Col Johnson’s Conduct in Raising Fortifications round his house, keeping a Number of Indians and other armed men constantly about him, and stopping and searching Travellers upon the King’s Highway, and stopping our Communication with Albany is very alarming to this County, and… confirms us in our Fears, that his Design is to keep us in awe, and to oblige us to Submit to a State of Slavery.
—Tryon County Committee of Safety1
By the spring of 1777 the Revolution had spawned two wars. One was being fought primarily by the British Army and the Continental Army on battlefields in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The other, along the northern frontier, was just beginning. It would be a war of terror and vengeance that pitted Indians and Tories against Patriot settlers, Loyalist neighbors against Patriot neighbors, Indians’ tomahawk and torch against the muskets of farmers and militiamen.
The war in the borderland would be sudden bloody encounters in Indian villages or isolated Rebel settlements. On the frontier between Canada and western New York, soldiers of the Continental Army would fight wilderness battles not only against the British Army and Loyalist regiments but also against what the Declaration of Independence called “the merciless Indian Savages.” Left unsaid was the fact that Patriots tried as hard as the British and the Loyalists to gain the support of Indians.
The roots of Indian-settler conflict were deep along the Canada—New York border, where many Patriots, remembering how the French had forged an alliance with Indians in a previous war, now feared that Britain would do the same. France had led the Indians into white man’s warfare by transforming tribal alliances made for the fur trade into a military strategy that gave its name to the French and Indian War. To American colonists of the time, the Indians were the most fearsome foes. Ben Franklin’s “Join or Die” drawing of a snake in eight pieces, often cited as a symbol for the Revolution, was a much earlier warning, urging the colonies to unite against the French and their Indian allies.2
But Britain had an ambiguous policy toward the Indians. Robert Dinwiddie, royal governor of Virginia, saw the wisdom of seeking Indian aid in 1753 when he sent young Maj. George Washington of the Virginia militia into the wilds of the Ohio Country. Washington met with Indian leaders and told them, “I was destined, brothers, by your brother, the governor, to call upon you, the sachems of the nations… . His Honor likewise desired me to apply to you for some of your young men to … be a safeguard against those French Indians who have taken up the hatchet against us.”3
Both the British and the French used a scalp as proof that an Indian had slain a foe and deserved a bounty. The British superintendent of Indian affairs for the southern colonies once noted that “large publick Rewards for Scalps given by Provincial Laws to Indians, are attended with very pernicious Consequences to his Majesty’s Service.” Indians, the superintendent said, were killing each other merely to collect bounty scalps, producing the possibility of unnecessary intertribal warfare that would jeopardize alliances with tribes favorable to the British.4
Victory in the war presented Britain with more land, more Indians, and more problems over colonists’ incursions into Indian land. In 1768 British officials met with leaders of the powerful Iroquois at Fort Stanwix (near the Mohawk River and today’s Rome, New York). The Iroquois agreed, in a formal treaty, to give up claim to all of their lands east and south of the Ohio River in return for a guarantee that they could retain their land in western New York. Less powerful tribes, including the Delaware, Mingo, and Shawnee, did not accept the treaty.5
Shawnee and Mingo attacked white settlers, who struck back in isolated encounters. Then, in May 1774, settlers killed eleven Mingo near today’s Steubenville, Ohio. As Mingo and Shawnee sought revenge, Lord Dunmore sent one thousand militiamen into what is now West Virginia. After a daylong battle between militiamen and more than one thousand Shawnee warriors, Dunmore and tribal leaders parleyed and the Shawnees essentially agreed to abide by the Fort Stan-wix treaty.6 Dunmore’s War, as his critics dubbed it, made Tories of many western Pennsylvania frontiersmen. They endorsed his attempt to settle the boundary quarrel between Virginia and Pennsylvania by seizing Fort Pitt, the predecessor of Pittsburgh, in January 1774.7
Soon after the Battles of Concord and Lexington, the Continental Congress received reports that the British were plotting to make Loyalist allies of the Indians along the New York—Canada border. Congress attempted to counter that move by negotiating a treaty with the Six Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Tuscarora, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca). The confederacy, which dated to the time before the arrival of Europeans in North America, included English-speaking Indian leaders familiar with British ways and wary of Rebels.
The congressional delegation and tribal leaders met at Fort Pitt, at the forks of the Ohio River, then under control of Virginia’s Rebel government. “This is a family quarrel between us and Old England,” the Indian leaders were told. “You Indians are not concerned in it. We don’t wish you to take up the hatchet against the king’s troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep.”8 The delegates returned to Philadelphia believing that the Six Nations would remain neutral. But the nationssplit. Oneida and Tuscarora broke away to support the Patriots, while the other tribes agreed to become warriors for the British and their Loyalist allies.9
The Indians mystically imagined their confederacy as “the Long House,” with the Seneca of the Susquehanna and Ohio valleys guarding the western entrance, and the Mohawk the eastern door, while the Onondaga watched over the council fire in the center. The Six Nations raised maize and beans and lived in large wooden houses encircled by palisades. These they called by a word that was translated as “castle.” Not by chance the Mohawks’ principal castle stood near a fortified mansion that was the nerve center for the rapidly evolving alliance between the British and the Mohawk. The mansion was Johnson Hall, built by a man who owned more land in the Mohawk Valley than anyone before or since: William Johnson, Britain’s regional superintendent of Indian affairs.
Johnson was born a Roman Catholic near Dublin, in 1715, and, planning his future in a British world, became an Anglican around 1738. This was about the time he sailed to America to manage his uncle’s frontier estate in New York’s Mohawk Valley. The uncle, Admiral Sir Peter Warren, had grown rich by seizing French and Spanish vessels for prize money—and by shady maritime trading in wine, rum, and slaves. As a successful trader he was welcomed into the great De Lancey family, marrying Susannah De Lancey, daughter of Stephen De Lancey, an influential, well-connected fur trader.10
Warren became a major New York property owner, acquiring tracts of land in Manhattan and Westchester. His showcase home at 1 Broadway would become the residence of New York City’s successive commanding generals of the Revolution, including Washington, Howe, and Clinton.11He also owned some fourteen thousand acres near the junction of the Mohawk and Schoharie rivers, about 180 miles north of Manhattan. Warren invited William Johnson, affectionately called Billy, to come to New York with some prospective tenants and manage the vast northern property. While developingthe wilderness into prosperous farmland, Johnson also set up his own trading business with the Mohawk. Operating independently of his uncle, Johnson grew wealthy himself.12
Johnson won acclaim from colonial officials in the prelude to the French and Indian War by leading Mohawk warriors on raids into border territory claimed by France, often taking the scalps of French defenders. The Lords of Trade in London put Johnson on the New York Governor’s Council, and the Mohawk made him a sachem, giving him a name that meant something like “Chief Much Business.”13 He successfully straddled the two worlds of councillor and sachem, though to some compatriots in London and New York City he seemed more Mohawk than Briton.
Johnson’s uncle resented the way Johnson had struck out on his own, and, when his uncle died in 1752, Johnson did not inherit the estate.14 But Johnson had no need of any more land. And he had prospered as a trader who dealt honestly with Indians and spoke their languages. Colonial officials appointed him “Colonel, agent, and sole superintendent of all affairs of the Six Nations and other Indians.”15
Johnson often wore Indian dress, painted his face, joined in tribal dances,16 and took several Indian mistresses. One was the beautiful Molly Brant, sister of Joseph Brant, a shrewd and powerful Six Nations leader. Molly, a high-ranking Mohawk, bore Johnson eight children, seven of whom survived.17 Both Joseph and Molly had Mohawk names and adhered to Mohawk customs. Their English names came with their British education, which introduced them to the world that Johnson represented and that they cautiously accepted.18
During the French and Indian War, Johnson met John Butler, the son of a British Army officer who had been stationed at Fort Hunter on the Mohawk River. Butler, like Johnson, was an officer in command of Indian allies. He was with Johnson when his British and Indian forces captured Fort Niagara. Butler knew Indian languages and had spent much of his life on the frontier. He married into a Dutch family that traced its American roots to 1637 and was well known on the Mohawk.19 A postwar associate of Sir William, Butler lived in an imposing house on a hill overlooking the Mohawk River.
He had inherited his five-thousand-acre estate, near today’s Fonda, New York, from his father.20
Nearby was Johnson’s domain, named John’s Town (today’s Johnstown, New York), in honor of his son, one of his three white children. They had been born to Catharine Weisenberg, a teenage German immigrant who had come to America as an indentured servant. She had run away from her master in New York City and became Johnson’s wife without a wedding ceremony.21 Commoners could climb socially and politically on the frontier, whose rough-hewn leaders lacked the credentials of those who ruled the British establishment in New England and New York City.
Sir William Johnson died in 1774 during a conference with representatives of the Six Nations. His son, John Johnson, then thirty-two years old, inherited the family’s fiefdom and retained a noble title via a knighthood bestowed by King George III. Educated in Philadelphia, widely traveled in England, and married to an Albany heiress, he was far more polished than his father.22 While making John Johnson his heir, Sir William, confidently exceeding his authority, had bequeathed the royal post of superintendent of Indian affairs to his ambitious, Irish-born nephew Guy Johnson. Sir William correctly assumed that the king would confirm the choice.
Guy had also become Sir William’s son-in-law by marrying Johnson’s daughter Mary. Like the Indians, Sir William believed in kinship as a way of holding power. At Sir William’s funeral, an Indian delegation hailed Guy and told him, “Continue to give good advice to the young men as your father did: … Follow his footsteps; … as you know very well his ways and transactions with us.”23
Guy, a militia colonel, did follow those footsteps—just in time for the Revolution. The lieutenant colonel of Guy’s militia regiment was John Butler, who also served both Sir John and Guy as an Indian interpreter.24 The three began rallying fellow Loyalists in the Mohawk Valley, hoping to mobilize a major frontier force against the Rebels. Working with the Johnsons, especially among German immigrants like himself, was Christian Daniel Claus, an Indian agent married to
Sir William’s daughter Ann.25 They plotted an armed stand at Johnson Hall, the mansion-fortress that dominated the Johnson realm. Word that Johnson was creating a Loyalist stronghold quickly reached the Patriots’ Committee of Safety for Tryon County, which encompassed an immense swath of New York west of Albany, including the Mohawk Valley and the Johnson fiefdom. “We are informed that Johnson Hall is fortifying …,” the committee reported to Patriots in Albany in May 1775. “Besides which, we are told that about 150 Highlanders (Roman Catholics) in and about Johnstown, are armed, and ready to march.” The committee also told of a report that Indians, “whom we dread most … are to be made use of in keeping us in awe.”26
Both sides were maneuvering in a fog of rumors. Guy Johnson, aware of the local Patriots’ appeal for aid from Albany, believed that Rebels were plotting to kidnap him and attack his followers. He fled to Canada with his pregnant wife, Mary; his children, other family members; and about 170 supporters, including Joseph Brant and ninety other Indians. Along the way, Johnson won from more than fourteen hundred Indians a promise that they would “assist His Majesty’s Troops in their operations.”27 At Oswego, on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, after an exhausting journey, Mary Johnson died, an early casualty of the frontier war.28
When the Revolution began, many New York Tories, including John Butler and his sons Thomas and Walter, had fled to Canada. Butler had left behind his wife and other children. The Rebels seized them, giving Butler a motive for vengeance. (The family would not be reunited until a prisoner exchange in 1780.) Johnson, like Butler, did not intend to languish in Canada. Johnson wanted to muster an all-Indian military unit that would fight the Rebels in frontier settlements in western New York and Pennsylvania. But Sir Guy Carleton, royal governor of Quebec refused, saying he wished to use Indians only as scouts or in defense.29
Guy Johnson and his two young daughters, along with Brant and several others, sailed to England to put their dependents safely intothe hands of Loyalists in London and to gain official endorsement of the Indian mobilization that Carleton had rejected. Johnson’s vision of the British-Loyalist-Indian alliance was captured in a painting he commissioned by Benjamin West, who had left America years before and was the king’s court painter. West created an allegorical portrayal of British-Indian relations. West put moccasins on Johnson and added to his British Army uniform a Mohawk cap, an Indian blanket, and a wampum belt. Hovering behind Johnson is the shadowy figure of an Indian, who points to a peace pipe while Johnson holds a musket. Deeper in the background is an Indian family near a British Army tent.30
Brant became a star of London society. The king presented him with a silver gorget* bearing the inscription The Gift of a Friend to Capt. Brant—royal notice of Brant’s military commission in Canada’s Loyalist corps. In his portrait, by George Romney, a leading portaitist of English nobility, Brant wears the gorget and a plumed headdress. He looks grim and he carries a tomahawk—a portent of the future, when Brant and the Butlers would lead Loyalists and Indians in bloody battles.31
Carleton sent Butler to Fort Niagara with orders to keep the Six Nations off the warpath but loyal to Britain. He was inadvertently aided by the Reverend Samuel Kirkland, a Christian missionary from Connecticut who preached neutrality to Six Nations Indians while trying to preserve the allegiance of those who supported the Rebels.32 Kirk-land, who lived among the Oneidas and spoke their language, succeeded in keeping them on the side of the Patriots throughout the war.
Butler, anticipating the frontier civil war to come, began enlisting Indians as spies, not only along the Mohawk River but also as far west as the Mississippi. Ever since the Revolution began, Loyalists had been fleeing to Canada. Butler also aided them, knowing that theable-bodied men among them would be potential recruits for future Tory militias.
In January 1776, responding to a new round of reports that Sir John Johnson was arming his Loyalist tenants and supporters, Washington sent a force of some four thousand men to Johnson Hall, where they confronted about six hundred armed Loyalists, most of them Highlander immigrants. The Continentals disarmed Johnson’s private army and ordered him to post a sixteen-hundred-pound bond that backed his promise to essentially remain under house arrest.33 In May, Sir John broke his parole, fleeing to Montreal with about 170 tenants and followers, guided by Mohawks. Lady Johnson, who was seven months pregnant, was left behind. Rebels took her to Albany as a hostage. She appealed in vain to Washington.34
Once in Canada, with Carleton’s approval, Sir John soon began raising the King’s Royal Regiment of New York. He drew on his own followers, along with Loyalist refugees who had abandoned their homes and farms in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys. They would return armed and ready to die to get back their land, which the Rebels had seized.35
In the spring of 1777 John Butler received a letter from Carleton, recently the heroic defender of Quebec against American invaders. Carleton had changed his mind. He ordered Butler to recruit as many Indians as possible for an invasion of New York.36Johnson’s raising of the King’s Royal Regiment and Carleton’s Indian mobilization order to Butler were preparatory moves for the launching of a three-prong invasion of New York. Lt. Gen. Sir John Burgoyne, who developed the strategic plan, believed that the invasion would inspire a Tory uprising and ascendancy in New York, making the entire colony as loyal as New York City. The invasion would also drive a wedge between the colonies, reflecting the belief of British officialdom that the firebrands in New England were of a different revolutionary breed from Americans elsewhere. Isolating New England would begin the process of snuffing out the Revolution.
Burgoyne did not include the Royal Highland Emigrants among the Loyalists in his force. His decision not to take the Highlanders along may have stemmed from the distrust that many British officers felt toward erstwhile supporters of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Lt. Col. Allan Maclean, commanding officer of the Emigrants, had been pardoned and was officially regarded as a trusted Loyalist officer. But Burgoyne decided that Maclean’s men would better serve as garrison troops, left behind as a home guard.37
Burgoyne proposed leading an army of about seven thousand men—Regulars, Loyalists, Hessians, and Indians—from Canada via the Richelieu River—Lake Champlain waterway to Fort Ticonderoga, then down the Hudson River Valley to Albany. A smaller force of two hundred Regulars, three hundred Hessians, eight hundred Indians, and two hundred Tories—including Butler’s recruits—was to advance overland from Lake Ontario to Lake Oneida, march eastward along the Mohawk Valley and destroy Fort Stanwix, the only Patriot obstacle in the valley. That unit, commanded by Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger, would then head for Albany to link up with Burgoyne. The third force would head out of New York City and up the Hudson to block any Rebel attempt to move against Burgoyne from the south.
When Burgoyne presented his plan in London, he won approval from British officials in London and from King George III, who said in an endorsement written in his own hand: “The outlines of the plan seem to be on a proper foundation… . Indians must be employed, and this measure must be avowedly directed, and Carleton must be in the strongest manner directed to furnish as many Canadians as possible.”38 The king’s command led to Butler’s enlisting both Indians and white Loyalists. But they were mostly Americans, not the Canadians the king had expected.
Henry Simmons, a New Yorker, for example, left his wife and children and headed north when he heard about Burgoyne. “The Six-teeth Day of August, 1777,” Simmons wrote in his journal, “I left my house at Claverack and Sat out with a Compiny of Seven and twenty Men and officers to go to General Burguins armey Which was at the time at Fort Miller.” Claverack, New York, was about seventy milessouth of Fort Miller on the Hudson. They traveled for eleven days “through enemy country, likely at night along untrodden paths, fording streams, and hiding in thickets by day” until they caught up with “the flyeing arme” and enlisted in the King’s Royal Regiment.39
A Mohawk Valley Tory, brother of a Rebel leader, raised a company of sixty-three Loyalists and led them to Canada. Another Tory from that area, a captain of Rebel militia, changed sides and left New York with several relatives he had enlisted. More recruits came from the efforts of Adam Crysler, a friend of Joseph Brant and a prominent landowner in Schoharie, a settlement near Butler’s mansion. Three of his brothers were known Tories. A fourth brother claimed to be a Patriot. But, suspected of lying, he was arrested by Rebel raiders and taken to Albany, where he was reportedly hanged.40
Crysler wrote in his journal that he had recruited seventy white men and twenty Indians from that area. He was instructed by Brant to hold his recruits in the valley for what was expected to be a Tory uprising. Crysler knew that a civil war was simmering in the valley and that recruiters risked their lives. Earlier in 1777 a party of Rebels, searching for a Tory recruiter, “levied a tax upon his poultry yard and ate up his chickens.” Then they tracked him down and found him with twenty recruits. The captured Tories were delivered to Albany “for safe keeping.” The recruiter was hanged, a fate that became common for others with the same mission.41
Unlike short-time Rebel militiamen and Continentals who served “for one year, unless sooner discharged,” Tories enlisted for the duration of the war. Rebels typically signed up for months at a time because they had farms or businesses to run. Tories typically had forfeited their homes, land, and way of life, for they knew that if they returned they would be prosecuted under state confiscation and treason laws. Their only hope for return was a British victory. Washington envied the ability of the British and Loyalists to field permanent forces while he often had only “the throngs of militia, which at certain periods have been, not in the field, but in their way to and from the field,” creating “two sets of men to feed and pay; one coming to the army, and the other going from it.”42
• • •
On his way southward, up Lake Champlain toward Fort Ticonderoga, Burgoyne enlisted about four hundred Indians in his force and addressed them through an interpreter: “The great King, our common father and the patron of all who seek and deserve his protection, has considered with satisfaction the general conduct of the Indian tribes from the beginning of the troubles in America.” He was diplomatically endorsing the Six Nations’ neutrality. But now, Burgoyne said, “You are free. Go forth in might and valor of your cause, strike at the common enemies of Great Britain and America, disturbers of public order, peace and happiness, destroyers of commerce, parricides of state.”
He pointed to the German and British officers with him and continued, “The circle round you, the chiefs of his Majesty’s European forces and of the Princes his allies, esteem you as brothers in the war… . Be it our task, from the dictates of our religion, the laws of our warfare and the principles and interest of our policy, to regulate your passions … to suspend the uplifted stroke.”
He then introduced the Indians to a new etiquette of battle: “Aged men, women, children and prisoners must be held sacred from the knife or hatchet, even in the time of actual conflict. You shall receive compensation for the prisoners you take, but you shall be called to account for scalps… . You shall be allowed to take the scalps of the dead when killed by your fire and in fair opposition; but on no account, or pretence, or subtilty, or prevarication, are they to be taken from the wounded or even dying.” They could, however, show “less reserve” toward “base, lurking assassins, incendiaries, ravagers and plunderers of the country, to whatever army they may belong.”
The Indians cried “Etow! Etow! Etow!”—a way of showing affirmation—and the leading chief, at the end of a much shorter speech, declared: “With one common assent we promise a constant obedience to all you have ordered and all you shall order.”43 More Indians would join Burgoyne on his way to Albany.
Burgoyne also added to his force by asking John Peters, a Loyalist refugee in Montreal, to raise a regiment that Burgoyne named the Queen’s Loyal Rangers. Peters, born in Connecticut, had parted ways with his Patriot father. Peters’s uncle the Reverend Samuel Andrew Peters was such a ranting Loyalist that General Gage, as a matter of public safety, politely urged him to leave New York. He sailed to England in 1774.44
Burgoyne’s new Loyalist regiment became a magnet for Canadians, New Yorkers, and Vermonters who saw the invasion as a chance to join the winning side. Many along his battle route would fight and kill neighbors, for on this frontier the civil war became local and personal. The recruits of the Queen’s Loyal Rangers were inspired not only by loyalty to the Crown but also by their desire to drive the Rebels from this fertile land and convert it to a Loyalist domain. Within a month the Rangers had 262 men. One of them was Ensign John Peters, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel Peters’s fifteen-year-old son.45
The Queen’s Loyal Rangers were in the vanguard of Burgoyne’s army when Fort Ticonderoga came into view. As the force maneuvered for battle, Burgoyne realized that if artillery could be hauled up a mountain overlooking the fort, he could pulverize Ticonderoga. After hacking a road through the forest and hauling dismantled cannons up the slope, artillerists and pioneers placed a battery on the summit and began firing.46 With the cannons threatening devastation and the defenders outnumbered almost four to one, Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, commander of Ticonderoga, ordered the fort abandoned. He and his men slipped away under cover of night. Burgoyne now had a base for his advance on Albany—and a rallying point for more Loyalist recruits.
Burgoyne’s political adviser was a powerful local Tory, Col. Philip Skene, who had acquired from British officials the title of royal governor. His realm included Crown Point, Fort Ticonderoda, and land that would eventually become part of Vermont. Skene had made afortune as surveyor of His Majesty’s woods around Lake Champlain, as landlord over tenants working thousands of acres of land, and as the owner of sawmills and forges. A wounded veteran of the French and Indian War with a distinguished British Army career, he became the Crown’s leading representative and landholder in the area, and he commanded a Loyalist militia. His son Andrew, a graduate of King’s (later Columbia) College, was a British Army officer.
Skene had made a long detour before joining Burgoyne. He was in England during the American invasion of Canada. While returning to America, his ship, as was customary, “spoke” an England-bound ship by coming close enough so that the ships could shout news to each other. From the ship out of America came the shouted news of Lexington and Concord. Skene and British officers reacted by trying to take over the ship and sail it to British-occupied Boston. But the ship’s crew and captain overpowered and confined them. When the ship reached Philadelphia, Patriots arrested Skene and transported him to Connecticut,47 where he would “still harangue the people from the prison windows.”48 Skene was exchanged in time to join Burgoyne’s invasion.49
Both Skene and his son welcomed Burgoyne as a liberator. When the elder Skene and Burgoyne conferred in Skene’s mansion at the southern end of Lake Champlain, Skene convinced the general that he would be joined by Loyalists as fervent as the Skenes, all along his march to Albany.50 Skene became Burgoyne’s principal aide, checking on the loyalty of civilians, watching over the delivery of supplies, and running a spy network. At least two of his spies, Continental Army deserters, were caught lurking in a Rebel camp. They both carried incriminating passes, signed by Skene, saying they were “on his Majesties Service” and had taken “the oath of allegiance.” They were tried by court-martial and condemned to death.51
Burgoyne pursued part of St. Clair’s army, whose rear guard fought a delaying action that enabled most of the men to escape. Burgoyne, with Philip and Andrew Skene at his side, continued pursuit, veering from his original plan and taking a route that led him into a dense forest laced with swamps. The decision led to a logging duel between Patriots and Burgoyne’s men: He had to fell trees to build a corduroy (log) road for his long train of artillery and supplies, and the Patriots ahead of him felled trees to block his path and dam streams, while sniping at his men as they struggled southward through sweltering heat and clouds of mosquitoes. (Because the soldiers’ labors added a new forest-to-lumber-mill road to Skene’s domain, there was some suspicion that Skene had recommended the route so he could get a road built.) Moving at about a mile a day, Burgoyne took nearly a month to reach the Hudson, giving his quarry more time to prepare for battle.52
Burgoyne’s instructions to Indians about gentlemanly warfare had been empty words to many Indian Loyalists. And British officials dealing with the Six Nations knew they could not control the way Indians traditionally fought. Guy Johnson managed to convey that reality in a letter to the Rebels that simultaneously denied British attempts to recruit Indian warriors—but warned that “if the Indians find … their Superintendent [Guy Johnson] insulted, they will take a dreadful revenge.”53
The Rebels had certainly “insulted” the Johnsons and John Butler by forcing them to flee, and so the Indians were supposedly justified in becoming allies and fighting as they customarily did, which meant scalping.
The first sign of Indian warfare came on the afternoon of July 27, when soldiers at Fort Stanwix heard four gunshots. Soldiers and civilians had been told to fire their muskets only in self-defense or as a signal for help. At the sound of the shots several soldiers ran from the fort to the edge of a patch of woods about five hundred yards from the fort. They were too late.
In a meadow speckled with berry bushes, two girls lay scalped and tomahawked, one dead and the other dying. A third girl, shot in the shoulder, had escaped. She emerged from the woods and told what had happened. The three girls had been picking raspberries when four Indians suddenly appeared and fired. Four armed Rebel soldiershad walked past the spot shortly before the attack and apparently had been ignored by the Indians. They had come, said a bitter report on the killings, “not to fight, but to lie in wait to murder; and it is equally the same to them, if they can get a scalp, whether it is from a soldier or an innocent babe.”54
On the day that the girls were murdered, Jane McCrea, the twenty-year-old daughter of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, was staying in the home of Mrs. Sarah McNeal, near the village of Fort Edward, about one hundred and twenty-five miles east of Fort Stanwix. Fort Edward had been abandoned by defenders, who were retreating before Burgoyne’s advance.55 It lay at the southern end of the Great Carrying Place, where rapids and falls churned the Hudson River, making farther passage impossible. From there canoes and boats had to be portaged to the headwaters of Lake Champlain.56
The McCrea family had been sundered by the Revolution. Presbyterians generally were on the Rebel side, and Jane’s brother John was a Rebel. But Jane was a Loyalist and the fiancée of Lt. David Jones, a local Tory who had joined the Queen’s Loyal Rangers. Jane had been staying with her brother but had moved to the home of Mrs. McNeal, also a Tory, in anticipation of David’s arrival with Burgoyne’s army.
What happened to Jane McCrea produced myth and rage. The story that swept down the valley and then through the colonies told of a beautiful young maiden attacked by two Indians serving with Burgoyne. The Indians had stormed into Mrs. McNeal’s house and carried off the two women. Mrs. McNeal was taken to Burgoyne’s camp. Shortly she saw an Indian holding a bloody scalp that she quickly identified as Jane McCrea’s. Soldiers rode off and found McCrea’s mutilated body.57
Burgoyne did not punish the scalper because he did not want to disturb the tense relationship between the whites and Indians in his army. His decision further outraged the people in his path. Patriots seized on the propaganda value of Indian tomahawk killings. Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, who would soon be fighting Burgoyne, wrote to him, condemning him for the “miserable fate of Miss McCrea” and adding: “Upwards of one hundred men, women and childrenhave perished at the hands of these ruffians.”58 The letter, published in New England newspapers, produced an increase in Continental Army volunteers.59
As Burgoyne continued on toward the Hudson, the second, smaller invasion army under St. Leger had progressed up the St. Lawrence from Montreal, then southward on Lake Ontario to Oswego, New York. Besides a detachment of about eight hundred Regulars and Loyalists, there were some eight hundred Indians in the force. There was also a separate unit: Brant’s Volunteers, about one hundred Mohawk and some white Loyalists who painted and dressed themselves as Indians. Unrecognized as members of an official unit, and thus unpaid, they expected to live on plunder.60
Fort Stanwix, St. Leger’s objective, was not the easy conquest he had expected.61 Its walls of turf and timber had been strengthened. Reinforcements, arriving just before the invaders, raised the number of defenders to some 750, but less than half the size of the approaching force. In June the Continental Congress had adopted the Stars and Stripes as the national flag. Tradition says that the first American flag to fly against an enemy—pieces of a red flannel shirt, a white shirt, and the blue petticoat of a soldier’s wife—was hoisted above Fort Stanwix as the invaders approached.62
On August 3 St. Leger’s force surrounded the fort and demanded surrender. Col. Peter Gansevoort, commander of the fort, replied that he would “defend this fort and garrison to the last extremity.”63 Both sides settled in for a siege. St. Leger issued a proclamation that called on Loyalists to come forth in support of his soldiers—and for Patriots to be beware of his “messengers of justice and of wrath,” who would be bringing them “devastation, famine, and every concomitant horror.”
When reports of the invasion first reached Brig. Gen. Nicholas Herkimer, commander of the Patriots’ Tryon County militia, he asked for a meeting with Joseph Brant, a former neighbor. Herkimer wanted to talk about the chance of maintaining peace between Indians and Patriots. Brant’s headquarters was then Unadilla, at the confluenceof the Susquehanna and Unadilla rivers, about eighty miles west of Schenectady. They met at nearby Sidney, site of a new white settlement. Each man came with an armed escort but agreed to be personally unarmed when they talked face-to-face. Brant held firmly to his allegiance to the king, and Herkimer departed, knowing that Brant was his enemy. Herkimer returned to Fort Dayton, about thirty miles downriver from Fort Stanwix, and prepared for a long-term war in the Mohawk River Valley.64
Herkimer was the grandson of a German immigrant, one of many who settled in the valley. His English neighbors called him a Dutchman and mocked his thick accent. His written orders needed deciphering as much as his verbal ones. One is said to have begun: Ser yu will orter your bodellyen do merchs Immiedietlih. (Sir: You will order your battalion to march immediately.) Herkimer, warning that an invading army of “Christians and savages” was on its way, ordered every able-bodied man from sixteen to sixty years of age to mobilize with musket and ammunition. Men older than sixty were to gather women and children together and prepare to defend them. Any man who refused to take up arms would be imprisoned.65
Herkimer’s militia quickly grew, and on August 4 he headed for Fort Stanwix with about eight hundred men and boys. Three men, apparently secret Tories, slipped away and hurried to the invaders’ camp to warn of Herkimer’s advance.
Among those who marched with St. Leger was Herkimer’s brother. St. Leger ordered Brant and Butler, with a force of about four hundred Indians and Tories, to intercept the militiamen. At the Oneida village of Oriska, about six miles east of the fort, Brant set up an ambush in a deep marshy ravine.
The militiamen brought with them about four hundred ox-drawn carts containing supplies for the fort, stretching their column out for nearly a mile. At the head of the soldiers were about sixty friendly Oneida, acting as scouts, and Herkimer on his white horse. As the scouts and advance guard reached the ravine, the road narrowed to a corduroy causeway surrounded by a dense forest thick with underbrush. Even the Oneida, skilled woodsmen, could not see the hidden foes.
As soon as Herkimer and his first group of men were deep into the ravine, the ambushers—Brant’s Indians and an Indian force assembled by Lt. Col. John Butler—struck, killing many militiamen with musket fire and cutting down others with tomahawks. Herkimer, his left leg shattered and his horse killed, ordered men to place him against a tall beech tree with his wounded leg resting on his saddle. He took out his pipe, lit it, and kept shouting orders. Many Oneida had melted away into the forest. But some Oneida—men and women—did fight. One warrior, shot in the wrist, continued to fight using his tomahawk.66
Some militiamen panicked and ran off, pursued by the Tory Indians, who killed many. But most men stayed and rallied around Herkimer. At first each time a man fired from behind a tree, an Indian would run to the tree and tomahawk him before he could reload. Herkimer ordered two men to pair behind trees so that while one man reloaded the second could kill the approaching brave.
A sudden rain, soaking muskets’ primers, stopped the battle for a short time. During the pause Herkimer had his men form a circle. Ripped by concentrated fire, the Indians began to pull back, beginning what would be a ragged retreat to their camp near Fort Stanwix. Then from St. Leger’s camp came reinforcements—a detachment of the King’s Royal Regiment. The Tories had turned their green uniforms inside out. For a moment the militiamen believed they were getting help from the fort. Then one of the militiamen recognized former neighbors, cried out a warning, and slew three of them with his espontoon, an officer’s half pike. Other men of the valley fought to the death—American against American, kin against kin—until the daylong battle suddenly ended, probably because Butler and Brant expected that a rescue force was on its way from the fort.67
Herkimer would die in a few days, joining about 160 militiamen who fell in the ravine. The invaders lost about 150 Tories and Indians, including several chiefs. Further losses came when Rebel raiders fromthe fort attacked the besiegers’ camp before the surviving ambushers returned.68
St. Leger, confronted by angry Indians who had fought but gotten no plunder, tried once more to end the siege with a threat that if Colonel Gansevoort did not surrender his fort, the Indians could not be stopped from “executing their threats to march down the country and destroy the settlement with its inhabitants. In this case, not only men but women and children will experience the sad effects of their vengeance.”69
Gansevoort again rejected the call to surrender. Meanwhile an officer left the fort in the night, got past St. Leger’s sentries, and set out for Fort Dayton, where Benedict Arnold was preparing to lead about nine hundred militiamen and Continentals to Fort Stanwix to end the siege. Arnold, well known as a Tory hunter in Connecticut, had discovered a group of Loyalists who were planning an uprising. Among the men he captured were Ensign Walter Butler, Col. John Butler’s twenty-five-year-old son, and Hon Yost Schuyler, a deranged young man whose madness was seen as mystical by many Indians. He was related to both Herkimer and Major General Schuyler. Butler and Hon Yost were tried by court-martial as spies, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Some of Arnold’s officers appealed Butler’s sentence because they knew him as a schoolmate when he studied for the law in Albany. So he was sent off to imprisonment—and subsequent escape, a frequent boon for Loyalist prisoners kept amid Tories. After clemency pleas for Hon Yost from his mother and brother, Arnold said he would spare his life if he would use his mystical powers to convince St. Leger’s Indians that a huge army was on its way to the fort. Hon Yost agreed, and to add to his story of a narrow escape from Arnold’s soldiers, he shot holes in his clothes with a borrowed musket. Arnold sent Hon Yost off and held his brother as a hostage.
Hon Yost reached the Mohawk camp outside the fort and, when asked how many men were on their way, pointed to the leaves of the trees and said each leaf was a soldier. Hon Yost repeated his rambling story to St. Leger. Frightened Mohawks began grabbing up Britishsupplies, food, and liquor for a hasty retreat. Loyalists and St. Leger’s Regulars joined the Indians, fleeing before the phantom army until they reached Oswego and the safety of Canada. They left behind tents, food, ammunition—and St. Leger’s own escritoire, the portable writing table that contained his private papers, which historians long afterward used for descriptions of the siege and the flight of his army.70
To the north, Burgoyne continued to attract local Tories as he passed into the newly created republic of Vermont. Some Tories joined informally, marching with Burgoyne but not fully committing to a long-term enlistment. Those who openly joined Burgoyne risked their own private battles, especially in areas where Rebels had fled before the army, producing a temporary Tory enclave. Nathan Tuttle, a minor official in the village of Rutland, was a Rebel who stayed. Known to hate and taunt Tories, he disappeared around the time that Burgoyne’s army passed through Rutland. In 1786 a former Tory revealed that Tuttle had been bayoneted during an argument, his body weighted with stones and thrown into a creek.71 We will never know how many other private grievances were settled in a similar manner during the war.
In Vermont, Burgoyne met unexpected Rebel resistance. Short of supplies and in need of horses for his footsore German cavalrymen, he ordered a force of about eight hundred men to forage in the village of Bennington. Burgoyne had learned that Bennington was a Patriot supply depot stocked with corn and cattle. And, still relying on Skene’s advice, Burgoyne expected that the area was full of Loyalists who would rush to join his army. But the man in command of the foraging force, Lt. Col. Friedrich Baum, would not be able to speak to any Loyalists because he spoke only German.72 (Skene translated for Baum; Burgoyne spoke to him in French.)
Awaiting Baum were about fifteen hundred militiamen from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Their commander was Col. John Stark, a tough old soldier who had been captured by Indians as a young man and bore the scars of heroic service with Rogers’ Rangersduring the French and Indian War. He had fought in the Battles of Bunker Hill, Trenton, and Princeton.73 As more militiamen arrived, Stark drew up a complicated plan. After a day of impasse and rain, Stark led the attack.
Some of his men—farmers lacking uniforms—had stuck pieces of white paper in their hats to identify themselves as Rebels. But they looked like Loyalists to Baum, who welcomed them as they drifted into his ranks. When the attack began, the infiltrators started picking off their unwitting foes. Skene saw more men who did not look like soldiers and shouted, “Are you for King George?” An answering fusillade killed his horse. He ran back to a German redoubt.74
As at Oriska, neighbor fought neighbor. Lieutenant Colonel Peters, commander of the Queen’s Loyal Rangers, spotted Patriot captain Jeremiah Post, a childhood playmate and a cousin of Peters’s wife. Just as Post fired and missed, Post rushed toward Peters, shouting, “Peters, you damn Tory, now I have got you!” He shoved his bayonet into Peters’s side. Peters fired his gun, “Though his bayonet was in my body,” Peters later wrote, “I felt regret at being obliged to destroy him.”75
Peters joined the retreat, lucky to survive a battle that left more than two hundred of his Loyal Rangers dead, wounded, or captured.76 Indians scattered and vanished. The Germans valiantly held their redoubt until Baum fell, mortally wounded by a musket ball. Some Germans fought their way into the woods and escaped; some surrendered. Reinforcements for both sides arrived, but as the long day ended, the surviving invaders fled the field. About thirty of Stark’s men were killed and forty wounded. The victory inspired militiamen for miles around to head north to join the fight against Burgoyne.77 “Wherever the king’s forces point,” Burgoyne later wrote, “militia to the amount of 3 or 4 thousand assemble in 24 hours … and the alarm over, they return to their farms.”78
Burgoyne now faced a growing enemy army while between nine hundred and a thousand of his own men had been killed, wounded, captured, or were missing, many of them dying of wounds, unseen in dense forests.79 Maj. Gen. Philip Schuyler, who lost the confidence of Congress after his retreat from Fort Ticonderoga, was now replaced by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates. Added to his army, besides the swelling ranks of militia volunteers, were Arnold’s men, freed by the ending of the Fort Stanwix siege, and Col. Daniel Morgan’s three hundred riflemen, whose reputation as marksmen preceded them.80
Morgan, captured during the battle for Quebec, had been released in a prisoner exchange in January 1777 and given command of an independent special rifle corps. Morgan picked the men of the unit, who came from western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. They wore the rifleman’s standard uniform—loose-fitting hunting shirts and leggings.81
Gates blocked Burgoyne’s path to Albany by entrenching on a Hudson River bluff known as Bemis Heights. On the morning of September 19 Burgoyne’s advance guard—mostly Indians and Tories disguised as Indians—probed forward through a dense forest. Morgan’s men and some of Arnold’s were ordered to clear Indians spotted in the woods. An officer remembered Arnold’s turning to Morgan and saying, “Colonel Morgan, you and I have seen too many Redskins to be deceived by that garb of paint and feathers; they are asses in lions’ skins, Canadians and Tories; let your riflemen cure them of their borrowed plumes.”82
As riflemen perched in trees picked off officers and artillerymen, Arnold brought his men forward, generating a ferocious battle that neither Burgoyne nor Gates had expected. Arnold sent word to Gates that with reinforcements he could defeat Burgoyne. But Gates ordered Arnold back to the American redoubt. Gates had lost about three hundred men, compared with Burgoyne’s six hundred, many of them officers. Burgoyne had won the day, but Gates’s army still lay across the path of the invaders. And the Loyalists in the area had not risen to aid Burgoyne.
While Burgoyne contemplated his future moves, the third facet of his plan—a thrust up the Hudson—was carried out by Sir Henry Clinton. Leaving the defense of New York City to Regulars augmented by Loyalist regiments, Clinton took a force up the river and captured two Continental forts.83 To punish local Rebels, hundreds of British soldiers swarmed into Kingston, the interim capital of New York State, and burned much of the town, which the British commander called “a Nursery for almost every Villain in the Country.” Another landing party put the torch to Clermont and Belvedere, the manorial homes of the Hudson Valley’s best-known Patriots, the Livingstons.84
By October 7 Burgoyne’s troops were on half rations. Desperate, he led what he called a reconnaissance in force to turn a Gates flank and burst through to Albany. Two miles away, at Gates’s headquarters in the well-fortified American camp, Arnold learned of Burgoyne’s maneuver and asked Gates to let him lead a counterattack. Gates, born in England and a haughty veteran of the British Army, despised Arnold, a fifth-generation New Englander and an ex-clerk in an apothecary shop. Gates refused to send Arnold into battle. Furious, Arnold mounted his horse and galloped to the sound of the guns, racing away from an officer Gates had sent to stop him.
Arnold sighted a British strongpoint and headed toward it, shouting, “Come on, brave boys, come on!” He led a charge across the line of fire, through cannon shells, musket balls, and grapeshot. His riddled horse fell, throwing Arnold. A wounded German shot him—in the same leg that had been hit at Quebec. “Don’t hurt him!” Arnold ordered as his frenzied men sprang forward to bayonet the German.
On a litter made of a British tent and ridgepoles, he was carried off in the last hour of the battle that was the turning point of the war.
The next day Burgoyne withdrew, pursued by Gates’s men closing in for the kill. Finally convinced that Clinton would not come to his rescue, Burgoyne surrendered on October 17. France, which had been clandestinely supplying arms to the Patriots for some time, would now openly begin the process that would lead to French recognition of the United States as an independent nation and a partner in a military alliance against Britain.85
• • •
Under the terms of the surrender’s “Convention”—Burgoyne preferred that word rather than “capitulation”—some 5,600 troops and hundreds of soldiers’ wives and children were to be marched to Boston, where they would be shipped to England and the soldiers permanently kept out of the American war. But only Burgoyne and his staff sailed to England. Congress refused to accept Gates’s agreement. So the “Convention Army” eventally was marched from Boston to Charlottesville, Virginia, confined there for a while and then herded elsewhere. In a five-year odyssey of misery and despair, the Convention Army continually lost men to death and desertion. An unknown number of German prisoners freed themselves by becoming indentured to American farmers, joining the Continental Army, or simply straying away to a quiet welcome in some German-speaking village.86 On the night before Burgoyne and Gates signed the Convention, most Loyalists slipped into the woods and headed for Canada. Peters, suffering from a bayonet wound and a foot grazed by a musket ball, led out his son and, by his count, about 117 survivors of the Queen’s Loyal Rangers.87 Peters said Burgoyne had given him written permission to leave with other Loyalists because he was not sure whether he would be able to protect them from the Rebels when he handed the army over to Gates.88
Lieutenant Simmons, the New York Loyalist who had left his wife and children to march with Burgoyne, escaped with twenty-eight men, many of them teenagers. Traveling on foot and by bateaux, all of them reached Canada.89 Loyalists were covered by the Convention, which forbade them to fight again in the war. But, reacting to the congressional rejection, Governor Guy Carleton declared that because the Convention was invalid, Loyalist veterans could fight again.90
Burgoyne’s attitude toward his Loyalists mirrored the disdain that was typical of British officers. Writing to Lord Germain, the secretary of state for North America, on August 20, Burgoyne underplayed the importance of Tory soldiers, claiming to have only “about 400,” of whom fewer than half were armed and could be “depended upon.” The rest, he said, were “trimmers merely actuated by interest,” “trimmers” being his word for the loyalty that drove them to risktheir lives. An official count, given to a parliamentary investigation of Burgoyne’s campaign, put the number at 680 prior to the battles near Saratoga. In fact the Queen’s Loyal Rangers alone mustered 643 men, of whom 80 had been killed or captured before the Convention was signed.91
Neither Burgoyne nor his American foes realized that his surrender at Saratoga, hailed by Congress as a turning point in the war, produced a crisis close to home for the people of the borderland. Rebels watched Stark, Arnold, and Gates as they headed back to General Washington and the main war against General Howe. They were now on their own in their own war.
* An ornament worn with officers’ uniforms. It evolved from medieval armor that protected the throat.