The Battle of West Canada Creek
By Louis Baum
There were many battles, mostly skirmishes, fought in this area during the Revolutionary War.
Inevitably, lives were lost as the British loyalists frequently trooped down from Canada with their Indian allies to raid the farms and homes of their former friends and neighbors in the upper Mohawk Valley.
These raids included Andrustown (July 1778), Rheimensnyders Bush or “Yellow Church” (April 1780) and Shells Bush (August 1781). They knew the land well, for many of them had lived here for one or two generations. Many were relatives and friends of the recently deceased Sir William Johnson who had been Commissioner of Indian Affairs for North America.
A battle of local interest, one with a significant loss of lives on the part of the patriots, was the Battle of West Canada Creek, which occurred in September 1781.
Fort Dayton, near the confluence of the West Canada Creek and the Mohawk River and a short distance from Fort Herkimer, was a safe haven for the Palatine German farmers and the English speaking patriots. They desperately wanted to form a new union and be free of the yoke of British tyranny. It was well fortified and had a garrison of regular militia in addition to supplemental forces of rangers and irregulars many of whom were from this area.
Thirty-three-year-old Solomon Woodworth, a native of Salisbury, Connecticut, was living in Mayfield at the beginning of the war. Enlisting as a private in 1776 in the Third Regiment of the Tryon County Militia, he had fought in many battles and advanced in rank becoming a lieutenant in Colonel Marinus Willett’s regiment on April 27, 1781. On Thursday, Sept. 6, 1781, Lt. Woodworth, a noted scouter, marched his company of 46 handpicked men and six Oneida Indians from Fort Rensselaer (present day Fort Plain) to Fort Herkimer, then on to Fort Dayton. His group was a part of Colonel Willett’s Regiment.
The following morning, Friday, Sept. 7, 1781, Woodworth and his contingent left Fort Dayton, forded the West Canada Creek and proceeded to scout for the ever-present loyalists and Indians. They soon picked up a freshly made trail on the ridge along the eastern side of the West Canada Creek. Some of the rangers suggested that a messenger be sent back to Fort Dayton asking for Captain Garrett Putnam and reinforcements. However, Lieutenant Woodworth feared the time delay for reinforcements to arrive would allow the enemy to escape.
Woodworth and his men took chase, and about three miles northeast of Fort Dayton, in a deep ravine, they spotted a lone Indian near the previous night’s fire pit.
They rushed forward and fired. Woodworth yelled “Hurra men, the rascals run.” Unknown to Woodworth, they had been lured into an ambush. Lieutenant John Clement, of Colonel John Johnson’s “King’s Royal Regiment,” and about 80 Onondaga, Cayuga and Stockbridge warriors under Daiquanda, an Onondaga chief, lay hidden in the thickets. They had formed a semicircle around the anxious and unsuspecting Americans, similar to what had happened to General Nicholas Herkimer at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777.
The first volley killed Woodworth and 10 of his soldiers. The Indians then rushed forward with spears and tomahawks and the massacre was over in the matter of minutes. Of the force that had left Fort Dayton only hours earlier, 22 were dead, including two officers, one was wounded, 14 escaped back to the fort unhurt and nine were captured and taken to Canada. One Oneida Indian was wounded early in the fray and was carried back to the fort by his brethren. For the enemy, two Onondaga Indians were gravely wounded.
On the following day, Captain Putnam and his company, along with the survivors of Woodworth’s detachment, returned to the site of the ambush to perform the grim task of burying the dead. The exact location of the ambush and the burial ground is unknown. We do know that the ambush itself was located in a ravine southeast of Kast Bridge, in the vicinity of today’s Smith Road approximately three-quarters of a mile from Shell’s Bush Road and one-half mile east of the West Canada Creek. Today, the area is open farmland.
We all have heard of the Cherry Valley Massacre in 1778, where 30 non-combatants were killed, and, more locally, the Andrustown Massacre also in 1778, the Shell’s Bush Blockhouse attack in 1780 and the Grist Mill attack at Little Falls in 1782. These actions resulted in a few deaths and wounded on the part of the Americans. Seldom do we hear of the West Canada saga where 22 gave their lives.
A monument, honoring these fallen heroes, is located on Smith Road.
It was erected in 1959, New York State’s Year of History, by the Herkimer County Board of Supervisors. The monument was dedicated in ceremonies conducted by the D.A.R. The plaque reads as follows:
MARKS THE SITE
LT. SOLOMON WOODWORTH
AND HIS MEN
FELL IN BATTLE
ON SEPTEMBER 7, 1781
DURING THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR”
A note of interest: The property where the battle occurred had been in the ownership of the Smith family for seven generations, until a few years ago. Milo Smith, would not allow treasure hunters with metal detectors on his property.
By Louis W. Baum Jr. is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.
Massacre at the Little Falls gristmill
by Louis Baum
Little Falls has had its share of catastrophes.
Foremost, of course, is the 1940 Gulf Curve train wreck that resulted in 33 fatalities and well over 100 injuries. Then there was the 1896 explosion of the pleasure steamboat the Hon. Titus Sheard on its way to Taylor Driving Park one mile west of the city. Twelve lives were lost. Almost forgotten today is the massacre at the Petrie gristmill in 1782.
The Revolutionary War had “unofficially” ended the year before in October 1781 with the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown.
However, the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the war, was not signed by emissaries of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States until September 1783. Between these events, when for all intents and purposes the was over, hostilities in the upper Mohawk Valley continued unabated.
When the war began in 1775, the loyalties of the Anglican British settlers in this area were evenly divided between loyalty to the Crown and the demand for independence, freedom and the formation of a new country. It is open to conjecture if this would have been the case had Sir William Johnson, British Superintendent for Indian Affairs in North America, had not died in 1774. While he was alive, a majority of the Mohawk Valley inhabitants thought well of him, however, this was not the case with son John Johnson. He was disliked, despised and not trusted by many of the Anglicans and almost of the Palatine-Germans. The Palatines were farmers and not village dwellers. With divided loyalties, families were split apart as well chronicled by Jeff Gressler in his article “Neighbor Against Neighbor.” It was father against son, brother against brother, cousin against cousin. Most of the settlers in our area — the Sons of Liberty and the Palatine Germans — were in favor of a new found freedom and country.
Early in the conflict, most Loyalists were driven from the area and resettled to Canada in the vicinity of Kingston, Ontario. Others moved to Niagara Falls.
This exile did not prevent some of them from frequently returning to the valley with their Iroquois allies, mostly Mohawks and Senecas under Joseph Brant, along with British regulars and Hessian mercenaries, to burn and ravish. Most settlers lived in constant terror of Loyalist and Indian raids. The massacres of men, women and children at Cherry valley, Wyoming and Andrustown live in infamy.
The name of Loyalist Walter Butler was synonymous with terror, death and plundering. The villain in the well-known novel and movie “Drums along the Mohawk” by Walter Edmunds is patterned after Butler. This area began to be known as the Bloody Mohawk. This sets the stage for our tale.
The Mohawk Valley was considered the bread basket of the colonies during the American Revolution because of its fertile soil and the skill and hard work of the Palatine German farmers. Wheat and other grains could be grown in abundance, but it had to be ground to flour to become a foodstuff.
The gristmill in Little Falls, built between 1722 and 1725 by Johan Joost Petrie, was one of the very first mills along the Mohawk River.
It was located on a site near the confluence of Furnace Creek and the Mohawk River, in the general area of the powerhouse on West Mill Street once owned by Forbes Whiteside. At that time there was a long island in the river, and Furnace Creek emptied into the channel just north of the island. It should be noted that in the history of Little Falls, the outlet of Furnace Creek has been moved three times. The Petrie gristmill was the first “industry” in Little Falls.
With the destruction of mills in German Flatts in 1781 and 1782, the gristmill at Little Falls was one of the few remaining near the end of the war. It was an important source of much needed wheat to feed Washington’s Army. Live taverns, gristmills were gathering places in the sparsely settled upper Mohawk Valley.
On a warm, early summer evening in June 1782, more than 20 people had thronged together in the log gristmill. Included were the two millers, Gresham Skinner and Frank Cox, the owners of the gristmill, Jacob and Daniel Petrie, both descendants of Johan Joost Petrie, and eight farmers who had brought their grain to be ground: Peter Wooleaver, Christian Edick, Frederick Getman, Mark Rasback, John Rasback, Thomas Shoemaker, Lawrence Hatter and Peter Orendorf. Guarding the mill were seven militia men under Captain McGregor. Also at the mill were an unknown number of women and children who had accompanied the farmers, most likely their wives and offspring.
Unknown to the occupants of the mill, a large war party of nearly 300 Loyalists and Iroquois Indians surrounded the mill hell bent on revenge.
They had bypassed Fort Herkimer when they misinterpreted a noisy wedding party as being a large garrison of militia. They moved on the wagon path to the Little Falls gristmill a few miles further east. The Tories must have been former residents of the area as they called out the mill occupants by name to surrender and save their lives. Surrender was not on the mind of the patriots! Flaming arrows from the Indians set the log building on fire and the overwhelming enemy force quickly forced the brave patriots, most of whom were unarmed, into submission.
Skinner and Cox, being intimately familiar with the layout of the gristmill, hid under the water wheel and escaped. Getman was discovered hiding in the water raceway and was captured. Wooleaver was able to make his escape and proceeded to Fort Dayton near Herkimer to sound an alarm. Daniel Petrie and several of the militia and farmers were killed in the attack. The others, including the women and children, become captives and were marched off to Canada. Most of them returned to the valley one hostilities ended.
Daniel Petrie met a particularly gruesome death. During the battle, he repeatedly discharged his firearm and fought with the butt end of his musket until being subdued. After being overpowered, he was scalped, bound on the rocks in the Mohawk River and tortured to death by arrows, tomahawks and scalping knives. It was reported that soldiers from Fort Dayton buried the bodies of Daniel Petrie and the other brave gristmill defenders at the scene of the conflict. This skirmish, right here in our backyard, in 1782 — nearly 237 years ago — was one of the last battles or armed conflicts of the Revolutionary War.
In July 1783, nearly a year after the attack, Gen. George Washington made a tour of the Mohawk Valley.
On July 26, he stopped at the home of Gen. Nicholas Herkimer to thank the valley residents for their stellar efforts and many sacrifices made during the War for Independence.
To commemorate the noteworthy even of the attack on the gristmill in Little Falls, the Little Falls Historical Society has committed to putting a historical marker in the general vicinity where we believe the gristmill massacre occurred.
Louis Baum is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.