Dorothy Blackman's historical fiction of the last days of Nicholas Herkimer was sent to us by Joyce Berry, webmaster of the Ft. Klock Historic Restoration website. Written by Dorothy Blackman in 1982, we think this story for young readers will appeal to everyone.


A Story for Young Readers
By: Dorothy Blackman
From: Mohawk Valley USA, Volume 3, #9, Summer 1982.

Late one afternoon in July, 1777, General Nicholas Herkimer stepped outside for a breath of air. He leaned against one of the pillars of his spacious brick house and looked over his prosperous farmlands with pleasure. No man enjoyed his home more than he did, but he would have to leave it for awhile. He heaved a sigh as he tamped tobacco into his long clay pipe.

Others across the valley would be relaxing now too, their energies drained by the July heat. But the farmers would work until dusk to use every hour of light. Harvesting their hay and wheat occupied all their thoughts and kept their hands busy. Well, by tomorrow they'd be thinking of other things!

Nicholas dreaded to shatter the peace of the settlements, but the information he'd received would force him to call for every able-bodied man to defend the territory. The British colonel, Barry St. Leger, was approaching with 1400 men, including Iroquois Indians from several tribes. Worse yet, the wily Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant, was their leader. Brant was a tough, smart warrior, and Nicholas' own colonels, Cox and Fisscher, had told him he should have killed the chief when he'd had the chance.

Nicholas closed his eyes and drew on his pipe. He ran a big hand through his thick gray hair as he thought about the dispatch from Fort Stanwix. The King's forces were to lay siege to the fort and cut communications between it and German Flatts. Nicholas, as commander of the Tryon County Militia, had been asked to send aid. Not only would this relieve the fort, but also it would prevent the conquering of German Flatts. If Fort Dayton fell, the British could advance straight to Albany.

As Nicholas slumped in despair, his young wife appeared with a cold drink. He put his arm around her affectionately.

"Ah, Maria," he said softly in his deep, German-accented voice, "this may be the last glass I sip in peace for a long, long time."

She smoothed the shirt over his round shoulders. "My dear Nicholas," she coaxed, "you look more like a farm worker than the owner. Change your clothes and take me to visit the neighbors."

His black eyes softened as he looked at her, but he spoke gruffly, "There'll be no time for visiting either. I must leave for Fort Dayton tomorrow."

They went inside then, and in a few minutes he was dictating to his secretary, calling the countrymen to war. Nicholas had never learned to write well in English. Later, when he sat alone, certain phrases echoed in Nicholas' head. . . "most necessary for the defense of our country" . . . "every male person, being in health, from sixteen to sixty years of age" . . . "repair immediately with arms". . .

Those over sixty or in ill health, he'd instructed to stay to protect the women and children. Copies of the order would be sent throughout the county. At fifty, Nicholas felt too old to fight and wished to live quietly with his wife in the home he loved. But the men, would all fight, for their own farms and for their new country.

Within a few days the Tryon militia, over 800 patriots, had gathered at Fort Dayton in German Flatts. Nicholas informed them of the battle plan and then gave them some news from Fort Stanwix.

"Men, Colonel Gansevoort has received word that Congress has made a resolution. The United Sates will have a flag of its own made up of alternating red and white stripes. The union will be presented by thirteen white stars on a blue field. The colonel has had such a flag made up from materials donated by individuals there. It now flies over Fort Stanwix, right in the enemy's face! We must see that it remains there!"

The men cheered, and slapped each other's backs, vowing that they'd do the job all right! Then Nicholas mounted his old white horse and led the soldiers on the beginning of their hard journey. They were a strange looking army, with some uniformed and others not, bringing assorted weapons. They traveled all day to cover the ten miles to Stirling Brook where they made camp. Here an argument developed between Nicholas and some of the officers over which route to take to the fort. But in the morning the small band pressed on, and after another tiring day settled near Oriskany Creek.

In the evening Nicholas called Adam Helmer, one of his best scouts, to his tent, giving the assignment without delay.

"Adam, word has come from the commander of Fort Stanwix that St. Leger has them surrounded. We must let him know that we're on our way to support him. Take John Damuth and another reliable man with you and get to the fort one way or another. Tell Colonel Gansevoort that we're ready but he must send out a party of men to make a diversion so we can get through. We can't risk it unless something takes the enemy's attention."

"What about Brant?" Adam asked. "I hear he's in charge of some of the Tories as well as the Indians".

Nicholas sighed. "You know as well as anyone how it will be if we get mixed up with him. We should be able to avoid it by drawing his attention to a division from the fort. You'll probably get to Stanwix by daybreak. As soon as Gansevoort sends out the party, have him fire three cannon shots. That will be our signal to advance."

Adam nodded. "We'll get through all right. But a couple of your colonels won't want to wait for any cannon shots. They're talking of starting out during the night. They show themselves up for the fools they are, thinking this army could get more than one mile in those thick woods by moonlight!"

Nicholas shook the scout's hand. "Pay no attention to them, Adam. They're only talking. They're strong for the glory now, but won't be any braver than the rest of us when the action starts. Go along now, and good luck go with you!"

Nicholas was wide awake before the next dawn. He was worried about his officers, especially Cox and Fisscher. Adam had been right about their restlessness. He'd have to show them who was the leader of this militia! As soon as he'd dressed and breakfasted he sent for all the officers.

When they stood before him, he began. "It won't be long now before we make our march, so keep your men on the alert. As you know, I've sent the messengers ahead to inform Gansevoort of our support. As soon as he's sent out a party, he'll fire three cannon shots. We'll move out then."

Cox frowned, then muttered, "How long will that be?"

Nicholas answered, "They should be at the fort now. The minute the guns sound, we go."

Fisscher snorted. "Yeah, after the enemy hears the signal too. I say we should move now!"

Nicholas' dark eyes burned with anger. "I give the orders! It's for you to be sure your men are ready."

Fisscher clenched his fists by his sides. "We probably won't even hear the cannon - we'll still be sitting here when St. Leger attacks!" The officers shifted their feet, eyes darting from Nicholas to Cox, to Fisscher. It grew dangerously silent. Suddenly, Cox blurted out, "I know why you wait! You're afraid! Either that, or you're soft on the Tories. Your relatives are in with them, aren't they?"

Nicholas' long upper lip pressed tightly against the lower. A muscle twitched in his cheek. "If we didn't need every fighting man, I'd send you home with the women now!" he replied evenly. "I have nothing to do with my nephews' politics. But if you think that I am afraid ... I..." He turned away, stiff with anger.

"Let's go, then!" Fisscher implored.

"Yes!" "Yes!" "We're ready!" came the officers' cries.

Nicholas spun around and stared at each man in turn."All right!" he shouted. His flushed cheeks made his eyes seem blacker. "If you must fight, we'll go. But be warned that Brant might set an ambush..."

"We're not afraid of Indians!" one officer bragged.

"No, nor all St. Leger's troops!" another added.

Nicholas mounted his horse and looked down at them. "Just be sure you fight as strongly as you talk when the time comes!" he warned.

"Then we march?" Fisscher asked.

"Yes, confound it, March!" Nicholas barked, clamping his teeth down hard onto his pipestem. He turned his horse away, bitterly aware that he'd been forced into an order against his good judgment. But the officers were so incensed that they might be rash enough to storm ahead anyway. It would be better to lead them than to argue further. At least he might be able to head trouble off.

He'd already urged his horse across the creek before the officers realized their victory. Then they jumped into action, each shouting to his own division. Men scattered in every direction, scrambling to get gear together. Unwashed breakfast pots were banged together and dumped into carts as soldiers called to others down the line to hitch up the oxen. Despite the excitement, they were already listless in the morning heat.

Nicholas muttered behind his grizzled beard as he watched the noisy band form two ragged lines of march. The fools would wake the dead, to say nothing of alerting the wary Indians! They'd better settle into proper military order before they meet the British. Still, he was more worried about what Chief Brant was up to. The Mohawks were quite at home in these woods and would guide the Tories.

Before long the humid air had sapped some of the enthusiasm from the troops and many broke rank to drink from a spring. Others sat by the path whenever they tired. The scouts plunged ahead, quite heedless of noise. Sometimes the main group pushed along the road ahead of the scouts, who were slowed by underbrush. Nicholas wiped his brow and shook his head. This so-called army would have to be better trained as soon as possible. But he'd need time to turn these eager farmers into tough soldiers. In the meanwhile, they could only do their best. How he wished for rain to clear this oppressive air! And where was that signal? Adam should have been at the fort hours ago! What if they'd all been captured?"

Colonel Cox rode up to join Nicholas as he started down the ravine. They descended in silence as concentration was needed to choose the best path. When they reached the swamp at the foot of the hill, Cox took off his hat and smoothed his hair. Then he returned the cocked brim to its usual angle. He was always conscious of his appearance, even in this withering heat. Nicholas glanced down at his own worn, blue campaign coat. He was feeling as old as his poor horse. They crossed the log causeway with two companies close behind. Fisscher's company would be bringing up the rear, behind the supply wagons. The men had fallen silent as the heat discouraged idle chatter.

It was extremely quiet here in the dank lowland - too quiet for Nicholas' liking. He felt the hairs along his neck prickle. This was a bad position to be in and the sooner they got up the other side of the ravine the better he'd feel. He looked back along the narrow road. It was clogged with soldiers, bunched together, stumbling along. The wagons were coming out of the woods and onto the swamp, their creaking wheels rattling over the last rocks. The scraping of wooden carts against trees sounded unnaturally loud in the stillness.

Nicholas scanned the top of the ravine, eyes narrowed. "I don't like this," he murmured to Cox, "Let's get going!" He urged his horse ahead, starting up the incline. Cox slapped his mount into action and moved past the older white horse.

At that moment, a shot cracked from an unseen rifle and Cox slipped from his horse, lifeless. Instantly, the swamp and hillside rang with gunfire from both sides, deafening Nicholas. He pressed his horse forward, straining to see the enemy, calling encouragement to his men. Indian war cries filled the air, confirming Nicholas' fear - Brant was behind this ambush, no doubt with much Tory aid.

The enemy fired again and again into the ranks of the militia and within minutes Nicholas was doubled over with pain on the mossy ground, his horse dead beside him. Then he was lifted and dragged into the brush.

"Careful, careful!" a young voice warned, "It's his knee - support that leg!" Nicholas looked up into the white, frightened faces of his countrymen. He knew they were right to be afraid, but he must not let them see his fear. The pain tore along his whole leg now, and he fought waves of nausea. He knew he must get to a better spot to control the battle before he was completely useless.

He spoke slowly to the soldiers, between stabbing pains. "Help me up to the top of the hill ... under that big tree."

The young man looked at him sadly . "I'm sorry, General. You couldn't make it up the incline. You're losing too much blood." Another spoke then. "It's no use anyway. They'd pick us off for sure. Colonel Fisscher has pulled his company back, and we've already lost too many of the rest to stand long."

"What!" Nicholas exploded. "Fisscher's bolted? Well, that's just about what I expected of him!" He stared at the others, vainly looking for hope. With manpower so low, the militia would be lucky to get any men out let alone stop St. Leger's advance. The air was rank with gunpowder and perspiration. The shooting and screaming hurt Nicholas' pounding head. Then, a body crashed into a bush just a few inches from his outstretched hand. That did it! He had to get his men to higher ground or all would be lost. If he had to crawl up the slope by himself, dragging along by the tree roots, he'd do it! He started up and rasped out in his deep voice, "I'm still in charge here, and I order you to get me up there immediately! If you disobey, you'll answer for it when we're out of this!" he commanded.

"Yes, Sir, General Herkimer," one replied, snapping to life. The others followed, obviously relieved to think the great man really expected to get them out. It was a tortuous climb and one of the soldiers brushed tears from his eyes as he saw his leader bite desperately on his pipe. But at last Nicholas was settled against the trunk of the huge beech tree, grateful for its shade.

Here he could observe the entire field of battle, and gave orders which were quickly passed along. He tried to study the battle methods of the enemy, and fidgeted when the doctor bound up the shattered leg. The patriots were standing their ground, but soon would be suffering. Their ammunition couldn't last long. He noticed that as soon as a soldier fired, an Indian would run up and kill him with a tomahawk, before he could reload his musket.

Nicholas thought a moment, then sent the order for men to work in pairs. They were to stand behind adjoining trees, but only one was to fire. He was to shoot and quickly reload while the other man stood guard. Then, as an Indian rushed forward with tomahawk, the partner was to fire. Nicholas was pleased to see this method work time after time.

The air was darkening now and a breeze moved through the leaves, bringing welcome relief. In minutes the younger trees were bending as the wind gained force. Thunder rumbled through the woods, and was followed by a heavy downpour. Lightning flashed across the treetops, and the fighting died down on both sides. In the sudden bursts of light, Nicholas saw his men lying flat on the hillside, resting. He closed his eyes then and was in an exhausted sleep at once.

But the shower was soon over, and Nicholas awakened to the roar of muskets. He watched the fierce encounter, frustrated not to be there leading his men. But there was an advantage to being right where he was, having an overview and being able to make tactical decisions. He was glad the men had been able to follow his last order, moving to the center of the high ground. They were in a much better position now. If only they could hold out!

The battle continued into its sixth hour, and Nicholas prayed for strength to endure to the end. The militia did seem to be gaining - the furor was subsiding - then, all at once the high wailing of Indians filled the woods. He recognized the cry - "Oonah! O-o-nah!" It grew fainter ... could it be that ...

"General Herkimer! General! They're in retreat-both the Indians and the Tories with them!" The young soldier who had attended Nicholas was laughing and crying at the same time. It was true! The field was left to the militia. Still, St. Leger's forces might come back, and the patriots were terribly weakened. Could they stop the enemy again with their few men?

Nicholas heard it then! Although distant, it was plain to him. Three cannon shots. The messengers had reached Fort Stanwix and the garrison had sent out the diversion. With their main force in retreat with the Indians and the men from the fort taking their attention on their other side, the British would be unable to fight on.

Nicholas turned wearily to the few soldiers nearby. "If only we had the strength to chase them and finish the fight!" he moaned.

"That's not important, General," one replied. "Just think what you've won! With a whole company abandoning us, caught in an ambush, we still beat them off! There was no way to win, but we did! And we did it because of your plans and direction. We kept holding on when we saw your courage!"

Nicholas looked around at his brave men, and, for the first time that long day, smiled.

Note: General Herkimer paid the highest price for this victory. He was taken to his beloved home where his leg had to be amputated. The bleeding could not be stopped, and he died from this wound. But he died as he lived, courageously, reading the thirty-eighth psalm aloud to his family.

The Battle of Oriskany proved to be a turning point in the war. It was the most fiercely fought, with the greatest proportion of casualties. The encounter prevented the advance of British troops and broke the spirit of the Indians. Never again would they stand in open battle with the American army.

(1982) About the Author:
Author Dorothy Blackman, minister's wife and mother of four, lives in Edmeston, New York. Her busy schedule includes published work in several national publications, substitute teaching - and, of course, providing delightful stories for young readers of Mohawk Valley USA.

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Created: December 20, 1998
Copyright © 1982 Dorothy Blackman
Copyright © 1998 Joyce Berry/ Martha S. Magill
Photograph of Herkimer Home Copyright © 1998 Joyce Berry
Images digitally manipulated and Copyright © 1998 by Martha S. Magill:
From "Daring Deeds and Thrilling Adventures of our Pioneer Heroes, Frontiersmen and Scouts", by Augustus Lynch Mason, LL.D.; Sears, Roebuck & Co.: Chicago, Ill., 1904
All Rights Reserved.