THE AMBUSH OF LIEUTENANT SOLOMON WOODWORTH AND HIS PARTY OF SCOUTS
BY JAMES F. MORRISON
are many versions on the ambush of Lieutenant Solomon Woodworth and his scouting
party that took place on September 7, 1781. There are different dates given
such as July 2, 1781, September 1780 etc., Woodworth is mentioned as a captain,
and the location of the ambush are just a few of the varying facts.
First, there was an ambush near Steele's Creek on July 6, 1781 in what is now Herkimer County. This party of scouts was led by Captain Peter Elsworth of Colonel Marinus Willett's Regiment of New York State Levies. Elsworth with a few of his men were killed, Henrich Grem [Crim] was wounded and Conrad Vols [Folts] was captured.
The ambush of Elsworth's and Woodworth's scouting parties are similar in circumstances plus Elsworth may not have been remembered as he was not a Tryon County man. Again it looks like two separate stories have been confused as one.
This article will prove various parts of Jeptha R. Simms version of the incident, prove some of the facts wrong and at the same time shed some new light on this almost forgotten incident of the WAR OF INDEPENDENCE in what was once known as TRYON COUNTY.
following version is excerpted from THE FRONTIERSMEN OF NEW YORK,
JEPTHA R. SIMMS, GEO. C. RIGGS, PUBLISHER, ALBANY, N.Y., 1883, VOL.
II, pp 508-513.
Fate of Captain Woodworth and his Command.-Solomon Woodworth, mentioned elsewhere as a pioneer settler of Mayfield, and as having made a brave defense of the Sacondaga block-house, and the pursuit and destruction of its assailants, in the spring of 1780, was promised the captaincy of a company of rangers for the frontier service of New York, if he could enlist the men; and early in 1781 he received such a commission. To make up his complement for active service, he had permission to draw from the other companies in the nine months service. Jacob Shew was thus drafted from Capt. Putman's company. From that company also were added to Woodworth's, by draft or enlistment, Jacob [sic,should read John] Dunham, Jacob Burke, Rynier Van Sickler, David Putman, Daniel Dodge, and Ananias Archy. About the 1st of July, Capt. Woodworth assembled his men at Fort Plain, moved up to Fort Dayton and there halted for the night.
Leaving the latter just before day-light, with his company, consisting of 49 white men, besides himself, and six Oneida Indians, he proceeded on a secret expedition-his first, in fact,-up the West Canada creek. The company, from its having been so recently organized, was without a full complement of officers, and the most of the men had previously been strangers to each other. It had, besides the Captain, only a Lieutenant, and Orderly-Sergeant. The subaltern, whose name was Wilson, had been a British deserter. The Orderly, John Dunham, was a very promising young man of the Mayfield settlement, whose father and brother were killed there, by the Indians, early in 1779, as shown elsewhere.
About 1O o'clock in the morning, when several miles distant from the fort, Woodworth struck an Indian trail, evidently but just made, in the dewy grass, and halted his men. The Oneidas, who were accustomed to judge of numbers by the trail they left, told the Captain the number of the enemy was much greater than that of his own men, and advised him to march his troops beside it. He did so, and a path was left about half as large as the first one made in the grass. The Indians proposed to return to the fort for more men, but to this the Capatin would not consent. Shew, who was a former neighbor and intimately acquainted with Captain Woodworth, advised a halt until Capt. Putman's company of new levies, then at the fort, could be sent for to strengthen the force; but to this wise counsel the impetuous commander would not listen. He said that such a delay would only give the enemy a chance to escape, and that beyond a doubt they would be able to cope with them if so fortunate as to overtake them. He suggested that if any of his men were afraid, they were at liberty to return; but as there were no chicken-hearted warriors in the corps, he determined to proceed, agreeing to use more caution in his march; and accordingly an advance-guard was kept out.
The Americans did not wait for breakfast at the fort, but took a lunch in their knapsacks, which, in their excitement, they had not halted to eat after striking the trail; and when they had pursued it some three miles, as the Oneidas had anticipated, they were suprised and fired upon by a large body of the enemy in concealment. At this time the men were advancing in three columns: the left one headed by Lieut. Wilson; the right by Orderly Dunham; the centre by Capt. Woodworth. The six Indians were formed in rear of the centre column. Owing to obstructions in their path, the pioneers were nearer the columns than usual at the time. The enemy, which proved in the sequel to be 81 strong, mostly Indians, and commanded by Lieut. Clement, a tory from the vicinity of Schenectada, were chiefly concealed behind fallen trees at the time of their fire; which was almost a simultaneous one from, at least, 40 or 50 guns. More than half of Woodworth's command fell at the first fire, though only one of the Oneidas was wounded: his name was Moses Yockum. He fell with a severe wound in the hip; was caught up by his red brethern, who instsantly fled in a direction opposite the attacking party, and all reached the fort in safety.
The Americans standing after the first fire of the enemy, except their red allies, instantly took trees. Capt. Woodworth and Shew, who was marching directly behind him, were unscathed, and sprang under cover of the same tree: a large sugar maple. For their number, comparatively few guns were discharged by the enemy after the first fire, as they were desirous of making the remainder of the party prisoners. From their covert, Shew and his Captain made two shots apiece, and a few more made by the Americans, but with what effect is unknown. Capt. Woodworth was a fine marksman, and Shew was not a bad one. At this period, it is believed that all the Captains in the ranger service carried guns. Shew made one of his shots at the back of an Indian crawling behind a log, and the other at a dusky warrior running from one tree to another. The fearless Captain stood next to the tree and Shew on the outside of him: but having reloaded his piece, finding himself too much exposed in his present position, the tree not covering him sufficiently, he sprang off to another large maple about a rod distant; going to which, three balls from the enemy touched him. One passed through his cue [queue], cutting much of it off near his head; the second, passing through his clothes, cut the skin on his belly, and the third grazed his ankle. Hardly had he got behind the tree when his commander came to it, and as he had first chosen this position, the Captain took the outside. Just as he sprang behind Shew, he received a bullet through his breast; his trusty rifle dropped from his hand and he fell forward upon his breast, exclaiming as he did so, "O Lord! I'm a dead man!" Those were his dying words. The blood from his wound literally covered his companion. He was evidently shot through the heart, and never spoke after he fell. Such was the fate of an intrepid and patriotic officer in the border service-a service full of hardships and environed with constant perils.
Soon after the fall of their chief, David Putman, a fellow soldier and relative, came to the tree which still sheltered Shew, to enquire what it was best to do. The advice of the latter was, to attempt their escape, as they must soon fall or be captured in that position; and Putman agreed to follow Shew in flight. The latter sprang off like a deer fleeing for life, on one side of the back track followed by his comrade; who was less fleet on foot and could not keep up. After running some distance, Shew caught his foot under a staddle and fell to the ground, his knapsack which contained food for a day or two, and a small brass camp kettle, a most servicable article at that period, went over his head and was lost. As he regained his feet, he heard a whoop directly ahead, such as the Indian Peter Sword gave to indicate a prisoner, when he was a captive several years before; and seeing a good place for concealment in bushes and fallen timber, he crawled into it-at which moment Putman came bounding along and passed near his hiding place. From his retreat he called to Putman to share it with him, but fortunately for himself was unheard, and soon after a whoop satisfied him that the fugitive was a prisoner. Three Indians in pursuit of Putman ran so near to Shew, that he could have tripped them with his gun-barrel; several others passed soon after equally near, but did not discover him. When the enemy assembled to move off, they went back a few rods distant from him on the opposite side of the trail. The party which took Putman also captured Joseph Myers, a fellow soldier. Lieut. Wilson and several who started to run with him on the back track just before Shew did, were all captured. The fate of the subaltern we may imagine, if he was recognized on reaching Canada as a British deserter. Putman lived to get back, and possibly a few others.
David Myers and Rynier Van Sickler succeeded in eluding the enemy and reached the fort in safety; although the latter lost his gun, a shot from the foe forcing it from his hands with a broken lock. One of the soldier's named must have seen Shew fall, for he was reported at the fort as being among those known to have been slain. He remained in his concealment for several hours, until the Indians who stripped and scalped all the dead, withdrew with the guns and other plunder, among which was the well filled knapsacks of the victims; and then by a circuitous route striking the valley two miles below it, he regained Fort Dayton; just at nightfall nearly exhausted from the fatigue, hunger and intense excitment of the day, and was welcomed as one almost risen from the dead.
The day after the massacre of Capt. Woodworth and his command, Capt. Putman, was conducted by Moyer, Van Sickler and the five Indians who were uninjured, to the field of blood. Shew was so unwell that Capt. Putman, whose company he again joined, would not allow him to be of the party. A large pit was dug and 25 bodies were collected near together and buried in it. How many more were killed in attempting to escape and remained unburied is unknown. Capt. Woodworth, whose body was somewhat disfigured, Sergeant Dunham, Annanias Archey and Daniel Dodge, are remembered as being buried by the men under Capt. Putman. Having been together but a short time, many of the company were yet almost strangers to each other. It was supposed that not over six or eight of Woodworth's men were made captive, leaving scarcely a dozen survivors at night out of 5O strong men who left Fort Dayton in the morning, to mete to others such a fate as was measured to them. Capt. Woodworth's command was surprised perhaps two miles to the eastward of the West Canada creek, in the present town of Fairfield; and it was said 30 years ago, that the site of their grave was indicated by a beech tree near it. Lodowick Moyer told me that this burial was not far from Eaton's Bush. In 1851, Erastus Hall, of Eaton's Bush, assured the writer that Capt. Woodworth fell about a mile from West Canada creek, and two miles west in a direct line from Eaton's Bush. He thought it was on the land of either Adam Smith or Peter Helmer, a mile from Cross' Bridge. He said bones had been found in that vicinity. Also in 1851, G.I. SHEW, of Le Roy, N.Y., informed me by letter, that Adam Helmer assured him that the place was marked by a beech tree, on the farm then owned by Mr. Folts, about three and one-half miles northerly from Herkimer village.
If the hallowed spot which contains the bodies of this band of martyrs is not near a public highway, they should be removed to the county seat, deposited near the site of Fort Dayton, and suitable monument erected to their memory; or place a monument on the nearest thoroughfare to the place of massacre. Let us take measures, when practicable, to mark the places where lie buried the Americans who battled not only for their own but for a WORLD'S FREEDOM.
At the time of Capt. Woodworth's death, his wife was at Johnstown with two small children, a son and a daughter. After the war she again married and removed westward. Capt. Woodworth's brother, Seely Woodworth, who settled near him in Mayfield, was several times engaged in the militia service during the war. When the exposed Johnstown settlements were broken up, he moved his family back to Connecticut, but on the return of peace, he renewed his residence in Mayfield, where he lived and died.
Some 20 years after the war, Moses Yockum, the Indian named as having been wounded under Captain Woodworth, called on Jacob Shew and obtained from him a written certificate, naming the place where, and the time when he was wounded. With this evidence of his service and suffering he went to Col. Willett; who interested himself in getting the warrior placed on the pension list. This Fairfield Battle, if I may thus name it, was, no doubt, the bloodiest transaction for the numbers engaged, that took place in Tryon county during the Revolution. Capt. Woodworth, like some of the officers under Herkimer at Oriskany, became the victim of his own indiscretion. Between the years 1845 and 185O, I had repeated interviews with Jacob Shew, from whom the circumstances of this interesting event were obtained. He was, no doubt, its only survivor at that time, having a vivid recollection of its diabolical yells and horrors.
The following information was sent to me by Mrs. Jane Dieffenbacher, Town of Fairfield Historian, Herkimer County. The original document is in the Herkimer County Historical Society among the Almira Helmer's Papers. The writer of this document is believed to be Nancy M. Helmer who married William Folts. She lived from 1834-1924.
was an incident of revolutionary times that I heard my father relate many
times, told him by his grandfather Helmer when a boy but remembered well,
on west side of North creek there used to be a road called Gulf road opposite
the barn owned by Wm Helmer which you proceed to the top or level land but
then a dense forest where the early settlers had a conflict with the savages & tories
and between 20 & 30 were killed and shortly after some of those that
was left living, cut the names of the killed in the bark of a large beech
tree that (I Nancy M. Folts) saw many times, & could tell letters & spell
the names, as, I wended my way to Sabbath school, my father often spoke of
cutting the names on a younger tree & taking the names on paper for preservation
but always so many other duties, this was neglected and a severe wind storm
broke the greater part off & destroyed, & the names recorded were
lost. The forest as now cleared away for the most part, & most all signs
obliterated when I last saw it, quite a number of years ago, this happened
on my Great-Grand fathers farm."
The following marker was put up in 1938 on the Smith Road in the Town of Herkimer to mark the spot of the ambushed scouts.
with 25 of their Men
Where they fell. They gave
the Full Measure of De-
votion to the Cause of Free-
dom. Captain Soloman
Woodworth, Sergeant John
Dunham of the Frontier
Rangers. Killed in Battle
of West Canada Creek
is a report of the ambush which gives the British point of view of this event.
It was taken from the GOVERNOR FREDERICK HALDIMAND
PAPERS, LETTERS FROM COLONEL GUY JOHNSON, Add. MSS 21767, BRITISH MUSEUM,
Account of an Action between a party of seventy four Onondagas & Cayugas under Daiquanda & Lieut Jno Clement of Colo Johnson's Department & a party of the Rebels near the German flats, as delivered to Colo Johnson by Onasadego an Onondaga Chief who came Express.
That on the 8th Instant Our Party arrived near the German flats & reconnoitered, the next morning at Day break the Rebels discharged three cannon from the Fort, by which the Indians imagined they had been discovered, where upon they sent out some Young Indian to reconnoitre, who soon brought them word that the Rebels were approaching on the tracks that the Indians had made the night before. The Rebels soon after came to where they had their fire place where Lt Clement and the Indians being at a little distance heard them say, Damn them, they are gone off. The Indians then resolved to fight them & taking an Advantageous Situation formed in a half circle suffering the Rebels to advance within pistol shot of their centre before they discharged a shot. Then poured in a volley and rushed on the Rebels with their Tomahawks, and Spears who after firing a few shot were totally defeated. The number of the Enemy was about Forty with three officers and their Loss was as follows -
Officers Privates Total Privates Genl Total
3 19 22 8 30
On our parts two Onondagas were dangerously wounded Lieut Clement having intelligence from the Prisoners that they were part of a party destined for Carleton Island or Oswegatchy to get Prisoners dispatched the Informant with a Letter to Colo Johnson which is this moment come to Hand and Corresponds with the forgoing particulars with this addition that the Prisoners said the Rebels and French were lately totally defeated at the White Plains. Two of the Rebel Officers killed were Capt Solomon Woodward, a noted scouter, & Lieut Willson.
Niagara 18th Sept 1781 G
This report also gives Woodworth the rank of captain, claims Wilson was killed plus a third officer. This report at least proves Wilson was killed in or just after the ambush and not taken to Canada as a prisoner. The third officer could be Dunham but most likely it could have been an officer from the Massachusetts Levies as Dunham was supposed to be only a sergeant. It is known that at least 3 privates were part of the scouts and maybe more were drafted out of the Massachusetts Levies to fill up the company.
A company at that time would have a captain, 2 lieutenants, 4 sergeants, 4 corporals and about forty privates. These numbers are close to what Woodworth was supposed to be commanding at this time.
The following information may shed some more light on this new company. The source cited is from COLONEL MARINUS WILLETT'S LETTER AND ORDERLY BOOK FORT RENSSELAER 1781, MANUSCRIPTS AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, DOC. NO. 15705.
and Wilson under Colonel Willett's arrangement of August 7, 1781 for the
new levies assigns these two men to Captain Thomas Skinner's Company. Skinner's
men were to be men drafted from the regiments of Colonel William B. Whiting
[Albany County Militia, 17th Regiment], Colonel Jacob Klock [Tryon County
Militia, Second Regiment], and Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Clyde [Tryon County
Militia, First Regiment]. This company with several others were to march
to Fort Rensselaer.
In a letter to French Engineer Major Louis Villefranche at Fort Herkimer from Colonel Willett of August 3, 1781 mentions that Wilson had been serving there for some time as a volunteer and that he is assigned to Captain Skinner's Company as a lieutenant. Willett also mentions that the part of Skinner's Company at Fort Herkimer were to march down the valley part way to guard the inhabitants while they were harvesting their crops. Major Josiah Throop with the remainder of Skinner's Company would join them after guarding flour being transported to Fort Herkimer.
On August 31st, Colonel Willett writes again to Major Villefranche that he was sending Captain Peter Van Rensselaer with his company with cattle to Fort Herkimer. What is interesting is that Colonel Willett orders Captain Joseph Harrison's Company and the rangers under Wilson back to Fort Rensselaer. He further orders that Wilson draft 2 men from Van Rensselaer's, 5 from Skinner's and 5 from Captain Anthony Whelp's Company to join the rangers. He further orders that half of Harrison's Company and Lieutenant Wilson with his rangers to escort the field piece down from Fort Herkimer. The other half of Harrison's Company were to guard the bateaus down from Fort Herkimer.
This proves that at least by this time there was a company of rangers, they were drafted from other companies and that they were at Fort Rensselaer by early September. Woodworth with the rest of the rangers must have been at Fort Rensselaer and after the two sections were united they returned to Fort Dayton. Perhaps they were to go to Fort Osewgatchie to take prisoners for intelligence reasons. There had been rumors that a raiding force would soon attack the Mohawk Valley from Fort Oswego.
One final entry in Willett's book that would pertain to the rangers is the following:
Fort Renselaer 7th Sept. 1781
By accounts this moment received the enemy appear to be in Considerable force at the German Flats. I wish you to move your regiment this way with as much provision as they can furnish themselves without being detained.
I am &c.
The following excerpt was taken from THE CONNECTICUT COURANT AND WEEKLY INTELLIGENCER, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 1781, p 3, Column 2.
"On the 7th instant, intelligence being received at Fort Plain, from Fort Herkimer, that the enemy appeared there in considerable force, measures were immediately taken by Col. Willett, for collecting the militia, and making discoveries; on the 8th it appeared that their numbers had been exaggerated, and that they had returned; however a party of 39 men and two officers, who were sent to reconnoitre, unhappily fell into an ambushcade, whereby at the second fire, Lieut. Woodworth, a truly brave man, was killed; his and ten other bodies were found; only 15 of the party escaped, the remainder we have no account of."
The following reports were taken from the PUBLIC PAPERS OF GEORGE CLINTON, ed. HUGH HASTINGS, ALBANY, N.Y., 19O4, VOL. VII, pp 326-328.
Albany, Sept. 12th, 1781
By Sundry letters within five Days from Colo. Willett, the Enemy have been
too Successful in Ambushcading a party of our Men. The following are Extracts
from the above letters:
Fort Plain Sept. 7, 1781
"By information from Fort Herkimer the enemy are down in force. I am collecting the Militia, and shall pursue them as soon as possible." This is the whole of his Letter of that Date.
Fort Harkimer Sept. 8th 1781
"The Enemy have returned, nor does it appear the Party was anything like so Strong as was at first supposed. I am endeavouring to make every possible discovery. If I make any that will be an Object of pursuit I shall do it, if not, shall return to Fort Plain-please to communicate this, in your Quarter to prevent longer alarms than is necessary."
Fort Plain, Sept. 10th
"I am just returned to this place; the party that Lieut. Woodworth fell in with, and which has occasioned the late alarm-did not appear to be anything like so strong as was represented to me,-they were far gone before we could get near them. Poor Woodworth was taken in by their ambushcade & was unfortunately killed the Second fire; it cost us dear, only fifteen (out of Thirty Nine Men & Two Officers,) Escaped. Eleven of our Men including Woodworth were found Dead. The Remainder with Wilson we have no Account of; Wilson in doubt did everything in his Power. The Enemy were too heavy for him & I fear some of his men left him in the Lurch. It has been an unfortunate affair; we must hope for better hereafter. Please to inform G'l. Stark & Governor Clinton of this Disaster; want of paper prevents me from doing it myself."
your Excellencys favour of the 29th ulto. have applyd but can get no Returns-there
are great deficiencies yet; by the enclosed you will see the Numbers furnished
by the Regiments within this Vicinity. I have applied & remonstrated
repeatedly but it has been of little avail. Cuylers Regiment is complete.
I am with great Esteem Sir, Your Excellency's Most obedt. Humbl. Servt.
Governor Clinton [from Capt. Elihu Marshall]