear to him now, as he paces with folded arms and perplexedly thoughtful brow; on the contrary, very dark indeed. This impatient growling of his men, heard faintly from without, savors ominously of insubordination, of possible revolt. His officers are young, inexperienced, and full of self-confidence; are apparently as eager as their men for instantaneous advance. Brave old Herkimer in his perplexity appeals to half-breed Thomas Spencer for support. A blacksmith of the Cayugas, this Spencer was, and for many years a stanch friend of the colonists. He it was that had first brought news of St. Leger's preparations, and he, more than almost any other, would have had influence - by reason of a certain rude, sinewy eloquence, and a reputation for thorough knowledge of Indian warfare - over the minds of the settlers in a calmer moment. But now he is powerless; all his wary words about caution and discipline, warnings of the terrible reputation of Thayendanegea and the strength of the foe, and finally his pleas for at least a scouting party in the van, and some degree of order in marching, are greeted by shouts of derision and loud cries of "Lead us on! Lead us on!"

"Lead Us On!"

Herkimer, in despair, turns to the cluster of officers, but finds no support from them. One or two of the more elderly do indeed yield a vacillating sort of support, but are speedily silenced by the young colonels, now clamorous for action. Fearing that he may lose all control over this turbulent genie that he had evoked by any further efforts at restraint, Herkimer gives a reluctant assent to the now almost universal demand. He and such other officers as are fortunate enough to possess horses spring into their saddles; the baggage wagon, covered by weak or lazy patriots, starts rumbling down the rough road; and with cheers of gratification the impatient rank and file shoulder their flint-locks, and in utter disregard for order, discipline, or any thing else save reaching their destination as quickly as possible, swarm around it, and trudge on impetuously.

On to more of Mohawk Valley during the Revolution




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