Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

The Mohawk Valley
Its Legends and its History
by Max Reid
New York and London G. P. Putman's Sons
The Knickerbocker Press, 1901
with illustrations from photographs by J. Arthur Maney

Chapter XIV Legend of Mrs. Ross

A parallel to the romance of the early life of Sir William Johnson is found in that of a young soldier who died at Johnstown during the Revolution, although it had a different ending. In one of the suburbs of London, in 1779, lived a young soldier of poor but honest parents, by the name of Charles Ross, who had fallen in love with a beautiful young woman, presumably of rich but honest parents,w ho objected to the attentions of the young man to their daughter. As usual in such cases, opposition fanned the flames of affection and made their love for each other more fervent.

About this time the regiment to which the young man belonged was hurriedly ordered to Canada to assist the English troops in the campaign in New York State; but the young Captain Ross found an opportunity to visit his lady love before sailing, at which tearful interview they uttered vows of mutual and eternal fidelity to each other with a promise that if he could not come to her, she would come to him, and together make a new home in the New World.

The persecution of her family, who desired her marriage to an elderly man of their choice, brought matters to a climax sooner than expected by either of the lovers, and made it necessary for immediate action on the part of the young girl in order to escape being forced into the obnoxious marriage. She dissembled as best she could in order to gain time to carry out a schemed to join her lover in America. A typical English girl, robust and resolute, with ample funds for necessary accessories, she purchased an outfit of men's garments, cut off her beautiful auburn hair, and secured a passage on a merchant vessel sailing for the port of Quebec, under the name of Frank Reade, her own name being Frances. Her father was a surgeon of repute with a large practice. When yet a child she had evinced great interest in matters pertaining to her father's profession, and as she grew older was frequently his companion in delicate surgical operations as an assistant; in fact, she was frequently called upon to render the assistance that the trained nurses of the present day so intelligently perform.

Fate was kind to her, in so much that she was able to elude the vigilance of her parents, embark on the ship without arousing suspicion, and in due time she found herself in mid-ocean and the victim of mal-de-mer in its most distressing form. The ship's crew consisted of the usual complement of rough and profane sailors, and a kind hearted captain with his young wife; the girl being the only passenger. During her attack of seasickness the captain and his wife were assiduous in their attentions to their young passenger, and it did not take many days for the wife to detect the sex of their patient, and to confide her discovery to her husband. When the paroxysms of the disease had been allayed and the patient was convalescent, she was told of the discovery the wife had made and assured by the captain and his wife that if she would confide in them her confidence would not be betrayed. Her story was soon told, and the remainder of the long voyage with its storms and its calms was passed in comparative comfort, with the sympathy and friendship of the captain and his kind hearted wife.

Landing at Quebec, Frank, in company with the captain, called on the commandant of the citadel in order to ascertain Where the regiment to which Captain Ross was attached was located, and was informed that it was stationed at Montreal, had been engaged in active service, and had lost many of its men in battle and through sickness. Her anxiety for information about Captain Ross nearly betrayed her secret, but the presence of the captain of the ship and his ready wit saved her from suspicion, and found a way whereby she was able to take passage on a sloop to Montreal, ostensibly to join the regiment there as a recruit. This voyage in the slow sailing vessel was more tedious to the young woman than the long voyage across the Atlantic, and she was heartily glad when it was over.

Arriving at the island of Montreal, she ascertained that Captain Ross and his company had been detailed to join the rangers under Major Ross and Lieutenant Walter N. Butler at Owsego, preparatory to raiding the villages of the Mohawk Valley, the objective point being Johnstown, N. Y., the recent home of the family of Sire John Johnson. The detachment had left Montreal but a few days before by the way of the upper St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. Somewhat disheartened by not discouraged, the young girl determined to follow the detachment if she could procure a guide and means of transportation.

After due inquiry and with the assistance of the officer of the post, a Mohawk brave, familiar with the Mohawk Valley, was found, who advised going by the Lake Champlain route instead of Oswego. Procuring a Canadian woodsman's suit of clothes, consisting of a fringed buckskin coat, belted at the waist, skin trousers and leggings and a stout pair of moccasins, a skin cap, and hunting-knife in her belt, she was now more effectually disguised than while wearing the tight-fitting civilian suit she had discarded, and which had brought into prominence the shapely limbs of the wearer, but which were not at all conspicuous in the frontiersman garb she had chosen. After a delay of about a week, a suitable birch-bark canoe was secured and stocked with provisions for the long and lonely journey to the Mohawks' country.

The first day of the journey was occupied in floating down the rapid current of the St. Lawrence to the mouth of the Richelieu River, the outlet of Lake Champlain and Lake George. Turning into the river the labor of the journey began, as every foot of the route had to be won by the stroke of the paddle. For the first few days Frank could give the Indian but very little assistance in using the paddle, but by persistent effort she was finally able to master the stroke and contribute her share toward the propulsion of their frail vessel. Two weeks were occupied in ascending the two lakes, and by the time they reached the head of Lake George, she was very glad to leave the canoe for the more arduous labor of packing their provisions over the trail through the forest to Johnstown, sixty miles away. Their packs were not very heavy as their provisions were nearly exhausted in their voyage up the lakes. Without any unnecessary delay the canoe was hidden on the border of the lake, the packs adjusted, and after a momentary glance at the sun and the surrounding mountains,t he Mohawk plunged into the interminable forest and the last stage of their journey began. An hour brought them to the upper Hudson, which they forded at the Great Falls (Palmer's Falls) without difficulty. They were now in the enemy's country, which made it necessary to proceed with caution in order to avoid discovery from provincials and wandering bands of Oneidas, as their appearance would have attracted critical attention from any person whom they might meet.

The young brave's well-knit form was clad in a well-worm pair of deerskin trousers, fringed and discolored, which were belted and supported by a wide strip of buckskin placed diagonally across the chest and back and over the right shoulder, leaving the balance of the upper part of the body bare. On his feet and half way to the knee were a pair of moccasins, laced with strings of deerskin; his head bare except a mass of jet black hair falling to his shoulders and half covering his face. In his hand was a musket and in his belt a small axe and hunting-knife, while his pack was held to his back by a string of rawhide. Following in his footsteps strode Frank, whose erect form and elastic step were but another evidence of the strength and vigor that shone from her dark blue eyes and flushed cheeks. The constant exposure to the weather during her journey of three thousand miles had browned her skin and hardened the muscles of he face and form, but did not prevent the flush of health shining through the dusky skin or dim the bright eyes. Her garments were weather-stained and her hair tangled and frowzy from neglect, but her general appearance was that of a hardy boy of eighteen or twenty years. Around her waist but under he buckskin coat was a broad belt filled with the open sesame of many people's hearts--gold.

The trail led over and around the foothills of the Adirondacks, which are dignified with the name of mountains by the tourists of today, and led them through towering forests and tangled underbrush, sometimes treading with noiseless steps over beds of the needles of pine and tamarack, or toiling over masses of rotten trunk and spear like branches; sometimes plunging into dark and dam ravines and sinking ankle-deep into soggy mold; again climbing jagged rocks and almost perpendicular cliffs to some barren eminence with naught but the sky above and the October foliage of the forest below, with its boundless wealth of color, extending in every direction until it was lost in the haze of the distant horizon. Far away to the west is seen the dim outline of the Mayfield Mountains, which the Mohawk points out as the goal to which they are toiling, and in the freshness of her vigor she urges him on until nature rebels and she pleads for rest. A camp is made, their simple meal prepared, and she sinks to sleep amid the perfume of the evergreen boughs that constitute her bed, dreaming again of the loved form and the enfolding arms of her absent soldier. Awake with the dawn with muscles tired and stiff, she urges the Mohawk in his preparation for the day's trail. This day they leave the mountains behind them and find the trail well beaten and over comparatively level country, but the night find her worn and weary and the morning without energy The succeeding days of her journey are uneventful, and at the close of October 24th they camp on a streak which the Mohawk tells her flows through the little village they are seeking.

Throwing herself on the green turf while the Mohawk prepared their evening meal, supplemented with some speckled beauties from the stream, she gives herself up to reverie and longing for her lover captain. Arousing herself she becomes aware that the Indian is gazing fixedly at her, and as her eyes meet he says in a low, even voice, "Is the captain the white maiden's brother or lover?" White pale face and startled eyes she asks him what he means. "The maiden need not fear," says the Mohawk; "her secret has been hidden in the breast of Onatassa many days, even since she killed the snake that lay in her path at the island camp on the Horicon, when she poised the stone over her shoulder before she crushed the reptile, and at night when she murmured the name of her lover in her sleep."

"Why did you not tell me you had discovered my secret?" demanded Frank. "Onatassa's eyes were open, but his lips were closed,"sentiently replied the Indian; "The maiden did not want to be know, and the paleface was still a lad to him." That night Frank could not sleep, but tossed restlessly on her bed of evergreens until dawn, when her weary eyes closed and tired nature demanded relaxation and repose.

The sun was well up toward the zenith when she awoke startled and bewildered to find herself alone. After the morning ablutions in the stream she prepared food for her morning meal and waited impatiently for the return of Onatassa. An hour, two hours passed before his active form was seen coming swiftly through the forest. While she slept he had been reconnoitering in the vicinity of Johnstown, three miles away, and reported a battle in progress between the American forces under Colonel Willett and the British under Major Ross, and that the American forces had been repulsed. Hurriedly resuming their packs the twain swiftly approached the battlefield, the girl eager and anxious as she drew near the end of her three-thousand-mile journey. Soon they were able to hear the roar of musketry,which, as they paused to listen, seemed to come nearer and nearer to them, and at last the forms of green -coated soldiers were seen apparently in retreat. Hastily withdrawing into a convenient gorge, a place of concealment was found for the maiden, and Onatassa advanced in the direction of the firing,which was apparently growing less and less in a westerly direction.

As told in the last chapter, in the account of the battle at Johnstown, the American forces under Colonel Willett were repulsed in their first attack and retreated to Sr. John's church in the centre of the village. Receiving reinforcements, Colonel Willett rearranged his forces and again advanced to the attack, and after a stubborn resistance the British troops were completely routed and dispersed through the forest to the west in the direction of East Canada Creek.

Captain Charles Ross sought in vain to stem the tide of battle, and his company, being the last to give way, formed the rearguard of the army, which was more of less annoyed by the small bands of Oneidas. While passing through a dense thicket he was struck in the chest by an arrow. Grasping the shaft, it became detached from the barbed flint, but with that one spasmodic action he fell unconscious to the ground. The retreating army hurried on, crossed West Canada Creek, where Lieutenant Walter N. Butler was killed by the Oneida, and in due time reached Oswego, leaving their dead and dying scattered through the forest.

Having ascertained part of the above facts, but knowing nothing of the fate of Captain Ross, Onatassa returned to the gorge and imparted the information he had received to the maiden, advising that as the forest in the vicinity was being searched by the Americans in order to render succor to the wounded, it would be well to remain concealed until the following morning, and then by a wide detour to the north to follow the trail of the retreating army. Making the young girl as comfortable as possible in her retreat, he again disappeared in the forest, urged on the the desire of Frank to know the fate of Captain Charles. After twilight the Indian returned and reported that the captain was with his command at the crossing of Garoga Creek, but had disappeared before reaching the Guyohara (East Canada Creek).

"How long will it take to reach the Garoga?" asked Frank. "Six hours," replied the Mohawk. Strapping her blanket to her back, but discarding all else, the girl grasped the stout staff that had been her support over the trail from Lake George; she pointed to the moon near the zenith, and said to Onatassa: "Lead on while yet there is light." Motionless, he gazed at that pale, anxious face, glanced at the moon over his head, picked up his rifle, and silently strode out of the ravine with the young girl following close in his footsteps. Striking the wee defined trail that led to the village of Johnstown, they soon left the gloom of the forest and skirted along the cleared land north of Johnson Hall, and after about an hour's travel struck the trail of the British forces, made wide and distinct through the underbrush by the frantic efforts of four hundred soldiers eager to escape from the vengeance of the conquering Americans. Near dawn they reached the Garoga Creek, which was crossed without difficulty. About two hundred paces from the creek the Mohawk called Frank's attention to the fact that the trail narrowed to about twenty feet in width, showing that the troops were marching in a semblance of order,which made it much easier for the searchers to scan every foot of the trail. At little farther on, a spot of bright color was dimly seen at the side of the road, which upon examination proved to be the dead body of a British soldier wearing the uniform of the 9th Regiment, and undoubtedly one of Captain Ross's command. The gruesome sight was repellent to the womanly nature of poor Frank, and she passed hurriedly on, only to be started by a snapping, snarling howl in the forest in front of them. Calling to herself that fortitude which had been her support throughout all this weary journey, she examined every foot of the trail, eager yet fearful of finding that which she sought.

At the howl of the wolf Onatassa shifted his rifle and passed quickly ahead to a point where the underbrush formed an almost impenetrable thicket. With a nervous spasm of fear, Frank clung close in his footsteps, dreading to be left alone even for a moment, her night's weary journey reminding her that she was still a womanly woman despite the strange garb that she wore.

With a warning motion of his hand, Onatassa raised his rifle to his shoulder. Standing directly behind him, Frank was able to glance along the barrel of the rifle into the blazing eyes of a huge gray wolf that stood with one foot raised, as though startled by the footsteps of the yet unseen Mohawk. The sharp crack of the rifle was heard,and with a convulsive movement, but without a sound, the beast dropped dead where he stood. As Onatassa pushed his way through the thicket with the hunter's instinct to gaze on his prey, Frank became conscious of a low moan at her left. Her nerves now strung to the highest tension, she turned to flee to the open trail, but the cowardly impulse was instantly banished, and she advanced through the thicket in the direction of the sound, only to again shrink from the apparently dead form of another British soldier. As she gazed, a convulsive movement of the man, probably partially aroused from stupor by the sharp crack of the rifle, gave evidence that life was not extinct. The gray light of dawn and the gloom of the forest barely revealed the form and the bright color of the garments of the soldier. Crying, "Onatassa," she hastened forward and removed the tall grass that partially covered the body, and disclosed the pale face of Captain Ross. Almost paralyzed with conflicting emotions, she uttered a low moan as she sank to the ground and pressed her cheek to that of the wounded officer. Instantly she raised herself to her knees with her hand stained with blood from the wound in his chest, and directed the Mohawk to prepare a litter for the removal of the captain.

Two saplings were cut the proper length, and while the Mohawk was binding them together with crosspieces, Frank cut small branches of cedar as a covering to the litter and spread her blanket in such a way that it could be wrapped around the wounded man. Placing the litter on the ground, the captain was gently rolled on his right side, the litter placed close to his body, and then was gently rolled to the left and on to the rude bed. Quickly lifting the same it was borne out of the thicket and into the sunlight of the early morning. While Onatassa brought water from the brook, the girl bared the chest of the captain and disclosed a flint arrowhead still imbedded in an inflamed wound. Directing the Indian to bathe his face, Frank took from a pouch that hung from her side a small flask of brandy and a flat case containing a surgeon's emergency outfit, which she had procured while in Montreal. Forcing a small quantity of the brandy between the half-open lips, she watched the bared throat, and was grateful to see a convulsive movement that indicated an effort made to swallow the same. More brandy followed, and the pulse began to quicken. Opening the case and selecting a needle and silk, she bade the Indian gently remove the arrow point. As little blood followed,which was quickly washed away, and the wound bathed with diluted brandy. Glancing at the Mohawk she observed him looking intently at the arrow point, and as he caught her gaze he uttered the word "poison!" Without a moment's hesitation she applied her lips to the wound and drew the blood therefrom. This operation she repeated a number of times, until the blood ceased to flow. Again bathing the wound, she deftly sewed the lips together and made further attempts to revive her patient. His pulse grew stronger, a little color returned to the lips, and respiration returned, but he still remained unconscious. "Is there a house near at hand?" she asked of the Mohawk, who stood near, immovably watching her efforts. "A hundred paces tot he east is the log cabin of the father of Onatassa, who is in Canada." "Let us go there quickly," said Frank, at the same time taking one end of the litter.

The captain was heavy and the road uneven, but they soon reached the cabin and placed the rude bed on the floor. With the aid of more boughs, a couple of bearskins found in the cabin, and a blanket, a comfortable bed was made, the captain's coat and heavy military boots removed, and the patient placed thereon.

Under the patient and intelligent care of the young girl the captain slowly improved, and before a week had passed he regained consciousness, but failed to recognize his nurse in her strange attire. The rifle of the Mohawk provided venison, the brook fish, and a trip tot he village of Johnstown other necessities for the household, and the kindness of neighboring settlers, assistance and products of the dairy.

When the captain had so far recovered as to be able to pass part of the day in the bright sunshine outside the cabin, the Mohawk signified his intention of returning to Canada; but before he departed, Frank requested him to remain in the cabin two days longer while she went to the village to transact some business which she said could not be put off any longer. After giving specific directions to Onatassa for the care of the patient, she departed on her long tamp to Johnstown.

The cabin of Onatassa was situated on the bank of the Garoga, on an oblong point of land formed by two ravines meeting, and was selected by his father because of a tradition that this point was the location of one of the earliest palisaded villages of the Agniers (Mohawks) when they were driven from their old home on the island of Montreal by the Hurons and Algonquins, just previous to 1600. No evidence was to be seen, however, except a few holes that marked the line of the stockade and a few mounds of black earth in which clam shells and broken pottery were found. From this point the trail had become a wagon road, leading through the forest; the low swampy spots made passable for the rude vehicles by logs laid close together, forming what was known as corduroy road, the road sometimes making a wide detour in order to reach fording places across the streams.

The morning that Frank left the cabin of Onatassa was bright and clean, with a suspicion of the Indian summer in the air. Attired in her woodsman's suit, the Mohawk's rifle resting on her shoulder, for protection from wild beasts which were occasionally seen in the forests, she at once adopted the long, swinging stride that she had learned from the Indian in their long tramp through the wilderness. In perfect health and vigor,and with the thought of her errand upper most in her mind, she made the journey to the village of Johnstown to safety, and put up at the tavern that had been kept by Gilbert Tice, on William Street. In a former visit to the village during the illness of Captain Ross, she left an order with the village seamstress for some woman's underclothes, but not being able to procure outer garments that pleased her, she had purchased a full buckskin suit, finely embroidered, that had formerly belonged to a Mohawk maiden of about her height. Heretofore she had been able to conceal her identity from the captain, but the announced departure of Onatassa for Canada, and her maidenly modesty, urged her to at once carry out a scheme to which she had given a great deal of thought, which was, to resume the garments of her sex and be married to her lover, that she might have the right to remain with him, and care for him after the departure of the Mohawk.

After partaking of food at the tavern, she repaired to the home of Rev. John Urquhart, missionary to the chapel at Fort Hunter and St. John's Church, Johnstown To him and his wife she told her story, and also requested their assistance in the necessary preparations for the marriage ceremony, which she desired to take place the next day, immediately on her return to the cabin. Arrangements were also made with the landlord for rooms at the tavern until such time as suitable quarters could be procured elsewhere.

The clergyman and his young wife entered heartily into the scheme, and the girl returned to the tavern with the understanding that she was to return to the cabin early the following morning, and that the clergyman and his wife and the daughter of the landlord should follow about two hours later, in order that she could have time to make the necessary arrangements before their arrival.

The next morning's dawn found Frank busy attiring herself, as far as possible, in garments to which she had been a stranger for many weeks. Making a bundle of those she could not at present wear, she again dressed herself in her woodsman's suit, and, after a hearty breakfast, procured a conveyance, and in due time arrived at the cabin. After the usual morning greetings and a few minutes' care of her patient, she repaired to her apartment, which was one corner of the one large room, divided by a curtain made of blankets. Donning a silk blouse, belted at the waist, with lace at the neck and sleeves, the short buckskin skirt of the Indian costume, dark stockings, and a pair of English walking boots, she stood trembling and blushing. Her short auburn hair, wavy and rebellious, clustering around her forehead, her dark blue eyes, brilliant and tender at the thought of the coming meeting, knowing that in face and form she was a beautiful woman, she still delayed drawing the curtain that should disclose to her lover the woman he adored.

The captain had arisen from this rude chair for the purpose of going out into the bright sunshine. As he turned his back on the curtained room, Frank parted the blankets and took a step forward, at the same time uttering in low, tender tones, surcharged with the longings of a heart filled with the repressed love of many weeks, "Charlie, love!" Turning quickly at the sound, he beheld a vision of beauty endowed with "nature's charms in most superb profusion" standing with outstretched arms. A bewildered expression passed over his face, and he raised his hand to his forehead as though he would clear the mist from his brain, but a well remembered motion of the upraised arm and the love light in her dear eyes were not to be mistaken, and he clasped her in his arms and spoke the word she had so long waited for, "Sweetheart!" Murmuring between his kisses and caresses, "Oh, my love, my darling, my sweetheart," she led him to his chair and kneeled by his side, while in answer to his eager questions she told the story of her long journey and her search for him in the wilderness. The sudden darkening of the doorway attracting their attention, they looked up to behold the tall form of Onatassa, whose dark eyes gave no gleam of surprise or emotion. "The white maiden's friends are coming," he said, and then immediately retired. And then Frank, or rather Frances, as we will now call her, with blushes told the captain of her journey to Johnstown, and the preparations she had made for their immediate marriage and removal to the village, that she might be with him always and care for him as his wife. She told him of the little cottage already furnished that had been hastily vacated by a family of Tories who had fled to Canada with Sir John Johnson, which only awaited his inspection to be secured as their future home.

The Black-Horse Tavern (Younglove Homestead), Johnstown, 178-?

By this time the clerical party had approached the cabin, were greeted by the inmates, and as comfortably disposed of as the limited accommodations of the cabin would permit. After some very light refreshments, the bride being already attired, no time was lost in the final preparations for the marriage ceremony. In front of the cabin, which faced the east, the forest had been cleared, leaving a turf covered space of gentle declivity to the creek below. Outside of the weather stained log house Onatassa was busy toasting venison steak for their midday meal before a wood fire built under the shadow of a giant pine. Back of the house were tethered the horses that had conveyed the party from the village, while the scattered trees and the distant forests were brilliant with the bright livery of autumn.

On the green sward was placed the captain's rude chair in the morning sunlight. Onatassa was called from his duties, and the minister's wife, acting as master of ceremonies, proceeded to arrange the bridal party. The captain, still weak from his wound and the extraordinary excitement of the morning, was assisted to his chair, Frances kneeling at his side half facing him; to the right of the captain stood the stalwart, half naked form of the Mohawk, hastily decorated with paint and feathers for the occasion, as best man, and to the left the daughter of the landlord; in front the clergyman in cassock and cap, with the ritual of the Church of England in his hand.

With solemn voice the words were spoken that made them man and wife, and with feelings of mingled joy and anxiety they prepared to leave the rude woodland home of Onatassa. A simple meal was prepared for the party, and the captain gently assisted into one of the wagons. The parting of Frances and the captain with the Mohawk was not without emotion, the girl lingering to the last to express her gratitude for his care and consideration for her in their long journey through the wilderness and his kindness and assiduity during the trying season of the captain's illness. The expressions of gratitude seemed more acceptable to Onatassa than the numerous gold pieces that the girl placed in his hand.

Already prepared for his return to Canada, he accompanied the party to the crossing of the creek, at which point their path divided. The Mohawk came to the side of the wagon as it halted at the trail, and addressing the maiden, said: "The paleface maiden is happy today. May sunshine always brighten her life. The memory of her bright eyes will illumine the path of Onatassa in his journey through the forests." Abruptly turning, he swiftly passed along the trail without a backward looks, out of sight and out of their life. Their journey to Johnstown was without incident, and the following Sunday found them happily located in their new home, where we will leave them.

The following extract is taken from a London paper, printed in 1783, and dated Hammersmith, England: Died at Hammersmith, Mrs. Ross, celebrated for her beauty and her constancy. Having met with opposition in her engagement with Captain Charles Ross, she followed him, in men's clothes to American, where, after such a research and fatigue as scarce any of her sex could have undergone, she found him in the woods, lying for dead after a skirmish with the Indians, and with a poisoned wound. Having previously studied surgery in England, she, with an ardor and vigilance which only such a passion could inspire, saved his life by sucking his wound. During the time she had remained unsuspected by him until his recovery, when, as soon as she found a clergyman to join him and her forever, she appeared as herself, the priest accompanying her. They lived for a space of four years in a fondness almost ideal to the present age of corruption, and that could only be interrupted by her declining health inconsequence of the poison not being expelled which she had imbibed from his wound. The knowledge he had of it, and piercing regret at having been the occasion, affecting him still more sensibly, he died of a broken heart at Johnstown, NY. She lived to return and obtain forgiveness of her family, and died in consequence of her grief and affection, at the age of twenty-six.

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