Saturday, February 9, 2013

New edition of Judge Benton's 1856 History of Herkimer County

A new edition of Judge Nathaniel Benton’s 1856  A History of Herkimer County is now available for free download as a PDF and in a non-profit paperback edition at $5.45. Both versions are available at Wilderness Hill Books and are intended for students of local history.

 The new edition contains the historical narratives of the Colonial and Revolutionary period but omits sections on the European history of the Palatine Germans, family histories and later events. 

Those interested in consulting the complete book can find it on this link at Google Books.  Chapter VIII will be of interest to genealogists and includes sketches of some of the main Palatine families such as the Bellingers,Caslers, Helmers, Herkimers, Dockstadters, Bowmans and Folts. Chapters IX and X cover historical and local political events from 1791 down to 1855.

In the seven chapters of the Wilderness Hill edition, Judge Benton  traces the arrival of the Palatine Germans in the early 1720’s through the growing storm of the Revolution in the 1770’s and concludes with the aftereffects of that bloody struggle. He  himself was a major political figure in the county during the first half of the 19th century but does not draw on his experience at all in this book. Born in New Hampshire, he served in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812, where he rose to adjutant general and presided over two courts martial. He came to Little Falls in 1816 to study law under George Feeter, and served as county surrogate judge, U.S. Attorney for the northern district, New York State Senator from 1828-1831, and Secretary of State of New York from 1845 to 1847. In his later years he devoted himself to composing his history of Herkimer County, drawing on old records and the memories of the few who still survived from the early years of the republic, or their children.

The author shares relatively few of the racial and gender prejudices of his own time, and his book is a reliable source for many otherwise unrecorded incidents from the colonial and Revolutionary eras. His observations on Iroquois culture, for example, are quite candid on the freedoms enjoyed by Iroquois women in contrast to the second class citizenship of American women of his own era:

"Another peculiarity marked these people. The matrons of the tribe, in council, could always propose a cessation of hostilities, and this could be done without compromising the warriors and chiefs. For this purpose a male functionary, the messenger of the matrons, who was a good speaker, was designated to perform an office which was deemed unsuitable to the female. When the proposition to drop the war club was resolved upon, the message was delivered to this officer, and he was bound to enforce it with all the powers of eloquence he possessed.
    Marriage among the Iroquois was a mere personal agreement between the parties, requiring no particular sanction and in no respect affected the rights of property, if the wife had any. Whatever goods, effects or valuables of any kind the wife had before marriage, she continued to hold absolutely, and if a separation took place, the wife was entitled to take with her all her property."

It is the Palatine Germans who most concern Benton and he goes to some length describing the many legal and political difficulties which these pioneers faced in attempting to escape from indentured servitude in the Hudson Valley and gaining their own land in the Schoharie and Mohawk Rivers in the 1720s. And he is very compassionate in describing their hard lives and the violent attacks they experienced, first from the French in 1757-1758, and from the British and their allies during the Revolution.
The Oriskany Battlefield
Although he admired Nicholas Herkimer, Judge Benton’s description of the subsequent battle of Oriskany in 1777 acknowledges that the general’s decisions cost the lives of hundreds of local militiamen who followed him:
"All previous accounts had fixed St. Leger's forces at 2000 strong, nearly half of which were Indians led by Brant, a brave, active and artful Mohawk sachem. Herkimer knew this, and he no doubt believed, as well he might, that a force superior to his own, could be sent against him, which would select its own battlefield, without in any way interfering with the investment of the fort. But noisy insubordination prevailed, and precipitated the little band of patriots into the jaws of death. Smarting under the repeated accusations heaped upon him, and irritated no doubt, the General gave orders to take up the line of march, which was received with cheers by the men, who proceeded rapidly on their way, two deep, having thrown out the usual advanced and flanking parties.
     At 10 o'clock, on the 6th, the main body of troops passed over a causeway on a marshy ravine, the advance having commenced an ascent of the westerly slope, when a well directed fire from the enemy, in front and on both flanks, accompanied with the dismal Indian war-whoop, unfolded to the American general that his division had become involved in an almost inextricable ambuscade. Retreat was impossible, for the causeway over the marsh was already blocked up with teams; and the rear guard, just commencing the descent of the eastern declivity, commanded by one of the officers who in the morning had taunted his general with cowardice, turned a fled on the first fire of the enemy. But light did not save them from the fate that awaited their comrades on the west side of the ravine; the enemy, knowing well the ground, had gained the rear, and shot down the fugitives as they ran away from their companions. As might well be expected, the suddenness of the attack and the intensity of the enemy's ire, not only produced great disorder among the provincials, but annihilation seemed almost inevitable for a time.
 Hanyost Schuyler's mother pleads
with Benedict Arnold
(from 1877 Harpers Magazine)
Annihilation was averted, although losses were very high among the militia force of about a thousand. According to Benton, American reports listed 200 dead while British listed 400 Americans dead and 200 captured. The British only retreated from Fort Stanwix due to a clever ruse perpetrated on them by Herkimer's nephew, Hanyost Schuyler, popularly thought to be a madman:

"Hanyost Schuyler was the instrument made use of to scatter the besieging forces surrounding Fort Schuyler, and send them helter-skelter back to Canada in double quick time. The home of this strange and singular being, was near the upper Mohawk Indian castle in the present town of Danube, where he resided with his mother and brother Nicholas, and hence in early life had much intercourse with the Indians. He is described as coarse and ignorant, and but little removed from idiocy, and still possessing shrewdness enough to be made the instrument of accomplishing an important object. Hanyost was somewhat tainted with loyalty, and had been captured at Shoemaker's with Walter N. Butler, and others' he was tried by a court martial and sentenced to death. Hi mother and brother, on hearing this sad new, of course hastened to headquarters to intercede for his life. For a time their efforts were unavailing, but finally it was proposed he should repair to St. Leger's camp with a friendly Oneida Indian, and so manage to alarm the enemy as to produce an abandonment of the siege.

     Hanyost gladly embraced the alternative, leaving his brother as a hostage for the faithful execution of his mission; being assured that Nicholas should die if he faltered in the enterprise. Schuyler having procured sundry shots through his garments, that he might show he had run for dear life, departed with his Indian comrade for the enemy's camp. They had arranged between them to approach St. Leger's position from opposite directions, and were not to appear acquainted with each other, if they should meet. This affair was wisely planned, and most skillfully and adroitly executed. The instrument was well chosen. He was well known as a loyalist, and the parties to whom he first addressed himself were no unwilling auditors, no in an unfavorable mood to be deeply impressed and even awed by his ambiguous language and mysterious manner. The native American Indians, like the followers of Mahomet, were ever inspired with a peculiar respect and even reverence for idiots and lunatics. Fraternal regard strongly prompted Hanyost to apply all his energies and to leave no effort untried to secure the complete success of his mission, and relieve his brother from the fate that was hanging over him. He was completely successful, and having followed the retreating enemy to Wood Creek, he there left them, and returned to Fort Schuyler the same evening, and gave Col. Gansevoort the first intimation of Arnold's approach. It was not until Schuyler's arrival at the fort, that its commandant was able to solve the problem of St. Leger's sudden departure and precipitate flight."
I do not share the Judge’s estimation of Hanyost and made him the protagonist of my novel, Neither Rebel Nor Tory, which includes much of the same history included in Benton’s book, also available in paperback at Wilderness Hill Books and on Kindle.

The Judge's  history also has good descriptions of the Tory and Iroquois raids which followed the British defeats at Fort Stanwix and at Saratoga. This period paralleled 20th century colonial conflicts in that the British could attack the American insurgents, freely engaged in war crimes and atrocities, but could not hold any territory.  Looked at another way, the Tories and the Iroquois raiders proved to be as elusive as the Viet Cong or the Taliban, striking from a sanctuary in Canada. which their enemies would not breach.

A year after Oriskany, the massacre at Andrustown in the town of Warren was intended as a prelude to a full-scale assault on Valley settlements but John Adam Helmer managed to outrun Brant’s marauders in time to warn the settlers to flee into the forts at German Flatts – thus becoming the Paul Revere of this part of the country.

A monument marking the massacre site near Jordanville is on Route 167 about half mile north on the left from Holy Trinity Monastery.

 Site of the 1780 mill in Little Falls

In July of that same year about 60 Tory/Iroquois raiders attacked Rheimenschneiders Bush, a small settlement and grist mill north of Little Falls. According to Benton, 19 captives were carried off to Canada. And according to legend, the raiders also carried off two small brass cannons but abandoned them in the forest somewhere near Stewarts Landing at the outlet of Canada Lake.  (I have searched for both Rheimenschnieders Bush and for the lost cannons, without success)
Benton  describes the attack on the mill at Little Falls and the dramatic escape of several local residents:

 "In June, 1782, a party of the enemy, Tories and Indians as usual, appeared at the Little falls for the sole purpose of destroying a gristmill at that place, for they do not seem to have achieved any other valorous exploit that way. The grist mill on the falls of the Mohawk became quite important to the inhabitants of the upper valley, as well as to the garrisons of Forts Herkimer and Dayton, after the destruction of those at German Flats, by Brant, a year and a half before. The enemy came upon the party at the flouring mill at night, and accomplished their designs without much difficulty. At any rate, only a few shots were fired, and one man, Daniel Petri, was killed. When the Indians entered the mill, the occupants attempted to escape the best way they could. Two of them, Cox and Skinner, secreted themselves in the raceway, under the waterwheel, and escaped death and captivity; but two others, Christian Edick and Frederick Getman, jumped into the raceway, above the mill, and there endeavored to conceal themselves, but the burning mill disclosed their hiding place and they were taken prisoners. After burning the mill the enemy retired, taking with them several prisoners."

Judge Benton's memory is preserved today by Benton Hall Academy and Bentons Landing in Little Falls. His stately residence on Garden Street in Little Falls, the longtime home of the YWCA, fittingly serves as the usual meeting place for the town’s historical society.




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