Three Rivers
History From America's Most Famous Valleys

Annals of Tryon County;
or, the
Border Warfare of New York,
During the Revolution.
By William W. Campbell
New York; Printed and Published by J. & J. Harper 1831

Chapter VII.

 "And now no scenes had brighter smiled,
No skies with purer splendor mild,
No greener wreath had crown'd the spring,
No sweeter breezes spread the wing,
Nor streams thro' gayer margins roll'd,
Nor harvests wav'd with richer gold,
Nor flocks on brighter hillocks play'd,
Nor groves entwin'd a safer shade:
But o'er her plains, infernal war
Has whirl'd the terrors of his car,
The vengeance poured of wasting flame,
An blacken'd man with endless shame."

At the commencement of the revolution, the whole country now embraced within the limits of the County of Schoharrie, contained scarcely on thousand inhabitants: the great part of these inhabited the valley of the Schoharie creek. Their settlements commenced about 20 miles above the junction of that stream with the Mohawk river, and extended along its valley 15 miles. (A part only of the settlement of Schoharie was embraced within the County of Tryon; but their revolutionary history is connected with that of Tryon County: and I have concluded to give it in this chapter. The fact were principally furnished by a friend, since the other chapters were written. I have in many cases adopted his language and sentiments. Some allusions have been made in the foregoing chapters of these settlements, but I trust I shall be excused for giving a more minute account of them.) The breadth of this valley varies from two to three miles, and both in the richness of its soil, and in the beauty of its scenery, is scarcely equaled in the State. The history of its settlement, and the incidents that occurred there during the war of the revolution, is lost, so far as written documents are concerned; and all that can be known respecting it must be collected from tradition, and the oral accounts of the survivors. Before commending a narration of the events of the revolution in Schoharie, it may be well to relate what tradition has preserved of its early history.

In the year 1709, a number of families from the Palatinates in German, induced by the liberal offers made by Queen Ann, embarked for New York, and having proceeded up the Hudson as far as Albany, landed, and selected a few of their number to choose a place for a settlement. Of these, some went to Schenectady,and thence up the Mohawk, where a settlement of Germans had been formed a few years previous: the others, hearing of a beautiful country to the southwest, penetrated the wilderness in that direction; and after traveling through a hilly, and in some part mountainous country, arrived the second day on the height of land east of the Schoharie creek.

Here a scene of extraordinary beauty, and to them entirely new, burst upon their sight -- at their feet, and far below them, was a plain of limited extent, embosomed by hills, in some places rising abruptly to the height of 1000 feet, and in others of more gentle ascent, and broken by deep ravines. The declivity of the hills was covered with a stinted growth of oak, too scanty to hide even from a distant view the rocks amid which they grew, and forming a striking contract with the stately forest and luxuriant vegetation of the plain below. The valley had been partially cleared, and the alternate spots of woodland and meadow, interspersed with clumps of trees, added variety and richness to the landscape. Along its western boundary ran the Schoharie creek, now washing the base of the hill, now meandering through the flatts; its course marked through the woodlands by the deep green of the trees along its bank, and through the meadows by the elms that lined its borders; sometimes its course was hidden from the view by the thick foliage, and again, as its channel spread out wider, or its course inclined to the east, its clear waters were seen glittering in the sunbeams. No traces of any occupants of this valley were seen, except here and there the ruins of a deserted wigwam.

The travelers returned to Albany, and gave so flattering an account of the country which they had visited, that the whole company started immediately for Schoharie, without waiting for the return of their friends from the Mohawk The place they chose for a settlement had formerly been occupied by a part of the Mohawk tribe of Indians; but they had most of them now left it.

The settlers were illy provided with implements of husbandry, and with many of the necessaries of life, which wants were severely felt during many years. Whether they paid the Mohawks an equivalent for the land, tradition does not inform us. It was not, however, until several years after, that they obtained a grant from government.

A commission was sent to grant them a title in the name of the crown, and to extend to them the protection of the laws. Believing this to be a pretense for extracting taxes from them, and remembering their former oppression, they drove off the commissioner,and refused to accept his proposals. A part left the settlement, and went up the Mohawk, and the remainder were finally prevailed upon by threats and persuasion to accept the terms offered by the government agent.

From this period down to 1775, nothing of importance happened in the settlement. When the first steps were taken to resist the enforcement of the acts of parliament, a majority of the inhabitants determined to support the colonial cause. A Committee of Safety was appointed, which exercised the powers mentioned in the previous account of these bodies.

In the fall of 1777 the inhabitants began to suffer from the inroads of straggling parties of Indians, and the committee turned their attention to devising some mode of defense. Aid was sought from government, and three forts were erected, called the Upper, Middle, and Lower Forts. The Middle Fort was near where the village of Middleburgh now stands; the Upper Fort was five miles above, and the Lower Fort six miles below; they consisted of entrenchment's of earth and wood thrown up in the usual form, around some building, which served as a shelter for the women and children. In the Middle Fort, this building was a stone dwelling house; in the Lower a stone church. The forts were garrisoned with a few continental soldiers, and each furnished with a small field piece. Many of the inhabitants repaired to the forts at night, and returned in the morning to their employment on their farms.

During two or three subsequent years, no powerful party of the enemy laid their whole settlement in ruins; but individual after individual, and family after family, were missing along its outskirts. The smoking ruins of their dwellings, the charred bones of its inmates, and the dead bodies of domestic animals killed by the enemy, were all that were left to record their fate, until the return of some captive, or the narration of a prisoner taken from the enemy, revealed the secret of their destruction.

The Tories, who of ten commanded the Indians, were the most barbarous. There is a story told of an act in a settlement adjoining Schoharie, which, for the honor of humanity, would not be believed where it not supported by undoubted testimony. A party of Indians had entered a house,and killed and scalped a mother and a large family of children. They had just completed their work of death when some royalists belonging to their party came up, and discovered an infant still alive in the cradle. An Indian warrior, noted for his barbarity, approached the cradle with his uplifted hatchet. The babe looked up in his face and smiled; the feelings of nature triumphed over the ferocity of the savage; the hatchet fell from his hand, and he was in the act of stooping down to take the infant in his arms, when one of the royalists, cursing the Indian for his humanity, took it up on the point of his bayonet, and holding it up struggling in the agonies of death, exclaimed -- "this too is a rebel."

But the inhabitants were not the only sufferers. When contending with equal numbers they generally defeated the enemy, and often the Indians found their antagonists their superiors in stratagem as well as in bravery. Seven Indians meeting with a man by the name of Sawyer, took him prisoner, and having gone eight or ten miles, bound him and laid down to sleep. In the night, he succeeded in loosing his hands, and then silently taking out of the belt of the nearest savage his hatchet, killed with it six of them. The seventh made his escape wounded. Sawyer returned home in safety.

The following account is given by the Rev. Mr. Fenn, the former clergyman of Harpersfield, who received the information from Col. Harper.

"In the year 1778, M'Donald, a Tory of some enterprise and activity, had collected about 300 Indians and Tories, and was committing great depredations on the frontiers. He fell down upon the Dutch settlements of Schoharie, with all his barbarity and exterminating rage: Col. Vrooman commanded in the fort at Schoharie at this time: they saw the enemy wantonly destroying everything on which they could lay their hands. The garrison were so weak, that they could spare no men from the fort to protect the inhabitants, or secure the crops--"What shall be done," says Col. Harper. "O, nothing at all," says Col. Vrooman, "we be so weak we cannot do any thing."

Col. Harper ordered his horse, and laid his course for Albany; rode right down through the enemy, who were scattered over all the country: at Fox's Creek, put up at a Tory tavern for the night; he retired to bed after having locked his door; soon there was a loud rapping at the door; What is wanted? We want to see Col. Harper. The colonel arose and unlocked the door; What is wanted? We want to see Col. Harper. The colonel arose and unlocked the door; seated himself on the bed; and laid his sword and pistols before him: -- in stepped four men. "Step one inch over that mark," said the colonel, "and you are dead men." After taking a little time with him, they left the room; he again secured the door, and sat on his bed until daylight appeared; he then ordered his horse, mounted, and rode for Albany, and the enemy were round the house. An Indian followed the colonel almost into Albany; and when the colonel would wheel his horse and present his pistol. The Indian would turn and run with all his might. When the colonel arrived at Albany, he called on Col. Gansevoort, stated the distressed situation of Schoharie, and prayed for help; a squadron of horse was immediately provided, and they rode all night, and appeared in Schoharie in the morning; and the first knowledge that the people had that any relief was expected, they heard a tremendous shrieking and yelling, and looked out an saw Col. Harper with his troop of horse welting up the enemy. The men in the fort rushed out, and joined in the attack, and the country was soon cleared of the enemy, and the country was soon cleared of the enemy, and the inhabitants had peace and rest, and could collect their harvest in safety."

The massacres at Wyoming and Cherry Valley had employed most of the Indians during 1778 and in 1779, the western tribes were driven back by Gen. Sullivan. During the latter summer, a party of the Onondagas, after the destruction of their town by Col. Van Schaick, made a incursion into Schoharie.

There was at this time a little settlement, consisting of only nineteen families, on the Cobleskill Creek, ten miles west of Schoharie. Though they had erected no fortifications, they had prepared for defense, by organizing a company of militia, and procuring arms and ammunition. About the middle of May, it was reported at a meeting of the militia, that some straggling Indians had been seen in the neighborhood, and a scout of three men, one of whom was suspected of being secretly a royalist, was sent out into the forest. On the return of the scout, they met two Indians near the settlement, who accosting them in friendly terms, and pretending to be hunting, were suffered to pass. The Indians took a circuitous route, and in a short time met them again. The suspected individual had now disappeared, having taken a different path to the settlement. The Indians still pretended friendship; one of them familiarly took the musket from one of the men, and knocking out the flint, handed it back. The other attempted the same thing, but his adversary perceiving his intention, shot him. His companion fled, and the men returned to the settlement.

This circumstance, together with a rumor, that a large body of Indians were on their march for Schoharie, excited fears, that this little settlement would be the first object of their revenge. They immediately dispatched a messenger to Schoharie with the intelligence, and directed him to ask for assistance. A part of a company of continental soldiers, under the command of Capt. Patrick, was sent the same day to Cobleskill. The next morning a party of Indians were seen to cross the creek and return again into the woods. A small detachment of men were sent in pursuit. These were soon driven back by superior force. Capt. Patrick then marched the whole of his little band, and 15 volunteers of the militia, to their support. The Indians were driven back, but soon made a stand, and after firing again retreated. They continued to retreat, disputing the ground at every step, evidently increasing in number, until the conflict became exceedingly fierce. Capt. Patrick was at first wounded, and afterward killed, when his men sought safety in flight. The Indians immediately pursued them, and at the same instant the main body, which had been concealed in the thickets, rushed forth, and with deafening yells poured a shower of rifle balls upon the fugitives; their number, as afterward ascertained, was about 300.

The death of Capt. Patrick alone saved his men from entire destruction; in a few moments more they would have been surrounded,and their retreat cut off.

The inhabitants of the settlement, as soon as they saw the fugitives emerging from the woods, pursued by the Indians, fled in an opposite direction,and all arrived safe at Schoharie; their escape was favored by the desperate resistance of seven of the soldiers, who, taking possession of a house, fired from the windows, and checked the pursuit of the enemy. The Indians at length succeeded in setting the house on fire, and six of its brave defenders perished in the flames; the other was afterward found a few rods distant, much burned and horribly mutilated; a roll of continental money was put in his hand as if in derision of the cause which he supported. The enemy set fire to the buildings in the vicinity, and after burying the dead and mangling the dead bodies of the soldiers, retired without pursuing the fugitives further.

Of the 45 who went out 21 escaped, 22 were killed, and 2 taken prisoners. The Indians suffered severely, according to the account of the prisoners who afterward returned. They were accompanied by a few Tories, and commanded by a Tory, who took this method to obtain revenge for an unsuccessful attempt to arrest him the previous year; he afterward returned to his former home upon Charlotte river, and was killed by the celebrated Murphy, who was one of a party sent to bring him into the fort.

Murphy, who was of great service to the inhabitants of Schoharie, was a native of Virginia, and had belonged to Morgan's rifle corps, in which he had distinguished himself as a marksman. After the capture of Burgoyne, the company to which he belonged was ordered to Schoharie, where it remained until their term of service expired.

When the company was disbanded, Murphy and some others remained, and served in the militia: his skill in the desultory war which the Indians carry on, gave him so high a reputation, that though not nominally the commander, he usually directed all the movements of the scouts that were sent out, and on many important occasions the commanding officers found it dangerous to neglect his advice; his double rifle, his kill as a marksman, and his fleetness either in retreat or pursuit, made him an object both of dread and of vengeance to the Indians; they formed many plans to destroy him, but he always eluded them, and sometimes made them suffer for their temerity.

He fought the Indians in their own way, and with their own weapons. When circumstances permitted he tomahawked and scalped his fallen enemy; he boasted after the war that he had slain forty of the enemy with his own hand, more than half of whom he had scalped; he took delight in perilous adventures, and seemed "to love danger for danger's sake." Tradition has preserved the account of many of his exploits; but there are so many versions of the same story, and so much evident fiction mixed with the truth, that we shall give but a single instance as a proof of the dread with which he was regarded by the Indians.

They were unable to conjecture how he could discharge his rifle twice without having time to reload; and his singular good fortune in escaping unhurt, led them to suppose that he was attended by some invisible being who warded off their bullets, and sped his with unerring certainty to the mark. When they had learned the mystery of his double-barreled gun, they were careful not to expose themselves too much until he had fired twice, knowing that he must have time to reload his piece before he could do them further injury.

One day, having separated from his party, he was pursued by a number of Indians, all of whom he outran excepting one; Murphy turned round, fired upon this Indian, and killed him. Supposing that the others had given up the pursuit, he stopped to strip the dead, when the rest of his pursuers came in sight. He snatched the rifle of his fallen foe, and with it killed one of his pursuers; the rest, now sure of their prey, with a yell of joy heedlessly rushed on, hoping to make him their prisoner; he was ready to drop down with fatigue, and was likely to be overtaken, when turning round, he discharged the remaining barrel of his rifle, and killed the foremost of the Indians; the rest, astonished at his firing three times in succession, fled, crying that he could shoot all day without loading.

In the fall of 1780, the enemy, about 800 strong, under Sir John Johnson, made preparations for destroying Schoharie, and the Mohawk valley. The forces, consisting of British regulars, loyalists, and Tories, assembled on the Tioga, and marched thence up along the eastern branch of the Susquehanna, and crossed thence to Schoharie. Col. Harper with a small body of man annoyed them on their march, watched all the movements, and gave timely notice of their approach. On the 16th of October they encamped about four miles from the Upper Fort. It was their intention to pass the Upper Fort in the night, and to attack the Middle Fort at daybreak; as it was expected that the Upper Fort would be the first object of attack, they hoped to surprise the Middle Fort by this unexpected movement. Sir John had ordered his troops to be put in motion at four in the morning, but from some mistake it was five before they began their march. The main body passed the Upper Fort undiscovered; but the rear guard was discovered by the sentinels, and the alarm gun immediately fired; the alarm was quickly answered from the other Forts, and 20 riflemen were sent out from the Middle Fort to watch the motions of the enemy; they soon fell in with an advanced party, and retreated back to the fort. The firing of the alarm gun disappointing the enemy, became the signal for them to commence the destruction of the settlement; houses, barns, and stacks of hay were burned, and cattle sheep, and horses killed or driven away. Sir John gave orders that the church should be spared; but he found that with such an army he had only the power of doing injury, and contrary orders were never obeyed -- it too was burned.

About 8 o'clock the enemy commenced a regular attack on the fort; the regular troops fired a few cannon-shot,and threw a number of shells; but for want of skill in the gunners, the shot either fell short or flew over, and the shells exploded high in the air. The Indians retreated behind a row of willow-trees, and kept up a constant fire with small arms, but at too great a distance to take effect.

In the fort all was gloom and despondency; the garrison amounted to no more than 150 regular troops, and about 100 militia. It is said that there was but a single pound of powder in the magazine; their ammunition wagons had been sent to Albany for a supply, but had been detained beyond their usual time. Two men had been sent through the woods the day before to bring powder on their backs, but they had not had time to complete their journey. The regular soldiers had but a few cartridges apiece: the militia were better supplied. To attempt to defend the fort appeared to be madness: to surrender, was to deliver up themselves, their wives, and their children, to immediate death, or at least to a long captivity. Major Woolsey, who commanded the continental troops, was inclined to surrender on the first appearance of the enemy, but was prevented by the officers of the militia, who resolved to defend the fort. Woolsey's presence of mind forsook him in the hour of danger; he concealed himself at first with the women and children in the house, and when driven out by the ridicule of his new associates, he crawled round the entrenchment's on his hands and knees, amid the jeers and bravos of the militia, who felt their courage revive as their laughter was excited by the cowardice of the major. In times of extreme danger, every thing which has a tendency to destroy reflection by exciting risibility has a good affect.

The enemy, perceiving that their shot and shells did little or no execution, formed under shelter of a small building near the fort and prepared to carry the works by assault. While the preparations were making, a flag was seen to approach the fort; all seemed inclined to admit it, when Murphy, who suspected that it was only an artifice to learn the actual strength of the garrison, and aware that for him at least there was no safety in capitulation, fired upon the flag. The flag retired, and some soldiers were ordered to arrest Murphy; but so great was his popularity among the militia, that no one dared to obey. The flag approached a second time,and was a second time driven back by Murphy and his adherents. A white flag was then ordered to be raised in the fort, but Murphy threatened with instant death any one who should obey. The enemy sent a flag a third time, which was again compelled to retire. The British officers now held a council of war, and after a short consultation withdrew, and proceeded down the Schoharie creek, burning and destroying everything in their way.

The loss to the garrison in this affair was only one killed and two wounded, one mortally. It is not known what loss the enemy sustained, or why they retreated so hastily. It was said by some, that a pretended royalist had given them exaggerated accounts of the strength of the garrison; by others that a rumor reached them that the militia were advancing from Albany; the latter was probably the true cause; perhaps the determined spirit of resistance manifested in firing upon the flag, led them to suppose the defense would be obstinate. The Tory leaders, satiated with blood, may have been unwilling to act over the tragedies of Wyoming and Cherry Valley.

When they arrived at the Lower Fort, they showed little disposition to attack it, although its garrison did not amount to 100 men. They separated into two divisions, the regular troops marching along the bank of the creek, and the Indians filing off about half a mile to the east of the fort. The regulars fired a few cannon shot without effect, one only lodging in the corner of the church; and then, after sinking one of their field pieces in a morass, marched round to the north of the fort, where they were joined by the Indians. Here they fired a few shot with small arms, and a few of the Indians approached near enough to throw their bullets into the tower of the church, where some marksmen had been stationed. A discharge of grape from the fort drove them back, and they continued their march through the woods to Fort Hunter, on the Mohawk, near the mouth of Schoharie creek, where they arrived after dark. The ravages of this army, as they passed up the valley of the Mohawk, and the battles fought with the militia, will be given in a subsequent chapter.

The beautiful valley of Schoharie creek presented a scene of devastation, on the night of the 17th of October, not easily described. -- Houses, barns, and numerous stacks of hay and grain, were consumed; domestic animals lay dead every where over the fields; a few buildings belonging to the royalists had been spared, but the militia, sallying out, set fire to them in revenge. After the burning of Schoharie, this settlement ceased to be so much an object of Tory vengeance: and during the years 1781 and 1782, though there were frequent alarms, little damage was done by enemy. The Indians appeared once in considerable numbers at Cobleskill, burned in a few buildings, killed one man, and carried off five prisoners; but the body of the inhabitants had taken refuge in a fort which they had built on their return from Schoharie in 1781, and were safe.

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