Catskill Mountain House

Chapter 7

The Osterhout Narrative - Schoharie County

From "The Catskill Mountains And The Region Around" (1867) By Rev. Charles Rockwell
The Osterhouts.- Peter Osterhout, Esq.-Gilbert Osterhout.-His Age, Cause of His Death.-Indians and Negroes.-Family Residence.-The French War.-Adventure of Mrs. Osterhout.-A Faithful Dog.-The Women of Early Times.-Gilbert Osterhout.-He Kills Two Indians.-Adventures with General Broadstreet and Lieutenant Stilwell.-Encounter with an Indian. -Peter's Father.-He Enlists in the Army.-Tories of Catskill.-Battles at Saratoga.-Hard Fighting. -Colonel Van CortlandGeneral Arnold.-General Frazer Shot by Murphy.-Trouble with Indians.-Its final Result.-A Kite and Cat.-Schoharie County during the Revolutionary War.-Council of Safety.-Colonel Huston.-Captain Hager.-Colonel Harper- Schoharie Forts.-Captain PatrickColonel Butler.-Tories Shot.-Colonel Butler's Raid on Vroomansland.-Fight near Sharon Springs. -Doxtater. -Colonel Willet.-Brant at Vroomansland.-Major Becker.-Tories Remove to Canada.-Release of Prisoners.-Murphy and Osterhout.- Their Escape.-Murphy's RevengeBattle of Newtown.-Daniel Shays.-David Williams.-A False Alarm.Brant at Cobleskill.-Howe's Cave.-Sharon Springs. -Hotels, Baths, etc.-Gebherd's Cave.-Murder of Truax.-Statistics of the County.

I now avail myself of the aid of my worthy and venerable friend, Peter Osterhout, Esq., a native of Catskill, now a retired merchant of Schoharie, and a pillar in the Reformed Dutch Church there. As both his father and grandfather were famous as warriors against the early enemies of our country, I wrote to him for information, and received a long and interesting letter, most of which was a record of before unwritten history of the pioneers of this region, their hardships, sufferings, earnest and fearless daring, and their great sacrifices for the good of their country. Mr. Osterhout writes as follows :

"The name of my grandfather was Gilbert Osterhout or, as pronounced in Dutch, Giesbert Oosterhoudt. I can give but a few incidents in his life, which I heard from his only son, my deceased father, and from other aged persons long since dead, as he died about the time of my birth, which was in 1790, then not far from seventy years of age. His death was caused by his having been violently pushed from a wagon by a man in East Camp, to whom he had willed his property of the value of some two thousand dollars, on condition that he should support him during his life. He was a large man, with a powerful frame, and resolute and determined in all his actions. The negroes and domestic Indians received no mercy at his hands when they had given him provocation. There were at that time a considerable number of Indians in the vicinity of Catskill, planting corn and beans on the Catskill flats, for several miles on both sides of the creek. Many of them were quite friendly with the whites, mostly Dutch, while others were the reverse, given to strong drink, quarrelsome and revengeful. My grand-parents lived at the bend of the road, between Mr. Plank's and the late residence of Reuben Palmer, now occupied by Dr. Keys.

"I have a faint recollection of the death of my grandmother, when I was two or three years old. When her husband was absent in the war between the English and the French and Indians in Canada and elsewhere, from 1754 to 1757, my father being then not more than a year old, an Indian named Rube, who lived near, and raised corn on the west side of the creek, on the flats opposite the Van Vechten farm, used to call at my grandmother's and leave his jug of whiskey there, to be called for when he wanted it. One evening, just as it was first dark, a knock called her to the door, and she asked, "Who is there ? " The reply was " Rube ; " and he said that he wanted his jug of whiskey. The voice did not sound like Rube's, and she hesitated as to unfastening the door. But, as he insisted that it was Rube after his whiskey, she partly opened the door, when she saw a large, strange negro there. They tried to close the door again, but he pushed it open with violence, and rushing into the house, took a seat by the fire. She was much frightened, and not a word was said, as she walked across the room several times. She conjectured what his object was in coming there, was looking around the room for a weapon of defense, and at last recollected that there was a clasp-knife in her pocket hanging on a chair. Just as she laid hold of it the negro sprang upon and seized her, when she screamed, and a large dog she had rushed in at the door, and seizing the negro by his throat, there was a severe struggle between them. The negro finally extricated himself and rushed out of the door, followed by the dog, who again laid hold of him. At last he got loose, and rushed down a ravine near the house, followed by the dog, urged on by the voice of his mistress. She then fastened the door, and taking my father, then an infant, in her arms, went to the second floor, drew up the ladder by which she had climbed there after her, and with the child in her lap and a cutlass in her hand, kept watch all night at the window. The negro prowled around a long time, as was evident by the furious barking of the dog, but finally, towards day, went away, and was never seen or heard of in that region again." Thus have we in this narrative another of the numerous hitherto unpublished and traditional sketches of what was done and suffered by the women of our American Revolution, and earlier than that, in their lonely and unprotected, and often forest homes, when their husbands were far away fighting for their liberties and rights.

Mr. Osterhout further writes as follows: "I have heard it said that my grandfather had many encounters with the Indians, and that they regarded him with fear. While in Canada, the troops of which he was one were surprised by a large party of Frenchmen and savages and defeated ; some were killed and wounded, while the rest scattered and fled in different directions. It was winter; the snow was deep; and many of the Indians had snow-shoes, which gave them greatly the advantage over those whom they pursued, by keeping them from sinking in the snow. My grandfather, like those with him, ran for his life; and, while doing so, suddenly came near two powerful Indians, who saw his approach, stepped a few feet apart, and stood still. He saw that he could not escape, and having made a motion of surrender by reversing his musket , he came between them as though to give himself up to them, when, with a sudden and powerful backward blow with his elbows, he knocked them both down ; and as their snow-shoes raised their feet when they were down considerably above the snow, hence they could not easily get up, so that having beat out the brains of both of them with his musket, he made good his retreat.

"He served as a soldier through the whole both of the French and the Revolutionary wars.

"To show the character of the man, I will relate an incident which I had from my father and others. During the French War, part of the English and Provincial Army was for a time quartered at Albany, waiting for the building of boats, or batteaux, as they were called, with which to transport troops and their baggage over rivers and lakes in their invasion of Canada. These troops were under the command of General Broadstreet, a British officer. My grandfather, who was a carpenter by trade, was captain of the batteaux superintending their construction. Broadstreet, whose quarters were on the hill where the Capitol now is, was in the habit of daily walking down to where the boats were being built, to see what progress was made. One day he asked my grandfather an absurd and impertinent question, who answered him rather tartly, giving offense to the General, who raised his cane and struck him on the head, in return for which my grandfather knocked him down with his fist. The General rose from the ground and went off in great wrath, cursing and swearing that he should be punished for the assault. No sooner had he gone than my grandfather was urged to make himself scarce, to take to his heels, and thus avoid being arrested, and consequently hung or shot, as, by British martial law, for a subordinate to assault his superior was punishable with death. He refused to leave, however, saying that Broadstreet had struck him without cause, and that in such cases he always struck back again, regardless of consequences. Soon a sergeant with a guard arrested him and marched him to the General's quarters, who told him to come in and take a seat. On a table were some bottles of liquor. The General poured out two glasses, took one himself, and told my grandfather to drink the other, which was done. He then told him lie was a good fellow, and to go about his business. This unexpected result so affected him that he burst into tears, and swore that he would shed the last drop of his blood to defend the General in battle or elsewhere. The effect on the troops was electrical when they heard what had taken place, and a loud shout was given for General Broadstreet." A similar case occurred during the Revolutionary War. My father stated to me, that one morning, in passing the guardhouse, he saw his father confined there as a prisoner. On inquiring of him what he had done, he said that Lieutenant Stilwell had used insulting language to him, and cursed him, and when he returned the same epithet which had been before applied to himself, the Lieutenant struck him with his cane, whereupon he knocked him down with his feet. My father went to his colonel, Van Cortlandt, and stated the facts to him, when, having ordered the parties before him, and finding that Stilwell could not deny the truth of what has been stated, the Colonel gave him a severe reprimand, told him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for striking an old man, and that if he was guilty of such an outrage again he would have him cashiered, and then added: 'As to you, Daddy Osterhout, go to your quarters, and attend to your business.'

"There was, after the Revolutionary War, a large, powerful Indian hovering about Catskill, who one day broke the lock of the chain by which my grandfather's canoe was fastened to a tree, and took it to go a-fishing, for which its owner gave him a severe thrashing. Many years after, my grandfather, one New-Year's morning, was sitting by the fire in the kitchen of Mr. Salisbury, grandfather of General Salisbury, of Catskill, when suddenly the big Indian walked up to him, and striking his right hand violently on his breast, by way of defiance, said, in Dutch, 'Giesbert, I am a man.' The reply was, 'Yes, a thundering man,' and a blow, which knocked the Indian into the fire, by which lie was badly burned, and was glad to make his escape. He thought that my grandfather being then an old man, he could easily punish him for the beating he had given him years before. He found, however, that he had waked up the wrong passenger.

"At the commencement of the Revolutionary War my father was learning the blacksmith's trade of a man named R---, who was captain of the militia, and had at his house the powder and ball for his company. He professed to be a Whig, but was in fact a Tory. My father was sixteen years old when he enlisted in the army, and it was brought about as follows: One evening, about dark, a company of thirty or forty men, with their faces blackened, and disguised as Indians, came to R---'s house and demanded of him the powder and ball of his company. He at first denied that the ammunition was in his house; but at length secret signals passed between R--- and the captain of the tories, which were observed by my father, and then part of the tories rushed up stairs, seized the ammunition, and all of them left. My father had a loaded shot-gun hanging on a beam in the house, which he seized, and rushed to the door. R--- demanded where he was going; the reply was, " To shoot some of those tories." R--- forbade his going; and his wife who was unwell made a great outcry, saying that if they were molested they would come back, and murder them all. So he gave up his plan of shooting, and the next morning went to Catskill Village and enlisted. He then marched to Saratoga, was in the desperate battles with Burgoyne's army, and in nearly all the important battles of the Revolution, including the siege and capture of Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown.

"At Saratoga he was in the regiment of Colonel Van Cortland, a brave and excellent officer. At the first battle of Saratoga, at Stillwater, I think it was, the regiment was marched out, consisting then of only one hundred and fifty men, some being sick and others absent on scouting parties. When about to engape in battle a cannon-ball struck directly in front of him, throwing the dirt in all directions, and so frightening his horse that he reared and threw him on the ground in such a way that all supposed that he was killed. He jumped up, however, saying, 'Don't be frightened, my lads : I am not hurt, and will lead you on foot into action. My men, advance!' A hard-fought battle it was, the same ground having been repeatedly taken by the British and Americans, each army alternately advancing and retreating; and it turned out a drawn battle, though the Americans had the best of it. When the regiment came out of the battle, forty-seven men, or nearly one-third of their whole number, were either killed or wounded. Both of my father's file-men on each side of him were shot down. For a feather, he and many others had twigs of laurel in their hats. His was shot off close to his head; but he was not hurt in any of the many actions during the war. The second battle was still more obstinately contested. My father said that General Arnold was rushing over the field in every direction, like a madman, ordering soldiers promiscuously to follow him. It was by his orders that a party of riflemen was led where they could have a fair shot at General Frazer, the second in command in the British army there. Arnold said of that officer, 'He is a host in himself, and must be brought down.' The celebrated Timothy Murphy" (the great Indian-killer, from Schoharie County, spoken of elsewhere in this work)"was one of these riflemen; and it was believed that he shot General Frazer.

" After the surrender of Burgoyne, part of the army were for a time quartered at Schenectady, and while there my father was employed in repairing muskets, having formerly worked as a blacksmith. Among the troops were quite a number of Oneida and other friendly Indians. One day, while going to his shop, he met with a squaw richly dressed, with a plenty of silver and glass trinkets on her blanket, leggings, and moccasins; and from mere wantonness, being but a boy, he jumped into a mud-puddle near her, and bespattered her all over with mud. She was very angry; and, soon after he reached his shop, two large Indians came in, and with a loud noise and angry gestures, threatened to strike him with their tomahawks. He told them to be off, or he would beat out their brains ; and, seizing his sledge-hammer, he sprang upon them, as if to strike them, when they took to their heels and ran away. Two years afterwards, when with our troops, he was in a tavern, where he saw one of these Indians, who recognized him, and, drawing his knife, rushed upon him. At this moment a man who was near spoke in a loud voice to the Indian, who turned his head to look at the speaker, when my father quickly knocked the Indian down with his feet, and pounded him until he was tired, and left him, which ended the matter. The Osterhouts, father and son, seem to have been quite handy with their feet as well as with their hands.

"While besieging Cornwallis at Yorktown, some of our soldiers, of whom my father was one, made a large kite, to the tail of which they tied a basket, with a large tomcat fastened in it, and a lantern, lighted with oil, attached to the kite. One dark night, when the wind was blowing a brisk breeze directly towards Yorktown, the kite was sent up to a great height, the cat meanwhile screaming 'yeow, yeow,' until it was directly over the town, when they let the cord go, and the shining , musical kite rapidly descended, to the no small amazement of the British, and much to the amusement of our own troops who were concerned in and who saw what was done."

As Schoharie County was the scene of many Indian battles and bloody encounters during the Revolutionary War, some of them may here be noticed, as the Schoharie mountains are a part of the Catskill group, some of them rising as high as three thousand feet, while the brave and hardy pioneers of all that region, and more especially of the counties of Schoharie and Greene, were in early times exposed to like dangers, and made united and persevering efforts to defend themselves against a common enemy, and to secure for themselves and their children the bloodbought heritage of civil and religious liberty and right.

The record of events referred to above may be briefly stated thus :

In 1774 a Council of Safety was formed. In 1776 Colonel James Huston enlisted tories at Loonenburgh. In 1777 the Schoharie militia were called out, under Captain Hager; Colonel Huston and twenty others were arrested, and Huston was hung. August 10 of that year, there was an engagement between a party of Americans, under Colonel John Harper, and the tories, under Captain McDonald, at Brakabeen, where the tories were defeated, and fled. In the autumn of 1777 the middle fort was built, and the upper and lower forts were begun. The lower fort was the old stone church, afterwards changed into an arsenal. May 8, 1778, the battle of Cobleskill. took place, in which Captain Patrick and twentytwo men were killed. In July of this year, Colonel William Butler, with three companies of Morgan's riflemen, was stationed in Schoharie, and several tories recruiting for the British army were shot. In August, 1779, Colonel Butler joined Sullivan's expedition against the western Indians, when Murphy probably went with him, as he figures largely in that connection. August 9, 1780, a party of seventy-three Indians and three tories attacked those living at Vroomansland, killed five, and took thirty prisoners. July 9, 1781, there was an engagement two miles east of Sharon Springs, between a party of tories and Indians, under Doxtater, and Americans under Colonel Willet, in which the tories were defeated, with a loss of forty killed. During the same month, several persons working in harvest-fields were surprised ; one escaped, and the others were carried captives to Canada. In October, 1781, three men in Sharon were taken by the Indians, and carried to Canada. October 24, 1781, Brant, with sixty or seventy Indians, killed Isaac Vrooman, at Vroomansland, when a party of Americans, under Captain Hager, rallied, and the Indians retreated to Utsyantha Lake, where there was an engagement; but part of the Americans, under Captain Hale, having fled, those remaining were forced to retreat, and the Indians escaped. July 26, 1782, several tories and twenty-two Indians attempted to capture Major Becker in Foxes' Creek Valley ; but he and his family defended his house so bravely, that the Indians retreated. Several persons were murdered by them in their retreat, and a number of the Indians were shot. There were so many tories in Schoharie, that a cruel civil war was carried on there, and at the close of the war many families removed to Canada, where grants of land were made to them by the British Government, opposite to St. Lawrence County, in this State. December 26, 1784, many who had been taken to Canada as prisoners were released on Lake Champlain, and returned to their homes.

Here I resume the narrative of Mr. Osterhout, as follows: "Murphy was with General Sullivan in his expedition to the western part of the State, as was also my father, who said that he never knew Murphy to be frightened but once. He was in the party of Lieutenant Boyd, on a scout, in advance of the army, when they were suddenly surrounded by several hundred Indians. All but two of the party, who were Murphy and my father, were killed. These two ran for their lives, and reached Sullivan's camp in safety, Murphy having retained his rifle, while my father dropped his to enable him to outrun the Indians. Murphy then looked as white in his face as a sheet. About two hours after, the army reached the place of the surprise and butchery, and found the men, who had been shot, stripped, and scalped, lying on the ground. After that no Indian within reach of Murphy's rifle, male or female, escaped his unerring aim. At Newtown, now Elmira, August 29, 1779, there was an engagement of two hours between Sullivan's troops and those of the British under Johnson, Butler, and Brant, whose fort was taken, and many of them were killed; after which Sullivan met with no resistance. The army, after this, were employed several days in destroying the corn, fruit-trees, and wigwams of the Indians. After the war, Murphy and his wife lived in Schoharie County, and died here in the town of Middleburgh. Some of his sons and grandsons still live in the county. After his return from the war, it is said that many Indians suddenly disappeared, and were believed to have been shot by Murphy. "The shooting of Indians and tories in that region, in a secret manner, after the war, led others who were there to flee elsewhere for safety.

Daniel Shays, who was a captain in our Revolutionary Army, and the leader of the insurrection in Massachusetts which bears his name, lived in the town of Livingstonville, in Schoharie County ; and in 1805, David Williams, one of the captors of Major Andre, removed there from South Salem, New York, and bought a farm of General Shays, on which he resided, much esteemed, until his death, August 2, 1831.

The extracts from Mr. Osterhout's interesting and instructive record will be closed with a sketch, -- a single incident more : " In December, 1780, my father was out on a scout, when, at break of day one morning, he came to a large field, in which there were about a thousand horses running loose, feeding on the scanty herbage. These horses belonged to our cavalry. In one corner of the field he found a horse-fiddle " (an instrument making a loud noise, like a watchman's rattle). "He gave it several rapid turns, which frightened the horses, and caused them to run towards the camp, over the frozen ground, making a thundering noise. Alarm guns were fired; Washington and his aids mounted their horses, it having been rumored that the British Light Horse intended to surprise our army and capture Washington, as they had before taken General Lee. When the horses came near the camp, it was found to be a false alarm, and quiet was restored. When my father reached his quarters, he was closely questioned as to the cause of the fright of the horses, but very prudently affected to be wholly ignorant with regard to it."

In the town of Cobleskill, in Schoharie County, there was an engagement between a company of militia and a large Indian force under Brant, May 31, 1778. The Americans, numbering forty-five men, were drawn into an ambuscade and defeated. When retreating, five soldiers sought protection in a house which was surrounded by the Indians and burned, the soldiers perishing in the flames. The delay thus occasioned gave the rest of the company and the inhabitants near there time to escape. Twenty-two Americans, and about the same number of Indians were killed.

Howe's Cave, in the east part of Cobleskill, five miles from Schoharie Court-house, is a place of much interest. It was discovered by Lester Howe in 1842. Its entrance is about fifty feet above the Cobleskill Creek. After passing through several spacious rooms, one of which, called " the Chapel," is sixty or seventy feet long by twenty wide and twenty or thirty high; then, crawling through a passage two hundred feet long, there is a sheet of water thirty feet long, twenty wide, and ten deep. Beyond this point the cavern has a number of large rooms and extends several miles, much of the way along a brook. Stalactites of a large size have been found there. The sulphur and chalybeate springs in Sharon are places of fashionable resort, and there are interesting caves near them. These sulphur springs, which are much like those in Virginia, are in a ravine, the principal one boiling up from the bed of a small stream, and yielding an abundant supply. There are smaller springs of the same kind near. There is a pretty cascade one fourth of a mile from the Shower House; and fossil leaves and moss, in great perfection, are easily obtained around the springs. The waters are celebrated for the cure of cutaneous and other troublesome diseases. The Pavilion, a magnificent hotel, was built there by a company in New York, in 1836, on an eminence near the springs, and with other houses near, is much frequented. There are now eight hotels there and a number of private boarding-houses. The Pavilion, the Eldridge House, Congress Hall, Union, and Sharon House, are the principal hotels. The Springs are white sulphur and magnesia, and there are extensive bathing houses, with warm and cold sulphur baths. There are accommodations for two thousand guests. Sharon is fortyfive miles from Albany, and may be reached by the Central Railroad to Palatine Bridge, or by the Susquehanna Railroad to Cobleskill.

Gebhard's Cave, formerly called Ball's Cave, is four miles east of Schoharie Court-house, and was first explored in 1831; a small boat having been let down into it, with which to move about. The entrance is funnelshaped, twelve feet in diameter. It is in the midst of a forest, and there is a descent seventy feet deep, nearly perpendicular, through a natural chimney in the massive rock, in which there is now a substantial ladder. Then there is a descent of thirty feet more by a craggy way and another ladder. After this, a passage ten feet wide, thirty long, and, in places, not more than three feet high, and arched overhead, while on its right issues a stream of pure water from an opening three feet wide and fifteen inches high; then in a small boat, with a torch in hand, at first reclining, and then able to stand, pushing along by projecting rocks, one passes fourteen natural dams about four inches thick on the top, in passages eight or ten fee wide and of an equal height, with water from ten to thirty feet deep, the water trickling over these dams into a small lake, near which is a room fifty feet square, and beyond it a stream leading to a lake four hundred feet long, eight or ten wide, from six to thirty feet deep, and one hundred feet below the surface of the earth, which a breeze never ruffled and on which the sun never shone. The arched limestone over this lake is, in some places, from twenty to thirty feet high. At the south-west end of the lake is an enlarged outlet and a rotunda fifteen feet in diameter and forty feet high in its centre, with a vaulted roof and a concave floor. Beyond the rotunda is a low, narrow passage several hundred feet long. Many rare minerals of much beauty and value are found in the cave, but bats are its only living inhabitants.

Early in the history of Schoharie County, a man named Vrooman, living in what is tow the town of Fulton, left his house and farm, during the winter, under the care of one Truax, a hired man, with a negro named Motor, and his wife Mary, to assist him. One evening Truax, having in hunting shot some pigeons, gave them to Mary to dress and cook for his breakfast. After dressing them, she put the knife, covered with blood, in her pocket. The next morning she rose, and, having prepared for breakfast, went to call Truax, when she found him in his bed murdered by having his threat cut from ear to ear. The negroes were arrested, and as she had the bloody knife in her pocket, and her husband would say nothing, they were tried for the murder in Albany, and publicly burned there. Many years after, a man named Moore, who left Schoharie for Pennsylvania soon after these events, being on his death-bed, tortured with remorse, and having fearful visions of ghastly wounds, flowing blood, and bodies writhing in the crackling flames, confessed that he and the negro murdered Truax, having entered the house through the large, low chimney, and that Mary knew nothing of the deed of blood.

Schoharie County has an area of 675 square miles, 33,519 inhabitants and in 1860 its products were : grain, 1,028,881 bushels; hay, 48,774 tons; potatoes, 190,432 bushels; apples, 222,182 bushels; butter, 1,832,257 pounds; and cheese, 71,016 pounds. There were, in 1860, 137 more males than females in the county.

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