The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





During the autumn of 1780 the Indians, thirsting for revenge for the wrong and misery inflicted by General Sullivan, were planning extensive expeditions against the Mohawk and Schoharie settlements. The leaders were Sir John Johnson, Brant, and the famous half-breed Corn-Planter. The Indians rendezvoused at Tioga Point, and, ascending the Susquehanna, formed a junction at Unadilla with Sir John Johnson and his forces, which consisted of three companies of his Greens, one company of German Yagers, two hundred of Butler's Rangers, one company of British regulars under Captain Duncan, and a number of Mohawks. They came from Montreal by way of Oswego, bringing with them two small mortars, a brass three-pounder and a piece called a grasshopper. The plan of invasion was to proceed along the Charlotte River to its source, thence across to the head of the Schoharie, sweep all the settlements along its course to its junction with the Mohawk, and then devastate the beautiful valley down to Schenectady. How the valley of the Schoharie was devastated, the many tales of cruelty by the Indians and bravery of the white settlers, the dwellings and barns and bountiful harvest that were destroyed, have been told so vividly by J.R. Simms and others that I will not attempt to repeat the gruesome tale at this time; but will endeavor to follow Sir John Johnson and his mixed forces in their progress from Fort Hunter on the Mohawk River, where he arrived October 17th and destroyed everything belonging to the Whigs. On the 18th he began his devastating march up the Mohawk Valley. Caughnawaga was burned and every dwelling on both sides of the river as far west as Fort Plain was destroyed, Sir John advancing with the main body on the south side and Captain Duncan's division on the north. Conspicuous among the sufferers was Jelles Fonda, a faithful and confidential officer under Sir William Johnson, but who, having turned his back upon the royal cause, was singled out as a special mark of vengeance. His mansion at the "Nose" in the town of Palatine was destroyed, together with property estimated at sixty thousand dollars. The Major was absent. Under the cover of a thick fog his wife escaped and made her way on foot to Schenectady, twenty-six miles away.

Sir John encamped, on the 18th, above the "Nose," and on the following morning crossed to the north side at Keder's Riff. A greater part of the motley army continued up the river, destroying crops and buildings, but a detachment of one hundred and fifty men was despatched from Keder's Riff (Spraker's Basin) against the small stockade called Fort Paris, in Stone Arabia, about two and one half miles from the Mohawk River. This fort was located a few rods northeast of the crossroads of this little hamlet, and at the time mentioned was occupied by Colonel John Brown with a garrison of one hundred and thirty men.

Tidings having been sent to Albany of the advent of Sir John Johnson into the settlements of the Schoharie, General Robert Van Rensselaer, with the Claverack, Albany, and Schenectady regiments, pushed on by forced marches to encounter him, accompanied by Governor Clinton. On the evening of the 17th this body, together with two hundred Oneida Indians, encamped on the Stanton farm in Florida, near the present city of Amsterdam, and from this camp, having heard that Fort Paris was to be attacked on the morning of the 19th inst., he sent word to Colonel Brown to march out and check the advance of Sir John's troops, while at the same time he would be ready to fall on his rear. Brown promptly obeyed and at nine o'clock, the hour designated, marched about half way towards the river and gave battle to Sir John, who had diverted the greater part of his force to meet Colonel Brown at the ruined works of old Fort Keyser. But "the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley," and, as Van Rensselaer's advance was impeded, no diversion was created in Brown's favor. Fort Paris was three miles from the river, and undoubtedly Brown could have defended it successfully against any force that Johnson would have sent against it; and yet, obeying the orders of a general who in other ways that day proved himself to have been incompetent, this brave man met the enemy two thirds of the way to the river, where the contest began. Overpowered by numbers he continued the fight, slowly retreating, expecting every moment to hear the firing in the enemy's rear - but in vain. Contesting the ground inch by inch for some distance, until observing that the Indians were gaining his flank, he ordered a retreat, at which time he received a musket-ball in the breast, killing him instantly. About forty of his men were killed and the remainder sought safety in flight.

Ornamented Window, Church at Stone Arabia.

Sir John now dispersed his forces in small bands to a distance of five or six miles in every direction to pillage the country. He desolated Stone Arabia, and, proceeding to Klock's field near the present village of St. Johnsville, halted to rest.

General Van Rensselaer was now in close pursuit of Sir John with a strong force, having marched rapidly up the south side of the river, and was joined by Captain McKean with some eighty volunteers, together with a strong body of Oneida warriors, led by their principal chief, Louis Atayataronghta, who had been commissioned a lieutenant-colonel by Congress. With these additions, the command of Van Rensselaer numbered about fifteen hundred - a force in every way superior to that of the enemy. W.L. Stone in Life of Brant says: "Arriving at Keder's ford, General Van Rensselaer found that Sir John had stationed a guard of forty men to dispute his passage. Approaching that point he halted, and did not again advance until the guard of the enemy had been withdrawn. Continuing his march, still on the south side of the river, while the enemy was actively engaged in the work of death and destruction on the north, Van Rensselaer arrived opposite the battle-ground where Brown had fallen, before the firing had ceased. This was about 11 A.M., and the Americans came to a halt, about three miles below Garoga Creek, still on the south side. While there, some of the fugitives from Colonel Brown's regiment came running down, and jumping into the river, forded it without difficulty."

As they came to the south bank, the General inquired whence they came. One of them, a militia officer named Van Allen, replied that they had escaped from Brown's battle. "How has it gone?" - "Colonel Brown is killed, with many of his men. Are you going there?" "I am not acquainted with the fording place," said the General. He was answered that there was no difficulty in the case. The General then inquired of Van Allen if he would return as pilot, and the reply was promptly in the affirmative. Hereupon Captain McKean and Louis, the Oneida chief, led their respective commands through the river to the north side, expecting the main army immediately to follow. At this moment Colonel Dubois, of the State levies, rode up to the General, who immediately mounted his horse, and, instead of crossing the river, accompanied the Colonel to Fort Plain, some distance above, to dinner as it was understood. Meantime the baggage-wagons were driven into the river, to serve in part as a bridge for the main body of Van Rensselaer's forces, and they commenced crossing the stream in single files. The passage in this way was not effected until four o'clock P.M., at which time the General returned from Fort Plain and joined them just as the last man had crossed over. Governor Clinton remained at the fort. As the General arrived at the water's edge, Colonel Louis, as the Oneida chieftain was called, shook his sword at him and denounced him as a Tory. Arrived at the north side, Colonel William Harper took the liberty of remonstrating with the General at what he conceived to be a great and unnecessary delay, attended with a needless loss of life and property on the part of the inhabitants who had been suffered thus long to remain unprotected. From that moment Van Rensselaer moved with due expedition. The troops were set in motion, and marched in regular order, in three divisions, with the exception of the Oneida warriors and the volunteers under McKean, who regulated their own movements as they pleased - showing no disposition, however, to lag behind. The advance was led by Colonel Morgan Lewis.

Anticipating that he would be compelled to receive an attack, Sir John made his dispositions accordingly. His regular troops, Butler's Rangers, and the Tories less regularly organized, were posted on a small alluvial plain partly encompassed by a sweeping bend of the river. A slight breastwork had been hastily thrown across the neck of the little peninsula thus formed, for the protection of his troops, and the Indians under Thayendanega were secreted among the thick scrub oaks covering the tableland of a few feet elevation; yet farther north a detachment of German Yagers supported the Indians.

It was near the close of the day when Van Rensselaer arrived, and the battle was immediately begun in the open field. Two of the advancing divisions of state troops, forming the left, were directed against the regular forces of Sir John on the flats, beginning their firing from a great distance with small arms only - the field-pieces not having been taken across the river. Colonel Dubois commanded the extreme right, which was so far extended that he had no enemies to encounter. Next to him were McKean's volunteers and the Oneida Indians, whose duty it was to attack Thayendanega's Indians and the Yagers. These were supported by a small corps of infantry commanded by Colonel Morgan Lewis. The Americans' left was commanded by Colonel Cuyler of Albany. Sir John's right was formed of a company of regulars. His own regiment of Greens composed the centre, its left resting upon the ambuscaded Indians. The latter first sounded the war-whoop, which was promptly answered by the Oneidas. Both parties eagerly rushed forward, and the attack for the instant was mutually impetuous.

Dubois, though too far extended, quickly brought his regiment to the support of McKean's volunteers, who were following up the attack of the Oneidas. The hostile Indians manifested a disposition to stand for a few moments; but Dubois had no sooner charged closely upon them than they fled with precipitation to the fording place near the upper Indian castle (Danube), about two miles above - crossing the road in their flight and throwing themselves in the rear of the Greens as a cover. Brant was wounded in the heel, but not so badly as to prevent his escape.


The enemy' s regular troops and rangers, however, fought with spirit, although Sir John himself was reported by some to have fled with the Indians. On the flight of the Indians, Major Van Benschoten of Dubois' s regiment hastened to the General for permission to pursue the flying enemy. It was just twilight, and the indications were not to be mistaken that the best portion of the enemy' s forces were in confusion and on the point of being conquered. The disappointment was therefore great, when, instead of allowing a pursuit of the Indians, or charging upon the feeble breastworks on the flats, and thus finishing the battle, General Van Rensselaer ordered his forces to retire for the night. His avowed object was to obtain a better position for a bivouac, and to renew and complete the battle in the morning - for which he fell back nearly three miles, to Fox' s Fort.


Captain McKean and the Oneida chief Louis did not strictly obey orders, and early the next morning started off with their forces in pursuit. Johnson, with the Indians and Yagers, fled toward Onondaga Lake where they had left their boats concealed, his Greens and Rangers following. Van Rensselaer and his whole force pursued them as far as Fort Herkimer, and then McKean and Louis were ordered to press on in advance after the fugitives. They struck the trail of Johnson the next morning and soon afterward came upon his deserted camp with the fires yet burning. Halting for a short time, Colonel Dubois came up and urged them forward, repeating the assurances of the General' s near approach and sure support. The Oneida chief shook his head and refused to proceed another step until General Van Rensselaer should make his appearance. There was accordingly a halt for some time, during which a Doctor Allen arrived from the main army, informing the officer that the pursuit had already been abandoned by the General, who was four miles distant on his return march.

The bitter feeling among the troops and inhabitants of the valley against General Van Rensselaer was intense, and charges of incompetency and even Toryism were freely made. It was even said that owing to family ties he had purposely allowed Sir John to escape from the toils in which the impetuosity of the American troops had surrounded him. However, the General was summoned before a military court and acquitted, - probably with the Scotch verdict "not proven."

It may be of interest to some to read the British reports of these raids as furnished by Guy Johnson:


Lieut. Clement reports that Captain Brant has effected a very good piece of service and is advancing against the rebel frontier. On his march from hence he came upon the only remaining Indian village of the Oneidas, sixteen miles from Fort Schuyler. He found the village abandoned, but met some Indians who told him they had returned through fear of parties of strange Indians, with many other particulars in which it appeared they had deceived him, for they soon deserted and gave notice to the garrison at Fort Schuyler. Captain Brant then burnt the rebel fort at the village with other buildings and marched to the Indians below Fort Schuyler, where he met the Oneidas in camp and called upon them to follow the example of the rest of their people and return to the British government. About 100 replied that it was their desire and they are not partly come to this place [Niagara].

The small remainder ran towards Fort Schuyler, which they reached, except two, who were shot. [Again:] Lieut. Clement reports that Captain Brant has burnt and destroyed the Oneida village, Conowaroharie, with the rebel fort and village, and retired somewhat to deceive the enemy. They proceeded to the Mohawk River with about 300 Indians and arrived at the settlement called Kley' s Barrack about 10 A.M. on August 2d, which having reconnoitred, he and the chief warriors thought proper to detach David Karacanty with the greater part of the Indians to make a detour and suddenly attack Fort Plank [Fort Plain], while Joseph and the remainder should come on directly and prevent any scattering parties from taking shelter in the fort. In this they were disappointed by the too great eagerness of the Indians to take prisoners, who scattered and alarmed the settlement, by which a considerable number of men got into the fort, which made the attack inexpedient, as it was well fortified and had two pieces of cannon mounted. Disappointed they advanced to the upper part of the settlement, where the rebels had a fort at the house of Hendrick Walrod, which they abandoned. This was immediately burned, and scattering, the Indians destroyed the houses till they came to Elias Map' s, where they had another picketed fort, which they likewise burned. The extent of the settlement destroyed was on the Mohawk River in length two miles and above five miles in breadth, and containing 100 houses, two mills, a church, and two forts. They took and killed 300 black cattle and 200 horses, besides hogs, poultry, etc., and destroyed a considerable quantity of grain of different kinds. The number of rebels killed and prisoners amounts to about 45. Captain Brant released a number of women and children and having effected this he retired to Butler' s Mills about three days since. With the greater part of the Indians he intends to pay the rebels another visit before their return, for which purpose they have divided into seven parties. These detachments marched by separate routes against German Flats, Schoharie and Cherry Valley, where they took many prisoners, destroyed dwellings, and created intense alarm.


The above report was dated Niagara, Aug. 11, 1780. Again from the British in Sept., 1780:


Lieut. Col. Butler with 200 rangers and 220 regular troops from the garrison of Niagara was directed to join Sir John Johnson at Oswego and act under his orders. His instructions forbade him to take "a single man, who is not a good marcher and capable of bearing fatigue. I hope Joseph is returned" Governor Haldimand added, "as I would by all means have him employed on this service."


Contrary winds prevented Butler from arriving at Oswego until October 1st, and by that time the garrison on the Mohawk were warned by their Indian spies (Oneidas) that he had sailed from Niagara on an expedition of some kind. It was not until daybreak on the 17th that the weary column, commanded by Sir John Johnson, passed the fort at the head of the Schoharie, having made a long detour through the wilderness for the purpose of attacking the enemy in an entirely unexpected quarter, and swept along the west bank of that stream down to the Mohawk, burning every building and stack of grain as they went along. Sir John then "detached Captain Thompson of the Rangers and Captain Brant with about 150 Rangers and Indians to destroy the settlement at Fort Hunter on the east side of Schoharie Creek, which they effected without opposition, the inhabitants having fled to the fort." Advancing swiftly up the Mohawk the invaders laid waste the country on both sides until midnight, when utterly exhausted they halted at the narrow pass called the "Nose" to snatch a few hours' sleep. Before daybreak they were again on the march and soon encountered Colonel Brown with 360 (?) men from Stone Arabia, who attempted to check their further progress.


While the detachments of the 8th and 34th regiments advanced directly upon the front of the enemy' s position, Brant with a party of Indians made a circuit through the woods to turn their right flank, and Capt. John Macdonnell led a body of rangers in the opposite direction to turn their left. The position was carried with trifling loss to the assailants, while Colonel Brown and about a hundred of his men were killed or taken.


Johnson reported that:


Captain Macdonnell and Captain Brant exerted themselves on this occasion in a manner that did them honor and contributed greatly to our success. Captain Brant received a flesh wound in the sole of his foot near the former wound.

Before night they were forced to fight a sharp rear-guard action with a pursuing force of more than a thousand men under General Robert Van Rensselaer. They turned upon their assailants, drove them from their position, and crossed the river unmolested. During their raid they had destroyed thirteen grist-mills, many saw-mills, a thousand houses, and about the same number of barns, containing, it was estimated, 600,000 bushels of grain. The severity of the blow from a military point of view was freely acknowledged by their enemies. - CRUIKSHANK.


And this in retaliation for General Sullivan' s impolitic expedition into the Indian country.



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