The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





In the Catskill Mountains, a few miles northwest of the Kaaterskill, and at an elevation of about four thousand feet, one of many springs flows from the mountain side in a tiny rivulet, which soon unites with other small streams and goes bounding and dashing through dark and tangled ravines, sometimes lost to sight in dense vegetation, again visible in foaming cascades. Ever descending, it winds it tortuous course to the north, gathering other streams in its embrace, until these nameless rivulets lose the designation of "kills" and are dignified with the Indian name "Schoharie" Creek. Still turbulent it dashes on through Schoharie County, ever descending, ever widening, unharnessed, except in a primitive way, tapping the Helderbergs, draining the Appalachian foothills, through which it flows until it attains the dignity of a river, and a hundred miles from the source forms a junction with the historic Mohawk, at the prehistoric village of Ti-o-non-de-ro-ga, known, since 1712, as Fort Hunter.

Mound at Fort Hunter where a Number of Indian Skeletons Were Uncovered.

During the latter part of the winter of 1903-04 this stream gave renewed evidence of its turbulency by pouring great floods, mingled with ice and snow, into the ice-bound Mohawk, forming a gorge below its mouth, endangering a suspension bridge across the Mohawk at Fort Hunter, flooding the extensive flats at this point, and altering the course of the Mohawk so that a section of the Erie Canal, about a mile long, was practically destroyed.

After the warm weather of spring had cleared the watercourses of the accumulation of water and ice, work was begun to put the Erie again in commission, and a thousand men and hundreds of wagons were soon at work filling in the "break" with earth from the surrounding hills and flats. It may be well to state that this section of New York State was formerly the home of the Mohawks of the Six Nations, and probably for many centuries the home of tribes of the Algonquin Indians.

During the necessary excavations human bones were unearthed, but, except in a few instances, did not seem of any significance to the laborers, until the many bones uncovered attracted the attention of a limited number of persons who were familiar with the early history of this section of New York State.

In the early part of May, however, as many as six skeletons were uncovered, three of which were nearly complete. Around the neck of one were the remains of a necklace of wampum, which was estimated to contain about two thousand beads, which in the scramble that ensued among the Italian workmen were widely distributed or entirely lost, with the exception of about three hundred, that were obtained by Foreman Martin J. Hartley, who also secured the skeleton. Another collection of bones in a fair state of preservation was secured by N. Burton Alter, of Fort Hunter.

The third skeleton, secured by the writer, was more complete than the others and proved of great value on account of the finding of a portion of an Indian jar of large size in the grave with the bones, being positive evidence that the remains were that of an Indian, and that the place where they were uncovered was an ancient burial place of the Amerinds.

Recently I again visited this spot and obtained photographs of the vicinity. The day, although warm, was one of those "rare days in June" when the air, the sun, the sky, the wooded hills, and the vast extent of flat lands tempted one to explore this enchanting section of the beautiful Mohawk Valley, and to revel in the great wealth of verdure covering hundreds of acres of flat lands extending to the east and to the west. "Peace, peace, perfect peace," pervaded the spot. Nearly a mile away to the west the little village was scarcely visible through the screen of tall elms that intercepted the view, and the only sound heard was the creak of the tiller of a canal boat, and the clang of the bell of a hidden schoolhouse. To the south were wooded hills and north the Mohawk River, while midway the sluggish flow of the Erie Canal shone like a ribbon of burnished silver in the noonday sun. At our feet lay a small lake, half covered with green rushes and bordered with shrubs and low trees covered with the dense foliage of leaves in the luxuriance of full maturity.

Screening the Mohawk from view was an elevation of about twenty feet, and two acres in extent, covered with a grove of large forest trees. A new road through the edge of this grove led to one of the excavations that had been made in repairing the canal. This was the spot where the greatest number of bones was found.

One of the pictures taken was a view of the small lake in close proximity to the knoll. In selecting a point of view for this picture, the Professor wandered up and down the margin of the lake, and at last set his tripod down in front of me near the shore. I was barely conscious of an object in the grass, within a couple of feet from my position, which I had taken to be a good-sized boulder. An exclamation from my friend centered my attention, and the object was seen to heave, and I became aware that my boulder was an immense turtle, whose huge bulk was half concealed in the high grass. "Shall I turn it on its back?" I asked the Professor. "Do you think you can?" was the response. Reaching down I grasped the off side of the shell, out came four great legs armed with sharp claws about an inch in length, while the horrid reptilian head, as large as my wrist, reached for my hand and I dropped the ponderous body, which with an awkward movement sped down the sharp incline and disappeared in the lake in a muddy cloud which marked its course and at the same time concealed its destination. Not till then did I realize that I had in my grasp a monster turtle that had eluded capture for many months. "It is a fortunate thing for you," said the Professor, "that that wide mouth did not catch your fingers, because, as the old saying has it, Ža turtle never looses its hold until it thunders.' "

Having obtained our quest, but lost the turtle, we turned our steps homeward, which in this case was away from home, in order to reach a bridge and make a visit to Tribes Hill, pleasantly situated on a large plateau about two hundred feet above the Mohawk River.

Great Turtle Pond, Fort Hunter, N.Y.

The earliest record that I can find of Tribes or "Trips" Hill, as it is called on the Tryon map of 1779, is a grant of two thousand acres of land in the town of Mohawk to "Hendrick Hansen and his son Hans" dated 1713. The first settlers are said to have been respectable yeomen, being the family of Nicholas Hansen, who emigrated from Albany about 1725. His son, Frederick, is said to have been the first white child born on the north side of the Mohawk River in this vicinity. Other settlers came in 1728, a New Englander named Bowen and Victor Putman from Schenectady. With the assistance of Dewitt C. Putman and Pearson' s history of the Schenectady patent I am able to trace the genealogy of the Putman family back to Jan Putman, Goor, Holland, born probably in the latter part of the sixteenth century. A story is told which deals with the descendants of the two pioneers.

It is said that conspicuous among the Tories who accompanied Sir John Johnson in his raid in the Mohawk Valley on May 20, 1780, were Henry and William Bowen, who were active in the massacre of their neighbors on that awful night. The most zealous Whig at the "Hill" was Garret Putman, a great-grandson of the original settler, Victor Putman, and captain of a company of rangers. He had rendered himself particularly obnoxious to the British and Tories as a fearless and zealous patriot. On May 18, 1780, two days before the stealthy attack of Sir John and his Indians and Tories, he was ordered to repair to Fort Hunter; probably for garrison duty, as he took his family with him, and rented his house to two Englishmen named William Gort and James Plateau. Although the sympathies of Gort and Plateau were with the British they had taken no active part in the struggle that was going on, and were therefore unmolested by the patriots.

About midnight on the 20th, a party of marauders were stealthily approaching the dwelling-house of Mr. Putman. The waning moon half disclosed the dusky forms of the painted Indians and the half-disguised Tories, former neighbors of their helpless and unsuspecting victims. The crash of doors and windows as the invaders forced an entrance into their victims' home was made doubly terrifying mingled as it was with the war cry of the savages and the shouts of the whites as they killed and scalped the inmates, supposing them to be Mr. Putman and his son. But the dawn of the day and the vivid glare of burning dwellings and barns revealed the forms of their friends, Gort and Plateau, whom they had mistaken for the Putmans. The same night Henry Hansen was also killed.

Many tales are told of that dreadful night, when the unsuspecting inhabitants of the Hill were aroused from their peaceful slumbers to seek safety in flight from the Indians and the equally cruel Tories (whose fiendish natures had been aroused in this cruel partisan war by the example of the Butlers and Johnsons), or to meet a cruel death by tomahawks and scalping knives in the hands of these ruthless marauders. A story is told of the subsequent part of this raid, which was continued up the valley. Having destroyed the residence of Col. Fisher, who was scalped and left for dead, and his two brothers, John and Herman, killed, they proceeded to the house of Adam Fonda, which was pillaged and destroyed, and Mr. Fonda captured. Before the house was burned one of the Tories stole a large and massive copper tea-kettle, which he filled with butter and hid in the water under the bridge near by, expecting to return that way and get it, but the militia gathering in the rear of Sir John Johnson forced him to return by the way of Johnstown. After the war this kettle was found, and returned to the family of Adam Fonda, and is now in possession of the family of his granddaughter, Mrs. John. H. Striker, of Tribes Hill.

The Jelles Fonda Copper Kettle. A Revolution Relic.

It was for the purpose of obtaining a photograph of this interesting relic of the times that tried men' s souls that we made our visit to Tribes Hill.



Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 12/11/99.

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