Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nearly forgotten Revolutionary War Battlefields near Herkimer, NY

After the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777, and the enemy's retreat from Fort Stanwix, the patriots never again faced a major force in upstate New York, but the war continued as Iroquois and Tory raiders launched bloody hit-and-run raids on the less defended settlements and farmsteads. A regular force of the Continental Army was stationed at Fort Dayton (located near the court house in Herkimer) and conducted patrols into the surrounding country in a search for these raiding parties. In May, 1780 Lieutenant Solomon Woodworth led a company on one such patrol and fell into an ambush. In his 1856 “History of Herkimer County,” Judge Nathaniel Benton describes the battle:

 Having proceeded a few hours on the march, an Indian was discovered who was immediately fired upon, when the rangers found themselves involved in an inextricable ambuscade, and completely surrounded by an Indian force double their own numbers. The conflict that followed was severe and sanguinary, as might well have been expected from the character of the combatants engaged, and a hand to hand fight left but fifteen of the Americans, who escaped to tell the sad fate of their brethren. Some of this party were taken prisoners, but Woodworth and about half of his men were killed on the spot.

This fatal encounter took place about three miles north of Herkimer village, on the east side of the West Canada creek, in a deep ravine, where now may be seen the mound of earth, under rest the remains of the gallant Woodworth and his brave companions. The killed, it appears, were all collected and buried in one common grave, unshrouded and uncoffined, with no monument to tell where rest the brave but unfortunate defenders of American liberty.”

Although the mound -if there was one- marking the final resting place of these heroes has vanished, a monument was erected in 1959 on Smith Road north of Shells Bush Road (County Route 94), on the left when traveling north. (Milo Smith lived on this road and made a hobby of carving circus figures. His replicas of the Sautelle Circus Boats, which traveled from town to town of the Erie Canal, are exhibited at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts)

Note: Although Benton believed that the slain were buried near where they fell, it appears that Lt. Woodworth and Sgt. Phelps were buried at Mayfield. This site also describes his earlier heroism in that area.

map courtesy of Herkimer County Historical Society
Another tragic and nearly forgotten battle took place a year later at a blockhouse built by the Schell family a few miles away. The site was near the present-day Shells Bush Road which intersects Route 169 between Little Falls and Middleville. Johann Christian Schell was a veteran of the battle at Oriskany and clearly a man of exceptional courage. Benton describes his response to the raiders:

    “On the 6th of August, 1781 a German settlement called Shell's Bush, three or four miles north of Fort Dayton, was visited by a party of these formidable asserters of the rights of the crown. Donald McDonald, a Scotch refugee from Johnstown, with a party of about sixty Indians and Tories, with whom was Empie and Cassleman, two famous traitors, the latter being the same man who was with the party that attacked Rheimensnyder's bush in April, 1780, made their appearance in the Shell settlement in the afternoon of the above day, when most of the inhabitants had retired to Fort Dayton, for protection. Some indications of this hostile movement must have been previously discovered, or the inhabitants would not have sought the protection of the fort. There was, however, one man, John Christian Shell, the husband of a brave and resolute wife, and the father of six sons, who determined to brave out the storm, let come what would. He had a strong blockhouse on his farm, well constructed for purposes of defense against marauding parties of Tories and Indians; and he resolved to fight rather than run. The first story of logs had no openings except a doorway or entrance, well protected by a massive door, and loopholes through which the besieged could fire upon their assailants. The floor of the second story projected over the lower part of the building, and had apertures in the projecting floor, affording ample means of annoying the enemy who might approach the building to fire it or break open the door below. Shell had a good supply of arms and ammunition to stand an ordinary siege. When the enemy made their appearance, Shell and his sons were in the field at work, but his two youngest, being twins only eight years old, were so far off he could not save them when he retired to his blockhouse, and they were taken and carried to Canada. Having gained his castle and secured the entrance, Shell and his little garrison were resolute and alert, and kept up a spirited fight from two o'clock until dark. Some of the incidents are worthy of particular notice. Shell's wife was active in loading the pieces fired by her husband and four sons. McDonald several times attempted to set fire to the building, but failed. His men were several times compelled to retreat, in consequence of the galling fire received from the party in the blockhouse, McDonald made an effort to force the door with a crowbar, but was wounded in the leg while so engaged, and none of his party being near enough to rescue him, Shell did not hesitate a moment to unbar the door and drag the wounded Tory leader into his fortress. This capture not only secured Shell against being burnt out by the enemy, but afforded an ample supply of ammunition to the little garrison, whose stock was becoming rather short. To save his life, McDonald gave up his cartridges to be used against his followers. A short respite took place between the belligerents, but the enemy returned and made a vigorous effort to take the blockhouse by assault. They came up to the walls and thrust the muzzles of their pieces through the loopholes, when Madam Shell by a blow upon five of them with an axe, rendered them useless; this being followed by several deliberate shots from the little garrison, compelled the assailants to retire to a respectful distance. Just at dark, Shell practiced a little stratagem which induced the enemy to suppose that troops were approaching from Fort Dayton, whereupon they fled to the woods, taking with them Shell's two little sons. After providing for the Tory commander in the best manner they could, the family started for the fort, which they reached in safety. Some of McDonald's Indians visited him, after the family went away, but finding he could not be removed, they left him to the mercy of the Americans, with the message to Shell that the welfare of his little boys depended on the treatment bestowed on McDonald. The wounded prisoner was taken to the fort the next day, when his leg was amputated. The enemy's loss on the ground was quite severe, eleven killed and six wounded. The little boys, on their return after the war, stated that nine out of twelve wounded which the enemy started with, died before they reached Canada.

In the following year Shell and two of his sons, being at work in the field not far from his blockhouse, were fired upon by a party of Indians secreted in a wheat field, and he was dangerously wounded. The sons remained with their father until a party from the fort came to their relief. One of the sons was, however, shot dead and the other wounded, before the guard arrived. John Christian Shell did not long survive his wounds, and thus closed the life of a brave and resolute man and a pure and devout Christian. During the short cessation in the attack on the blockhouse, Shell addressed his Maker in a hymn of deliverance from peril, used by the early German reformers.

The Shellsbush settlement is on what is usually called Gens Purchase, embracing perhaps some portion of the Royal Grant, and it will be observed that the name of Shell, Schel or Shaul does not occur among the patentees of Burnet field, nor is the name found in the list of Palatines remaining in New York, or taken to Livingston Manor, of the first two companies that emigrated. Enough is still known of him to authorize the conclusion that he was a German Lutheran, and he or his ancestors may have come over with the third body of immigrants in 1722, or at a later period. The singularly rude and unharmonious account of Shell's conflict with the Tories and Indians, contained in Campbell's Annals of Tryon county, has contributed very much to keep that event fresh in the recollection of the descendants of his German neighbors.”

The site of Schell's blockhouse was commemorated by a monument erected by the Daughters of the American revolution in 1908. The site is on private land a couple miles east of the intersection of Smith Road and Shells but I am not sure if the monument is still there. 

Also in 1780 Tory and Iroquois raiders truck the settlement of Riemenschnider's Bush, a few miles north of Little Falls, and kidnapped 19 prisoners, most of whom were returned when the war ended. Long ago, I heard a legend that the raiders carried off a small brass cannon from the settlement, eventually abandoning it in the forest near Stewarts Landing on Canada Lake. I have never been able to verify that story nor have my efforts to locate the site of Riemenschneiders Bush been successful.

Judge Benton's history is a very rare book but the entire text  may be read at Google Books. In addition I have made available an abridged version at $5.45 in paper and free as an e-book.

Those who are interested in fictional treatments of the Revolutionary War in the Mohawk Valley may be interested in my "Neither Rebel nor Tory," the story of Hanyost Schuyler and his critical role in breaking the siege of Fort Stanwix. Judge Benton, who played such a large role in the development of Little Falls, makes an appearance in my tale of the Underground Railroad, "Greater Love."

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