The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





During the year 1781 small parties of Indians and Tories harassed the settlements of the Mohawk Valley and terrorized the inhabitants. The spirit of the people had in a great measure been crushed, and the militia broken down by the disastrous invasions of the previous year, and no troops seem to have been available for their protection, as the commander-in-chief was again evidently preparing for some enterprise of greater importance than the protection of the valley from the skulking savages of the north.

It was finally decided, however, to consolidate the skeletons of five New York regiments into two, which together with all militia levies were placed in command of Marinus Willett, whose name alone was a tower of strength to the people of Tryon County. A fortnight after his arrival and the gathering of the forces, it was found that his command consisted of barely three hundred men, including officers, with headquarters at Fort Rensselaer (near Fort Plain).

On the 9th of July, 1781, nearly three hundred Indians and a few white men, commanded by a Tory named Doxstader, attacked and destroyed the settlement of Currytown, murdered several of the inhabitants, and carried others away as prisoners. Currytown was a small, straggling village of twenty of thirty houses and situated about three miles from the Mohawk south of the "Nose." One of the houses, that of Henry Lewis, was surrounded by a stockade and used for a fort. The settlers, unsuspicious of the danger, were generally at work in the fields when the enemy fell upon them. It was toward noon when the Indians, crouching and crawling, emerged from the forest toward the scattered dwellings and with torch and tomahawk commenced their work of destruction. Among the sufferers were the Dievendorfs, Kellers, Myerses, Bellingers, Tanners, and Lewises. Jacob Dievendorf, the elder, escaped, but his son Frederick was overtaken, tomahawked, and scalped on his way to the fort, and Frederick' s brother, a lad of eleven years, was taken prisoner. The enemy plundered all of the barns and dwellings save the fort and a house belonging to a Tory, and either killed or drove away most of the cattle and horses in the neighborhood. When the work of destruction was accomplished the marauders started off in the direction of New Dorlach (now Sharon) with their prisoners and booty.

Colonel Willett was at Fort Plain when Currytown was attacked. On the previous day he had sent out a scout of thirty or forty men under Captain Gross to patrol the country for the twofold purpose of procuring forage and watching the movements of the enemy. They went in the direction of New Dorlach, and when near the present Sharon Springs discovered a portion of the enemy' s camp in a cedar swamp. Intelligence of this fact reached Willett at the moment when a dense smoke, indicating the firing of a village, was seen from Fort Plain in the direction of Currytown. Captain Robert McKean with sixteen men was ordered to that place, with instructions to assemble as many of the militia on the way as possible. With his usual celerity that officer arrived at the settlement in time to assist in extinguishing the flames of some of the building yet unconsumed. Colonel Willett, in the meantime, was active in collecting the militia. Presuming that the enemy would occupy the same encampment that night, and being joined by the forces under McKean and Gross, he determined to make an attack on them at midnight while they were asleep. His whole strength did not exceed one hundred and fifty men, while the enemy' s force, as he afterward discovered, consisted of more than double that number.

The night was dark and lowering, and the dense forest that surrounded the swamp encampment of the enemy was penetrated only by a bridle path. His guide lost his way and it was six o' clock in the morning before he came in sight of Doxstader' s troops, who, warned of his approach, had taken a more advantageous position. From this position Willett sought to draw them, and for that purpose he sent forward a detachment from the main body, consisting of ten resolute men under Lieutenant Jacob Sammons, to steal as near as possible, give them one well-directed fire, and retreat. The ruse succeeded. Sammons and his men, after discharging their guns with considerable effect, turned their backs at the first yell of the Indians, and the latter sprang forward in pursuit. They were, however, soon met by Colonel Willett in person advancing at the head of the main division, which consisted of one hundred men, while Captain McKean was left with fifty more as reserve, to act as occasion might require, on the right. The Indians did not wait an attack, however, but with great appearance of determination advanced with their wonted shouts and yells, and began to fire.

The onset of the Indians was furious; but they were received with firmness and in turn the Americans advanced with their wonted shouts and such manifestation of spirit as soon caused them to give way. Simultaneously with their attack upon the main body in front, the Indians had made an equally desperate rush upon the right wing, which might have been attended with disaster, but for the destructive fire poured upon them by the reserves of Captain McKean. The Indians, thus driven back, now betook themselves to their old game of firing from behind trees; but Willett' s men understood that mode of fighting as well as themselves. They did not, however, practise it long. Willett pressed forward waving his hat and cheering his men, calling out that he could catch in his hat all the balls the enemy might send, and in the same breath exclaiming, "The day is ours!" and with timely and efficient use of the bayonet the whole body of the enemy was put to flight in half an hour after the engagement began. Their camp was taken and their plunder recaptured, and the Indians retreated down their old trail to the Susquehanna. Their loss was severe --' nearly forty of their dead being left on the field.

Colonel Willett' s loss was five killed and nine wounded. Among the wounded was the brave Captain McKean, who was taken to Fort Plain, where he died a few days after. He received two balls early in the engagement, but kept at his post until it was all over and the Indians had fled, when he collapsed.

Perhaps there is no more heroic figure in the history of the valley during the war of Revolution than that of Colonel Marinus Willett, the intrepid commander of the yeomanry who dispersed the Indians at the battle of Dorlach as related in the foregoing pages. He was born at Jamaica, Long Island, July 31, 1740, being the youngest son of Edward Willett, a farmer in that town. When only eighteen years old he joined the army of General Abercrombie; as a lieutenant in Colonel Delaney' s regiment was present at the disastrous battle at Ticonderoga in 1758, and accompanied Bradstreet in his successful expedition against Fort Frontenac the same year. Exposure in the wilderness injured his health, and he was confined by sickness in the newly erected Fort Stanwix until the end of the campaign.

At an early date he became one of the most daring of the "Sons of Liberty" in the city of New York. When the British troops of the New York garrison were ordered to Boston, after the skirmish at Lexington, they attempted, in addition to their own, to carry off a large quantity of spare arms in boxes on wagons. Notwithstanding the remonstrances of Whitehead Hicks, the Tory major of New York city, and of Gouverneur Morris and others, Marinus Willett and a small body of the "Sons of Liberty," encouraged by John Morin Scott, boldly confronted the British soldiers, seized the arms, and carried them back to the now deserted fort. These arms were afterwards used by Gansevoort' s regiment, of which Willett was lieutenant-colonel. He was appointed second captain in Colonel McDougal' s regiment, accompanied General Montgomery in the expedition against Canada; was appointed to the command of St. John' s, where he remained until 1776. In 1777 he was in command of Fort Constitution on the Hudson River opposite West Point, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In May of that year he was ordered to Fort Schuyler, where he distinguished himself as the commander of the sortie made from that garrison when the camps of the Indians were destroyed and a large quantity of munitions of war and camp equipage was captured. On August 8th Willett, together with Lieutenant Stockwell, left the fort on a dangerous secret expedition at midnight, skirting the Indians' camp stealthily as Indian scouts, and with the skill of a forest runner evaded the prowling savages. It was raining furiously when they left the sally-port each armed with spear and hunting knife. Between the fort and German Flats, their destination, was an extensive swamp, almost impassable. Notwithstanding this obstruction, the brave fellows crept along the morass on their hands and knees until they reached the river. This they crossed on a log, using their hands as paddles, and were soon beyond the line of savage sentinels. It was very dark, their pathway was in a thick and tangled woods, and they soon lost their way. The barking of a dog gave indication of proximity to an Indian camp, and for hours they stood in the water up to their knees, fearing to advance or retreat. The clouds broke away toward dawn and the rain ceased and revealed to them the gruesome evidence that they were on the outskirts of Oriskany' s battle-field and near the fatal causeway. With true backwoodsmen' s caution they pushed on in a zigzag way, occasionally walking considerable distance in the bed of a stream to foil pursuers that might be on their trail. At last they reached the German Flats in safety, and securing fleet horses hurried down the valley to the headquarters of General Schuyler to urge forward troops for the succor of the garrison of Fort Schuyler.

Returning to the battle of Dorlach: At the time of the attack the Indians had placed most of their prisoners on the horses which they had stolen from Currytown, and each was well guarded. When they were about to retreat before Willett, fearing the recapture of the prisoners and the consequent loss of scalps, the Mohawks began to murder and scalp them. Young Jacob Dievendorf leaped from his horse, and, running toward the swamp, was pursued, knocked down by a blow of a tomahawk on the shoulder, scalped, and left for dead. Willett did not bury his slain, but a detachment of militia, under Colonel Veeder, who repaired to the field after the battle to care for the slain, fortunately discovered and proceeded to bury the bodies of the prisoners who were murdered and scalped near the camp. Young Dievendorf, who was stunned and insensible, had been partially covered with rubbish, when was seen to move. His bloody face being taken for an Indian, one of the soldiers levelled his musket to shoot him. A fellow soldier, perceiving his mistake, knocked up his gun and saved the lad' s life. He was taken to Fort Plain, and being placed under the care of Dr. Faught, a German physician of Stone Arabia, was restored to health, and lived to be an octogenarian.

Although defeated and driven to the southern frontier, the Tories and Mohawks that comprised the expedition were not long idle, but soon various bands appeared at different points in the Mohawk Valley whose murderous raids met with more or less success in the capture of prisoners, the murder of isolated families, and the destruction of buildings and harvested crops of grain. At the German Flats several spirited encounters took place between the enemy and the patriot militia. Captain Solomon Woodworth and a small band of rangers were drawn into ambush in the vicinity of Fort Dayton, and one of the most desperate and bloody engagements of the war ensued. Woodworth and a large number of his rangers were slain and several prisoners were taken by the Indians. Only fifteen escaped. Another affair occurred at t settlement called Schell' s Bush, about four miles northeast of Herkimer village. "The heroic defense of one Christian Schell is related in stirring prose and halting verse." Schell or Shell was a wealthy German, and, in order to protect his family and his extensive farm buildings, erected a strong block-house of stout logs, of two stories, the upper one projecting so as to allow the inmates to fire perpendicularly upon the assailants. No windows were built in the first story, but loopholes were placed on all sides in order to reach all points of attack, the entrance being protected by a massive door of hewn logs strongly bolted and barred. In constant fear of incursions of hostiles, Schell kept his diminutive castle well supplied with ammunition, water, and food. One sultry day in August, 1781, while the people were generally in the field, Donald McDonald, one of the Scotch refugees from Johnstown, with a party of sixty Mohawk Indians and Tories, made a descent upon Schell' s Bush. With the command were two noted traitors named Empie and Casselman.

The inhabitants mostly fled to Fort Dayton for safety, but Schell and his family took refuge in his block-house. He and his two sons were at work in the fields. The two sons were captured, but the father and the four other boys, who were near, succeeded in reaching the block-house in safety. The small fort was soon invested, but the assailants were kept at a respectful distance by the fire from the garrison. Schell' s wife loaded the muskets, while her husband and sons discharged them with sure aim.

McDonald tried to burn the block-house, but was unsuccessful. Procuring a crowbar he boldly ran up to the door and attempted to force it. After striking a few powerful blows with the bar, he was fired on by Schell and wounded so severely in the leg that he fell to the ground near the entrance. Quickly unbarring the door, Schell pulled the Scotchman into the block-house, a prisoner, at the same time securing his gun. Being well supplied with ammunition his capture enabled the besieged patriots to continue the vigorous defence, which kept the assailants at a safe distance or under cover of trees, stone walls and outlying buildings. At the capture of the Tory leader the battle ceased for a time. Schell was confident that the enemy would not attempt to burn his castle while their leader was a prisoner therein, and taking advantage of the lull in the battle he went into the second story and composedly sang the favorite hymn of Luther, "A firm fortress is our Lord, a good defence and Weapon."

Lady Johnson, "Lovely Polly Watts," Wife of Sir John Johnson, Bart.

But the respite was short, for the Indians, maddened at the loss of several of their number, and their commander prisoner, rushed up to the fort on all sides, and five of them succeeded in thrusting the muzzles of their pieces through the loopholes.

Mrs. Schell, a vigorous, quick-witted woman, seized an axe and with well-directed blows ruined every musket by bending the barrels. At the same time Schell and his sons kept up a brisk fire, killing some, wounding others, and finally drove the enemy to cover again.

In the dusk of the August twilight, Schell ran up to the second story and calling his wife in a loud voice told her that Captain Small' s troops were approaching from Fort Dayton, and in a few minutes he shouted in a still louder voice: "Captain Small, march your company round upon this side of the house." "Captain Getman, you had better wheel your men to the left and come up on that side."

There were, of course, no troops approaching, but the enemy, deceived by the stratagem, fled to the woods. McDonald was taken to Fort Dayton the next day, where his leg was amputated, from which operation he died in a few hours. The intrepid Schell and his brave family clung to their post which they had so well and skilfuly defended. The two sons were carried away to Canada, from whence they returned after the war. They asserted that nine of the wounded died on the retreat.

The loss of the enemy around the block-house was eleven killed and six wounded. None of the defenders of this little frontier castle were injured.

At a subsequent day, Schell, being at work in a field with two of his sons, at no great distance from the fort, was fired upon by a party of Mohawks concealed in the standing wheat. He was severely wounded and one of his sons killed. The old man was taken to the fort, where he died of his wound.

Many tales are told of murders and hair-breadth escapes from marauding Mohawks during the summer and autumn of 1781, but the activity of the brave Willett and the tireless energy of bands of patriotic rangers soon cleared the valley of hostiles and allowed the farmers to resume the cultivation of farms which they had been obliged to abandon.



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