By THOMAS SHANNON
Nicholas Herkimer, brigadier general of the Tryon County Militia, died an icon of the American cause. His unyielding disposition, despite being mortally wounded, rallied his men after they were ambushed by Tories and hostile Iroquois in the dreary ravine at Oriskany. The battle, and the subsequent failed siege of Fort Stanwix, curtailed British ambitions of marching down New York’s Mohawk Valley, lessening the amount of British manpower available in the Saratoga theatre the following month. Herkimer, one of several hundred patriots who would pay with their lives for this accomplishment, was a son and grandson of 1710 Palatine refugees as were many of his militiamen.
To historians working around the turn of last century, the precise year that Herkimer's paternal ancestors came to New York was contested. The only undisputed fact was that Nicholas' parents, recorded as Johan Jost Erghemar and his wife Catharina Petri, were among the earliest patentees at Burnetsfield. The Burnetsfield patent stretched along the Mohawk River twenty-four miles from modern Little Falls, N.Y., to Frankfort, N.Y. It was created in the early 1720s, during the administration of royal governor William Burnet. The beneficiaries of this patent were Palatine Germans who fled to the Schoharie Valley when the tar camps along the Hudson were disbanded in 1712 only to be outfaced for title to those lands by some of the well-connected landlord families of early New York. Seeing Erghemars in the paper trail beginning at Burnetsfield caused some historians to incorrectly pinpoint their origins to the batch of Palatine refugees who arrived in New York in 1722. Historian Sanford H. Cobb was a proponent of this theory as were several others. It was also implied in the account given by late Germantown historian Walter V. Miller in his History of 18th Century Germantown.
The true story can be found in The Palatine Families of New York, 1710 by Henry Z. Jones, Jr. In that comprehensive rolodex of original Palatines, there is one Georg Hirchemer from the towns of Sandhausen and Leimen, a few miles east of the Rhine in what is now southern Germany. Georg and his second wife, Magdalena, were the parents of, among others, Johann Jost Herkimer (1700-1775), father of General Nicholas Herkimer.
Johann Jost was a boy of nine or ten years when the family joined the migration down the Rhine and eventually to New York. He along with his parents and siblings endured their indenture in East Camp, collecting pine boughs and scraping bark off pitch pine trees alongside their fellow refugees. They lived in the Hunterstown section of East Camp, located in the vicinity of Cheviot, Woods, and Hunterstown roads in modern Germantown, N.Y. Georg Hirchemer volunteered for the ill-fated British expedition against French Canada in 1711. He is listed in the Hunterstown contingent, his named butchered as "Gro. Kerchmer."
When funding for the naval stores projects at East and West Camps was terminated by the British authorities in September 1712, the majority of Palatines wanted to leave the camps immediately. Some scattered across Robert Livingston's Manor bound to become rent-paying tenant farmers—“German flies to be entangled in his web,” as Carl Carmer memorably put it. Others who had built up a glorious image of the Schoharie Valley in their minds were determined to get out of the great landlord's sphere of influence. About fifty families set out on Indian paths that autumn, arriving along the Schoharie Creek just in time for winter. Whether the Hirchemers migrated to the Schoharie that first autumn or in subsequent years is not known. They were living there at the time of the Simmendinger Register in 1716 and 1717. Their homestead was at "Neu-Heidelberg," better known as Brunnendorf, a settlement centered on what was St. Paul's Lutheran Church, now Schoharie United Presbyterian Church, on Main Street in the modern village of Schoharie, N.Y.
"It was Herkimer who first reversed the gloomy scene. He served from love of country, not for reward." —General George Washington
Nicholas Herkimer's maternal family, the Petries, is thought to have been French Huguenot in origin. Nicholas’ great-grandparents, Johann Jost and Catharina Petrie, appear to have originated in Alsace before fleeing to the central German village of Breitscheid after King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Henry Z. Jones picks up the narrative at Breitscheid where the Petries had a son named Johannes. He married Anna Gertraud Von Ringh and had six children. Johannes died soon after the birth of his daughter Anna Catharina Petrie (mother of Nicholas Herkimer) in 1700.
The widowed Anna Gertraud Petrie petitioned to leave Germany in 1709 and found her way to East Camp in 1710 along with her eldest son, Johann Jost, and youngest daughter, Anna Catharina. This Johann Jost Petrie, born about 1689, also volunteered for the expedition against French Canada in 1711. (He emerged from this scrape unharmed only to be captured by Indians years later during the French and Indian War.) The volunteer list places him at “Annsberg,” also known as Annesbury, the northernmost settlement of East Camp in the area of Anchorage Road, Germantown. It is reasonable to infer that his mother and sister lived there as well.
Lost to time is the question of whether Anna Catharina Petrie, a girl of 10 to 12 years while living in Annesbury, was acquainted with her future husband Johann Jost Herkimer of Hunterstown during their brief East Camp residence. Regardless, the Petrie family also found their way to the Schoharie Valley after East Camp dissolved. There they lived at “Neu-Ansberg,” also called Schmidsdorf, just a few tenths of a mile north of Brunnendorf, about where the old Schoharie railroad station keeps vigil. Johann Jost Petrie was also among the original Burnetsfield patentees; his mother, wife and children also making this journey. His sister, Anna Catharina Petrie, was married to Johann Jost Herkimer sometime in the later Schoharie years or not long after they arrived at the Mohawk River settlements.
According to local legend, the Herkimer family were the first to reach German Flatts, a section of the long Burnetsfield patent. That they wound up with the choicest piece of land is without doubt. Easily overlooked now is the surprisingly large volume of cargo traffic on the pre-Erie Canal Mohawk River. Flat-bottomed boats called bateaux carried cargo loads from Lake Ontario upstream against the Oswego and Oneida rivers, eastward across Oneida Lake, then upstream against the current of Wood Creek for twenty miles to a place called Oneida Carry in modern Rome, N.Y. This was a one-mile portage to the Mohawk River, its strategic importance illustrated by the British construction of Fort Stanwix there during the French and Indian War. Once in the Mohawk River the bateaux had only to negotiate about a half-dozen rapids and two large navigational barriers requiring portage: Little Falls and Cohoes Falls.
Johann Jost Herkimer was canny enough to claim a lot positioned perfectly to capitalize on the portage around Little Falls. Initially the family business was providing boat operators with sleds, carts, and draft animals to pull the loads during the portage. Johann's son, Nicholas, expanded the business by becoming a trader, purchasing the cargo of weary boatmen and selling it to settlers or waiting bateaux on the other side of Little Falls. Before long the Herkimers were wealthy and among the most prominent families along the Mohawk. Their new affluence found expression in a fine house that in wartime would be fortified and christened “Fort Herkimer,” Nicholas' grand mansion now known as Herkimer Home State Historic Site, and the acquisition of about thirty indentured servants and African slaves.
The German settlements in the Burnetsfield patent were, by design, the westernmost white settlements on the Mohawk. Gov. Burnet granted the land to the Palatines for the less than altruistic reason that they would serve as a buffer against the sometimes hostile natives. This meant interaction with Mohawks, Oneidas and others was commonplace in both war and peacetime. The newly prominent Herkimers were on friendly terms with Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for British North America, and Joseph Brant, Mohawk warrior and diplomat. German Flatts, modern Herkimer, N.Y., was raided and put to the torch by French and Indian vandals in 1757. Many inhabitants were taken as prisoners to Canada but later exchanged including Nicholas Herkimer's uncle, Johann Jost Petrie.
When war came again to the Mohawk Valley in a serious way in the summer of 1777, the settlers had to choose a side. Johan Jost Herkimer, Jr., brother of Nicholas, became a Tory as did most everyone in the orbit of the recently deceased Sir William Johnson. The Iroquois Confederation would cleave apart, with Mohawks, Senecas, Onandagas, and Cayugas fighting for the British, while the Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Continentals. Nicholas Herkimer, owing to his French and Indian War experience and popularity with the Palatine German settlers, became Brigadier General of the Tryon County Militia. Three-quarters of the militia were, like him, independence-minded grandsons and great-grandsons of Palatine refugees.
One of the three prongs of British General John Burgoyne’s plan that would come to be known as the Saratoga campaign was to conquer the Mohawk Valley en route to splitting New York and thus the rebel colonies in half. British forces under the command of Barrimore St. Leger set off from Fort Ontario at the mouth of the Oswego River in late June 1777 bound for Fort Stanwix. The recently rebuilt fort, rechristened Fort Schuyler, was held by about 700 Continental soldiers under the command of Col. Peter Gansevoort and Lt. Col. Marinus Willett. A small detachment of Continental soldiers arrived at the fort with fresh supplies of ammunition and food stores less than a day before St. Leger's troops, who encircled and besieged the fort on August 3rd.
Nicholas Herkimer received word that the fort was besieged from the Oneida scout Thomas Spencer, who was sent by Col. Gansevoort. He immediately summoned the Tryon County militia to meet at Fort Dayton in German Flatts and prepared to march to the fort's relief. The in-ground root cellar at Herkimer’s house just east of Little Falls had served to house the muskets and artillery that would soon be put to use. The militia marched the seventeen miles from German Flatts to near modern Whitesboro, N.Y. where they camped the night of August 5th, picking up several dozen Oneida warriors along the way. As day broke on August 6th, Herkimer awaited a volley from the fort, ten miles away, that would signal the militia to approach.
Morning burned away with no signal from the fort. Colonel Ebenezer Cox, in charge of one of the four battalions of militia, and who was already incensed by the acceptance of Oneida help, became impatient with the delay. He went as far as to question Herkimer’s fidelity to the American cause, pointing to the fact that his brother was a Tory. Herkimer, his blood now boiling, ordered the militia to continue the march to Fort Stanwix/Schuyler despite never receiving a signal.
Waiting to ambush them in the heavily wooded, somewhat steep ravine a couple of miles west of Oriskany Creek was a combined force of about eight hundred under the leadership of Joseph Brant, John Butler, and Sir John Johnson, a rare semi-legitimate son of Sir William. The British detachment was composed of several Indian tribes particularly Mohawks and Senecas, Hessian mercenaries, and Loyalists, including Johan Jost Herkimer, brother of Nicholas. After letting the leading edge of the Tryon County Militia pass almost all the way through the ravine, the British forces fired a massed musket volley then charged with bayonets, knives, tomahawks, and bare knuckles. Col. Ebenezer Cox, who goaded Herkimer into this ill-advised march, soon fell from his horse, a musket ball lodged in his brain.
Tradition has it that Nicholas Herkimer was also shot in these first few moments but his most recent biographer, Paul A. Boehlert, is of the opinion that the wound came somewhat later in the battle. Either way, his horse was shot out from under him, and the upper ends of Herkimer's tibia and fibula were shattered by a musket ball. His men carried him to a tree on a slight rise of land, laid his saddle down on the ground and placed him upon it. From that perch, Herkimer brought order to his badly cut up militia. He ordered them to split off in pairs and hide behind trees, the lesser marksman of the two loading muskets for his superior who would wait for a enemy soldier to approach. The militia rallied for a time on the high ground where a battle monument is today. Tories, Hessians, Mohawks, and Senecas continued to progress against the re-formed American line when a heavy rain came, halting all musket fire.
When the British forces marched out to the ravine that morning, they left only the barest skeleton crew behind to maintain the siege. This miscalculation would be what cost them the Mohawk prong of Burgoyne's campaign. Upon hearing the distant battle sounds, Lt. Col. Willett marched his troops out of the fort and mercilessly ransacked every teepee and tent in the siege line. Every scrap of food was taken or destroyed. Many scalps were recovered, they being a currency of sorts as the British were willing to pay a fifteen-pound bounty for each one. The Indian warriors, being accustomed to fighting naked or nearly naked, left their warm clothes behind and these were destroyed as well.
Whether they heard the commotion at the fort or a scout relayed the news, once Brant's warriors knew that their camps were raided, they retreated back to the siege lines around the fort. The Tryon County Militia held the field at Oriskany though they suffered a devastating number of casualties. A pair of retreating Mohawks attempted to tomahawk Gen. Herkimer but were blown away by musket fire before they could get close enough.
St. Leger resumed the siege of Fort Stanwix/Schuyler but had trouble convincing his Native American allies to remain. The Senecas were hit especially hard during the battle, seventeen of their young chiefs laying dead on the field. The Iroquois confederation was in a state of civil war now that the Oneidas had fought for the Americans. Not having any clothes and not much to eat, morale plummeted and most of St. Leger's Indian allies melted away into the woods. St. Leger had little choice other than to retreat to Canada when he learned of a detachment of 1,000 Continental soldiers under Gen. Benedict Arnold marching west to relieve the fort. Thus the Mohawk River arm of Burgoyne’s campaign was repulsed.
Comparing casualty counts of Revolutionary War battles is difficult because of haphazard and often non-existent record keeping. However, modern estimates for the Battle of Oriskany are 600 dead on the field, which would give it a legitimate claim on being the bloodiest battle of the war. Skeletons were still being recovered forty-odd years later during Erie Canal construction and even later when the New York Central Railroad was built. Occasionally historians and tour guides will claim this was the largest bloodletting on U.S. soil until Shiloh, or even more incorrectly, Antietam. Assuming it was the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War, it was eclipsed slightly by First Bull Run, though the devastating psychological and communal effects of Oriskany were indeed similar to those of Shiloh and Antietam. More than a few Palatine families in the Mohawk Valley lost every male. The extended Mohawk Valley Petrie family lost somewhere around a dozen men.
Which brings us to the fate of the most prominent Petrie, Brig. Gen. Nicholas Herkimer. After the battle he was brought back to his house along the Mohawk, working his pipe and his Bible hard the whole way. The Bible he read constantly in his final days was written in German and is thought to have been brought from the Old World by his grandparents. His mangled leg became infected within a few days. Amputation was decided upon but the man who would normally have done it, Dr. William Petrie, had been wounded in battle also. The inexperienced Robert Johnston performed the surgery badly even for that age, failing to even apply a tourniquet. Herkimer bled to death within a few hours.
New York’s frontier would endure hard times for the balance of the Revolution, a continuous cycle of raid and counter-raid putting the torch to nearly every village west of Schenectady—Tory, Patriot, and Indian alike. The following year, 1778, would see German Flatts raided and burned again, the Wyoming massacre in northern Pennsylvania, and the Cherry Valley massacre a little east of Cooperstown. The American response came via the annihilation of the Indian/Tory villages of Unadilla and Oquaga along the Susquehanna, and, in 1779, the Sullivan-Clinton expedition. Periodic British raids along the Mohawk continued until the battle of Johnstown, where Continentals under Lt. Col. Marinus Willett drove their enemy from the field six days after the capitulation at Yorktown, Virginia.
In death, General Herkimer would suffer occasional indignities. The Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for the erection of a statue of Nicholas Herkimer but never appropriated any funds for it. His house suffered damage in a January 1905 fire before being restored. In 2010, after its primary industry imploded, New York State slated fourteen State Historic Sites for indefinite closure. Among them were Oriskany Battlefield and Herkimer Home State Historic Sites. Fortunately, the closures only lasted about a week before funding was restored.
Despite the mild ingratitude, Herkimer’s shadow remains long. His brand was stamped into the young state and young nation in a way no other Palatine’s was, save for perhaps John Peter Zenger, press freedom legend. A year after American independence was won, Tryon County, named for the hated final royal governor of New York province, would be renamed in honor of late Continental general and Rhinebeck resident, Richard Montgomery. In 1791, three new counties were sheared off of Montgomery, including one bearing the name Herkimer. In1903, a statue of Herkimer finally rose above a section of old German Flatts, now known as the village of Herkimer, located in the town of Herkimer, in the county of Herkimer. The people of the Mohawk Valley, then and now, revere Herkimer as the Hero of Oriskany. An impressive legacy for a man whose parents and grandparents fled Germany, were indentured for two years in East Camp, and were elbowed out of their farms along the Schoharie.
Thomas Shannon lives in Endwell, N.Y. with his wife Mary and two young daughters. He grew up in what was once Hunterstown and descends from several German flies who were caught in Robert Livingston’s web.