The battle that shouldn’t have happened

Visitors to the General Herkimer home which belongs to the state Division of Parks & Recreation may take a guided tour and observe the monument to the general in the nearby cemetery where he is buried. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Tomorrow, Aug. 6, marks the 242nd anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany, at which unpleasant event the entire Tryon County Militia under Gen. Nicholas Herkimer carelessly allowed itself to be ambushed and decimated by a detached part of St. Ledger’s army.

It was known well before August that a hostile force was coming, intent on capturing Fort Stanwix, more generally then called Fort Schuyler, and then burning through the Mohawk Valley to meet Gen. Burgoyne at Albany. At a July 17, 1777 Tryon County Committee of safety meeting at Seeber’s Tavern, Frederick Helmer reported having just returned from the Oneida village Oriska where he “conversed with an Onyda sachem called Thomas, a true friend to our cause” who had returned five days before from visiting Canada.”

Basically, Thomas was spying.

Arriving shortly before Col. Claus and Sir John Johnson were to make speeches arousing the Indians to follow them back into the Mohawk Valley, “his friends advised him to hide himself up ravine.”

Thomas did, but not so far “up ravine” that he couldn’t hear the inflammatory speeches, and he left rapidly to report back to Helmer, who immediately informed the committee.

“I am sure,” Thomas quoted Claus as boasting, “that when I come towards that fort (Schuyler/Stanwix) and the commanding officer there shall see me, he shall not fire one shot and render the fort to me.”

No doubt much rum fueled Claus’s Indian audience, and his fiery speech must have sounded not unlike a football coach haranguing his players to overcome the enemy team.

Thomas minced no words in acquainting Helmer with what situation the Tryon County Committee was facing. First, he estimated the still-gathering enemy invasion force to be formidable, being “about 700 Indians; their number of white men are 400 regulars and about 400 Tories.”

Thomas also spoke for the rest of the Oneidas when he urged the Committee to create what we now call an action plan. Basically, he admonished them to stop talking and start preparing when he told them, “Now is your time, Brothers, to awake and not sleep longer. I desire you to be spirited, and encourage one another to march on in assistance of Fort Schuyler, come up, and show yourselves as men, to defend and save your country before it is too late.”

He also warned that if they didn’t act, he and his Oneida brethren would find it difficult or impossible to continue supporting their cause.

“If you don’t come soon without delay to assist this place, we cannot stay much longer on your side. If you don’t join to resist, we will be obliged to join them, or fly from our castles.”

Who was this “Onyda sachem” Thomas who lived dangerously to aid the Tryon Committee? Why did he, and why should they listen? As the son of an Oneida woman and Presbyterian Minister Elihu Spencer, 28 year-old Thomas Spencer could read, write, was a blacksmith by trade, a runner of messages, and had friends and connections on both sides. He comes to notice first in 1768 when Sir William Johnson employed him as a runner to call chiefs together for the Treaty of Fort Stanwix council. In May 1775, after the opening confrontations at Lexington and Concord, Thomas greatly annoyed Indian Superintendent Guy Johnson by giving an eloquent speech praising the colonist’s resistance, whereas he was expected to champion Indian loyalty to the King. There was no question Helmer’s description of the half-white Spencer as a “true friend of the cause” was accurate.

The Safety Committee’s first reaction to the impending invasion was to find someone else to handle it. They requested that a portion of troops at nearby Fort Dayton, specifically 150 men under Major Bedlam, yes, that was his name, be sent to protect the fort. The exasperated Bedlam replied he couldn’t go because his men weren’t equipped to march anywhere, stating, “Many are bare-footed, and have but one shirt, being on their backs.”

Nor were our local militiamen as full of patriotic zeal to leave their farms and march to defend the fort as early histories would have us believe. Near the end of this July 17 meeting, committee minutes reveal the unpleasant truth that, “almost half of the 200 militia men which were lately ordered to march to the said fort as reinforcement have not obeyed orders and stayed at home to this day.”

There is also extant a short letter from Third Tryon Regiment Colonel Frederick Visscher to his captains to the effect that those who didn’t appear for militia duty when called should be fined, and if warned once and still not appearing, fined more heavily, etc.

Realistically, all the committee could do was request General Herkimer “to order that such disobeyers of orders be warned again to join their militia detachment at Fort Schuyler, and if they are not willing, then they should be forced.”

In the end of course, they did go, and Gen. Herkimer, brow beaten into action by the impatient Col. Cox and others, moved forward. He and many of his men suffered the fate of any army that plows ahead carelessly without flankers. Thomas Spencer went with his fellow Oneidas. Witnesses stated after the battle that he was last seen alive engaged in hand-to-hand combat with William of Canajoharie, the half-Indian son of Sir William Johnson. Neither were seen again.

By Patricia Older

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