Adam Helmer was one of the most celebrated heroes of the Mohawk Valley. Presenting another rendition of Adam's famous run, we extend our appreciation to Herbert R. Groff, who's prepared numerous items for the Ft. Klock and St. John's Church site; Betty Klock Hoagey for sending the article to the Fort; Joyce Berry, webmistress of Ft. Klock site; and Margaret Davis, granddaughter of Lou D. MacWethy, for her permission to present this article on the web. Lou D. MacWethy owned the Enterprise & News at the time this article was printed, on August 14, 1937.
Helmer's Famous Run
OF HISTORY LEADING UP TO THE EVENT
for the Enterprise and News by MILDRED
When Walter D. Edmunds selected the Mohawk Valley as the scene of his novel "Drums Along the Mohawk," he directed wide attention to the unsung heroes of the Revolution in New York State. His genius found expression in describing the many historic events in the valley during the Revolution and reached its zenith in his tense description of Adam Helmer's Run. By this one happy incident in his splendid work of fiction he created the Paul Revere of the Mohawk Valley and focused national attention on this sector.
So widespread was the interest that thousands of queries have come in asking for the real facts of this run. Was it fiction or fact? History or fancy?------------- ( Note, 1999 typist, At this point about three lines at a fold in the old brittle newspaper, dated, August 1937, which is being copied have flaked away. It continues) by --------------and Mrs. Mildred R. Staunton, a teacher at Mt. ------------- and a great great granddaughter of Adam Helmer devoted last summer to the task of surveying this run. Her own family held dear many traditions of the scout. She interviewed descendants of other early families and found similar traditions all bearing on the point at issue. Just where did Adam Helmer run and how far? The following story is the result of her work. It is a valuable contribution to Mohawk Valley history.
The Warning of German Flats by Scout Adam Helmer, Sept. 16, 1778.
It is with considerable hesitation that I have assembled this material concerning the warning of the people of German Flats of the approach of Brant and his Indians and Tories in 1778. The scarcity of authentic material, either documentary or traditional, leaves many well nigh hopeless gaps in the story. Whatever traditions incorporated in this have been painstakingly checked with Governor Clinton's Papers and with all other available documents including Adam Helmer's pension papers, in the Helmer Family by Pascoe Williams, 1931, published by the Enterprise and News, St. Johnsville, N.Y. The results have been embodied in this article.
The Mohawk Valley Revolutionary Times
In order to obtain an accurate background for this story we must picture the Mohawk Valley of this period in our minds and also review preceding events.
In 1772 when Tryon county was formed through the influence of Sir William Johnson with Johnstown for the county seat there were approximately 10,000 inhabitants, the most of whom were settled along the Mohawk river in four districts, the Stone Arabia district, later called the Palatine, the Mohawk district, the Canajoharie district and the Kingsland district. More than half of those people were from the Palatine Province along the Rhine river in Europe. Already these sturdy pioneers had begun to push back into the hills so like the hills of their homeland and to clear land for farming. Many little settlements sprang up. Those south of the river are the ones with which we are chiefly concerned. Little clusters of homes had been built in Andrustown, Columbia, Schuyler Lake, Little Lakes and on the Kyle. Even so far south as Edmeston on the Unadilla had a settlement been made. By great industry and frugality these hardy pioneers had wrested farms from the forest which were capable of supporting more than twice the number of its inhabitants. The great value of its food producing possibilities will be seen later.
The Influence of Sir William Johnson
The death of Sir William Johnson in 1774 was a great blow to the valley, for only his powerful personality and widespread influence kept the Indians, Germans and Dutch in his districts under allegiance to the English government. Early in September, 1774, while the sudden loss of the beloved Sir William was still fresh in the minds of the community, a public meeting was called by Sir John Johnson, his son, and by his nephew Guy Johnson, whom Sir William had made Indian Superintendent of all North America. This was attended by the people of the Palatine district who had come most closely in contact with Sir William during his lifetime. A series of resolutions were passed warmly commendatory of the blessings to be derived from the English government and extolling the duty of every person to submit to whatever restrictions and burdens the Crown should impose.
Already the lack of the firm hand of Sir William Johnson was being felt in the community. Ideas of the right to free speech and to some voice in the levying of taxes were growing stronger. Hardly had the people returned to their homes from the meeting after pledging their allegiance to the new regime than they received news of the Declaration of Rights by the Continental Congress. This brought the discussion into the open and feeling ran high. The Johnsons openly declared their loyalist views and tried to suppress by force any Whig sentiments. This caused the Whigs to organize Committees of Safety at once in Palatine and by the end if 1774 all other districts in Tryon county had followed in their steps. An Article of Association was drawn by the Committees of Safety and sent to the Continental Congress pledging their support.
Tory Versus Whig
This alarmed the Johnsons who immediately began to collect firearms and ammunition to fortify their property. It was suspected that they were secretly drilling all their British servants and neighbors. They began to arrest Whigs and search them for firearms. Then the news of the Battle of Lexington reached Johnstown while court was in session. The Loyalists attempted a demonstration but the number of Whigs in town caused the Johnsons to quiet their over zealous followers. The continued success of the Continental forces at Ticonderoga and at Crown Point together with an appeal from General Gage besieged at Boston caused Guy Johnson to call meetings of the Indians to incite them to loyalty to the British Crown.
The meetings of the representatives of the various tribes of Indian so alarmed the colonist, who feared Indian warfare more than anything else that they appealed to headquarters in Albany County (cannot read as the paper has flaked away -- I believe it refers to organizing a militia)--- this was granted in 1775 and the militia was organized into four battalions under Colonel Nicholas Herkimer.
In January, 1776, Congress ordered General Schuyler to proceed to Johnstown and to demand the arms secreted there by the Johnsons. General Schuyler with the help of Colonel Nicholas Herkimer did this and Sir John Johnson was put on parole. The baronet constantly violated this agreement with General Schuyler so after several interrogations and warnings the general sent Captain Dayton with a body of troops to arrest Sir John and place him in jail. Being advised secretly of his danger, Sir John escaped to Canada and took many of his Tory followers, all vowing to return soon and wreck terrible vengeance upon their former neighbors.
Guy Johnson and John Butler
In the meantime Guy Johnson proceeded westward across the Indian country to Oswego. Here he met a delegation of 1,500 Indians including representatives from as far away as Detroit. He proceeded to Montreal with 120 representative of the various Indian tribes but found to his disappointment that the Governor General Carleton did not approve of Indians being used in the war so he dismissed his Indian allies and asked to be allowed to visit England. He was permitted to leave for England and John Butler was named by him as successor and sent to Niagara to look after Indian affairs.
The Rangers (Scouts)
Little of military importance transpired in the valley during the remainder of 1776. Except for his ranger (Scouts), the militia when not on active duty repaired to their farms to till the soil which fortunately yielded a plentiful harvest. For rangers, one man from every fifteen of each company was selected to do scouting duty. They were organized under special officers and detailed to patrol the hills to watch for activities of the enemy. Scout Adam Helmer was one of these rangers, a Lieutenant in Capt. John Breadbake's company.
Nowhere in the country were events watched with keener interest than in the Mohawk Valley. Many remembered the horrors of 1757, when they were at the mercy of the French and Indians and recollections of these atrocities sharpened their swords and steadied their hands in the work of preparing for the promised vengeance of the evicted Tories and their Indian allies.
St. Leger Invests Fort Stanwix
On August 3, 1777 Colonel St. Leger reached Fort Stanwix. News of his approach preceded him, brought by a friendly Oneida Indian. General Herkimer assembled his militia to go to the aid of Colonels Gansevoort and Willet in Fort Stanwix. With his usual foresight General Herkimer mapped out a campaign and communicated it to his officers. This plan was to send scouts to Fort Stanwix with news of their approach and ordered them to prepare to make a sortie upon the enemy. They were told to fire three cannon shots upon receiving the message as a signal for his troops to attack and thus disconcert the enemy at the outset.
Harrison's Three Scouts
Accordingly, copies of this message were sent by three scouts, Captain Hans Mark Demuth, Lieutenant Adam Helmer and Hans Yost Folts. They were dispatched soon after day light with the instructions to slip through the woods to the fort while the army broke camp and awaited the signal to attack. Meanwhile the army prepared to start. Historians tell us they were more like boys on a lark than soldiers sent to relieve a beleaguered fort. Being militia and not accustomed to strict army discipline, they resented inaction. Some of the officers were as troublesome as the raw recruits. The same unbridled tongues that so nearly precipitated destruction upon Herkimer's forces at Unadilla months before, began their work again. Headed by more impatient and less experienced soldiers and officers a group visited the general and insisted upon immediate attack. Herkimer held them back as long as possible and endured every type of insult until he saw that open rebellion confronted him. Then he ordered the malcontents to head the line themselves and reluctantly gave the order to proceed.
Somehow the enemy got news of their advance and set an ambush on either side of the first ravine through which the army would pass and the gallant little band was raked by fire from both sides. Soon they were surrounded and in spite of desperate fighting would have been overcome by superior numbers but for the timely advent of a veritable cloudburst.
The Scouts Carry the Message
Meanwhile the scouts struggled through the swamps in an effort to pass around the foe and reach the fort. Before the building of canals which drained much of that area the land along the river and creek bottoms was very difficult to travel. This subsequent downpour did not improve their speed and some time elapsed before Helmer, the fleetest runner could reach there. It was only by floating down the swollen waters of the creek under a pile of brush with the message on top of his head beneath his cap that he made the fort in time to be of any service to his commander that day. According to Helmer's own report made to the Committee of Safety at Albany several days later, he reached the fort at about one o'clock and the sorties started out in about an hour. Since timepieces were scare in those days and there could not have been much sun to recon by, there is some difference of opinion in regard to the hours of arrival and departure. It is thought that the battle must have raging for three or four hours before the arrival of the first scout. Later the other scouts reached the fort. Also a militiaman arrived who gave them their first news of the battle.
Whether the sortie upon the enemy camps alarmed them or whether the superstitious Indians refused to attack after the storm, is impossible to tell. At any rate the invaders retired to their camps and left the field to the Americans. The enemy settled down in their camps around the little fort and waited to try to starve out its defenders.
The Americans withdrew taking along their wounded among whom was their General Nicholas Herkimer who was to die of his wounds eleven days later and retired down the valley to await reinforcements. We all know of the arrival of General Arnold with more troops and the final route of St. Ledger's forces by the tales of the unfortunate Hans Cost Schuyler and his Indian companion.
General Benedict Arnold
Immediate danger being over, the militia again was disbanded temporarily and the farmers returned to their harvest prepared for another long cold winter. General Arnold was greatly impressed by the fertility of the valley and the abundance of their crops. He told the people that their crops alone could feed half the American army and at once requisitioned grain and other supplies.
In the spring these brave people again planted their fields. Except for occasional attacks on lonely farm dwellings no hostilities occurred in the valley until July 18, 1778, when some Indians and Tories attacked Andrustown and burned all but one house and killed or captured most of the inhabitants.
A few survivors reached the forts under the cover of darkness and told harrowing tales of the atrocities witnessed. On the same day Springfield was destroyed and the few survivors fled to Cherry Valley.
The Scouting Expedition to Unadilla
With the winter ahead, crops had to be harvested or famine would complete the destruction begun by their enemies. Brant was know to be at Unadilla with his followers and it was feared his supplies were getting low. Since his usual method of obtaining food was by force, the colonists decided to sent a squad of nine scouts., Lieutenant Adam Helmer being in charge, to the Unadilla valley to ascertain Brant's plans and to warn the outlying settlements if it appeared unsafe to finish their harvest. Meanwhile all able bodied men, women and children were toiling in the fields.
The Carr Farm
About two miles north of south Edmeston, on the east side of the Unadilla river is the historic old farm of Percifer Carr. This property, prior to and during the Revolution, was know as Edmeston Manor, being part of a grant of land to Colonel Robert Edmeston for service rendered during the French and Indian wars. It consisted of 10,000 acres on the east side of the river and extended south to the section owned by the Tunnicliffs near Schuyler Lake. It lay on the southeast outpost, nearest to the stronghold of Brant and his Indians. An old trail led north along the ridges to Schuyler Lake.
These families were accused of Tory sympathies which was denied at least by the Tunnicliffs and the Carrs were actually taken to Canada by the Indians as prisoners. They were in a difficult position coming under Brant's influence and unable to adopt any other policy than the one pursed. Both families suffered heavily during the war.
In 1775 a band of strange Indians captured the Carrs and took them prisoners to Canada. Their house was burned as well as their barn and the grist mill on Carr Brook. Today one can still see the dam which was built across the creek several hundred feet up the ravine where a water wheel operated and can see places in the craggy walls of the gorge where rocks were hewn for cellar walls and chimneys. A huge weather beaten old willow still clings to the side of the old crumbling wall of the dam, where a stream of clear limpid water tumbles down into a deep dark pool. This tree is estimated to be well over two hundred years old. A few hundred feet to the north, farther up the hillside is its venerable companion, an old oak badly shattered by wind and lightning. If these old trees could only speak what harrowing, yet thrilling tales would have rewarded my guest. As it is about half a dozen terse military reports and some few other documents are the only visible source of information in regard to what follows.
The Old Trail
At this point the Unadilla river flows through a valley flanked on either side by a range of hills rising steeply to an altitude of about five hundred feet above a narrow plain in width from a mile to two miles. Today one can still climb up the old trail from the Carr home following the crest of the ravine through the pasture in which one passes the venerable trees mentioned above, and up to the woods which crown the hills, and thence north over the original trail for several miles. The first part of this trail follows the crest of the hills through what still remains of the old forest. Constant use as a road for hauling lumber and cord wood for nearly two centuries has kept it in fine condition. The remainder is dirt road which south of West Burlington has been abandoned for a few miles but farther on, near Burlington, coincides with a new highway which leads to the foot of Schuyler Lake.
The Surprise Attack. Helmer Begins His Famous Run
Another interesting thing to be seen on this old farm is a wonderful spring of clear cold water issuing from beneath the roots of an old tree at the foot of the hill directly behind the site of the original Carr home. It was used by the Indians before the advent of white people and is still in constant use. It was at this spring that the nine scouts were surprised by the Indians. Coming down off the hill as the red men did, the little party of scouts stood no chance against a horde of forty yelling savages and the survivors were driven into the river. In the confusion, Adam Helmer, who was fortunate enough to secret himself beneath a pile of bushes, waited until the Indians had all passed and then began his famous run to warn his loved ones as well as his friends and neighbors, of their danger. From the spring on the Carr farm to Fort Herkimer it is at least thirty miles as the crow flies and to have zigzagged along the old trails in order to reach the outlying settlements as tradition chronicles , must have about doubled the trip.
The Route Taken by Helmer
Residents of Unadilla Valley assure me that there is no doubt of his having followed the old trail from the Carr farm to Schuyler Lake and that he came down the west side of the lake. Tradition relates that he warned his sister Maria, wife of Peter Hoyer at Andrustown and there he received fresh footwear. The Augustinus Hess family states that he warned them at Columbia and that all escaped except the old father , Dennis who spite of the warning, returned to the house for something and was shot as he left his gate. The Petrie family state that he came to Petrie's Corners and that they all made their way to Fort Herkimer in safety. Mrs. Catherine Myers, then a child of ten years of age, who lived in the valley in that vicinity, leaves a vivid description as he came down into the valley just at sunset on that memorable day. She says that he came down what is now called Warren Road between the houses of Rudolph Shoemaker and Jacob Meyers. She states, "Helmer's clothing was torn to tatters, his eyes were bloodshot, his hands and face and limbs were bleeding and lacerated from the effects of brambles and bushes through which he had forced his headlong flight. He halted only enough to shout "Flee for your lives". The enemy is not far behind, and hurried on to the next house."
On through the valley he sped shouting his warning at each house as he ran. When he reached the fort the big cannon boomed out its alarm to call everyone to its shelter. He made his report to Colonel Bellinger, commander of the fort stating that the squad of nine scouts was surprised at Edmeston and driven into the river and that he alone survived by hiding beneath some bushes and that he had made all possible speed to warn the settlers that nine miles back up the hills he had hidden beneath a tree and counted more than two hundred of the enemy, which was less than half of their number.
Fortunately a heavy rain began falling which hid the activities of the colonists from the Indians who made their appearance behind the Shoemaker house just as the storm broke. They encamped in the ravine which extends back among the hills behind the Shoemaker and the Myers homes, partly in what is now the village of Mohawk and partly in the village of Illion. This is still a wild uncultivated spot.
The End of the Run
Meanwhile the exhausted Helmer, after a light meal, lay down upon an improvised bed in a corner and fell into a deep sleep of utter exhaustion. So sound was his sleep that the arrival of hundreds of his neighbors during the night did not disturb him. He slumbered on through the noise and excitement occasioned by the occupants of the fort being aroused before daybreak on September 17, 1778, by the burning of nearby houses and barns. All through that harrowing day he slept and when twenty four hours had elapsed and he still could not aroused the people began to fear that his superhuman exertion might prove his undoing and that he might never awaken. At last after nearly thirty six hours of unbroken rest, the resourceful Dr. William Petrie finally aroused him and gave him some nourishment.
Three days later the intrepid Helmer led a company of militia back to the Carr farm where they found the three bodies of the scouts slain as they were surprised by the spring. These bodies were buried where found, and a monument marks their resting place although there has, to date, been no proof of their identities. It is reported that the militia overtook some Indians at the spring and fired upon them. Since, in later years, bullets have been found in the trees and that an old sword has been dug up in the vicinity, it would seem these facts give credence to that report. In reprisal, the colonists sent some friendly Oneida Indians into the field and they captured some ten prisoners and recovered a few head of cattle. This was but a trifle compared to the loss of 63 houses, 59 barns, full of grain, 3 grist mills, 235 horses, 229 horned cattle, 279 sheep, and 93 oxen.
Description of Scout Helmer
As there is some difference of opinion as to the type of man Scout Adam Helmer was, I will give you a description by his grandson Lewis Crim, formerly of Weedsport, N.Y. He remembered his grandfather Helmer as a worn bent old man with blue eyes and white hair, who walked with a cane and could seldom be prevailed upon to talk about his exploits. Most of the material which I received from the Crim family came from Helmer's three sons in law, Henry Crim, Henry Passage and Geo. Passage who delighted their children by describing Helmer in his prime and relating all his exploits. They claim that he was slight and fair with blue eyes and light hair. He was about five feet eight inches tall and weighed about 150 pounds. They pointed to the one young man in the family with great pride, as the one who most resembled him.
Unknown Soldiers of the Revolution
Very little is known in regard to the five other scouts who escaped the fury of the Indians at the Carr's farm. There is no doubt that each one did all he could to warn any stragglers among the hills as only one person besides Dennis Hess perished in that raid and that was a man named McGinnis who after receiving the warning hid in his barn and was burned in it.
Three daughters of Adam Helmer married respectively Henry Crim, George Passage and Henry Passage.