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See Also: Schenectady in the Revolutionary War

A History of Schenectady During the Revolution:
Chapter XIX: The Raids of 1781

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[This information is from pp. 114-120 of A History of Schenectady During the Revolution by Willis T. Hanson, Jr. (Brattleboro, VT: E. L. Hildreth & Co., 1916). It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 974.744 H25, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

With the coming of spring (1781) discouragement and apprehension grew. The continuance of the frontier posts, which had with difficulty been maintained throughout the winter because of the scarcity of provisions, was by now dependent upon the immediate furnishing of supplies which were practically unobtainable. (1) The Line troops were "in a manner naked," desertions were frequent, public credit was almost at an end, Tories were everywhere increasing in numbers and from Albany came word (2) that the militia were destitute of both arms and ammunition.

In the expectation that Schenectady, which had by now in a measure become a frontier town, would be an early object of attack on the part of the enemy, the magistrates and field officers on February 27 drew up a memorandum (3) recommending that Governor Clinton be acquainted with their opinion that it was necessary to reinforce the picket defenses with seven (4) blockhouses and further that they felt it incumbent upon them to apply to him for a small number of cannon, an artillery officer (5) with a sufficient number of men to work the cannon, a quantity of ammunition and an engineer to superintend the erecting of the blockhouses. The memorandum further suggested that Governor Clinton give his opinion as to how the blockhouses should be manned, whether or not the field officers and justices were invested with proper authority to appropriate private property to carry on the work of fortification and in what manner some funds could be raised to pay for ranging scouts, which it was felt would be of the greatest importance in the matter of the town's safety.

In order to satisfy himself as to the best means of reaching the desired end, Governor Clinton visited Schenectady, and on March 24 ordered (6) that work on the alterations and additions suggested by him during his visit should be proceeded with without delay, counseling that the advice of Major Nicholas Fish, (7) then stationed here, should be sought in case any question should arise as to what was desired, adding that inasmuch as the prospects of obtaining cannon were not at all promising, although there were some small pieces and swivels scattered in different parts of the country near the river which it might be possible to transport to Schenectady and having made carriages eventually obtain some service from them, it were better that the "works be calculated as much as [might] be for Defence by Musquettry." (8)

Although small parties of the enemy had been reported in the Valley from time to time since early in the year, it was not until the latter part of April, when a band of eighty attacked Cherry Valley, that a raid of any importance occurred. (9)

On May 15 word (10) that an Indian hunting party to the north of Saratoga had been fired upon caused General Schuyler, to whom the incident had been reported, to recommend to General Clinton that scouts be dispatched from Schenectady without delay. A few days later an anonymous letter (11) bore the information that a party of from four to five hundred Loyalists and Indians had gone to the southwest of Albany to begin burning, that there were fifteen hundred more then at Ticonderoga for the same purpose and that Albany and Schenectady were to be their main objective points.

That treason was at work and the enemy correctly informed regarding the true situation of the country was plainly evident from a British Secret Service document (12) intercepted on May 27, which among other items contained advice as to sending a force against Albany, first preparing the way by distributing handbills hinting at pardon and protection for all who might assist the British. Schenectady was described in the document as "strongly picketed all round, [having] six pieces of Ordinance, 6 pounders, [with] Block Houses preparing." "It is to be defended by the Inhabitants," continued the report, "who except about a Dozen, are for Government. There are a few of Courtlandt's Regiment here. A large Quantity of Grain stored... for the Use of the Troops [and] large Boats building (13) to convey heavy Metal and Shot to Fort Stanwix."

The anticipated attacks fortunately did not mature and soon the settlers had occasion to again take heart, for in June Colonel Marinus Willett, (14) persuaded by Governor Clinton to leave the main army in order to take command of such troops as were already in the service or to be raised for the defense of the frontiers, arrived at Fort Rensselaer to enter upon the difficult task for which he had been summoned.

The services of this efficient officer at Torlock, (15) his untiring efforts in the pursuit of the raiders whenever they appeared, his wisdom and skill in the disposition of the meager forces under his command soon justified the confidence that had been placed in him, and during the summer (16) the lower Mohawk Valley was practically free from incursion, while the activity of the enemy on the frontiers was given over to raids by small detachments attended with consequences of little importance.

In September Albany was again thrown into a panic by a report (17) that the enemy were determined to burn the city. The Tories in the vicinity were again active, and in fear many people packed their valuables in order to have them conveyed to a place of greater safety. (18) It was, however, late in October before the enemy in force made their appearance in the Valley. Major Ross with a following of some four hundred and fifty Indians, Regulars and Tories, which number was augmented as he proceeded, advancing by way of Cherry Valley to the Mohawk River, on October 24 fell upon Warren's Bush. (19) On news of the attack Schenectady was at once ordered (20) reinforced, but these orders were later countermanded as word was brought that the enemy after burning Warren's Bush had retired.

Although the scene of the attack was about twenty miles to the east of Fort Rensselaer where Colonel Willett had established his headquarters, so unexpected was the attack that the enemy had ample opportunity to accomplish their purpose before Colonel Willett was able to collect forces to repel them.

Immediately upon receipt of the news of the raid Colonel Willett dispatched messengers down the Valley asking the militia to join him, while he himself at once set out in pursuit of the enemy with what forces he could collect.

Major Ross had retired to Johnstown and here on the next day (October 25) Colonel Willett forced an engagement, causing the enemy to retreat. On the evening of the twenty-eighth, having been reinforced by a band of Oneidas and the militia, which included a detachment (21) from Schenectady under Captain Jellis Fonda, Colonel Willett started in pursuit of the raiders, subsequently attacking a detail of them on the West Canada Creek, killing several, among whom was Walter Butler, and leaving the rest "to the compassion of a starving wilderness." (22) The news of the death of Butler was received in Schenectady with great rejoicing. The Whigs illuminated their houses and the Tories under threat of being mobbed were forced to do likewise. (23)

With the expedition under Major Ross closed for the year the active operations of the enemy on the frontier, and ten days before the engagement on the West Canada Creek, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.


  1. "The Troops at Schenectady, Saratoga and this Post are with the utmost difficulty supplied from Day to Day with Flour from the Wheat drawn from the Inhabitants by assessments, a mode which it is unnecessary to mention is so disagreeable to the country in general that we fear we shall not be able to draw in the small quantities now due without the interposition of the Military, but even this supply if we were now possessed of the whole would be greatly inadequate." Isaac Stoutenbergh to General Clinton. Albany, January 15, 1781. Washington Papers, Library of Congress.
  2. Public Papers of George Clinton, VI, 765.
  3. Ibid., p. 715.
  4. "One Battery at Mr. DeGraff's;
    One Block House at V Eps;
    One Do at Doctor Specker's;
    One on Vrooman's Land;
    One Do at Mr. Ab. Groet's;
    One Do in Alb'y Street at the house of Isaac Merselus;
    One at the back of David Frank's;
    One at or near the Continental Stables."
    Public Papers of George Clinton, VI, 715.
  5. It was at this time that an artillery company of fifteen men under Captain John Crousehorn was raised in Schenectady.
  6. Public Papers of George Clinton, VI, 715.
  7. He was in command of the soldiers of the 2d New York Line stationed here.
  8. Harmon Peters states (Pension Office Records, S 11224) that in March, 1781, he entered service as a volunteer in a company of forty-six men commanded by Walter Swits, raised to keep guard at Fort Volunteer and Fort Squash at Schenectady. The company was divided twenty-three men to each fort.
  9. Public Papers of George Clinton, VI, 811.
  10. Ibid., p. 880.
  11. Washington Papers, Library of Congress.
  12. Ibid.
  13. The batteaux were being built under the greatest difficulties because of the trouble met with in procuring boards. Henry Glen reported the matter to headquarters on July 17 as follows: "Yours of the 14th Inst. I have received and ever since have used every exertion that lay in my power to prevail on the Proprietors of the Boards to let the Public have them. They say that it is impossible, unless they receive hard money for them, or we may as well cut their Wife's and Children's throats, for it is their only support for the Necessarys of Life. As to sending soldiers or Persons to impress them, they seem to be determined not to suffer their Property to be taken from them any longer at the risque of their Lives, as they have not been paid for their Boards etc. furnished the Public for these two years past, and no prospect of their being paid yet, this is their Language and what to do in the matter I do not know. I have this Spring when Congress and the Head of the Department's credit failed, pledged my own Credit to build 16 new Boats for which I have made myself payable, and with the Expectation of receiving the Money in a few days, which I had the promise of and am daily ask'd for the Cash, and still no Money, all this I do not mind; no man longs more to make an end of the War than I do by carrying it on with Vigour, I am and always was willing to pledge my Life and little Property for the support of the War but am sorry to find the Virtue and exertions of the People are lost throughout the Whole Country. The Service is neglected by those at the Helm for want of money. Why is not part of the Continent pledged to some Power to carry on the War with Vigour and borrow a sufficient Sum." Letter Books of Colonel Hugh Hughes. New York Historical Society.
  14. "I am glad we have a Hero left in the room of a Montgomery that he may live and see the Pride of Britain fall, and a Glorious Peace Established for Centuries to come. It is a Brave WILLETT, I mean." Letter of Henry Glen, July 17, 1781. Letter Books of Colonel Hugh Hughes. New York Historical Society.
  15. Now the town of Sharon, Schoharie County. The Levies wounded in the battle at that place were sent to Schenectady for treatment.
  16. At this time details of the Schenectady militia were on garrison duty at some of the forts to the westward. Details at Fort Hunter, Pension Office Records, James Barhydt S 12948. Details at Fort Plank, Pension Office Records, Gerrit Van Eps W 2200; Daniel Kettle W 21528; John B. Veeder R 10927. Details at Schoharie, Pension Office Records, Reuben Wheaton. A company was also on duty at Claas Viele's Rifts about four miles above Schenectady where a log house served as a fort. Pension Office Records, Philip Viele R 10947; Frederick Vedder S 21547.
  17. On receipt of the news a company under Captain Thomas Brower Banker marched as far north as Galway but later returned to Ballston, where they remained quartered for a fortnight or so. Pension Office Records, Wessel Cornu W 1029.
  18. Public Papers of George Clinton, VII, 304.
  19. Ibid., p. 443.
  20. Ibid., p. 448.
  21. This detachment was with others complimented on their behavior in General Orders. Public Papers of George Clinton, VII, 483. Other members of the militia appear to have marched to Johnstown on the alarm, but evidently a small detachment only as volunteers went as far as the West Canada Creek, the remainder being assigned to garrison duty in the neighboring forts.
  22. Colonel Willett to Governor Clinton. Public Papers of George Clinton, VII, 474.
  23. Jane Ferguson's Revolutionary Recollections. The American Monthly Magazine, April, 1902. Jane Ferguson was one of the survivors of the Cherry Valley massacre who sought refuge in Schenectady. She remained here until after peace was declared.

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See Also: Schenectady in the Revolutionary War updated March 30, 2015

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