The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid





Perhaps there is no book that was ever written in which scenes of the historic Mohawk Valley have been described, or tragic events related, either of fact or fiction, that has given more pleasure to the inhabitants of that immense tract of forests and plains, hills, valleys, and streams, hissing cataracts and purling brooks, once called Tryon County, than Harold Frederic's In the Valley.

It is almost impossible to wander far afield either north or west in the vicinity of old Mount Johnson, or Fort Johnson as it was renamed in 1757, without trying to locate a trail, or waterfall, or gloomy gulf where the black boy Tulp was dashed crashing to the rocks below, or to find the secluded council glen of the Mohawks, so graphically described. And although we have been informed by the writer himself that his scenes and incidents were all imaginary, and that he never passed through the "Valley" until three years after the publication of his book, we like to hide that statement away back in some remote cell of the brain, dormant, and go on dreaming of sylvan nooks and gloomy gulfs peopled with a real black boy and Philip Cross, Daisy Steward, and the generous, sturdy young Douw.

The last day in June, 1905, was one of the rare days of which poets sing, one of the days that seem to appeal irresistibly to the lover of nature to wander in haunts primitive and to forget, if possible, all things urban. Yielding to such appeal our trio of congenial spirits alighted from the suburban trolley at Getman's Crossing en route for Dadanascara. Shunning the highways, we took a cut cross-country traversing swampy lands, tangled woods, fields cultivated and uncultivated, sometimes passing through fields of white daisies and yellow marguerites and purple clover blossoms as high as the waist, again threading among stumps and boulders and over turf as grateful to tired feet as a velvet carpet, and at last, under the grateful shade of lofty pines and stunted hemlock and cedar, arrived at the cliffs of the Dadanascara.

Here my attention was called to a well-graded and well-defined road-bed, following the course of the creek, gradually descending until it reaches its bed and by a ford crosses it to the western or northern bank.

Our objective point being Dadanascara, the country home of Alfred De Graff, a mile away, we did not, at that time, descend to the bed of the stream, but continued on our way along the edge of the cliff, with an occasional glance at the bed of the gulf, nearly seventy feet below. Following a line evidently used for cattle we soon emerged from the wood and found ourselves on the edge of the 600-feet plateau and 300 feet above the wide expanse of flat lands that stretches from the N.Y.C.R.R. to the banks of the Mohawk. The view of the hills of Florida and Glen from this point in entrancing. At our feet, although a half-mile away, is the wide blue ribbon of the river, a fitting border to the waving fields of grain that spread before us east, west, and south, an unbroken expanse of the yellow-green of its vernal bloom.

On the south side of the Mohawk lie before us, en panorama, the Florida hills in all their beauty of emerald hues, and the clear air discloses to us in turn Fort Hunter, nestling by the turbulent Schoharie, the Jesuit shrine Auriesville, and a little farther, and on the top of the plateau, the little village of Glen, while along the southwestern horizon are seen in the dim distance the Schoharie highlands and the Helderberg Mountains. Overhead, the blue sky is luminous with light and heat, while the distant horizon is outlined with cumulus clouds of ponderous size, each gray convolution bordered with a snow-white lining which shines like silver in the declining sun.

Descending the hill we turned to the west and on a slight elevation we saw Dadanascara - not the creek, but the beautiful country place so named by its owner, Alfred De Graff. One of the trio expressed the thought of the others when he exclaimed, "The most beautiful country home in the Mohawk Valley!" Embowered in trees of generous growth, and with tasteful out-buildings scattered here and there, a full and uninterrupted view of the dwelling is impossible. But in that fact lies one of its chief charms. As we wander about the spacious lawn, new vistas of beauty meet the eyes at almost every step as the creamy white of the structure becomes visible through the foliage, which half conceals yet half reveals new charms, both picturesque and beautiful.

Abandoned Highway to Albany. Leading to Dadanascara Ford.

But our quest was not yet ended, and we reluctantly turned from the courteous attention of Mr. Howard De Graff to explore the gulf of Dadanascara. One of our party remained to finish a bottle of "Schlitz," but the others hurried on. As soon as the tardy one joined us he reported that he had seen three snakes in a pool we had just passed. Of course he thought we believed him, but we kept wondering how three snakes could be produced from one small bottle of "Schlitz."

And then the professor told about a young man coming in late to a ball with a big jag on, who stepped up to the leader of the orchestra and asked, "Was that Tannhäuser you just played?" "No," replied the leader, "It was Anheuser." As the crown laughed he turned away, saying to the leader, "You're all right." Another true story was told" A popular Division Street grocer had shaven off his mustache. An Italian customer came into the store and at once noticed the smooth face of the grocer, and, wanting to tell him he looked like a clergyman, he began, "You looka like, you looka, you looka," but the word he wanted would not present itself. All at once his face lighted up as he said, "You looka you looka like a church."

But if we stop to tell stories we will never get through the chasm.

We had descended into the bed of the creek immediately north of a substantial iron bridge spanning the stream for farm purposes. About 200 feet from this point the slate cliffs appear, hemming in the stream for nearly a mile and a half, their perpendicular height of perhaps seventy feet making a barrier all of that distance that is impossible to scale, so that a person entering this slaty gorge must go through to the end or return from whence he came. The bed itself, about fifty feet wide, is flat and extends close to the cliffs, so that in ordinary high water it is impossible to make the trip dry-shod.

This chasm is one of the most picturesque of the Mohawk Valley and only needs to be seen to be appreciated. Each high cliff is crowned with forest growths close to its edge, the tall pines adding forty feet or more to the seeming height of the barriers by which we are hemmed in.

I have called this spot a chasm, gorge, and gulf, but I think it will bear the importation of the western name of canyon to fittingly describe its appearance. The irregular slaty cliffs with their black slaty scales piled in myriads of layers and festooned from above with wild grape vines, the hardy honeysuckle, and poison ivy, show signs of erosion and corrasion and suggest post-glacial origin. At a point about half a mile from the upper end of the canyon the creek makes two sharp turns in the form of a letter S, the cliffs being worn into semicircles by the action of the water, leaving but a narrow sloping ridge, with a very precarious foothold, between the pool at its base and the rocky amphitheatre. In fact at this point I lost my grip on the slimy slate and slipped into the pool.

Dadanascara Gorge.

Sitting on a narrow ledge at the foot of the cliff and gazing at the highest point of the precipice on the opposite bank, I could not blame the careless reader of In the Valley for selecting this point as the spot from which Philip Cross threw the black boy to seeming death, and the later tragedy where the crazy Tulp seeks revenge, and, with his enemy, finds death on the rocky bed below.

Still dreaming I see the bloody battle-field of Oriskany, and in the bright moonlight that followed that dreadful day can discern the wounded Philip Cross, placed in the birchen canoe for its five days' journey down the Mohawk River, floating noiseless by night through the narrow canalized stream, with barely water enough to float the heavily laden canoe, past the wide and wondrously beautiful valley of the German Flats, over the difficult portage of the falls, and among its picturesque rocky islets, and finally on the long, smooth stretches of quiet waters, guided by the silent, slow, and skilful movement of the paddle in the hands of Douw as he watches his dying enemy.

Aroused from reverie he notes the silvery light of the full moon and its shimmering reflection in the placid river and becomes aware, by the wide reaches of flat lands on the left bank, that he is nearing the end of his journey on the river.

Guiding his frail canoe towards the shore, he searches for and soon finds the entrance to the Dadanascara, up which he slowly paddles nearly to the cliffs, where he finds his companion, Enoch Wade, waiting for him. And I almost expect to see the slow approach of the boatmen with the canoe on their shoulders around the bend below. The splash of a stone thrown into the pool at my feet arouses me, and the vision vanishes.

A few rods further on, at another bend of the stream, the cliffs fall away and we reach the open fields again. And here we meet again the road we spoke of before, leading to a ford which connects, a hundred feet farther up the stream, with a well-defined road, and further on a branch road with a westward trend. This road and ford antedate the Schenectady and Utica turnpike built by Seth Whitmore, Osias Bronson, and others in the year 1800. One of these roads was the main road to the West, and the other an old road to Johnstown. A bridge may have spanned the stream, but at present there is an easy ford across the slate bed of the canyon, which was probably used by Sir John Johnson and his Tories and Indians in his raid of the valley, and his approach to the house of Colonel Visscher was probably through the canyon of the Dadanascara.

You will remember the story:

Shortly after midnight of the 22d of May, 1780, The Visscher mansion was assailed by a combined force of the Tory and Indian foe. The inmates consisted of the Colonel, his mother, his sisters, two brothers, and the servants, who were subjected to the bloody violence of more than a hundred enemies. The scene which followed was one too deeply imbued with horror to be attempted in this brief recital. The sisters fled, seeking concealment in the gloom of the gorge of the Dadanascara Creek, while the mother, feeble with age and crippled by disease, was unable to move. The three brothers, John, Harman, and the Colonel, engaged in hand-to-hand combat in defence of their home and mother, but were overpowered.

The first two were murdered and scalped, and the latter was also (as was thought) among the slain. He was scalped and left for dead, after which the house was pillaged and then fired the enemy departing amid the blaze. The Colonel, however, revived, and recovered sufficient strength not only to escape the flames, but also to drag away the bloody corpses of his brothers. His mother had survived a savage blow and he was able to carry her to a place of safety.

These statements indicate a degree of nerve that seems almost incredible, but they were among the facts of history. Colonel Visscher afterwards found shelter among his friends in Schenectady. His murdered brothers were buried in one grave near their father in the family cemetery, and Colonel Visscher was the sole male survivor of the line. He recovered his health and immediately resumed active service.


The house which was burned stood nearer the turnpike than the present De Graff mansion, its exact site being indicated by the bronze deer in front of the house.

After the war of the Revolution the Colonel rebuilt his family mansion on the spot where the De Graff mansion now stands, in a very solid and spacious manner. After many years it was again enlarged and beautified by the present owner, Mr. Alfred De Graff, who represents the fifth generation in direct line of succession from Colonel Visscher.

After we reached the ford the writer did not have much assistance from his companions in locating roads, owing to the fact that their love for the good things of the woods and fields outweighed their love for history, and they spent their time in tickling their palates with strawberries and squaw-berries, wintergreens and calamus roots.

After emerging entirely into the open fields we found the Dadanascara wandering at all points of the compass, carving its bed through the fertile fields of the north. The stream seemed to be at the bottom of an extended valley, or rather the bed of a large prehistoric lake whose water had, in ages past, carved its way through a slaty barrier and formed an outlet through the canyon of the Dadanascara. {(Query: Did not the Sacandaga flow south into the Mohawk before the ice cap of the glacial period had receded far enough so that the water of that river and the prehistoric Vlaie Lake could make its present connection with the Hudson River?)}

But all things come to an end, and the lengthening shadows of the sun emphasized the fact that our ramble must end; but we could not resist the desire to revisit an old Indian camp on the Vrooman farm and were rewarded with a handful of prehistoric relics, although we barely caught our trolley.



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

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