There are few groups of people so thoroughly despised as to warrant hatred almost 200 years after the last member dies. In NY, this distinction goes to a group of white, Loyalist irregulars who operated alongside Mohawk warriors along the NY frontier. Raiding, burning and pillaging, they tried to exact a measure of revenge on their former neighbors, while also helping serve the overall British strategy. These men were brutal, ruthless and perceived to be almost superhuman during the Revolutionary War on our western frontier. Their story is a part of America’s first civil war.
There is much we don’t know about the men called Brant’s Volunteers, but information comes to light more and more since the advent of the Internet makes sharing much easier. This is not meant to be an end-all concerning the subject. I merely look to outline these men’s activities and stimulate interest in a subject that I hold dear.
In order to discuss Brant’s Volunteers, one must first know a bit about Joseph Brant himself, as well as the local political climate that spawned them.
Joseph Brant was born in early 1743. His Mohawk name, Thayendanegea translated as “two pieces of wood bound together,” denoting stregth. As a young man, Joseph accompanied his kinsmen on the 1758 campaign to capture Fort Ticonderoga and on the 1759 Fort Niagara campaign, with local merchant, landowner and Superintendent of the British Indian Department, Sir William Johnson.
Having taken an interest in Joseph’s sister Molly, Sir William looked after the boy’s education after the war. Joseph was sent to the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock’s school for Indian boys in Lebanon, CT.
Taking part in an expedition to help put down Pontiac’s Rebellion of the early 1760’s, his party paused in the village of Oquaga (aka Onaquaga) where Joseph met an Oneida girl called Peggy. After a period of courting, Peggy became Joseph’s 1st wife on 22 July 1765.
Joseph ends up settling on a farm on the Mohawk River, just east of present day Little Falls, NY and just north of the “Indian Castle” Church on Route 5S. He also worked for wages as an interpreter for the Indian Department, most notably during the negotiations with Pontiac at Ft. Ontario in the summer of 1766. He stayed on at the fort afterwards in the same capacity for a time. Another notable example of hiring out was in 1769, when Joseph and his wife guided Englishman Richard Smith from Otsego Lake down the Susquehanna River. Smith was on an exploratory trip looking at property in the region. He wrote:
“Some of the Chiefs, however, imitate the English Mode and Joseph Brant was dressed in a suit of Blue Broad Cloth as his Wife was in a Callicoe or Chintz Gown.” (Smith, Richard. Page 150)
In 1774, the world turned upside down for residents of the Mohawk region of NY…
In July of that year, Sir William Johnson passes away. At the same time, colonists calling themselves “patriots” and the “Sons of Liberty” begin to agitate for increasing conflict with Britain. “Committees of Safety” are organized throughout New England and the Middle Colonies. These organizations’ goal is to root out Loyalist sentiment and in the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys of NY, those who did not renounce their allegiance to the King were deemed traitors and risked confiscation of property, injury and even death at the hands of the Committees.
Hundreds are driven from their homes, including prominent locals such as Sir John Johnson (son and heir of the late Sir William), John Butler, Guy Johnson (John’s Cousin) and Daniel Claus (John’s brother in law). Fleeing to the British sanctuaries of either Montreal or Niagara, these men soon began to lobby for recruits to help put down the new rebellion.
A fair amount of the poorer sort of Loyalist made it to the village of Oquaga, where Joseph’s 1st wife was from. Since 1730, this Oneida village (in present day Windsor, NY) attracted refugees from various tribes such as Nanticokes from Virginia in 1753 and some Algonquin-speaking Lenape. By the time of the Revolution, families from the other 5 member tribes of the Iroquois had also joined the settlement.
On November 11, 1775, Brant, Guy Johnson and others set sail for England on the ship Adamant, arriving 40 days later. Brant is brought around as a bit of a curiosity, but gets to meet the King as well as Lord George Germain (the British Secretary of State for America).
Brant arrives in NYC on 29 July 1776 and by early spring of 1777, has made his way to the village of Oquaga. Men begin to join with him and he uses Oquaga as a FOB (Forward Operating Base) for his foraging raids into Rebel-controlled areas to the east.
At the end of June 1777, Brant met with Nicholas Herkimer of the Tryon County militia, and Herkimer tries to persuade Brant to not take part in any upcoming conflict.
By 23 July 1777, Brant and his men are at Oswego for the start of the St. Leger expedition. The mission being to sweep east along the Mohawk Valley and into Albany to meet up with General Burgoyne who was to sweep down from Canada and General Howe who was to come north from NYC. Howe went towards Philadelphia instead, Burgoyne was routed in the Saratoga Campaign and St. Leger’s force failed to take Fort Stanwix/Schuyler.
But as a result, the shooting war had come to NY’s western frontier.
The Battle of Oriskany and beyond
That single August day in 1777 could easily use a book of its own. But being so important to the overall story, it bears at least a small analysis.
The western branch of the British 1777 campaign has stalled at Fort Schuyler/Stanwix. His original information about the state of the garrison and structure being incorrect, St. Leger laid siege to the fort. To the east, General Nicholas Herkimer of the Tryon County Militia called for men to help relieve the fort.
After 2 days of marching, on the morning of August 6th, the militia walked into an ambush not far from the Oneida village of Oriska. The Loyalist forces had arranged themselves in a fish-hook pattern along the road. The “bend” and point was made up of men from Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of NY (KRR-NY). John Butler, about 20 Indian Department rangers and a swarm of Iroquois and Canada Indians, occupied the main shank of the hook. Brant’s men were posted at the “eye”, intended to close the door on retreating militia once the trap was sprung by the KRR-NY firing on the vanguard of the column. It inow thought that some of the Hessian Jaegers joined the KRR-NY positions as well.
Once the column’s flankers passed, Brant’s men moved in closer. At the front of the column, a flanker saw the ambush and was cut down by fire from Loyalist and Indian, as were a great many of his fellow militia. The trap had been prematurely sprung, but was effective nonetheless. Many a militiaman panicked and ran only to be chased down by the Indians. Officers were hit with uncanny marksmanship. Chaos reigned as the Indians posted at the center swooped down to close with the enemy. According to the deposition of Garret S. Van Bracklin (3rd Tryon), Brant’s men:
“Ran down upon the Right and Left of our main Body and kept a Running fire as they Proceeded.” (13 June 1778, NYHS, NYC, Tryon County, Mss. Transcribed by Jim Morrison)
General Herkimer was hit in the leg fairly early in the day, but managed to keep calm by all accounts. He had what was left of the militia pull back to some higher ground where, despite numerous assaults, they held their ground until the Loyalist forces pulled back. Whilst the Tryon County militia was badly mauled and failed to relieve Fort Stanwix, the siege had to be abandoned as a direct result of the ambush at Oriskany.
The strongest legacy of the battle, and one that would be strongly felt in the years to come, was that what had started as political issues, turned in to a full-fledged shooting war. As the men laying in ambush along those ravines watched the militia walk by, they saw the faces of men they knew. Some even saw relatives among the enemy. Others saw men who they felt cheated them in the past and those memories likely came to the forefront of their minds that day. The centuries-old bonds of the Iroquois Confederacy were broken that day when Mohawk & Seneca fired on their Oneida cousins. Men fired on their brothers, fathers, and uncles. This was no longer a revolution against a foreign monarch. This was now personal. NY’s frontier had entered into one of the bloodiest types of conflicts there is. A civil war.
The Raiding Strategy
After Oriskany, the British strategy changed. Instead of marching through with conventional forces to take ground, they would allow Loyalists and Indians to raid and pillage the borders of Tryon County. In doing so, they would accomplish 2 things.
1. They would destroy crops and farm equipment that went to feed Washington’s men around NYC. The Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys provided an estimated 60% of the flour Washington used. Cut off the supply, the Army starves and disbands.
2. They would drive Rebels from the frontier settlements east to Albany, exacting a psychological price as well as bleeding the Rebel authorities financially in feeding refugees.
In 1778, the raiding campaign started in earnest. Brant’s men were active, to say the least. In May, Joseph was at Oquaga collecting men for the campaign season. On the 30th, the village of Cobus Kill (present-day Cobleskill, NY) was attacked. A small force of Continentals and local militia discovered a party of Indians and decided to give chase, only to fall into an ambush. A few tried to take shelter from Brant’s force in a nearby home. The Loyalists set fire to the building, killing all. After trouncing the Rebels, Brant’s men burned the town, took as many head of cattle as could be handled and killed the rest.
A small party also attacked Durloch (present day Sharon, NY) to the north with minimal effect.
In July, Brant herded the women and children of Springfield into a single house in the settlement of and burned the rest of the homes and farm buildings. He then proceeded north and laid waste to Andrustown (present-day Jordanville, NY), coming within about 4 miles of German Flatts (present-day Herkimer/German Flats, NY).
In September, the village of German Flatts, rich in grain, was raided. The day before, Brant’s men came upon a party of 9 Rebel scouts and attacked, killing 3. Fortunately, a scout by the name of Helmer was able to escape and warn Col. Peter Bellinger of the impending attack. The following morning, Brant’s men assaulted Fort Dayton, but were driven off. On the north side of the river they rounded up cattle, burned barns full of grain as well as mills and homes. Only 2 homes, the local church and the Fort were left standing. The south side fared no better. The whole settlement was burned with the exception of the homes of the local minister and 2 Loyalist families (the Shoemakers and Thompsons). According to historian Barbara Graymont:
“They had destroyed 63 houses, 57 barns, 3 gristmills, one sawmill and carried off 235 horses, 229 horned cattle and 269 sheep.” (Graymont, page 179)
One of the most prosperous settlements and the one that was rumored to be on the “hit list” all year was Cherry Valley. Warnings came, but no raid. Cherry Valley was garrisoned by the 6th Massachusetts, a Continental regiment headed by Col. Ichabod Alden. Unfortunately, the colonel was not very well versed in the methods of war on the frontier. Although a few of Brant’s men had been captured in the area, he paid little attention to warnings from Oneida scouts of a coming raid. They had been crying wolf all summer. Surely November was too late for a raid. Even if having received a warning on 6 November from the commander of Fort Stanwix:
“We ware just now informed by and Onyda Indian, that yesterday an Onondago Indian arrives at their castle from one of the Branches of the Susquehana called the Tioga that he was present at a great Meeting of Indians and Tories at that place and their Result was to attack Charevally and that Young Butler was to head the Tories.
“I sent you this information that you may be on your guard.”
(Letter of Intelligence to Col Alden, November 6, 1778. GMP, IV, NYPL. As quoted in Graymont, pg 185-186)
Alden’s superior (Gen. Hand) suggested that the inhabitants move into the fort. Alden ignored him.
Brant had joined with Walter Butler. A captain in his fathers Corps of Rangers, he had been given overall command of the Cherry Valley operation. It seems that during the march, Butler (jealous of Joseph’s band of white Loyalists) threatened to either cut off provision and/or arrest them unless they joined his father’s corps. About 90 of the Volunteers left the expedition.
On the morning of November 11, 1778, the Loyalist force of Butler’s Rangers, the 8th Regiment of Foot, Indians and at least a few Volunteers attacked Cherry Valley. Col. Alden was caught completely off guard, lodging at a house in the settlement. He did not make it to the fort in the village (which was incidentally, named after him). The rest of the day was spent putting the whole town to the torch.
While the big news of 1779 was the Clinton-Sullivan Expedition, for Brant’s men it was business as usual. While the Continental Army ravaged the Indian Country, Brant continued his raids. Most notably, on 20 July, the settlement at Minisink (outside present-day Goshen, NY) was raided. By the time they reached the settlement, the cattle they were seeking had been turned out into the woods.
With the help of a local Tory, they sought out Major Johannes Decker, a leading Rebel in the area. They wounded him but did not capture him, instead burning his home as they laid waste to the entire settlement. Brant was pursued the next day by local militia, who overtook some of the Indians and killed a few. They were to pay for it. After some maneuvering, the Indians swarmed the militia and took over 40 scalps.
On their way back, Brant found out about the C-S Campaign and hurried back to Indian Country. Unfortunately, the Continental juggernaut couldn’t be stopped. It devastated the crops that the warriors depended on and forced hundreds of Indians to move to Niagara and depend on the British for their subsistence.
The campaign succeeded in its short term goals, but revenge was on everyone’s mind.
On 7 April 1780, Brant’s men, on their way to Schoharie, come across a sugaring party of 14 men (in present-day Harpersfield, NY) led by Capt. Alexander Harper. Killing 3 and taking the rest prisoner, they abandon their attack on Schoharie upon learning the strength of the garrison.
On July 11, Brant sets out from Niagara with 300 Indian warriors, 12 Volunteers, and a party of Onondagas, Oneida and Tuscarora warriors under Lt. Joseph Clement of the ID. Their mission is to put Rebel Oneida villages to the torch.
Joseph was also to accompany Sir John’s mega-raid of the fall. The idea being to sweep north up the Schoharie valley and then west along the Mohawk valley, destroying crops and picking up recruits along the way. Sir John had led a similar raid on the north side of the Mohawk Valley that spring and it was fairly successful.
The expedition, numbering around 1000 men, would be timed to attack after the local harvest was in, in order to have the greatest effect. By October 16th, they were poised to strike. While they didn’t take all the forts, the Schoharie Valley was devastated. Speed was of the utmost importance.
On 18 October, Brant was detached with his men and Capt. Thompson of Butler’s Rangers to destroy the settlement around Fort Hunter and then continue eastward with the expedition. The Volunteers fought valiantly at Stone Arabia, and at Klock’s Farm during the withdrawal back to friendly territory.
There are thousands of details about raids and battles I haven’t mentioned, but I think this has shown a sufficient amount of the Volunteers’ service.
To be continued...