NANCY VAN ALSTINE
Guardian of the Mohawk Valley
Note: this article was contributed by Jeanette Shiel for the enjoyment of site visitors who like to read old accounts. Written for a general audience history book in 1876, it contains the historical error of referring to Palatine Germans as "Dutch", as well as attitudes and stereotypes that are now viewed as politically incorrect or no longer acceptable by today's standards. Viewpoints and attitudes in the article reflect the perspective of the standards of its times and good intentions of its author.
Source: Fowler, William W., "Woman on the American Frontier", S. S. Scranton & Co.: Hartford, 1876, pages 114-121.
Introduction (part of Preface): "The history of our race is the record mainly of men's achievements, in war, in statecraft and diplomacy. If mention is made of woman it is of queens and intriguing beauties who ruled and schemed for power and riches, and often worked mischief and ruin by their wiles.
The story of woman's work in great migrations has been told only in lines and passages where it ought instead to fill volumes. Here and there incidents and anecdotes scattered through a thousand tomes [sic] give us glimpses of the wife, the mother, or the daughter as a heroine or as an angel of kindness and goodness, but most of her story is a blank which never will be filled up. And yet it is precisely in her position as a pioneer and colonizer that her influence is the most potent and her life story most interesting....."
The traveler of to-day, passing up the Mohawk Valley will be struck by its fertility, beauty, and above all by the air of quiet repose that broods over it. One hundred years ago how different the scene! It was then the battle-ground where the fierce Indian waged an incessant warfare with the frontier settlers. Every rood of that fair valley was trodden by the wily and sanguinary foe. The people who then inhabited that region were a mixture of adventurous New Englanders and of Dutch, with a preponderance of the latter, who were a brave, steadfast, hardy race; the women vieing with the men in deeds of heroism and devotion.
Womanly tact and presence of mind was often as serviceable amid those scenes of danger and carnage, as valor in combat; and when woman combined these traits of her sex with courage and firmness she became the "guardian angel" of the settlement.
Such preminently was the title deserved by Mrs. Van Alstine, the "Patriot mother of the Mohawk Valley".
All the early part of her long life, (for she counted nearly a century of years before she died) was passed on the New York frontier, during the most trying period of our colonial history. Here, dwelling in the midst of alarms, she reared fifteen children; here more than once she saved the lives of her husband and family, and by her ready wit, her daring courage, and her open handed generosity shielded the settlement from harm.
Born near Canajoharie, about the year 1733, and married Martin J. Van Alstine, at the age of eighteen, she settled with her husband in the valley of the Mohawk, where the newly wedded pair occupied the Van Alstine mansion.
In the month of August, 1780, an army of Indians and Tories, led on by Brant, rushed into the Mohawk Valley, devastated several settlements, and killed many of the inhabitants; during the two following months, Sir John Johnson made a descent and finished the work which Brant had begun. The two almost completely destroyed the settlements throughout the valley. It was during those trying times that Mrs. Van Alstine performed a portion of her exploits.
During these three months, and while the hostile forces were making their headquarters at Johnstown, the neighborhood in which Mrs. Van Alstine lived enjoyed a remarkable immunity from attack, although in a state of continual alarm. Intelligence at length came that the enemy, having ravaged the surrounding country, was about to fall upon the little settlement, and the inhabitants, for the most women and children, were almost besides themselves with terror.
Mrs. Van Alstine's coolness and intrepidity, in this critical hour, were quickly displayed. Calling her neighbors together, she tried to relieve their fears and urged them to remove with their effects to an island belonging to her husband, near the opposite side of the river, believing that the savages would either not discover their place of refuge or would be in too great haste to cross the river and attack them.
Her suggestion was speedily adopted, and in a few hours the seven families in the neighborhood were removed to their asylum, together with a store of provisions and other articles essential to their comfort. Mrs. Van Alstine was the last to cross and assisted to place out of reach of the enemy, the boat in which the passage had been made. An hour after they had been all snugly bestowed in their bushy retreat, the war-whoop was heard and the Indians made their appearance. Gazing from their hiding place the unfortunate women and children soon saw their loved homes in flames, Mrs. Van Alstine's house alone being spared, owing to the friendship borne the owner by Sir John Johnson.
The voices and even the words of the Indian raiders could be distinctly heard on the island, and as Mrs. Van Alstine gazed at the mansion untouched by the flames she rejoiced that she would now be able to give shelter to the homeless families by whom she was surrounded. In the following year the Van Alstine mansion was pillaged by the Indians, and although the house was completely stripped of furniture and provisions and clothing, none of the family were killed or carried away as prisoners.
The Indians came upon them by surprise, entered the house without ceremony, and plundered and destroyed everything in their way. "Mrs. Van Alstine saw her most valued articles, brought from Holland, broken one after another, till the house was strewed with fragments. As they passed a large mirror without demolishing it, she hoped it might be saved; but presently two of the savages led in a colt from the stables and the glass being laid in the hall, compelled the animal to walk over it. The beds which they could not carry away they ripped open, shaking out the feathers and taking the ticks with them. They also took all the clothing. One young Indian, attracted by the brilliancy of a pair of inlaid buckles on the shoes of the aged grandmother seated in the corner, rudely snatched them from her feet, tore off the buckles, and flung the shoes in her face. Another took her shawl from her neck, threatening to kill her if resistance was offered."
The eldest daughter, seeing a young savage carrying off a basket containing a hat and cap her father had brought her from Philadelphia, and which she highly prized, followed him, snatched her basket, and after a struggle succeeded in pushing him down. She then fled to a pile of hemp and hid herself, throwing the basket as far as she could. The other Indians gathered round, and as the young girl rose clapped their hands, shouting, "Brave girl", while he skulked away to escape their derision. During the struggle Mrs. Van Alstine had called to her daughter to give up the contest; but she insisted that her basket should not be taken.
Winter coming on, the family suffered severely from want of bedding, woolen clothes, cooking utensils, and numerous other articles which had been taken from them. Mrs. Van Alstine's arduous and constant labors could do but little toward providing for so many destitute persons. Their neighbors were in no condition to help them; the roads were almost impassable besides infested with Indians, and all their best horses had been driven away.
This situation appealing continually to Mrs. Van Alstine as a wife and a mother, so wrought upon her as to induce her to propose to her husband to organize an expedition, and attempt to recover their property from the Indian forts eighteen or twenty miles distant, where it had been carried. But the plan seemed scarcely feasible at the time, and was therefore abandoned.
The cold soon became intense and their necessities more desperate than ever. Mrs. Van Alstine, incapable longer of witnessing the sufferings of those dependent upon her, boldly determined to go herself to the Indian country and bring back the property. Firm against all the entreaties of her husband and children who sought to move her from her purpose, she left home with a horse and sleigh accompanied by her son, a youth of sixteen.
Pushing on over wretched roads and through the deep snow she arrived at her destination at a time when the Indians were all absent on a hunting excursion, the women and children only being left at home. On entering the principal house where she supposed the most valuable articles were, she was met by an old squaw in charge of the place and asked what she wanted. "Food", she replied; the squaw sullenly commenced preparing a meal and in doing so brought out a number of utensils that Mrs. Van Alstine recognized as her own. While the squaw's back was turned she took possession of the articles and removed them to her sleigh. When the custodian of the plunder discovered that it was being reclaimed, she was about to interfere forcibly with the bold intruders and take the property into her possession. But Mrs. Van Alstine showed her a paper which she averred was an order signed by "Yankee Peter", a man of great influence among the savages, and succeeded in convincing the squaw that the property was removed by his authority.
She next proceeded to the stables and cut the halters of the horses belonging to her husband: the animals recognized their mistress with loud neighs and bounded homeward at full speed. The mother and son then drove rapidly back to their house. Reaching home late in the evening they passed a sleepless night, dreading an instant pursuit and a night attack from the infuriated savages.
The Indians came soon after daylight in full war-costume armed with rifles and tomahawks. Mrs. Van Alstine begged her husband not to show himself but to leave the matter in her hands. The Indians took their course to the stables when they were met by the daring woman alone and asked what they wanted. "Our horses", replied the marauder. "They are ours", she said boldly, "and we aim to keep them".
The chief approached in a threatening manner, and drawing her away pulled out the plug that fastened the door to the stable, but she immediately snatched it from his hand, and pushing him away resumed her position in front of the door. Presenting his rifle, he threatened her with instant death if she did not immediately move. Opening her neck-handkerchief she told him to shoot if he dared.
The Indians, cowed by her daring, or fearing punishment from their allies in case they killed her, after some hesitation retired from the premises. They afterwards related their adventures to one of the settlers, and said that were fifty such women as she in the settlement, the Indians never would have molested the inhabitants of the Mohawk Valley.
On many subsequent occasions Mrs. Van Alstine exhibited the heroic qualities of her nature. Twice by her prudence, courage, and address, she saved the lives of her husband and family. Her influence in settling difficulties with the savages was acknowledged throughout the region, and but for her it may well be doubted whether the little settlement in which she lived would have been able to sustain itself, surrounded as it was by deadly foes.
Her influence was felt in another and higher way. She was a Christian woman, and her husband's house was opened for religious worship every Sunday when the weather would permit. She was able to persuade many of the Indians to attend, and as she had acquired their language, she was wont to interpret to them the word of God and what was said by the minister. Many times their rude hearts were touched, and the tears rolled down their swarthy faces, while she dwelt on the wondrous story of our Redeemer's life and death, and explained how the white man and the red man alike could be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. In after years the savages blessed her as their benefactress.
Nearly a hundred summers have passed since the occurrence of the events we have been describing. The war-whoop of the cruel Mohawk sounds no more from the forest-ambush, nor in the clearing; the dews and rains have washed away the red stains on the soft sward, and green and peaceful in the sunshine lies the turf by the beautiful river and on the grave where the patriot mother is sleeping; but still in in the memory of the sons and daughters of the region she once blessed, lives the courage, the firmness, and the goodness of Nancy Van Alstine, the guardian of the Mohawk Valley.
Copyright © 2001 Jeanette Shiel/ M. Magill
All Rights Reserved.