1777 - Siege of Fort Stanwix - Battle of Oriskany
This chapter embodies an account of events which in their results more vitally affected the destiny of this county and of the nation than any others in their history. The territory embraced in this county was more than a century ago the theater of passing events which then and there practically decided the question whether the thirteen American colonies then struggling for independence were to continue as dependencies of Great Britain, or were to become the first, and probably the only, republic on this continent. Within this territory the battle was fought and won which practically settled that question; hence it is fair to assume that the student of local history will desire to be informed in detail of each step in the progress of events which gave this county of ours such paramount historical interest. In a former chapter is outlined the plan of the British for their campaign of
of 1777. With the Burgoyne movement up Lakes Champlain and George, across the country to the Hudson and down that stream until the army met its fate on the field of Saratoga, this volume had very little to do. But the expedition of St. Leger from La Chine, near Montreal, up the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario, and thence to Oneida Lake and Wood Creek to Fort Stanwix, with the purpose of meeting Burgoyne at Albany, is of the greatest local importance and historical interest.
Sire John Johnson was with this expedition, and a copy of his Orderly Book is before the writer. This Orderly Book was captured by Colonel Willett when he made his sortie at the siege of Fort Stanwix. The troops to accompany the expedition were of the 8th regiment and of the 34th, each of 100 men. Sir John Johnson's regiment, 133, and, as was intended, 342 Hanau Chasseurs. In the Orderly Book, date of June 20, 1777, is this order:
Forty-eight bateaux to be delivered to the Royal Regiment (8th), 45 felling axes, and 3 broad axes; 75 felling axes and 2 broad axes to the 34th regiment. The 8th regiment to take 440 barrels of provisions, allowing 10 bbls each for 44 bateaus; the run or brandy to be put for security in the officer's boats. The 8th reg't to be completed with 14 days provisions, commencing Saturday, June 21st.
On the 21st is this order:
Forty boats to contain 400 bbls of provisions, and 7 of rum; the remainder to be left at St. Leger's quarters.
Lieutenant-Colonel St. Leger was to command and accompany this expedition, and Sir John Johnson and Colonel Claus, his brother in law, subordinates. Colonel Claus, under date of October 16, 1777, after the expedition was over, wrote to the home government as follows:
On the 23rd of June I set out from La Chine near Montreal. The Brigadier was getting the artillery boats ready to take in 2 sixes, two 3's, and four cohorns (being our artillery for the expedition) was to follow the day after, and proceeded for an island destined for our rendezvous in the entrance of Lake Ontario, called Buck (Carleton) Island, in company with Sir John Johnson and his regiment. In my way thither I collected a body of 150 Missagues (a Huron clan of Indians) and 6 nation of Indians. The foregoing Indians the Brigadier intended should accompany him on an alert to Fort Stanwix by a short cut through the woods from the mouth of the Salmon River, about 20 miles from Oswego, in order to surprise the garrison, and take it with small arms. Between 60 and 70 leagues from Montreal, the reconnoitering party I sent to Fort Stanwix returned and met me with 5 prisoners (one lieutenant) and 4 scalps, having defeated a working party of 16
rebels as they were cutting sods toward repairing and finishing the old fort, which is garrisoned by upward of 600 men - the repairs far advanced and the rebels expecting us, and were acquainted with our strength and route. The Brig. was about 15 leagues in our rear on reaching Buck island, he admitted our artillery was insufficient, if the rebels intended to defend themselves in their fort. Here he had opportunity of sending for a better train of artillery. He was, however, still on the alert. We arrived at Bucks island July 8th.
This expedition remained at Buck Island until the 19th of July. On the 17th an order appears on Sir John's Orderly Book for forty days provisions for 500 men, by which it is argued by the British authorities that not more than 500 men, Indians and all, were with St. Leger until he reached Oswego, where an addition of Indians was made to his force. On the 18th of July the Orderly Book had the following entry:
The 8th and 34th regiments will receive 10 boats each for their men and 20 days provisions; the officers allowed a proper portion for their baggage on their way to Oswego. The corps of Canadians will move at same time and carry 20 days provisions to shut any possibility of want of provisions from delay & etc. The artillery to carry 20 days provisions for their own detachment. The artillery, the chasseurs, officers and Rangers of the Indians department and Canadians, to hold themselves in readiness to embark at 4 in the morning, to-morrow.
There is a hiatus in the Orderly Book from the above date until after Oswego was reached and passed, and until July 31st, when Oswego Falls (Fulton, Oswego county) was passed and the troops ready to proceed in boats up the Oswego River. The letter of October 16, 1777, from Colonel Claus, is continued as follows:
The Brigadier set out
from Buck Island July 19, for Salmon river, I having been ordered to proceed
to Oswego with Sir John's regiment and a company of the chasseurs, lately
arrived, there to convene and prepare the Indians to join the Brigadier
at Fort Stanwix. I reached Oswego July 23rd, and there found Brant, who
informed me that his party of 300 Indians would be there the next day;
and that having been more than two months upon service, were destitute
of necessaries, ammunition and some arms. July 24th I rec'd an express
from St. Leger at Salmon river to repair there thro' the woods. I had no
arms nor vermilion, but I prepared to go upon the march, and was ready
to set off when Brant came to my tent and told me, that as no person was
there to take care of the Indians with him, he apprehended that in case
I should leave them, they would become disgusted and disperse, which might
prevent the rest of the 6 nations to assemble, and be hurtful to the expedition,
and begged I would first represent these circumstances to the
1. This was the party that captured Ensign Spoor, mentioned in Colonel Gansevoort's letter of July 4, 1777, in a former Chapter.
Brig. by letter. The Brig. had mentioned by letter to me, that my going was chiefly intended to quiet the Indians with him, who were very drunk and riotous; Capt. Tice, the messenger, informed me that the Brig/ had ordered a quart of rum apiece, which made them beastly drunk, and in which case, it is not in the power of man to quiet them; so I mentioned these suggestions to him of Brant; upon which, and finding the Indians disapproved of my going, the Brig. came away from Salmon river, and arrived at Oswego the next day, with the companies of the 8th and the 34th regiments and about 250 Indians.
On the 26th of July the expedition left Oswego with the purpose of meeting at the Three River Point such other Indians as were expected to join. On the 31st, after reaching Oswego Falls, around which it required three days to transport the baggage and guns, the following entry was made in the Orderly Book :
The detachment of Royal artillery, and the company of Canadians are to take in their loading immediately; each Capt. boat to carry 4 bbls-10 lieut. boats 5 bbls each, private boats 6 each, and to hold themselves in readiness to embark at 2 P.M.
There is no entry in the Orderly Book after the above date.
After leaving Oswego St. Leger sent in advance a small detachment of thirty men of the regular troops under Colonel Bird ( who was killed in the battle of Oriskany), to proceed to Fort Stanwix, cut the communications of the garrison with their friends down the valley, and capture the supply boats then on their way to the fort with supplies. From the diary of Colonel Bird, which was captured by Colonel Willett on his sortie from the fort, as detailed later on, the following entries are taken:
Tuesday, July 29, 1777 After going 2 miles and no savages coming up, waited 2 hours for them. Sixteen Senecas arriving proceeded to 3 Rivers; waited there 2 hours; 70 or 80 Indians came up; they had stolen 2 oxen from the droves of the army, and would not advance, but stayed to feast. I advanced 7 miles farther without them - in all, 19 miles.
Wed., July 30. Set off next morning at 6, having waited for the savages till that time, tho' none arrived. Ordered the boats to keep 70 rods behind each other - half of the men keeping arms in their hands, while the other ½ rowed; ordered that if any of the boats were fired upon, the men should jump ashore. Rowed all night, encamped at Nine Mile Point (probably Bernhard's Bay). It is evident that Colonel Bird expected an ambush.)
Thursday, July 31st. With 27 Senecas and 9 Hurons, joined Mr. Nairs party. Many savages being with us, we proceeded to Wood Creek, a march of 15 miles.
Friday, Aug't 1st. The
savages hinted an intention to send parties to Fort
1. Killed at the battle of Oriskany.
Stanwix, but to proceed no farther in a body. I called a council of the Chiefs, and told them of my orders to go to the fort, and if they would not go with me, I should take the white men and go; the Hurons said they would go with me. The Senecas said it was their way to proceed with caution. I told them I would wait until next morning at daybreak, and then certainly go. They said they would send out large scouts to prepare the way; accordingly 18 or 20 set of this evening.
The Indians were very insubordinate and intractable, demonstrating the embarrassment that often arose in attempting to employ them with regular troops. It was owning to the acts of the Indians that Colonel Bird was prevented from reaching the fort in time to intercept and capture the supply boats, as narrated in the previous chapter. On Saturday, the 2d of August, Colonel Bird reached the fort and immediately wrote back to St. Leger, who had arrived at Nine Mile Point. He wrote that no savages would advance with him, except two of the Six Nations. "Twelve Hurons came up two or three hours after I had left; those with the scout of fifteen, I mentioned in my last, are sufficient to invest Fort Stanwix, if you favor me so far as not to order me to the contrary." St. Leger at once replied as follows:
You will observe that I will have nothing but an investment of the fort; and to enable you to do it with greater effect, I send Brant with his Indians to re-enforce you; and in case the enemy observing the discretion and judgment with which it is made, should offer to capitulate, you are to tell them, you are sure I am well disposed to listen to them. I leave here at 11 this A.M. and shall reach the entrance to Wood Creek (15 miles) early in the afternoon.
The foregoing extract indicates how confident St. Leger was of success and how little he realized the terrible earnestness of the garrison and of the colonies. Not unlikely he had heard so much from the tory leaders of the imbecility and cowardice of the "rebels", and of their willingness to lay down their arms and join the king's troops, if they dared, he expected to capture the fort without firing a gun.
After St. Leger left Oswego the expedition was "shadowed" all the way to Wood Creek by friendly runners from the Oneidas, who kept the garrison daily and almost hourly advised of the progress of the advancing foe. When Wood Creek was reached the enemy found the channel completely blocked by trees fallen into it by orders of Colonel Gansevoort. A hundred and fifty of the garrison were fourteen days in cutting down those trees, thus forcing St. Leger's troops to travel through the forest by an Indian path. In his report of the expedition, St. Leger says that it took 110 of his men nine days to clear Wood Creek of the trees, and that before he could get his cannon and munitions, with seven days' provisions, from Oneida Lake to the fort, he had to cut a road through the woods sixteen miles long, and that it took two days to do this.
On Saturday, August 2d, the fort was formally invested by Colonel Bird and by Brant, who had been sent in advance of the main body. On Sunday forenoon following, St. Leger and the remainder of the forces reached the site of Fort Bull at the lower landing of Wood Creek. At that point the troops formed in line and marched to the upper landing, the site of the old U.S. Arsenal. From that point to the fort was an open plain in full view of the soldiers on the rampart. The first heard by the garrison was martial music and then the columns appeared in sight. The garrison was paraded on the ramparts to watch the coming of the enemy. Onward they marched, deploying as they approached, while the Indians spread themselves out on the flanks, with feathers fluttering in their head-gear and tomahawks glistening in their hands, their yells at times drowning the sound of the bugle and the drum. The bright scarlet uniforms of the regulars, taken out fresh that morning, the banners and flags waving in the air as the march proceeded, the shimmer of the rifles in the sun and the precision of the military tread of the trained soldiery, were all calculated to strike terror in the hearts of the garrison. But the spectacle had a contrary effect. They knew they need not expect mercy at the hands of the invaders, and that they must defend to the last extremity the fort entrusted to their charge. The garrison watched in silence the oncoming of the foe. Not a gun was fired, not a shout of defiance was heard, and stillness reigned. It was Sabbath, and the silence of the garrison compared with the solemnity of the day. The men on the ramparts were intent upon counting the number of the besiegers. A flag of truce was sent into the fort by St. Leger demanding surrender, which was promptly refused. The 4th and 5th of August were occupied by St. Leger in cutting out a road and getting his cannon from Oneida Lake. On Monday, the 4th, active hostilities began. During that day and the next Indians concealed themselves behind stumps and trees to pick off those who were on the ramparts making repairs. Both
evenings were passed by the Indians in spreading themselves through the woods, crossing the river and encircling the fort, making the nights hideous with their yells. It was uncertain what would be attempted in the dead of night by the savages in their greed for scalps, and hence the garrison took no rest. St. Leger established his headquarters on the eminence now occupied by St. Peter's church, 600 yards northeast of the fort, and there he planted his cannon, with which he intended to drive out the garrison or batter down the walls of the fortification.
Over the brown of the hill, where the batteries were placed, the camps and tents of St. Leger were located, within easy distance of the cool spring of water which then and for half a century thereafter gushed forth from the hill side and formed the small stream that flowed past and near the fort; this stream has passed into history as "Spring Brook". Following down the Mohawk and near the bend in the river below where the railroad bridge crosses it, Sir John Johnson with his tories and chasseurs was posted, while between that encampment and the fort, and on both sides of the river, Brant and his Indians were located with license to roam at will through the woods surrounding the fort. A part of St. Leger's troops were encamped on Wood Creek near the site of the United States arsenal. It will thus be seen how effectually the garrison was surrounded by the implacable and savage enemy.
On the evening of Tuesday,
August 1, the sentinels on the ramparts observed that a large body of the
Indians and some of Sir John's forces were moving in the direction of Oriskany
along the edge of the woods, and early the next
1. On the 27th of August, after the siege was abandoned, St. Leger wrote in a letter from Oswego to General Burgoyne as follows: " It was found our cannon had not the least effect upon the sod work of the fort, and that our royals had only the power of teasing, as a six inch plank was a sufficient security for their powder magazine, as we learned from the deserters."
morning other men from Brant's and Sir John's camps were seen hurrying eastward. The cause of these movements was involved in mystery to the garrison. It had been known for a couple of weeks down the valley that St. Leger was on his way to invest Fort Stanwix, via Oswego and Wood Creek. In July General Herkimer issued a proclamation stating that the enemy was at Oswego 2,000 strong and calling upon all healthy able-bodied males between sixteen and sixty years, to assemble at Fort Dayton, with a view to march and meet the enemy when they approached. On the 4th of August about 800 had assembled at Fort Dayton and on that day began their march, keeping on the north side of the Mohawk and that night camping on that side of the river. The next day the troops forded the river at Genesee street, Utica, and proceeded to a point between Whitesboro and Oriskany, where they camped for the night. As soon as General Herkimer started from Fort Dayton, Molly Brant, a former housekeeper and mistress of Sir William Johnson, sent news of Herkimer's advance. This act explains the cause of the movements of the Indians and Sir John toward Oriskany on the evening of the 5th and early in the morning of the 6th. On the evening of the 5th General Herkimer sent three messengers (Adam Helmer, John Damuth or Demoot, and a third person, name unknown) to General Gansevoort with intelligence of Herkimer's approach and that he was already at or near Oriskany. It was expected that the three men would reach the fort early the next morning and their arrival was to be announced from the fort by three successive discharges of cannon, which it was believed would be heard at Herkimer's encampment, upon which the latter would move on and, acting in co-operation with the garrison, scatter the besiegers and enter the fort.
At break of day on the morning of August 6th, Herkimer and his men were astir ready for the march and anxiously waiting for the signal guns, but none was heard as early as was expected. The woods on the route were infested with unfriendly Indians and scouting parties and the messengers were obliged to be extremely cautious. They had to make a detour to the south and reach the fort through the dense cedar swamp described in a former chapter, so they were greatly delayed and did not arrive at the fort until between 10 and 11 o'clock
in the forenoon. The
concerted signals were promptly fired, but at that time matters of fearful
import were taking place between Herkimer's forces and those under Brant
and Sir John Johnson. General Herkimer and his officers waited for hours
without waiting longer. General Herkimer doubted the wisdom of such a course
and opposed it. Colonel Cox, Paris, and the others grew clamorous and manifested
great impatience, while Herkimer urged them to remain until the signal
guns were heard. A consultation was held, high words ensued, and General
Herkimer was accused of being a coward, and charged with being a tory,
like one of his brothers in the tory army, and with having brothers in
law who sympathized with the side of the crown. Stung by these accusations
the phlegmatic temper of the Mohawk Dutchman was quickened beyond control
and the brave general gave the order, "march on". The troops gave a shout
when the order came and on they pushed in files of two, in great haste,
preceded by an advance guard, and with a guard on their flanks, but not
with that order and care requisite in marching in the woods when liable
to meet hostile Indians at every step. The march continued until about
ten o'clock. Two miles west of Oriskany was a deep ravine, which is still
plainly visible, marshy at the bottom and a dozen road in width, extending
from the south northerly toward the Mohawk, directly across the route by
which Herkimer and his men were advancing. Over this ravine was a narrow
causeway or corduroy road , to keep the men out of the mud and water; the
advancing line of the hurrying troops had descended the eastern hill, crossed
this causeway, and was ascending the western hill; the baggage wagons were
crossing the ravine, followed closely by Colonel Visscher's regiment, which
brought up the rear, when the guards on both the flanks and in front were
suddenly shot down by an unseen foe and the forest rang with the war whoop
of Herkimer's forces of more than a thousand savages. The greater part
of Herkimer's forces now found themselves in the midst of a formidable
ambuscade. Sir John Johnson's troops were in front and the Indians on each
side of the advancing line, so arranged as to encircle sides and rear,
as soon as the attack
1. St. Leger in his letter to Burgoyne of August 27 says, "The garrison being apprised of Herkimer's march by four men who were seen to enter the fort in the morning through what was thought an impenetrable swamp, I did not wait for the advance."
was begun in front.
But the Indians were so excited and impetuous that they would not wait
for the whole force to cross the ravine, nor for the attack to commence
in front. The position for the ambuscade was exceedingly well chosen. The
ravine was deep and narrow, crooked somewhat like the letter S, in a dense
forest, difficult to cross, and the ambuscade laid on the high ground west
of the ravine. Had the Indians waited for an attack, the whole of Herkimer's
forces would have been encompassed within the enemy's lines like a victim
within the folds of an anaconda. As it was, the Indians closed the gap
in the rear (at the east), which shut out from the circle the baggage and
ammunition wagons, just descending into the ravine from the east, and also
shut out Colonel Visscher's regiment, still further in the rear. Thus separated
the regiment turned and fled towards and down the river, and were pursued
and many of them killed by the Indians, though not unlikely they fought
well. The troops surrounded fought bravely and desperately; they neither
asked for nor gave quarter. They were thrown into disorder and confusion
and threatened with annihilation. The savages were concealed behind trees
whence they fired and darted forward to make certain death by the use of
the tomahawk to those whom the bullet or the arrow had not killed. The
many hand-to-hand conflicts cannot be recorded here. General Herkimer was
wounded below the knee early in the engagement and his horse was killed
under him His saddle was placed against a beech tree (the location of which
is still pointed out, a rod or so from the present highway, on a rise of
ground), and there with steel and tinder he lit his pipe, and smoked calmly
through the tumult of the battle while giving orders to his men. The men
were falling like leaves about him. He saw the Indians shooting from behind
trees and then rushing forward with the tomahawk; this bloody work was
topped by orders of General Herkimer to place two of his men behind a tree,
one to load while the other fired. For nearly an hour the battle raged
with fury and fierceness, the
1. St. Leger in his letter says, "the impetuosity of the Indians is not to be described. On the sight of the enemy, forgetting the judicious disposition formed by Sir John and agreed to by themselves, which was to suffer the attack to begin with the troops in front, while they should be on both flank and rear, they rushed, hatchet in hand, and thereby gave the enemy's rear an opportunity to escape." 2. See Irving's Life of Washington; Stone's Life of Brant; Simm's Frontiersmen.
forest resounding with the yells of the savages, the roar of guns, and the shrieks and groans of the dying. Then came on a terrific rain storm, the sky was blackened with clouds, the wind blew a gale, the thunder roared, lightning flashed and rain fell in torrents. The storm separated the combatants and for an hour there was a lull in the struggle. In the mean time each side made a new disposition for the conflict to be renewed at the end of the storm. The provincials took possession of an advantageous position, formed themselves into circles back to back and thus awaited for the coming of the foe. The strife was renewed and again the fighting was terrific. Men seized each other by the throat or hair, stabbing with knife or bayonet and dying in each other's grasp. Some parts of the conflict could hardly be called a battle; it was more like a butchery in a slaughter-pen.
During the battle guns from Fort Stanwix were heard (probably those of Colonel Willett, when he made the sortie at 3 P.M.). The Provincials took courage, the Indians were alarmed and withdrew from the field, leaving Herkimer and his men in possession. During the thunder storm the enemy had taken some of their wounded and the papers captured from General Herkimer, to the camp at Fort Stanwix. Sir John, by ruse, attempted to deceive Herkimer's me. After the firing at the fort some of Johnson's Greens put American hats on their heads and approached from the direction of Fort Stanwix as if they were friends. The ruse was well nigh successful for the capture of some of our men, but it was detected in time to be exposed and thwarted. The firing at the fort conveyed to Sir John and the Indians at Oriskany intelligence that their presence was needed by St. Leger, and they accordingly retraced their steps to Fort Stanwix. Indian runners from the fort had also apprised Sir John of Col. Willett's sortie.
Sad and mournful indeed was the return down the valley of those who survived the bloody battle of Oriskany - among the hardest fought and bloodiest on record, considering the number engaged. It is calculated that about 2,000 were engaged, and that each side lost from 160 to 200 men. The Provincials construct-ed litters on which they conveyed their wounded; some forty or fifty were borne away in this manner, among whom was the brave Herkimer. The Indians were in the foremost of the fight, where they were placed to shield the tory troops, and
they suffered accordingly. General Herkimer was taken to his own dwelling two miles east of Little Falls, then occupied by John Roof's family, the first settler at Fort Stanwix in 1760, but who had to drop down the valley when the fort was besieged. When General Herkimer was shot at Oriskany the wound was dressed by Dr. William Petrie, of Herkimer, grandfather of Judge Robert Earl, late of the Court of Appeals.
After General Herkimer's removal to his home he was attended by another physician and his leg unskillfully amputated above the knee by a French surgeon. He died August 16, just ten days after the battle.
And thus ended the ever to be remembered battle of Oriskany. Harold Frederic, in his impressive story, "In the Valley", has painted in vivid colors the true significance of that conflict. He says:
It was not until much later - until definite news came not only of St. Leger's flight back to Canada, but the capture of the whole British army at Saratoga - that the men of the Mohawk began to comprehend what they had really done. To my way of thinking they have ever since been unduly modest about this truly historic achievement. Thus it happens that the great decisive struggle of the whole long war for independence - the conflict which, in fact, made America free - is suffered to pass into the records as a mere frontier skirmish. Yet, if one will but think, it is as clear as daylight that Oriskany was the turning point of the war. The essential feature of Burgoyne's plan had been that this force (which we so roughly stopped and turned back in the forest defile) should victoriously sweep down our valley, raising the tory gentry as they progressed and join him at Albany. If that had been done, he would have held the whole Hudson, separating the rest of the colonies from New England, and having it in his power to punish and subdue first the Yankees, then the others at his leisure. Oriskany prevented this! Coming as it did at the darkest hour of Washington's trials, and the colonies' despondency, it altered the face of things as gloriously as does the southern sun rising swiftly upon the heels of the night. Burgoyne's expected allies never reached him; he was compelled in consequence to surrender, and from that day there was no doubt who would in the long run triumph. Therefore, I say, all honor and glory to the rude, unlettered, great-souled yeomen of the Mohawk valley, who braved death in the wildwood gulch at Oriskany that Congress and the free colonies might live.
The same storm that
separated the combatants on the Oriskany battlefield delayed Colonel Willett
in making his sortie from Fort Stanwix to attack the enemy's camps. At
3 P.M. the storm subsided and Colonel Willett prepared to make the sally.
The account of this sortie was furnished by Willett himself to the Connecticut
Courant and was published in that paper August 25, 1777; it is also
1. Dr. Petrie was himself wounded in that battle and could not attend the general down the valley. Skennandoah, the Oneida chief, fought in the battle on the side of Herkimer; he lived until 1816 and died at the age of 110 years.
embodied in " Willett's Narrative", prepared by Colonel Willett and published in 1831. The Account says:
The men within the fort were paraded in a square and the intelligence of Herkimer's coming was communicated to them. Colonel Willett, who was to lead them, went down into the esplanade and addressed the men substantially as follows: " Soldiers, you have heard that General Herkimer is on the march to our relief. The commanding officer feels satisfied that the tories and Queen's rangers have stolen off in the night with Brant and his Mohawks, to meet him. The camp of Sir John in therefore weakened. AS many of you as feel willing to follow me in an attack upon it, and are not afraid to die for liberty, will shoulder your arms and step out one pace in front." Two hundred men obeyed the impulse, almost at the same moment; fifty or more with a three pounder were soon added. As soon as the storm was over the men issued form the sally port at a brisk pace and rushing down on Sir John's camp, carried it at the point of the bayonet, drove the enemy into and across the river, and captured a large amount of army stores, destroyed all the provisions, brought off fifty brass kettles, more than 100 blankets, a quantity of muskets, tomahawks, spears, ammunition, deer skins and five colors.
Colonel Willett then attacked and scattered the Indian camp, and on his return to the fort along the west side of the river, St. Leger proceeded from his headquarters across the Mohawk (into "Factory Village" to fire from an ambush into Colonel Willett's men; but they were soon dispersed. Colonel Willett brought in twenty one wagon loads of captured articles, and as to the five captured flags, they were run up the flagstaff, underneath the United States flag, then and there improvised for the occasion, accompanied by cheers from the garrison that might have been heard at Oriskany.
On the 4th of June,
1777, Congress resolve, "That the flag of the 13 United States be thirteen
stripes, alternated red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white
in a blue field, representing a new constellation." This resolution was
not officially promulgated until September 3, 1777, although it was published
in the newspapers a month before. The news of the adoption by Congress
of this regulation flag had doubtless reached the fort in this far off
wilderness, and the garrison hastily improvised a flag from such materials
as were at hand - the white from the shirts of the soldiers; the blue from
1. Colonel Claus writes as follows of this capture: "They took away the Indians' packs with their clothes, they having gone in their shirts, as naked to action, and when they returned they had nothing to cover themselves with at night against the weather, and nothing in our camp to supply them, until we got to Oswego, three weeks later."
cloak which Colonel Willett captured at Peekskill in the preceding March, and the read, as stated, from a red petticoat captured at the same time. This was the first flag, the emblem of the nation to be, unfurled to the breeze on this continent. This flag should not be confounded with the State flag which accompanied the 3d regiment of General Gansevoort at Fort Stanwix, and which was present at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown four years later.
There were, as has thus been shown, two great events which took place in this locality on the 6th of August, 1777, - the battle of Oriskany, in a large measure the turning point in the Revolutionary struggle, and the raising of the first flag of the embryo republic.
In the afternoon of August 7 a white flag from the enemy approached the fort, escorted by three officers, with a request that they might enter with a message from St. Leger. Permission was granted and according to the custom they were first blindfolded and then conducted into the dining room of the officers, where the windows were darkened and candles lighted, the table spread with some light refreshments, the bandages removed from the messengers' eyes, and they were then received by General Gansevoort. The principal officer made known his errand, the purport of which was, a demand for the surrender of the fort, accompanied by intimations that if surrendered the prisoners would be treated humanely; but if taken by force, St. Leger would not hold himself responsible for the cruelty of the Indians. Colonel Willett was deputed to reply, and no one better qualified. He said in substance:
This garrison is committed to our charge and we will take care of it. After you get out of this fort, you may turn around and look at its outside, but never expect to come in again, unless you come as prisoners. I consider this message you have brought a degrading one for a British officer to send, and by no means reputable for a British officer to carry. For my own part, I declare that before I would consent to deliver this garrison to such a murdering set as your army, by your own account, consists of, I would suffer my body to be filled with splinters and set on fire, as you know has at times been practiced by such hordes of women and children killers as belong to your army.
These sentiments were re echoed with applause by all officers present and by the garrison. A cessation of hostilities for three days was then agreed upon. As nothing was heard from down the valley since the battle of Oriskany, the garri-
son began to be uneasy. They needed more ammunition and might soon need provisions. Sir John Johnson proposed to St. Leger to march down the valley with about 200 men, Colonel Claus to join him with a body of Indians, but St. Leger could not spare the men and disapproved. As it was, the tory, Walter N. Butler, went down the valley to rally his tory friends and was captured as hereafter narrated. A consultation was held in the fort as to sending Colonel Willett down the valley for assistance. The siege was meanwhile progressing and measures were taken by St. Leger to approach the fort by sapping' two parallels were formed, the second of which brought him near the edge of the glacis, but the fire from the fort rendered further progress difficult, although he had reached within 150 feet of the works. On the 9th of August St. Leger sent a written message again demanding the surrender of the fort, to which General Gansevoort replied that " It is my determined resolution, with the forces under my command, to defend this fort to the last extremity, in behalf of the united American states, who have placed me here to defend it against all enemies."
Matters were now getting serious and on consultation of the officers of the garrison, it was deemed advisable to send Colonel Willet down the valley for assistance, knowing his great popularity among the patriots of that section. Accordingly, at 10 o'clock on Sunday night, August 10, Colonel Willett and Lieu- tenant Stockwell, carrying a small quantity of crackers and cheese, stole silently out of the sally port and started without blankets or baggage, on their perilous mission. The usually traveled route down the river was on the south side; but that route at this time was a dangerous one as it was liable to be infested with lurking savages. They therefore crossed the river into "Factory village" by crawling on a log, and when over the stream they were in a dense forest in pitch darkness. In rambling about they lost their way and bearings and became alarmed by the barking of a dog not far away. They discovered they were near an Indian camp, and stood perfectly still beside a large tree for hours, not venturing to move lest they should be discovered. Thus they remained until the morning star appeared. From the account which Colonel Willett published in his "Narrative" in 1831, their course was taken northerly, following the Mohawk,
sometimes wading in the river, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so as to conceal their trail. For several hours they pursued this route and then turned easterly to strike the Mohawk settlements. When night came they dare not strike a light, fearing to attract the notice of prowling Indians, and so camped in the thicket without light, fire, blankets or covering. At peep of day they were one their feet again, although weary and lame from the day's travel and night's chill. Yet they kept on their journey, now preceding more southerly, and about 9 in the morning they struck a heavy windfall where were growing large quantities of ripe blackberries. With this fruit and the crackers and cheese, with spirits, they made a hearty breakfast. Simm's Frontiersman says, that years before the Revolution a hurricane arose in the western part of Oneida county, swept through the forest in an easterly directions across the present towns of Camden and Trenton, and entering Herkimer county at a place called "Dugway" near Poland, passed onward through Russia, Norway, and Salisbury, extending a distance of fifty or sixty miles in length with a breadth of sixty to one hundred rods, and so great was its fury that almost every tree in its course was uprooted. Its traces were visible more than half a century afterwards and a portion of the ground over which it passed is to this day called "The Hurry-cane". Willett and his companions must have passed northerly of Floyd and Trenton and struck The Hurricane, having climbed mountains, waded streams and penetrated an unbroken forest the whole distance of sixty or seventy miles. After their breakfast they observed the sun and the point of the compass and without other helps steered for, and about 3 P.M. reached, Fort Dayton. On their arrival it was ascertained that General Schuyler had ordered a brigade of Massachusetts
troops, stationed some ten miles above Albany, to the relief of Fort Stanwix, and that Gen. Benedict Arnold was to be in command. Having rested one night, Willett and Stockwell started the next morning on horseback for Albany to meet the troops and interview General Arnold. They met the same evening and it was then learned that the 1st New York Regiment was also on the way to Fort Stanwix.
As stated on a preceding page, Walter N. Butler went down the valley after the battle of Oriskany to stir up the tories. The "faithful" were summoned to meet him on Friday evening, August 15, at the house of one Shoemaker, near what is now Mohawk; he was one of the king's justices of the peace. Colonel Weston, who commanded at Fort Dayton, heard of this clandestine meeting and sent a detachment of soldiers to arrest the tories. The assemblage was completely surprised and all arrested just as Butler was in the midst of his harangue. Among the number were fourteen white soldiers, the same number of Indians, and one Han Yost Schuyler. Although the latter was a nephew of General Herkimer and weak of mind, he was yet a devoted tory. General Arnold ordered a court martial to try Butler and Schuyler as spies, for being found within the American lines. Colonel Willett was appointed judge advocate and the two were convicted and ordered the sentence to be executed. General Arnold approved the sentence and ordered the execution to take place the next morning. Han Yost Schuyler's brother and his widowed mother, Elizabeth Barbara (Herkimer) Schuyler, hastened to General Arnold to intercede for the pardon or reprieve of Han Yost. As the latter was half witted, a well known minds a feeling of superstitious awe, General Arnold conceived the idea of using Han Yost to frighten away the besiegers of Fort Stanwix. In the mean time the garrison had not hear a word from down the valley since the battle of Oriskany, nor from Willett and Stock-well since they left the fort on August 10, and as St. Leger was pushing the siege with vigor and had approached by sapping nearly to the ditch, the situation of the garrison was alarming. Provisions and ammunition were getting low and in this extremity General Gansevoort came to the deliberate conclusion that if no succor came, he would make a sally at night and cut his way through the
enemy's camp, or perish in the attempt. The Indians under Brant were also getting uneasy and discouraged and it was with difficulty that St. Leger kept them from leaving. Suddenly on the 22d of August, the garrison saw the besiegers break their camps in great haste and confusion, leave their tents with a great part of their artillery, camp equipage and baggage, including St. Leger's writing desk, and flee precipitately towards Wood Creek, over the route they had traveled in a far different manner twenty days before. General Arnold's ruse had worked like a charm. It was this: Han Yost was to hasten to Fort Stanwix with the story of his capture, trial, and sentence, and of his escape, showing bullet holes in his clothes as evidence of his narrow chance, and relating that Arnold with a large army was on the march and near at hand. The mother and brother offered to be retained by Arnold as hostages, the latter to be executed if the ruse failed. It was a complete success, for Han Yost and those with him so well dissembled and acted their part that the Indians were ready to believe and to run. But St. Leger doubted. When Han Yost was asked the number of troops, he shook his head mysteriously and pointed to the leaves of the forest, as indicating the number of the troops. The story had the desired effect, the Indians could no longer be restrained and without them St. Leger was helpless. All fled and took boats at Oneida Lake, while at the first opportunity Han Yost returned to Fort Dayton and his brother was released.
General Arnold and his troops arrived at 4 P.M. August 23, and with four brass field pieces, banners displayed, drums beating, and music playing, marched into the fort amid the booming of cannon, the roar of musketry, and the cheers of the garrison. And thus ended the siege of Fort Stanwix, which placed the seal upon American independence.
St. Leger, with his scattered forces, hastened to Oswego and thence to Montreal; from there he proceeded to Lake Champlain and Ticonderoga, with the purpose of joining Burgoyne; but in that region also matters had suffered material change, to the discomfiture of the British. Burgoyne had gone southward, left Lake Champlain and George, crossed over the Hudson River, severed his connection wit his base of supplies, and was foiled in his attempt to capture other supplies at Bennington. By reason, among other things, of the murder and
scalping of the beautiful Jane McCrea, the yeomen of the country were rising and were in between Burgoyne and his line of Canada communications, thus placing him between two fires, instead of placing Gates and Schuyler between St. Leger and Burgoyne, as they had intended. Within two months thereafter Burgoyne and his army were captured (October 17, 1777), on the fields of Saratoga, and the British gave up control of the Hudson, and New York was redeemed.
These and other victories, beginning at this lone fortress in the far off wilderness, sent a glow of joy throughout the colonies, paved the way for France in less than four months thereafter to acknowledge our independence, and justly entitled the territory now within Oneida county, where the battle of Oriskany was fought and Fort Stanwix successfully defended, to be ever remembered by a patriotic and a grateful people.
During the siege, John Roof's buildings afforded shelter to the enemy, and hence were destroyed by General Gansevoort, who gave a certificate of destruction to Mr. Roof, that he might receive reimbursement from the government; but nothing was ever obtained by him. Colonel Willett did not return to the fort; he did good service elsewhere in the Mohawk Valley.
General Gansevoort remained at Fort Stanwix during 1778, excepting during occasional absences. The Indians during the year were prowling about the fort more or less, shooting any of the garrison that was found outside of the works. The inaction of the garrison made the men restless and discontented and desertions were frequent; from the fore part of April, 1778, there deserted from the fort three sergeants, two corporals, twenty privates, one bombardier, and two gunners. In the fore part of August of that year five more deserted and were fifty miles on their way to Canada when they were intercepted by friendly Oneida Indians and returned to the fort. A court martial was held and the five deserters were tried, convicted and sentenced to be shot. On the day of the sentence, six more deserted from the fort. After this, while a party which had been sent down for cattle were returning, six more deserted and were not captured. The sentence of the five was carried into execution August 17, 1778, at the heat of the regiment. In five days two more deserted. The emissaries of
the enemy had much to do with this. In the spring of 1778 these emissaries were at work in the fort to ascertain its strength and betray it. The traitor, one Geake, was discovered and arrested just as he was on the point of deserting to the British; he was tried and sentenced to be executed, but execution was delayed. In November, 1778, Colonel Van Schaack, with his regiment was ordered to Fort Stanwix and the old regiment was transferred elsewhere. In the fore part of 1779 Colonel Van Dyke was in command at the fort, and in February Captain Graham was in charge.
Those of the Six Nations who adhered to the crown made their headquarters in the country of the Senecas, and thence made raids into the valley of the Mohawk, Wyoming and Schoharie. Washington, Schuyler, Clinton and others felt that a country which furnished so much aid and comfort to the enemy should be thoroughly devastated, and accordingly the memorable "Sullivan" campaign of 1779 was planned to include an invasion of the country of the Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Those nations possessed large fields of great productiveness, extensive gardens and orchards, and lived in frame houses, raised peaches, pears, apples, plums, melons, cranberries, squashes, grapes, beans, tobacco and corn, in great profusion. This Indian country embraced some fifty or sixty town and all were in a prosperous condition. An expedition was planned to go into that country via Canajoharie and Elmira and the inland lakes. As preliminary, an armed force of 600 started in April of that year, in charge of Colonels Willett and Van Schaack from Fort Stanwix, via Wood Creek and Oneida Lake, for the Onondaga country to lay it to waste. This expedition left Fort Stanwix April 18, and was gone eighteen days, traveled 180 miles, and thoroughly accomplished its work, burning buildings and destroying cattle and grain. In August of that year the expedition which has passed into history as the "Sullivan expedition" penetrated the country of the Senecas, left destruction in its track and substantially broke the backbone of the Confederacy. More than forty towns were burned, which included 700 buildings, 160,000 bushels of corn were destroyed, gardens were laid waste, 1,500 fruit trees were leveled to the ground, cattle were killed or driven away, and the inhabitants compelled to flee to Canada. The army found the Indian country a garden and left it a desert.
William Colbraith was a captain in the Sullivan expedition; he was the first sheriff of Herkimer county, and the first one Oneida county. His residence was about half way between the business portion of Rome and the "village of Stanwix".
For the raid of Sullivan, Brant and Sir John Johnson and the Butlers paid the Mohawk valley in kind. The garrison at Fort Stanwix in 1780 was not of much practical use. In the spring of 1781, by reason of floods in the river and fire, the fort was ruined and abandoned. Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October, 1781, practically ending the war. In February, 1783, Colonel Willett was sent by Washington from the Mohawk valley via Fort Stanwix and Wood Creek to capture Oswego by surprise. The expedition crossed Oneida Lake on the ice; the snow was very deep and the expedition was not successful. When Colonel Willett returned to Albany he heard the joyful news proclaimed by the clerk by the ringing of the city bell.
And now, after seven long years, peace reigned again in the land. The valley of the Mohawk had suffered more than any other like extent of country in the whole thirteen colonies. Statistics show that in this valley during the war, 700 buildings were burned, 1,200 farms left uncultivated, thousands of horses and cattle killed or stolen, millions of bushels of grain destroyed, 354 families abandoned their homes, 613 persons deserted to the enemy, 197 killed at their homes, 121 taken captives, 300 women made widows, and 2,000 children made orphans. This valley had justly earned the appellation of "the dark and bloody ground".
At the close of the war General Washington and Governor Clinton, with other officers, made a tour up the Hudson and Mohawk to Fort Stanwix, thence over the portage to Wood Creek and Oneida Lake, and thence to the headwaters of the Susquehanna and to Otsego Lake, and return. Both became owners of land in Oneida county, in Westmoreland and New Hartford.
Information that is
found in this collection has been donated to Oneida County, NY GenWeb page
by Jane Stevens-Hodge. Copyright©2002