We last left the Mohawk Valley in Episode 270 with the battle of Stone Arabia and Klock’s Field. Raids from British loyalists and the Iroquois subsided over the winter, but had not given up on driving the Americans out of upstate New York.
On February 5, 1781, New York Governor George Clinton wrote to the Continental Congress about the New York Frontier. Over 330 people had been killed or taken prisoner in 1780. Six forts and hundreds of houses and barns had been destroyed. The enemy had driven off hundreds of cattle and destroyed most of the grain fields.
Many people had already fled the region. Those who remained were under no illusions that spring would not bring another round of brutal raids and combat. By March of 1781, small Indian war parties began raiding farms and small settlements. These were quick hit-and-run operations, designed to inflict harm and disappear before a counter attack could come.
In April, Governor Clinton appointed Colonel Marinus Willett as commander of the New York militia on the frontier. I’ve mentioned Colonel Willett before. He was one of the most critical offices in New York during the revolution.
By 1775, Willet was living in New York City. Although most of his family were loyalists, Marinus joined the Sons of liberty. That year, he attacked a British unit trying to remove guns from the city’s arsenal. He took a commission as a captain in the new Continental Army and participated in the Quebec Campaign.
In 1777, Willet received a transfer to Fort Stanwix, then under the command of Colonel Peter Gansevoort. This was just before British General Burgoyne began his attack into New York. As part of that attack British Colonel Barry St. Leger besieged Fort Stanwix. During the nearby battle of Oriskany, Willett was the officer who led the raid on the enemy camps, capturing most of their baggage. This action caused the British to lose most of their Indian allies, and eventually retreat back to Canada, thus leaving General Burgoyne without expected reinforcements.
Once Burgoyne’s army surrendered at Saratoga, Willet returned to the main Continental Army under Washington, where he fought at the battle of Monmouth. He returned to New York in 1779 to participate in the Sullivan Campaign, which destroyed Iroquois towns and villages that were supporting raids from Canada. By this time Willet was colonel of the 5th New York Regiment in the Continental Army. Due to dwindling enlistments, the five New York Regiments were consolidated into just two in 1780.
Upstate New York
New York needed a military leader. As the spring of 1781 began, Iroquois raiders under Joseph Brant and others began raiding the region. In early spring, raiders captured thirty militiamen who were caught outside of Fort Stanwix, as this time also called Fort Schuyler. Shortly thereafter, a flood, and then a fire damaged much of the fort.
Some sources indicate that the flood destroyed much of the fort’s provisions at a time when the garrison was already running tight on rations. The fire was either an accident or deliberately set by members of the garrison. The garrison was starving and some may have hoped that the fire would allow them to abandon the fort and go somewhere else that had food.
If that was the case, it worked. The remainder of the garrison abandoned what was left of the fort and retreated downriver to Fort Herkimer.
At Governor Clinton’s request, General Washington approved Colonel Willett’s transfer to New York. He needed to rally the locals to put up a defense at a time when the main Continental Army was looking in the other direction at New York City, and most of the fighting was taking place in the south. As such, those in upstate New York would be obliged to defend themselves against the raids from Canada.
After years of raids, the locals were as prepared as possible. A string of 24 forts in the area provided protection. Some of these forts were simply reinforced houses that offered a minimum of protection. Still, it was usually enough to discourage a small Indian raiding party from attacking. Residents would run to the nearest fort when they received word of raiders in the area.
Most of the properties had been destroyed by this time. Raiders were frequently destroying buildings that had been rebuilt after previous raids.
At Governor Clinton’s request Colonel Willett received orders to take command of the state troops and militia in May of 1781. General Robert Van Rensselaer, the previous commander, took heavy criticism for his weak leadership at the battles of Stone Arabia and Klock’s Field in the fall of 1780, and had been removed from command.
The overall commander of the Northern Department at this time was Continental Brigadier General James Clinton, the brother of Governor George Clinton. General Clinton mostly stayed in Albany with his brother. He was focused more on obtaining supplies, and left the field work in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys to Colonel Willett. General Washington pulled almost all Continental soldiers out of the region, as part of his attempt to gather up an army that could threaten New York City. The only outside support came after Washington requested that Massachusetts militia support Willett in New York, but that request only came in late summer.
So Willett was pretty much on his own when he got there. He arrived in late June and set up his headquarters at Fort Plain, also known as Fort Rensselaer. Rather than keep small bodies of militia scattered across the region, Willett opted to gather together a militia army of several hundred men who could be on the move regularly to confront any enemy raiding parties.
Within a few weeks of arriving at Fort Plain, Willett would face his first major challenge. Over the course of the winter and spring, most of the attacks consisted of smaller bands of Tories and Iroquois attacking isolated homes or people caught out in their fields.
On July 9, Willett dispatched Captain Lawrence Gross with 35 militiamen on a routine reconnaissance south of the fort towards the village of New Dorlach, today called Sharon Springs. Later that same morning, Willett noticed smoke rising from the southeast, in the direction of Currytown. He dispatched Captain Robert McKean with sixteen men to investigate and to collect militia along the way.
McKean’s force arrived at Currytown, about ten miles from the fort, to find the village had been plundered and burned to the ground. His men could only douse the remaining fires.
The attack on Currytown was not the result of a small raiding party. A larger force of 300 Iroquois and loyalists under the command of Lieutenant John Dockstader had ridden down from Montreal to raid the area. Dockstader had lived in the area before the war, but had been forced to flee because of his loyalist sentiments.
Dockstader apparently had some relationship to Joseph Brant, the Mohawk war chief and British officer. According to some accounts, and records are spotty on this point, Dockstader had married a sister or niece of Captain Brant. Some accounts also indicate that Dockstader was part Iroquois himself. Whatever his background, Dockstader was a committed loyalist and an experienced raider who knew the area well.
During the attack on Currytown, the raiders killed and scalped several locals, and took a few others prisoner. They plundered all the buildings, then burned whatever they could not carry off with them. Once complete, the raiders rode southwest, toward the town of New Dorlach.
After dousing the fires in Curryown, Captain Gross tasked two of his local scouts to follow the trail. The men determined that the raiders had set up camp in a swamp near New Dorlach.
Since the raiding party was about 300 men, and Gross had only thirty, he could not do anything on his own. He dispatched riders back to Fort Plain to inform Colonel Willett. Gross then set up camp along Bowman’s creek, between Fort Plain and the enemy camp at New Dorlach.
Upon receiving the news of the enemy’s location, Willett put out the call for anyone who could, to join for an attack near Currytown. He gathered as many men as he could from Fort Plain, and moved overnight to surprise the enemy. Willett’s force, along with those of Gross and McKean, arrived near the enemy camp at about dawn on July 10.
The force of mostly Iroquois warriors outnumbered the smaller force of about 150 militia that Willett had been able to muster on short notice. Even so, he was determined to fight. Willett sent about ten of his men toward the enemy camp, where they fired on the enemy and then retreated. As expected, the warriors jumped on their horses and tried to ride down the small group. The Iroquois were so fast that they managed to kill two of the retreating militia. The rest, however, rode the pursuers into an ambush set up by Willett.
The militia fired a volley into the warriors. Although they took casualties, the warriors rushed at the enemy lines. Willett had kept back fifty of his soldiers, who fired another volley into the attackers. The two lines continued to fight for about ninety minutes, before the loyalists retreated. Captain McKean attempted to pursue the retreating enemy, but almost immediately took two balls in his chest, mortally wounded. His son Samuel attempted to come to his aid and was also shot through the mouth. The enemy disappeared quickly without anyone attempting to pursue immediately.
After Willett’s force did advance, they found the enemy camp at the swamp. The enemy had gone, but had abandoned most of their equipment and the plunder taken from Currytown. Willett later reported that the loyalist force had about fifty men killed or wounded. Willett lost five men killed and nine wounded. The loyalists had also killed most of the prisoners taken at Currytown after the encounter with Willett’s force. Several of the prisoners survived long enough to be recovered, but most died of their injuries within days.
After the battle ended, Lieutenant Colonel Volkert Veeder arrived on the scene with three regiments of Tryon County Militia. The militia had missed the battle but helped to deal with the dead and wounded.
While the battle at New Dorlach turned out to be the largest fight of the summer, it was far from the only one. Locals were always on alert for the next raid.
Only a few weeks after the battle at New Dorlach, a Tory named Adam Crysler, from Butler’s Rangers, led a group of Tories and Iroquois in a raid a few miles further southeast, near the modern town of Gallupville. They attacked several houses, killing and capturing locals.
Days later, on August 6, loyalist Donald McDonald led another force of sixty Indians and loyalists within a few miles of Fort Herkimer. Those who could, fled to Fort Herkimer. But Johann Christian Schell chose to make a stand at his home. He had fortified the home to prepare for an attack. When the raid came, two of his sons were captured while working in the field. Schell made it back to his home where he, his wife, and his six other sons put up a defense.
The family managed to hold off the attackers for hours, as they tried to burn down the home, or force entry. McDonald personally rushed the door and attempted to force it open with a crowbar. The defenders wounded him and dragged him inside.
Several natives rushed the house and put their guns through loopholes in the walls. Mrs. Schell took an axe and destroyed five barrels by bashing them.
At dusk, Schell feared the cover of darkness might aid the enemy. Then from the second floor of his home, he shouted that he saw a relief force from Fort Dayton. He began shouting commands to the militia to locate the attackers. As it turned out, there was no rescue party. Schell just made it up. But it managed to unnerve the attackers, who fled into the woods.
They left behind their commander, the wounded McDonald, who remained a prisoner. He was taken to Fort Dayton the following day. There, he died from his wounds.
Following the attack, patriots found eleven dead and six more wounded in the area around the house. Schell’s captured sons were taken to Montreal. After their eventual release when the war ended, they reported that another nine wounded attackers died on the march back to Canada.
No one in the house was killed or wounded. Schell continued to farm his land. A year later, another raid again caught him working in his fields. This time, he and one of his sons were killed.
Also as the summer came to an end, Walter Butler, the son of John Butler, commander of of Butler’s Rangers, led another force of 600 or 700 Tories and Iroquois into the Mohawk valley. I’ve mentioned Butler before. He grew up in the area, but was forced to flee because of his loyalist sympathies. He had been tried in New York and sentenced to death before escaping back to Canada. Butler was among the most active Tory leaders, and had become particularly notorious following his role in the Cherry Valley Massacre in 1778.
The loyalists came back to the same area of the Mohawk Valley in October, including another attack on Currytown, to destroy anything that had been rebuilt since the July raid. The raiders then moved north toward Johnstown.
Back at Fort Plain, Colonel Willett received word of the new raid. Once again, he raised as many men as he could quickly and set out in pursuit. Willett managed to raise only about 400 militia, so the enemy far outnumbered his force. Even so, the patriot militia caught up with the raiders around Johnstown on October 25.
Willett divided his force, sending a portion of it in a flanking move to get around the enemy’s rear. The remainder advance forward in a direct attack across an open field. Willett’s men also had one small field cannon. The fight raged for some time, with the two sides charging one another. At one point the militia making up the patriots’ right flank fled in a panic. Willett attempted to rally his men as the Tories took advantage of the confusion.
Just as a Tory victory looked imminent, the flanking force appeared in the Tory rear and threw the whole battle into confusion. The fighting turned into small groups of men fighting as the British eventually withdrew to higher ground.
Over the next few days, the Tories withdrew, moving west back toward Canada. Willet and the militia pursued them. At one point, Butler tried to ford a river when a force of patriot militia and Oneida warriors caught him. Butler turned to taunt his pursuers when one of the Oneida shot him off his horse with a rifle. The warrior then charged into the river with his tomahawk to finish the job.
According to one story, Butler pleaded for mercy, but the warrior simply shouted “remember Cherry Valley” and finished him. This is almost certainly made up after the fact. A more likely account says that Butler was shot in the head and died instantly. The Oneida warrior then scalped the dead body and took his coat, which were both later sold in Albany. However it happened after Walter Butler was dead.
As it turned out, this was the last large scale raid of the war. Shortly thereafter word of Yorktown arrived, and both sides settled down and waited for the end.
Next Week, we return to South Carolina, where the South Carolina under Thomas Sumter continues to contest control of the state - keeping the British pinned down around Charleston.
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Previous Episode 290 Grand Reconnaissance
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(from archive.org unless noted)
Campbell, William W. Lecture on the life and military services of General James Clinton. Read before the New-York Historical Society, Feb. 1839.
Campbell, William W. Annals of Tryon county; or, The border warfare of New York, during the revolution, New York: J&J Harper, 1831.
Cruikshank, E. A. The Story of Butler's Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara, Welland, Ont. Tribune Print. House, 1893.
Greene, Nelson The Story of Old Fort Plain and the Middle Mohawk Valley (with five maps), Fort Plain: O'Connor, 1915.
Simms, Jeptha Root The frontiersmen of New York: showing customs of the Indians, vicissitudes of the pioneer white settlers, and border strife in two wars, Albany, NY: G.C. Riggs, 1882.
Stone, William L. Life of Joseph Brant-Thayendanegea, Vol 2. 1792-1844, New York, A. V. Blake, 1838.
Thomas, Howard Marinus Williett, soldier-patriot, 1740-1830, Prospect Books, 1954 (borrow only)
Wager, Daniel E. Col. Marinus Willett, the hero of Mohawk Valley, Utica: Oneida Historical Society, 1891.
Warner, George H. Military records of Schoharie County veterans of four wars, Albany, NY, Weed, 1891.
Willett, Marinus A narrative of the military actions of Colonel Marinus Willett, taken chiefly from his own manuscript, New York, G&C&H Carvill, 1831.
Books Worth BuyingBerry, A.J. & James Morrison Marinus Willett, Saviour of The Mohawk Valley, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Lowenthal, Larry Marinus Willett: Defender of the Northern Frontier (New Yorkers and the Revolution), Purple Mountain Pr Ltd, 2000.
Swiggett, Howard War Out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers, Literary Licensing, LLC. 2012.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.