Military history

ANNA MYERS

The Revolution Remembered (1)

The final defeat of the French by the British in North America in 1763 promised to bring lasting peace to the enormous region that lies between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, much of which had been fought over for a century and a half. The promise was not realized. Britain’s attempt to make the English colonists pay for the cost of supporting the imperial garrison was seen as infringement of their rights. They had always been taxed, but by their own assemblies, not by London. The discontent over taxation swelled into a mood of general rebellion, which broke out in 1776. What Americans call ‘the War of the Revolution’ had begun.

It was a war that in many ways resembled the previous wars between the British and the French, in that many of the campaigns were fought in the difficult, wooded back country, where regular troops found themselves at a disadvantage. Both the British and French had enlisted Indian tribes as allies in this forest warfare, and the British did so again against the colonists after 1776. Indian fighting practices — ambush, raiding, massacre and the taking of hostages, who were often then adopted into tribal life — were repugnant to the colonists, but not unfamiliar. Those living at the edge of settlement along the line of the Appalachian mountains had endured Indian raids for several generations and were prepared to return savagery in kind. This was particularly the case in the country along the Mohawk river, a strategic corridor running due west from its junction with the mighty Hudson river at Albany towards Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario. Forts were key positions in the wilderness war, affording bases to British troops but also points of control over their Indian allies, where they could be paid, armed and given orders.

Anna Oosterhout Myers’s account of her capture by the Indians of her native Mohawk Valley graphically conveys both the dangerous climate of frontier life before the War of the Revolution, and the deliberate rekindling of insecurity by the British in their effort to unhinge the rebellious colonists’ hold on upper New York territory and their connections with the seat of revolution in Boston. The Mohawk river led directly to the Hudson from the British stronghold of Canada; the Hudson was, in George Washington’s words, ‘the key to the continent’. Anna’s narrative, written long after the war was finished to justify her claim to a pension from the United States government, is not therefore simply a story of a personal ordeal. It also exemplifies the bitter, piecemeal but deadly serious campaigning for advantage in a key strategic zone of the struggle for mastery between the British and the Americans in the years 1776-82.

Note: The original settlers in New York colony were Dutch, hence Anna’s use of that language. ‘Tories’ were American colonists who remained loyal to King George III and fought, often with great bitterness, against their revolutionary neighbours. The population of the colonies divided into a third revolutionaries, a third loyalists and a third who attempted, increasingly unsuccessfully, to remain neutral.

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To Anna Oosterhout Myers (b. ca. 1747), as to many women of the frontier, Indian attacks were a normal part of life. When she was a child, her parents, four sisters, and a brother were murdered by Indians. She and another brother were captured, and she lived with the Indians long enough to forget most of her native Dutch.

The Revolution brought the Indians back to the Mohawk Valley in full force, and Anna Myers’s deposition, forwarded in 1840 to support a claim for her husband’s pension, is very much a personal narrative of her own experiences.

The Revolution on the frontiers of the upper Susquehanna, Delaware, and Mohawk rivers inspired a considerable body of romantic historical literature. Works such as William Leete Stone’s Life of Joseph Brant (New York: A. V. Blake, 1838) and Jeptha R. Simms’s History of SchoharieCounty, and Border WarsofNewYork(Albany: Munsell and Tanner, 1845) are classic narratives of Indian — white conflict that remain primary sources of information. Yet for no theater of the war is it harder to get concrete information on names, dates and places.

The standard sources do not confirm an attack at Canajoharie on 17 April 1778, when Anna Myers’s account seems to suggest her settlement was overrun, but they are vague on many aspects of their subject. If she were ninety-three in 1840, her capture by Indians as a child of three would have occurred in 1750, several years before the outbreak of the French and Indian War. On the other hand, by the same reckoning of her age, her last child would have been born when she was fifty-five, improbable from a medical standpoint. It seems likely that she was eighty-six or eighty-seven at the time of her application. Even if her memory was faulty on dates, the narrative has an unquestioned air of credibility as to the reality of the events themselves.

Anna’s husband and son eventually made it back home, and she went on to bear a total of twelve children. She lived at Minden, Sullivan, Hastings, and Mexico, New York. She was granted a pension for her husband’s one year of military service. One could make a good case that she had earned it in her own right.

Says she is now, as near as she can recollect, about ninety-three years old; that she has no record of her age and therefore cannot state the precise time when she was born. Her maiden name was Anna Oosterhout. She was born in Canajoharie, in the present county of Montgomery, in the state of New York. During the French War, and when she was about three years old as near as she now recollects, she was taken prisoner by the French and Indians and carried to Canada. She well recollects the transaction. The house in which her father and his family resided was attacked and surrounded by the Indians, and her father and mother, four sisters, and one brother were killed by them, and she and a brother by the name of John, then about fifteen years of age, was taken prisoner. She understood and believes that the reason why she and her brother were not killed was that one of the Indians belonging to the party had lost children of about the same age, and wanted them to adopt. One other brother escaped, whose name was Frederick. At the time, he was sick with the whooping cough, and when the Indians saw him cough, they were frightened of it and let him alone. The Indians took her and her brother to their camp, but where or which way or how far they traveled she cannot state, but supposes and believes they went to Canada, as she recollects they called the place ‘Canda’. She was with the Indians about three years, when she learned to speak the Indian language, and when she returned to the Mohawk, she had almost entirely forgotten her native language, the Dutch. Afterwards she was sent to Albany, where she was met by an uncle of hers who had come there to see if any of his brother’s children were alive. She was taken by her uncle to his residence at Canajoharie.

She then went to live with her grandmother, Mrs Katharine Hess, with whome she resided until she was about fifteen years old. She was married to Henry Moyer or Myer [Myers] about the fifteenth day of May, 1770. She was married at the house of her father-in-law in Canajoharie, where she had been residing for several weeks previous. She was married by the Reverend Mr Ehle, a clergyman of the Low Dutch church. David Hess was present at the time of said marriage, as she well recollects he being a fiddler and played for the company to dance the evening of the marriage. She believes the said David is now living, and she knows of no other person who was present at said marriage. She knows of no record of said marriage. A record was made of said marriage in the family Bible, but the same was destroyed afterwards as will appear from what appears afterwards. She has had by said Henry Moyer twelve children, the oldest of whom is about sixty-eight years and the youngest about thirty-eight years. There are eight only of her said children now living. The said Henry Mover was several years older than this deponent and died on the nineteenth January, 1830.

Soon after the Revolutionary War commenced, the valley of the Mohawk became the scene of many important operations and bloody transactions. He was frequently called out for the purpose of defending the frontier from the incursions of the Tories and Indians and was on guard at the fort nearly the whole time. For about a year before the Battle of Oriskany, the said Henry held the office of ensign or lieutenant in the militia in a company commanded by Captain Diefendorf. As soon as it was announced, in the spring and summer of 1777, that Colonel St Leger was raising an army of Tories and Indians at Oswego for the purpose of invading the valley of the Mohawk, the whole country was in a state of excitement. General Herkimer issued a proclamation for every able-bodied man to turn out, leaving the old men and those who were not able to bear arms to guard the forts and other places where the women and children were assembled. The company commanded by the said Diefendorf turned out under General Herkimer and proceeded with him towards Oriskany. The said Henry was at that time an ensign or lieutenant in the company of said Diefendorf and went with the said Diefendorf as far as German Town, then called, about eight miles below Utica. The said Henry was there taken lame in consequence of having cut his foot, which had previously healed up, but in consequence of traveling it had broken out, and his foot had swelled to such a degree that it had cracked open when he returned. Said Diefendorf was killed in the Battle of Oriskany and was the brother-in-law of said Henry, having married his sister. It was said at the time that said Diefendorf was killed by an Indian who was in a tree. During the summer of 1777 the said Henry was absent most of the time in the service. After the Tories and Indians had left Fort Schuyler, in August or September, the said Henry returned to his home.

After the return of said Henry, as aforesaid, he was engaged for the greater part of that time and until the seventeenth day of April following in assisting about the erection of a fort in the present town of Minden, in the county of Montgomery and state of New York, about six miles east of Little Falls, which was called Fort Willett. Said fort was nearly completed on said seventeenth of April. It was intended for the people living near said fort to remove therein on the next Monday.

On Sunday, which was on the seventeenth day of April aforesaid, about sunrise in the morning, and while some of the children of this deponent were sent a few rods from the house to feed some calves, this deponent discovered the horses then owned by the said Henry run past the door of the house greatly frightened, and at the same time she heard her children scream. She went to the door to see what was the matter and there saw several Indians who had taken the two children who had been sent out as aforesaid. One of the Indians was near the door when she went out, and he yelled and whooped and seized her by the arm. The Indians took her and her four children about fifty rods from the house and stopped. Soon after they stopped, they were met by another party of Indians who had been up to a neighbor’s by the name of Christian Durt, who had taken the said Durt, his wife, and one child, and the said Henry Moyer. A few minutes before she had been taken by the Indians, as aforesaid, her husband, Henry Moyer, had left the house and gone to the said Durt’s to see about moving into the fort they had been building, as aforesaid, and while there, was taken prisoner with the said Durt and his family.

She was discharged by the Indians soon after the parties met, as aforesaid, with a sucking child then about two years old. Her husband, the said Henry, and three of her children were then taken away by the Indians, and where they went she does not know except from information. After she was discharged, as aforesaid, she returned to her house, which she found rifled of such articles as the Indians could carry and set on fire. The Indians had put brands of fire between one or two beds, which were on fire when she returned. She succeeded in getting the beds out of the house and extinguished the fire and prevented the building from being entirely consumed. About two hours after the Indians left, two of her children returned, who were daughters, leaving the said Henry [and their son], then about three years old, prisoners with the Indians. When her daughters returned, they informed this deponent that the Indians discharged them, and that their father also wanted the Indians to discharge the boy Henry, but they refused to do so and told the said Henry, her husband, that if he attempted to run away, they would kill his boy. The wife of said Durt was also discharged by the said Indians, and her husband and child, a boy about seven years old, were carried off by the Indians. Alarm was soon made, and she on the same day went to a house called Fort House where the people had assembled and where she remained about a week, when she went into Fort Willett, where she remained for two or three years, until it was understood that it would be safe for the people to go onto their farms.

The said Henry, her husband, returned in the fall of 1779, having been absent more than a year and a half. When he returned, the said Henry informed this deponent, which she believes true, that the Indians took him to Niagara, where he was forced to run the gauntlet. While there, he was struck by an Indian with a tomahawk over the left eye, which produced a wen of considerable size and which remained there until his death. He also, at the same place, received a cut on the right side of the head which left a scar about three inches long. From Niagara, they went to Oswego. While there, he was set to chopping wood in company with a man by the name of Stimet near the lakeshore. While a party of the British were endeavoring to get a boat ashore for the purpose of receiving the wood, the same was capsized, when he and the said Stimet escaped and went up the Oswego River, which was then a wilderness. They went to Three River Point, about twenty-five miles south of Oswego, where they discovered that they were pursued. The party pursuing encamped overnight, and then he and the said Stimet crossed the river from the west to the east side and escaped. They were five weeks in the woods and finally were found by a party of friendly Indians about six miles from Schoharie in the present county of the same name. He remained there several days until he got recruited and had recovered his strength and then returned to Fort Willett, where this deponent was. This deponent’s son remained a prisoner with the Indians until peace was declared, when he returned home.

During harvest the year before the said Henry was taken prisoner, the people in the neighborhood where she resided lived in a house called Fort Walradt. The fort was burned by the Tories and Indians after the people had escaped. This fort was situated about two miles from the Mohawk River, and an alarm had been made that the enemy were in the neighborhood, when the people left Fort Walradt and went to the river for greater safety. All the furniture, clothing, and all the household stuff of the said Henry was then destroyed, and also the Bible in which her marriage with the said Henry was recorded. And this deponent further says that she is now the widow of the said Henry Moyer, never having been married to any other person.

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