The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





While the army of St. Leger was investing Fort Schuyler, successfully preventing reinforcements being thrown into the fort, although unable to force an entrance by more or less vigorous attacks, an effort was made to persuade the timid and disaffected residents of the valley to abandon the cause of the patriots and enroll themselves with the King' s army in front of Fort Schuyler, by issuing an address signed by Johnson, Claus, and Butler. This document was sent by messengers throughout Tryon County, but it effected little else than to get the messengers themselves in trouble.

About two miles above Fort Dayton (Herkimer) resided a Tory named Shoemaker. Having heard that a clandestine meeting of Tories was to take place at his house, Colonel Weston, the commandant at Fort Dayton, sent a detachment of troops thither. The night was dark and the soldiers were able to surround the house without being discovered, and cautiously concealed themselves until all of the bidden guests were assembled. Among those present were Lieutenant Walter N. Butler and his guard of soldiers and Indians who had accompanied him from St. Leger' s camp for the purpose of distributing the inflammatory document, and a number of the disaffected of the county. So complete was the surprise of the attack that Butler was taken while making a speech and his comrades surrendered without bloodshed.

General Arnold at this time was waiting at Fort Dayton for supplies and reinforcements, before marching to the relief of Fort Schuyler. At a court-martial that was immediately convened, with Colonel Willett as judge, Lieutenant Butler and some others were convicted as spies and sentenced to death. At the intercession of some American officers who had been college students with Butler, his life was saved by a reprieve and he was imprisoned at Albany in the common jail. Subsequently he escaped, to lead in the massacre at Cherry Valley.

Among the Tories who were captured and sentenced to death was a half-witted fellow named Han Yost Schuyler. Having been associated with the Indians on the frontier by force of circumstance and inclination, he was regarded by the savages with the superstitious reverence which they have for simple-minded people. His mother, an old half-gypsy creature, and his brother Nicholas implored General Arnold to spare his life, but Arnold was obdurate. She implored passionately and becoming almost frantic in her grief, Arnold proposed terms on which he would grant Han Yost' s pardon, his brother Nicholas to be held as hostage for the strict performance of the duties required. He (Han Yost) was to hurry to Fort Schuyler, and so alarm St. Leger' s army that he would raise the siege. The half-fool at once accepted the conditions, and it was agreed that his brother Nicholas should forfeit his life if Han Yost should prove recreant or fail to accomplish the duties required of him.

It was also agreed that Thomas Spencer, the Oneida half-breed who had already proved his loyalty and devotion to the cause of the patriots in many ways, should accompany him.

Before they started on their mission the coat and cap of Han Yost were hung up and bullets shot through them, after which preparation, and without arms, they started by different routes towards the Indian camp of St. Leger' s army.

Ever since the battle of Oriskany the Indian warriors had been morose and dissatisfied. They had been promised easy success and much plunder, but they had found neither the one nor the other. While they were in the midst of a great pow-wow of dancing, doleful music, and grotesque ceremonies, Han Yost suddenly appeared among them, breathless and with clothes disordered. As he was well known to them, the Indians crowded around him, eagerly questioning him for news from Fort Dayton and the army of General Arnold. He told them that the army was then approaching the fort. When asked, "How many men?" he pointed to the leaves of the forest. When asked how near they were, he showed the fresh bullet holes in his garments. The report spread throughout the camps with amazing rapidity and soon reached headquarters. St. Leger sent for Han Yost, who told the commander a straight and pitiful story; how he had been captured with Walter Butler and others, had been tried and condemned; how on his way to his execution he had broken away from his guards and fled; how shots were fired at him, but he had escaped unharmed although he had had a very narrow escape, as the Colonel could see by his clothes. While this interview was being held Spencer arrived and confirmed the story of Han Yost that the Americans were coming in great force.

Other Oneidas, whom Spencer had seen and posted, followed at intervals from different routes with alarming rumors. One said that Burgoyne' s army was cut to pieces, another told St. Leger that Arnold had three thousand men near. The Indians, now thoroughly alarmed, prepared to flee. St. Leger tried every means, by offers of bribes and promises, to induce them to remain, but the panic, and suspicion of foul play, had determined them to go. He tried to make them drunk, but they would not drink. He then besought them to take the rear of his army in retreating; this they refused and indignantly said, "You mean to sacrifice us. When you marched down you said there would be no fighting for us Indians; we might go down and smoke our pipes; whereas numbers of our warriors have been killed, and you mean to sacrifice us also." And notwithstanding the entreaties of Brant, Johnson, and Colonel Claus the council broke up and the Indians fled.

The panic was communicated to the rest of the camp and in a few hours the whole of St. Leger' s army was flying in terror toward its boats on Oneida Lake, Han Yost accompanied them in their flight as far as Wood Creek, where he managed to desert, and found his way back to Fort Schuyler that night and was the first to communicate to Colonel Gansevoort the intelligence of Arnold' s approach. The Indians, it is said, made themselves merry at the precipitate flight of the whites, who threw away their arms and knapsacks so that nothing should impede their progress. The savages also gratified their passion for murder and plunder by killing many of the white soldiers on the borders of the lake and stripping them of every article of value. They also plundered them of their boats, and according to St. Leger "they became more formidable than the enemy they had to expect." Another account relates that St. Leger, while standing on the border of the swamp alone with Sir John Johnson, reproached the latter with being the cause of the disaffection of the Indians. High words and mutual recriminations followed. Two chiefs, standing near, overheard the quarrel, and put an end to it by shouting, "They are coming! They are coming!"

Both officers, terribly alarmed, plunged into the morass. This was a signal for the general retreat of the whole army. Such was their haste that they left their tents, baggage, and artillery behind, and the bombardier was left asleep in the bomb battery! When he awoke he found himself alone, the sole representative of the besieging army. The Indians continued their cry, at intervals, "They are coming! They are coming!" behind the fleeing Tories, and thus amused themselves all the way to Oneida Lake.

The retreat of St. Leger from Fort Schuyler and the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga brought joy and hope to the harassed settlers of the Mohawk Valley, and except for occasional raids of small bands of Indians along the frontier no further invasion of the British forces was attempted until the summer of 1778.

This year was marked by a series of attacks on the frontier towns of New York and Pennsylvania. In January predatory excursions were made by large bands of Indians and Tories, who made their headquarters at Oghwaga, and of more than a hundred families scattered along the Susquehanna River above Lackawanna not one remained. Then came the destruction of Wyoming and its attendant massacre, followed in quick succession by the destruction of Cobleskill, Andrustown, German Flats, and Cherry Valley, with tales of butchery, torture, and every phase of barbarous cruelty.

An attempt had been made by Congress to secure the good-will of the warriors of the Six Nations, and to accomplish that purpose, if possible, a council of the Six Nations was called in February, 1778, to meet at Johnstown, N.Y. The Indians were so slow or reluctant in assembling that the council was not convened until the 9th of March. It is estimated that nearly seven hundred Indians were present, consisting of Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, a few Mohawks, and three or four Cayugas, and not a single Seneca, which tribe was by far the most numerous of all the Iroquois nations. The delegation appointed by the Congress consisted of the Marquis de Lafayette, Volkert T. Douw and James Duane. The results of the conference was very disappointing to the patriots. Colonel Stone says:


While the impression at the time seemed to be that the Oneidas, Tuscaroras, and Onondagas would remain neutral and restrain their warriors from taking active part with the British, the commissioners left the council fully persuaded that from the Senecas, Cayugas, and the greater part of the Mohawks, nothing but revenge for their lost friends and tarnished glory at Oriskany and Fort Schuyler was to be expected. Before the year closed it became evident that none but the Oneidas and Tuscaroras were favorable to the cause of the patriots, the Onondagas and Mohawks being as active in the cause of the British as the Senecas and Cayugas. The untiring zeal and energy of Rev. Mr. Kirkland, the missionary stationed among the Oneidas, and the persuasive power of Thomas Spencer, the Oneida half-breed, however, kept the Oneidas and Tuscaroras in line to the end of the war.


During the winter of 1778-79 bands of savages, or Tories disguised as such, kept the inhabitants of the valley in constant fear and alarm, and military men became eager to inaugurate General Washington' s plan of carrying the war into the enemy' s country. It was known that in the Senecas' country, in the Genesee Valley, and around the lakes of central New York large crops of corn and vegetables and orchards of apples, pears, and small fruits were raised, not alone for the Indians, but as supplies for the British Army. It was for the purpose of the destruction of this fair country and the expulsion or extermination of the turbulent tribes that General Sullivan' s expedition of 1779 was organized, laid waste the fields and villages of the Senecas and Cayugas and drove the inhabitants back to the British frontier posts at Niagara and Oswego.

In April, 1779, (which was previous to the organization of General Sullivan' s expedition), General Clinton despatched a portion of Colonel Gansevoort' s and Van Schaick' s regiments to chastise the Onondagas. The party consisted of five hundred and fifty men under the command of Colonel Van Schaick, who was instructed to burn their castles and villages, destroy their cattle and other property and make as many prisoners as possible. The expedition went down Wood Creek to Oneida Lake, thence up Oswego River to a point on Onondaga Lake, where Salina now stands. As a thick fog concealed their movements they were able to approach within four or five miles before they were discovered. As soon as the first village was attacked, the alarm spread to the others. Three villages, consisting of fifty houses, were destroyed, twelve Indians killed, and thirty-three were made prisoners. A large quantity of corn and beans was consumed and all of the horses and cattle were slaughtered. The council-house was not burned, but the swivel therein was spiked and the ancient and, to them, sacred council fire extinguished.

This expedition was cruel and of doubtful wisdom, as it alarmed the neutral Oneidas who were faithful to the Americans, because, having inter-married among the Onondagas, some of their relatives had been either slain or impoverished.

But the ire of the Onondagas was fiercely aroused, not alone on account of the destruction of property and loss of life, but because the great council fire of the confederacy, of which they had been keepers from the organization of the confederacy, had again been extinguished. The fire, in historic times, had been put out by Count Frontenac in 1692, and again extinguished in 1777, and to avenge this, the third extinction, three hundred braves were immediately sent upon the war-path, harassing settlements on both sides of the river. Under the guidance of a Tory they descended upon the German settlement at Cobleskill, murdering, plundering, and burning. The militia turned out, but, being led into an ambuscade, a number of them were killed. They fought bravely and while they were contending with the Indians the people fled in safety to Schoharie. Seven of the soldiers took post in a strong house, which the Onondagas set on fire and the brave young fellows all perished in the flames. The settlement was burned, twenty-two patriots were killed, and forty-two were carried away captives.

While the Indians were doing their deadly work in the vicinity of Cobleskill, another party fell upon the Canajoharie settlement, took three prisoners, captured some horses and drove the people into Fort Plain. On the same day another party attacked a small settlement at Stone Arabia, burned some houses, and killed several people. A party of Senecas also appeared at Schoharie and committed further depredations.

The expedition of General Sullivan into the Senecas' country, is, incidentally, of interest to the Mohawk Valley from the fact that the right division of his army under General James Clinton advanced up the Mohawk River with two hundred and ten bateaux and fifteen hundred troops, reaching Canajoharie June 16, 1779, and on June 17th commenced the arduous portage of bateaux and stores to Otsego Lake, twenty miles over exceedingly bad roads. This he accomplished in nine days' time, and on July 1st passed down the lake to its foot, where Cooperstown now stands, and awaited orders. While thus detained scouts were sent out to examine the bed of the outlet of the lake, which constituted the head waters of the Susquehanna River, and found it a narrow, shallow stream half choked with logs and floodwood and not having enough water to float a birch bark Indian canoe. In order to facilitate the passage of loaded bateaux along this rippling forest stream, the troops were ordered to build a substantial log dam across the outlet, by means of which the waters of the lake were raised two feet. On each bank of the Susquehanna wherever a clearing had been found the Indians had planted their crops, while sixty miles below were the Indian village and plantations of Oghwaga.

It was not until August 9th that General Clinton received orders to advance. W.L. Stone says, in his Life of Brant


And when on that day he was relieved from his vexatious halt the dam was broken and his flotilla was not only borne triumphantly along the pile of impatient waters, but the swelling of the torrent beyond its banks caused wide and unexpected destruction to the growing crops of the Indians on their plantations and at Oghwaga and its vicinity. They were moreover greatly affrighted at the sudden and unexpected rise in the waters at the driest season of the year, especially as there had been no rains and the hot midsummer sun was shining from a sky unflecked by fleecy cirrus, undimmed by sombre storm-laden clouds, and attributed the event to the interposition of the "Great Spirit" who thus showed he was angry with them. The country was wild and uninhabited, save by scattered families, and here and there by some few of the more adventurous white settlers in the neighborhood of Unadilla. The sudden swelling of this mountain stream, therefore, bearing upon its surging, tumultuous waters a flotilla of more than two hundred laden vessels, {original text has "vesesls".} through a region of primitive forest, was a spectacle which might well appall the untutored inhabitants of the region this invaded.

The Old Klock House, St. Johnsville, N.Y. - 1750.

At Oghwaga General Clinton was met by a detachment from Paulding' s regiment, and on August 22d joined General Sullivan at Tioga Point.


NOTE. Queen Esther, notorious as the "fiend of Wyoming," was living at Sheshequire, six miles below Tioga Point, in 1772, and removed at about that date six miles north and founded a new town, afterward known as Queen Esther' s town. This was afterward destroyed by Col. Martley in 1778, when she probably removed to Chemung. She had a son who lost his life a short time previous to the massacre of Wyoming, which was probably the exciting cause of her fury at that place. She was a daughter of French Margaret, granddaughter of Madam Montour, and a sister of Catharine Montour, 2d. She had another sister, Mary, who was the wife of John Cook, alias Kanaghargait, a Seneca chief sometimes called White Wings. Her own husband was Eglohawin, chief sachem of the Minsi Delawares.



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