Memoirs of Elkanah Watson



FROM 1777 TO 1842,

Edited by his son, Winslow C. Watson
(New York: Dana and Company, Publishers) 1856, pages 25 - 31


Ethanah Watson (1758-1842) was a very successful business man having organized the Bank of Albany (NY). He was active in serving the interest of the newly formed republic. In 1779 he carried money and dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France. While in Europe he studied the waterway system in Holland and upon his return to New York promoted the development of canals in the state. Among his other interests was the encouragement of agriculture and in 1810 staged a "cattle show" in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and today is considered to be the "father" of county fairs.

The territory known as the German Flatts had been long inhabited, and was densely occupied by a German population. This people had suffered severely during the war of Independence, from the ravages of the Tories and Indians, and had been nearly extirpated. Impressive vestiges of these events were exhibited throughout the entire district. Their safety was only secured by the erection of numerous block-houses, which were constructed upon commanding positions, and often mounted with cannon. Many of these structures were yet standing, and were seen in every direction.

The sufferings and sacrifices of this population, has few parallels in the atrocities of civil war! He entered into no family in which he did not hear of thrilling recitals of the massacre of some branch of it by ferocious barbarians who carried fire and the sword through their settlements, or of some appalling scene of danger and suffering connected with its own history. This entire people for many years were exposed to constant alarm and agitation. Without knowledge or suspicion of the immediate approach of their ruthless foes, settlements were burst upon and devastated at one swoop, in blood and flames, while the same tragic scene was often renewed the succeeding night, by the same bands, in some other remote and equally unsuspecting community.

On the second evening after leaving Johnson Hall he (Elkanah) reached a miserable log tavern, six miles from old Fort Schuyler, which stood upon the site of the present city of Utica. This tour proved an important epoch in the public career of Mr. Watson, and I therefore present the original language of his Journal, in order more distinctly to present his views and opinions at that period.

Extract from the Journal: "Sept. 1788. - From Col. Sterling's I began to traverse the wilderness bordering upon the Indian Territory. The road is almost impassable; I was upwards of three hours in reaching the Mohawk opposite old Fort Schuyler, a distance of only six miles. Here I reluctantly forded the river, being alone and without a guide, and both shores alive with savages. Having fasted twenty-four hours, in consequence of a severe head-ache the day previous, I was by this time excessively hungry and fatigued. As there was no tavern, and only a few scattering houses, I proceeded to an old German log house, on the margin of the river, and interceded for something to eat. At length, after much difficulty, I prevailed on an ill-natured German woman to spare me two ears of green corn and some salt. I never suffered more from hunger in all my wanderings, than I did in 1788, on the spot now occupied by the large and flourishing village of Utica.

"The road from thence to Whitesborough continued as bad as possible, obstructed by broken bridges, logs and stumps, and my horse, at every step, sinking knee-deep in the mud. I remained one day recruiting at Judge White's log house, the founder of the settlement, and slept in his log barn, with horses and other animals.

"Whitesborough is a promising new settlement, situated on the south side of the Mohawk River, in the heart of a fine tract of land, and is just in its transition from a state of nature into civilization. The settlement commenced only three years since. It is astonishing what efforts are making to subdue the dense and murky forest. Log houses are already scattered in the midst of stumps, half-burnt logs, and girdled trees. I observed, however, with pleasure, that their log barns were well-filled. A few years ago, land might have been bought for a trifle; at present, the lots bordering upon the river have advanced to three dollars per acre and those lying a few miles back, at one dollar per acre.

"Settlers are continually pouring in from the Connecticut hive, which throws off its annual swarms of intelligent, industrious, and enterprising emigrants - the best qualified of any men in the world to overcome and civilize the wilderness. They already estimate three hundred brother Yankees on their muster list, and in a few years hence they will undoubtedly be able to raise a formidable barrier, to oppose the incursions of the savages in the event of another war.

"At Oriskany I passed a small tribe of two hundred Indians, the remnant of that once powerful Mohawk nation, which was the former terror and dread of the New England frontier. On ascending a hill, I approached the place where the intrepid Gen. Herkimer was drawn into fatal ambush and miserably defeated, in 1777. Herkimer was a gallant, but inexperienced leader, and here perished, with nearly half his army, formed of the patriotic yeomanry of the Mohawk valley. Just before reaching this sanguinary battle-field, I met two Germans familiar with its incidents. They conducted me over the whole ground, and in corroboration of the fact, of which they assured me, that many of the slain, who were scattered through the woods, were never interred. I noticed numerous human bones, strewn upon the surface of the earth. This movement was intended to succor Fort Stanwix, then besieged by St. Leger.

"I found myself, soon after leaving this consecrated spot, alone in the woods, in the midst of a band of Indians, "as drunk as lords." They looked like so many evil spirits broken loose from Pandemonium. Wild, frantic, almost naked, and frightfully painted, they whooped, yelled , and danced around me in such hideous attitudes, that I was seriously apprehensive they would end the farce by taking off my scalp, by way of a joke. I had luckily picked up the word Sago, the salute of friendship, of which I made copious application, constantly extending my hand to the most active among them, by whom it was cordially accepted.

"On my arrival at Fort Stanwix, I found the whole plain around the fort covered with Indians, of various tribes, male and female. Many of the latter were fantastically dressed in their best attire - in the richest silks, fine scarlet clothes, bordered with gold fringe, a profusion of brooches, rings in their noses, their ears slit, and their heads decorated with feathers. Among them I noticed some very handsome contenances and fine figures.

"I luckily procured a sleeping-place in the garret of the house in which Gov. (George) Clinton and the eight other commissioners - also John Taylor, Esq., of Albany, Indian Agent - Egbert Benson, Esq., of New York, and a man with a large white wig, by the name of De. Taylor - were quartered. The sight of this wig fixed the attention, and excited the mirth of many of the Indians, one of whom I noticed making strong efforts to smother a laugh in the Doctor's face, since nothing could appear more ludicrous and grotesque to an Indian, than a bushy white wig.

"The object of this great treaty is to procure a cession from the Indians, of territory lying west of Fort Stanwix, in this State, and extending to the Great Lakes. Fort Stanwix was built in 1758, by the British Government, at a cost ~60,000, and is situated on an artificial eminence, near the river; a large area around it is entirely cleared. Here Col. Gansevoort, in 1777, sustained a terrible siege, until relieved by (Gen. Benedict) Arnold, when St. Leger made a precipitate retreat, abandoning most of his camp equipage and munitions. The French Ambassador, Count Moutier, and the Marchioness De Biron, are now encamped within the Fort, under the marquee formerly used by Lord Cornwallis. This enterprising and courageous lady has exposed herself to the greatest fatigues and privations to gratify her unbounded curiosity, by coming all the way from the city of New York, to witness this great and unusual assemblage of savage tribes.

"In contemplating the position of Fort Stanwix, at the head of the bateaux navigation on the Mohawk river, within one mile of Wood Creek, which runs west towards Lake Ontario, I am led to think it will in time become the emporium of commerce between Albany and the vast Western world. Wood Creek is indeed small, but it is the only water communication with the great Lakes; it empties into the Oneida Lake, the outlet of which unites with the Onondaga and Oswego, and discharges into Lake Ontario at Fort Oswego, where the British have a garrison. Should the Little Falls be ever locked, the obstructions in the Mohawk river removed, and a canal between that river and Wood Creek at this place be formed, so as to unite the waters flowing east with those running west, and other canals made, and obstructions removed to Fort Oswego - who can reasonably doubt that by such bold operations, the State of New York has within her power, by a great measure of policy, to divert the future trade of Lake Ontario, and the great lakes above, from Alexandria and Quebec to Albany and New York?

"The object of the present treaty is the purchase of an immense territory, estimated at eight millions of acres, and now owned, and chiefly inhabited, by the Six Nations of Indians. The sovereignty of this tract has been in dispute between Massachusetts and New York. These States have at length made an amicable division, assigning four millions of acres to each. The former has since sold her right of domain to a company of adventures, who have purchased preemption from the Indians. New York, by this treaty, has accomplished the same result. This vast territory therefore, is now opened without any impediments, to the flood of emigration which will pour into it from the East. Many hardy pioneers have already planted themselves among the savages; and it is probable that the enthusiasm for the occupation of new territory, which now prevails, will in the period of the next twenty years, spread over this fertile region a prosperous and vigorous population.

"I left Fort Stanwix with the intention of passing down Wood Creek to Lake Ontario, indulging the idea of extending my tour to Detroit. Under the strong presentiment that a canal communication will be opened, sooner or later, between the great lakes and the Hudson, I was anxious to explore its probably course. A hard rain commencing, and the obstacles I found to exist in the creek, induced me however to abandon the arduous enterprise, and return to Fort Stanwix. The attempt afforded me the gratification of sailing west for the first time, in the interior of America.

"I continued several days at the Treaty, passing my time most agreeably, in associating with the Commissioners, and much diverted, by the novel and amusing scenes exhibited in the Indian camp. The plain in the vicinity of the fort has already been laid out into a town plot; a few houses have been erected, and also saw mills, and other improvements, at a distance of a mile on Wood Creek.

"A young Indian, named Peter Otsequett, a Chief of the Oneidas, was also attending this Treaty: he had just returned from France, having been in that country for several years, under the patronage of the Marquis Lafayette, by whom he was taken when a boy. He is probably the most polished and best educated Indian in North America. He speaks both French and English accurately; is familiar with music and many branches of polite and elegant literature; and in his manners is a well-bred French-man. He is, however, a striking instance of the moral impracticability of civilizing an Indian. There appears to exist natural impediments to their amelioration. While visiting the Catawba Indians a year since, I became acquainted with a young Indian, who had been educated at a prominent college; but had already fallen into the degradation of his native savage habits, and was to all intents an Indian. It is noticed that each year, in its progress, wears off European polish of Otsequett, and brings him nearer the savage. 2 Ten days ago I was introduced to him, a polite and well-informed gentleman, today I beheld him splashing through the mud, in the rain, on horseback, with a young squaw behind him, both comfortably drunk.

"My curiosity satisfied, I sent my horse towards Albany, and embarked on board a returning bateau, and proceeded down the Mohawk to Little Falls, anxious to examine that place, with an eye to canals. We abandoned ourselves to the current of the river, which, with the aid of our oars, impelled us at a rapid rate. We met numerous bateaux coming from the river, freighted with whole families, emigrating to the "Land of Promise." I was surprised to observe the dexterity with which they manage their boats, and the progress they make in polling up the river, against a current of at least three miles an hour. The first night we encamped at a log-hut on the banks of the river, and the next morning I disembarked at German Flats.



1. "It could hardly have been supposed within the range of possibility, that it would fall to my lot to march by the side of President Lansing; and head a procession of two hundred respectable farmers, in the presence of several thousand spectators, into a Church on this very spot, exactly thirty years after this occurrence, and there proclaim the premiums of an Agricultural Society, and address them as follows: 'It is now thirty years this month since I lodged in a log barn, belonging to Judge White, near the spot from which I am now addressing you. This blooming vale was them just emerging from a wilderness, and the bloody footsteps of our savage foe. Behold now an apparently old country, bearing on its surface the refinements of civilized life.'"

2. I have since been assured by a gentleman, who knew Otsequett near the close of his life, that he actually degenerated below the ordinary level of savages. His refined education in France, commencing when a boy, had divested him of those masculine virtues which are engrafted on the Indian character. Having lost these, he possessed no traits of high qualities to sustain him, and abandoning himself to the bottle, he ultimately became an abandoned vagabond. (1821)

This is a joint effort between Fulton, Herkimer & Montgomery County GenWebs for Memorial Day 2002. The above extract was kindly donated by James F. Morrison.

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Created 5/23/02
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