The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





In the eighteenth-century history of the Mohawk Valley and the Mohawks the name Oghwaga is frequently met, but in a vague, indefinite way, that leaves the reader in doubt of its locality or the particular tribe to which it belonged. Later investigation, however, brings to light the fact that it was located on the Susquehanna River near the confluence of the Unadilla River and the Cherry Valley Creek, which for the upper waters of the Susquehanna. It is thought to have existed as early as 1650, and was a primitive trading post for the Delaware, Susquehanna, and far western Indians, who there met the Dutch and English traders from Albany, and later Schenectady. Halsey quotes Stone as saying that the place was an aboriginal Port Royal, where many of the Six Nations who had become disgusted with the politics of their several cantons were in the habit of settling.

Whatever may have been its origin, it was evidently a place of considerable importance as early as 1750, and under the jurisdiction of the Iroquois. It is said that many Mohawks and Oneidas dwelt there, and it was probably the third village or castle during the last French war, the others being the Canajorhees at Indian Castle, and the Mohawks proper at the old established village of Tiononderoga, at Fort Hunter. F.W. Halsey in The Old New York Frontier has given us the best account of that interesting locality that has been written. J.R. Simms speaks of a large tribe of Schoharie Indians. It is probable that he has confounded them with the Oghwagas.

W.L. Stone has transcribed, in his Life of Brant, a singular document, which I have never seen printed elsewhere, purporting to be a speech of Oneida warriors delivered to Colonel Elmore at Fort Schuyler, January 19, 1777:


BROTHER: We are sent here by the Oneida chiefs in conjunction with the Onondagas. They arrived at our village yesterday. They gave us the melancholy news that the grand council-fire at Onondaga was extinguished. We have lost of their town by death ninety, among whom are three principal sachems. We, the remaining part of the Onondagas, do now inform our brethren that there is no longer a council-fire at the capital of the Six Nations. However, we are determined to use our feeble endeavors to support peace through the confederate nations. But let this be kept in mind, that the council-fire is extinguished. It is of importance that this be immediately communicated to General Schuyler, and likewise to our brothers the Mohawks. In order to effect this, we deposit this belt with Te-key-an-e-don-hot-te, Col. Elmore, commander at Fort Schuyler, who is sent here by General Schuyler to transact all matters relative to peace. We therefore request him to forward this intelligence in the first place to Gen. Herkimer, desiring him to communicate it to the Mohawk castle near to him and then to Major Fonda, requesting him to immediately communicate it to the Lower Mohawk castle. Let the belt then be forwarded to General Schuyler, that he may know that our council-fire is extinguished and can no longer burn.


W.L. Stone remarks:


This singular document is worthy of preservation not only as the authentic but as the only account of the occurrence recorded. It contains a mystery, however, which cannot now be solved.


Undoubtedly the above speech was the occasion of great uneasiness throughout the Mohawk Valley, which was again awakened by the reported gathering of the Indians at Oghwaga. Scouts were moving along the borders, while a detachment of Continental troops kept at a distance small bodies of Indians and Tories. In February Colonel Harper was sent to Oghwaga by the Provincial Congress with a letter to the Indians gathered there, to ascertain their intentions. Colonel Harper, having given private orders to the captains of his regiment to hold themselves in readiness in case their services should be required, departed on this mission accompanied by one Indian and one white man. Arriving on February 27th, he was well received by the Indians and assured that the report of a contemplated invasion was untrue.

Satisfied with the sincerity of their professions he caused an ox to be roasted and invited the Indians to the barbecue, who at that time expressed their sorrow on account of the troubles of the country, and declared that they would take no part against it.

After returning from the mission the Colonel was, for a time, in command of one of the small Schoharie forts. In March or April of the same year he had occasion to go alone through the woods from Schoharie to his home at Harpersfield, and thence, when returning, struck to the westward toward the head waters of the Susquehanna. While ascending a hill he suddenly saw a company of Indians approaching. As they had discovered him, any attempt to fly would have been fatal. Having a great coat over his military dress, he made no attempt to avoid a meeting, and in passing the Colonel and the Indians exchanged salutations. One of the Indians he recognized as a Mohawk called Peter, whom he had formerly seen at Oghwaga.

Captain Joseph Brant.

They did not recognize him, however, but from his manner of speech supposed him to be a loyalist, and under that impression informed him that their intention was to cut off the "Johnstone settlement," a small Scotch colony on the eastern shore of the Susquehanna, near Unadilla. Quietly pursuing his way until out of sight of the hostile Indians he changed his course, hurried back to Harpersfield, collected a body of fifteen resolute men, and gave chase to the marauders. In addition to their arms and a requisite supply of food, he directed each man of his command to take with him a rope. In the course of the following night they discovered the camp-fire of the Indians on the bank of the Charlotte River. Halting for a while to rest and refresh themselves and prepare for the contest, the Colonel and his men advanced with great caution, prepared for an instant dash upon the sleeping foe at the first sign of alarm. It was almost daylight and the Indians were in profound slumber, with their arms stacked in the middle of their encampment. Harper and his party silently removed the guns to a place of safety as a measure of precaution. When all was ready each man singled out his antagonist and advanced stealthily, with cords in readiness, until they stood over each sleeping foe, when, at a signal from Harper, they threw themselves upon the prostrate Indians and after a short and desperate struggle bound them securely. When daylight came Peter discovered his captor. "Huh!" he exclaimed, "Colonel Harper - why did I not know you yesterday?" The intrepid Colonel proceeded to Albany with his prisoners and surrendered them to the commanding officer of the station.

After the visit of Colonel Harper to Oghwaga in February, 1777, Thayendanega (Joseph Brant), having had some difficulty with Colonel Guy Johnson, came to Oghwaga with about ninety of his warriors, mostly Mohawks. The march of so large a body of warriors across the country added not a little uneasiness to the settlers, and to the Tryon County Committee of Safety. Although Brant, so far, had not committed any act of hostility within the province of New York, his presence did not improve the pacific intentions of the many Indians gathered on the banks of the Susquehanna, and in the end led to an open rupture. In June a large body of Indians, under Brant, ascended the Susquehanna from Oghwaga to Unadilla and requested an interview with Rev. Mr. Johnstone and the militia officers at that place, and demanded food. Having required the people of that settlement to furnish his warriors with provisions, Brant told the officers that he had entered the British service and would not allow any of the Mohawks to be seized and confined to their castles, as he understood had been done. They remained two days at Unadilla, and when they left drove off some cattle and sheep. At this time the Mohawks at the lower castle (Fort Hunter), under Little Abraham, had not been drawn away by Brant and Guy Johnson, while at the upper castle (at Danube) Molly Brant remained with a number of Mohawks.

Skull and Thigh-bones and Broken Pottery Found in Mound Grave at Fort Hunter, N.Y. Also Copper Beads and Shell Ornament Found in Indian Grave near Coxsackie, N.Y.

(Orders having been given somewhat later to destroy the habitation of the Mohawks at Fort Hunter and to drive them out of the valley, it was found that there were but four families left. These were ordered to leave, but owing to the entreaties of the white settlers their houses were not burned.)

Upon Brant' s return to Oghwaga he received reinforcements and his attitude was so threatening that it was determined by General Schuyler that General Herkimer should confer with the Mohawk chief, with whom he had been on friendly terms when they had been neighbors beside the Mohawk River. Accordingly he sent a messenger inviting the Mohawk chief to meet him at Unadilla - the General moving forward himself at the same time at the head of about three hundred of the local militia. There Herkimer remained for eight days, or until the 27th of June, before Thayendanega arrived with five hundred warriors, who were established in camp about two miles south of Unadilla. From this camp he despatched a runner to General Herkimer, with a message, desiring to be informed of the object of his visit. General Herkimer replied that he had merely come to see and converse with his brother, Captain Brant. The quick-witted messenger inquired if all those men wished to talk with the chief, too. But an arrangement was soon made by which a meeting was affected.

The following particulars relating to the interview are told by J.R. Simms, he having obtained them from Joseph Wagner of Fort Plain: At the first meeting of General Herkimer and Brant, the latter was attended by three other chiefs, William Johnson (alias Teg-che-un-to, a son of Sir William, by his first Indian wife, Caroline), who was afterward killed by the half-breed Spencer at Oriskany; Pool, a smart-looking fellow with curly hair, supposed part Indian and part negro, and a short dark-skinned Indian, the four being surrounded by about twenty noble-looking warriors.

When in his presence, Brant haughtily asked General Herkimer the object of his visit, which was readily made known, but seeing so many attendants the chief suspected the interview was sought for another purpose. Said Brant to Herkimer: "I have five hundred warriors at my command, and can in an instant destroy you and your party; but we are old friends and neighbors and I will not do it." Colonel Cox, a smart officer (afterwards killed at the battle of Oriskany), who accompanied General Herkimer, exchanged several sarcastic expressions with Brant, which served not a little to irritate him and his followers. The two had quarrelled a few years previous about lands around the upper Indian castle. Provoked to anger Brant asked Cox if he was not the son-in-law of "old George Klock." "Yes!" replied Cox, "what is that to you, you d----d Indian?" At the close of this dialogue Brant' s guard ran off to their camp, firing several guns and making the forests ring with savage war cries. General Herkimer in the meantime endeavored to calm the storm which the impetuous Colonel had raised by his intemperate words, and succeeded in soothing the chief and his warriors and in keeping the irate Indians at a proper distance. A word from Brant hushed the tempest of passion, which an instant before threatened to deluge the valley in blood. However, as the parties were too heated for calm discussion, Brant said to the General: "It is needless to multiply words at this time; I will met you here at nine o' clock to-morrow morning," and turning abruptly quickly joined his warriors.

Junction of the Mohawk and Schoharie Rivers with Erie Canal Aqueduct.

It is presumed that General Herkimer, owing to the fierce looks of the turbulent warriors, feared treachery on the part of Brant at the coming interview, for early on the following morning he called Joseph Wagner, then an active young soldier, to his side and asked him if he could keep a secret. When assured in the affirmative, he instructed Wagner to select three trusty comrades, who with himself should be in readiness at a given signal to shoot Brant and the three chiefs, if the interview about to take place did not end amicably.

With this arrangement of precaution on the part of General Herkimer, the parties held their interview on the 28th of June. Brant was the first to speak. Said he: "General Herkimer, I now fully comprehend the object of your visit, but you are too late; I am already engaged to serve the King. We are old friends and I can do no less than let you return home unmolested, although you are entirely within my power, as I have five hundred warriors with me armed and ready for battle." Saying which, at a signal a host of his armed warriors darted forth from the continuous forest all painted and ready for battle as the well-known war-whoop but too clearly proclaimed. He then requested that the Rev. Mr. Stuart, the missionary of Queen Anne' s Chapel at Fort Hunter, and the wife of Colonel Butler, living at the same place, be permitted to retire to Canada. To these requests the General assented, and, after presenting Brant ten or twelve heads of cattle, he struck camp and retraced his steps to the valley of the Mohawk, while Brant turned proudly away and disappeared in the depths of the forest, little knowing by what a slender thread hung his life as he gave the signal for the spectacular display of his painted warriors.

W.L. Stone says:


Thus terminated this most singular conference. It was early in July, and the morning was remarkably clear and beautiful. But the echo of the war-whoop had scarcely died away before the heavens became black, and a violent storm obliged each party to seek the nearest shelter. Men less superstitious than many of the unlettered yeomen who, leaning upon their arms, were witnesses of the evens of this day could not fail in after times to look back upon the tempest, if not as an omen, at least as an emblem of those bloody massacres with which these Indians and their associates afterward visited the inhabitants of this unfortunate frontier.


This was the last conference held with the hostile Mohawks. Previous to this time a feeling of uncertainty and great unrest, as to the course of the Mohawks, pervaded the valley. A few families of Indians still remained at Fort Hunter and at the upper castle - at Danube, - who professed neutrality. At Fort Hunter dwelt Little Abraham, while at Indian Castle Molly Brant was living at the home of her brother.

After the conference between General Herkimer and Joseph Brant recorded above, Brant left the Mohawk Valley and proceeded to Oswego with his warriors, having been summoned to attend a general grand council of the Six Nations. At this assembly the chiefs were offered ample reward to enter the British service, but many of them were averse to joining in the war, as they considered themselves bound to neutrality by the recent treaty of German Flats and Albany. A protracted discussion ensued, which availed nothing to the commissioners until they appealed to the avarice of the Indians, saying: "The King is rich and powerful, both in money and subjects. His rum is as plentiful as the waters of Lake Ontario and his men as numerous as the sands upon its shore, and if you will assist the British in the war you will never want for goods or money." Overcome by a rich display of tawdry articles calculated to please their fancies the Indians proved recreant to their treaty with General Schuyler and concluded an alliance with Great Britain, binding themselves to take up the hatchet against the rebels until they were subdued.

At the close of the treaty, each Indian was given a suit of clothes, a brass kettle, a gun, a tomahawk and scalping knife, a quantity of ammunition, a piece of gold, and the promise of a bounty for every scalp they should bring in (eight dollars for adults and a smaller sum for children). From that day Thayendanega was the acknowledged head of the Six Nations, and joining Colonel Bird at Oswego, with his command, proceeded to the investment of Fort Schuyler, which led to the subsequent siege and the attendant bloody ambuscade of Oriskany.

At this time from her temporary home at Canajoharie, or Indian Castle, Molly Brant sent a message to Brant by an Indian runner warning him that a body of nearly a thousand militia under Herkimer was on the march to relieve the garrison of said fort.

There can be no doubt but what his sister Molly kept him posted in regard to affairs in the valley and furnished him much valuable information previous to her forcible removal from thence.

During the siege of Fort Schuyler, the Indians with St. Leger took occasion to chastise the Oneidas, who had refused to unite with them. After the battle of Oriskany, Brant and a party of his warriors fell upon the old Oneida castle, burned the wigwams, destroyed the crops and drove away the cattle of his former confederates. No sooner had he retreated, however, than the Oneidas retaliated. The residence of Molly Brant, at the upper Mohawk castle (Danube), was ravaged, herself and family driven from home, and her cash, clothing and cattle taken. From thence the avengers visited the lower castle, and drove the followers of Little Abraham, one hundred in number, to refuge in Montreal, laying waste their plantations. Molly fled to Onondaga, and besought vengeance for the indignities which she had suffered, but to her possessions she was never restored: the indignant Oneidas had blotted out forever the seats of power from whence her tribe had swayed the destinies of a once powerful people.

A Corner of Old St. George' s Churchyard, Schenectady, N.Y.


Auburey - Batten Kill, N.Y.: "The Mohawk Nation," says Auburey, "which are called Sir William Johnson' s Indians, as having their villages near his plantations, and who in his life time was constantly among them, were driven from their villages by the Americans and have joined our army [British]. They have come with their squaws, children, cattle, horses, and sheep, and are encamped at the creek from whence this place takes its name [Batten Kill].

"When the army cross the river, the squaws and children are to go to Canada. Brant and his warriors are said to have been with them." Like the other Indians, the Mohawks soon became impatient under the restriction imposed upon their movements by the presence of so large an army, and they deserted Burgoyne some time before the catastrophe of Saratoga. Molly Brant was probably with them also.



Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 12/10/99.

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