Celebrating Independence Day!

Today, I’m posting something a little different on Poetic Devotions. So many of us are thankful for the blessings we, as a nation and as a people, have received since our nation was founded. And today, I’d like to celebrate those who gave their support to the founding of our great nation. In knowing a little about some of my maternal family’s ancestors who took part in the American Revolution, it helps put a personal perspective to the many individuals who gave of themselves that we and so many others might enjoy the freedoms we’ve been blessed with. Are we individually or collectively as a nation perfect? Of course not!  But we learn and grow from past mistakes, not from erasing them from history, praising God for all He has blessed us with.  Enjoy your celebrations of our nation’s founding with your friends and family!!

It’s a fact that we Americans love our 4th of July celebrations!  We especially enjoy family gatherings and picnics, and big parades with lots of floats and marching bands.  We look forward to fireworks with their beautiful colors and designs exploding in the night sky.  We decorate our homes with flags and bunting.  We salute, or respectfully place our hand over our heart, as our nation’s flag is carried past us by military veterans in parades.  And we readily recall the two important founding documents of our nation:   

1.  Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:  “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”  

2. Preamble to the U.S. Constitution:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…” 

What precious meaning these words have held as we take time to gaze backward to their origins, something I never tire learning about.  

So, why is history important to us?  To quote David McCullough in “Why History?” in the December 2002 Reader’s Digest, author of the books, John Adams and 1776:  “Who are we, we Americans? How did we get where we are? What is our story and what can it teach us? Our story is our history, and if ever we should be taking steps to see that we have the best prepared, most aware citizens ever, that time is now. Yet the truth is that we are raising a generation that is to an alarming degree historically illiterate… While the popular cultures races loudly on, the American past is slipping away. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.” 

“The best way to know where the country is going is to know where we’ve been…But why bother about history anyway? …That’s done with, junk for the trash heap.  Why history?  Because it shows us how to behave.  [It] teaches and reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for.  History is about life – human nature, the human condition and all its trials and failings and noblest achievements… Everything we have, all our good institutions, our laws, our music, art and poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work… faced the storms, made the sacrifices, kept the faith…  If we deny our children that enjoyment [of historical story telling]… then we’re cheating them out of a full life.”    

As I contemplated our nation’s celebrations, I thought about the effort and sacrifice it took from many to give us the freedoms we so often take for granted.  I am so thankful for all we have in America which many around the world do not enjoy.  But I also wondered if perhaps we have forgotten all that took place a long time ago, and if this day has simply become a traditional fun holiday.  The United States of America came to be with God’s hand working a miracle behind the scenes, and within the hearts of men and women who were very involved in its forming by putting their lives, legacy and financial support behind the movement for independence. 

Though no nation or government has been perfect as far back as the beginning of time, the early days of our young nation’s beginnings provide perspective for today’s America, this bastion of freedom.  So, it’s fitting that we ponder what part our ancestors played in the making of our great America some 246 years ago.  And, I might add, one of the best parts of researching my ancestors was the great lasting friendships I’d made with other descendants. 

Several of my ancestors served in the Revolutionary War in various capacities, some of whom I researched more extensively than others.  Originally, I did not plan to bring them into my article.  But then it occurred to me that it would be appropriate.  Knowledge of personal service and sacrifice often provides us with a greater understanding of the historical era and what our collective ancestors experienced.   

While researching my ancestry over 20 years ago, I purchased Revolutionary War pension application files of several ancestors who had served.  For those whose government files I did not purchase, their data was obtained from Schoharie County Historical Society, various Revolutionary War books, CDs, and documents proving their service.  Hoping that my family research might provide us a closer glimpse of the war for independence through their experiences, I share their legacy. 

1. Frantz/Francis Becraft/Beacraft, bp. 06/12/1761, Claverack, Columbia Co., NY – Private, 3rd Comp., 3rd Regiment, 1st Rensselaerswyck Battalion, Albany County New York Militia, on muster roll from Berne in 1782, 1790 census at Berne.  In an 1839 affidavit, Francis Becraft of Berne stated that he “served as a Private in a company commanded by Capt. Adam Dietz in the County of Albany…” Frantz/Francis married Catherine Dietz (sister of said Capt. Adam Dietz), my g-g-g-g-grandparents. 

In researching my ancestors, I discovered an apparent familial tie to the notorious Tory Becraft/Beacraft.  This man felt no remorse in aligning himself with Joseph Brant’s Indians to capture, kill and scalp Patriots throughout Schoharie County, known to have brutally killed and scalped a young boy in the Vrooman family who managed to escape the house after his family had been murdered.  After the war ended, Becraft/Beacraft had the audacity to return from Canada to Schoharie County where he was immediately captured by ten men.  In meting out a punishment of 50 lashes by whip, the men supposedly reminded him of his infamous acts against the community, his former neighbors.  Roscoe notes that death did not linger for him after the final lash, and his ashes were buried on the spot.  Of the ten men who swore themselves to secrecy, apparently only five are known.  (History of Schoharie County, William E. Roscoe, pub. D. Mason & Comp., 1882, pp.250-251.)    

However, in “Families (to 1825) of Herkimer, Montgomery, & Schoharie, N.Y.,” a genealogical source on many early families by William V. H. Barker, it is noted that the Tory Becraft/Beacraft was Benjamin, born about 1759, brother of my ancestor noted above, Frantz/Francis Becraft.  If this is accurate and they are indeed brothers, they were both sons of Willem/William and Mareitje (Bond) Becraft.  Another source, “The Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea…” notes Becraft survived his whipping and left the area (pg. 64), just as other undocumented sources indicate he survived and returned to Canada to live with his family.  So, I am uncertain as to whether Tory [Benjamin] Becraft actually died from his whippings or survived and left the area. 

2. Johannes/John Berlet/Berlett/Barlet, b. 05/08/1748, Schoharie, Schoharie Co., NY – Private, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t, Mohawk District.  He married Maria Gardinier, b. about 1751; their daughter Eva/Eveline Barlett married Martin Tillapaugh, b. 1778, my g-g-g-grandparents. 

3.Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz, bp 05/10/1722, Nordhofen, Vielbach, Germany – served in Lt. John Veeder’s Company, Rensselaerswyck, later under Capt. Sternberger’s Company at Schoharie.  He married Maria Elisabetha Ecker, bp. 1725; their daughter Catherine Dietz, b. 1761, married Frantz/Francis Beacraft above, my g-g-g-g-grandparents. 

As per my research article on Chemung County’s Newtown Battle, the Indian/Loyalist raids and massacres also touched my ancestral families in New York.  In Beaverdam (now Berne), New York near the Switzkill River on September 1, 1781, the Johannes Dietz family was attacked.  Johannes’ son, Capt. William Dietz was captured and forced to watch his elderly parents, wife, four young children and a Scottish maid be killed and scalped.  (see “Old Hellebergh,” Arthur B. Gregg, The Altamont Enterprise Publishers, Altamont, N.Y., 1936, p. 24; signed by Gregg, in Roorda’s collection from her father.)  Capt. William Dietz’s father, Johannes, was an older brother of my ancestor noted above, Johann Hendrich/John Henry Dietz.   

4. Johan Dietrich Dallenbach/John Richard Dillenbach, b. 1733 per cemetery records, Stone Arabia, NY; father Jorg Martin Dallenbach born Lauperswil, Bern, Switzerland (emigrated with 1710 German Palatines with mother and first wife). John Richard Dillenbach married Maria Mynard; their son Martinus took name of Martin Tillapaugh (my lineage), married Eva/Eveline Barlett as above.  Dillenbach reported for duty March 20, 1757 when Sir William Johnson called local militia out to protect Fort William Henry on Lake George for the British.  The Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War, began in 1754 and ended with the European peace treaties of 1763 during which year Dillenbach again reported to defend Herkimer with the Palatine District Regiment. 

James Fennimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans about the siege of Fort William Henry.  Roughly 2300 colonial troops were protecting the British fort when the French arrived with about 8000 troops in August 1763 and heavily bombarded the fort.  With additional supporting troops not found to be on their way, the garrison was forced to surrender. The men were to be protected as they retreated by generous treaty terms.  However, as the Indians entered the fort, they plundered, looted, scalped and killed about 200 colonials, many of them too sick to leave.  In desecrating graves of those who had died before the siege, the Indians exposed themselves to smallpox, taking the germs back to their homes.  The French destroyed the fort before returning to Canada.  Fort William Henry was reconstructed in the 1950s.  Visiting this fort in 1972 with the Lounsberry Methodist Church youth group, I was unaware at the time that my Dallenbach/Tillapaugh ancestor had walked that ground, having been involved in the siege and survived. 

5. Timothy Hutton, b.11/24/1746, New York City, married 2nd) Elizabeth Deline b.1760.  Their son George b.1787 married Sarah Wyckoff b.1793 (descendant of Pieter Claessen Wyckoff who cared for Pieter Stuyvesant’s bouwery/farm, today’s bowery district of New York City, with his Wyckoff House Museum on Clarendon Road, Brooklyn, NY still standing), my g-g-g-grandparents.  Timothy served as Ensign in Philip Schuyler’s Regiment of Albany County Militia, at defeat of Gen. Burgoyne in Saratoga October 17, 1777; appointed Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Marinus Willett; defended Schoharie County from burnings and killings by British, Loyalists and Indians.  This Timothy is not to be confused with a nephew of same name and rank, b. 1764, which many have done, including an erroneous columnar grave marker in Carlisle, NY.  Sorting their military service out was part of my extensive thesis and documentation in researching and publishing two lengthy articles on the origins and descendants of this Hutton family in the New York Genealogical & Biographical Record in 2004-2005.   

My Timothy’s nephew William Hutton served extensively in the Revolutionary War throughout New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley.  My Timothy’s nephew Christopher Hutton of Troy, NY served as Ensign, promoted to Lieutenant, member of the elite Society of the Cincinnati.  My Timothy’s nephew, Timothy Hutton b.1764, served as Lieutenant in New York Levies under Col. Willett, enlisting 1780 at age 16 in the Albany militia.  My Timothy’s nephews, Isaac and George (brothers of Christopher and the younger Timothy, all sons of George Hutton, the older brother of my ancestor Timothy Hutton), were well-known influential silversmiths during the Federal period in the late 18th/early 19th centuries in Albany.  Hutton silver has been on display at museums in Albany, New York. 

6. Johannes Leenderse (John Leonardson), b.06/18/63, Fonda, Montgomery Co., NY – enlisted as private in 1779 at age 16, Tryon County Militia, 3rd Reg’t; Corporal in 1781; served on many expeditions in the Mohawk Valley and at forts; joined Col. Willett’s company on march to Johnstown October 1781 in successful battle against enemy who had burned and killed throughout Mohawk Valley; re-enlisted 1782.  Married Sarah Putman b.1773.  Their son Aaron Leonardson b.1796 married 3rd) Lana Gross, parents of Mary Eliza Leonardson b. about 1732 who married William Henry Ottman, my g-g-grandparents. 

7. John Caldwell McNeill, b. 1755, Londonderry, Rockingham Co., NH – at Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill) on Charlestown June 17, 1775 per purchased military pension file.  As Sergeant under Col. Timothy Bedel of the New Hampshire Line, John bought beef to pasture and butcher as needed for the troops.  Bedel’s regiment joined “Corp.1, Co. 1, New York Reg’t” on mission to Canada against British; McNeill taken captive with cousins and friends at The Cedars near Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence; soldiers were stripped of clothing, belongings and food, and released in cartel negotiated by Gen. Benedict Arnold before becoming a traitor.  John served at and discharged at Saratoga, NY.  He married cousin Hannah Caldwell b.1762; removed to Carlisle, Schoharie County, New York ca. 1794; their son Jesse McNeill m. Elizabeth Ostrom, my g-g-g-grandparents. (Neighbor was Thomas Machin who built the Great Chain across the Hudson River to keep the British ships from sailing north. A granddaughter of McNeill married a Machin grandson, removing to the Midwest.)

8. George Richtmyer, bp 04/23/1738, Albany Co., NY – Captain from 1775 through end of war in 15th Reg’t of Albany Militia, defending Cobleskill and Middleburg, Schoharie Co., NY.  Married Anna Hommel; their son Henrich/Henry married Maria Beacraft (see above), my g-g-g-grandparents. 

9. Hendrick/Henry Vonck/Vunck, b. 03/06/1757, Freehold, Monmouth Co., NJ – served as private and Corporal in New Jersey and New York City; carried papers for American Gen. Charles Lee; joined units marching to same area of Canada as John C. McNeill; on return became ill with smallpox with others at Lake George when news of the Declaration of Independence was made; honorably discharged; called to serve again at Sandy Hook, NJ; captured by the British at Sandy Hook, taken to a prison ship, then to the [Livingston] stone sugar house in Manhattan, then another prison ship, the Good___  (writing illegible on the early 1800s pension document, possibly Good Hope).  After “one year and one month” as prisoner, he was exchanged and released.  “Having suffered while a prisoner great privations and disease and in poor clothing and severely unwholesome provisions many prisoners died in consequence of their treatment.” (Per 1832 affidavit of military service for pension.)  Conditions suffered as a prisoner left Henry in poor health the rest of his life; removing later to Montgomery County, NY.  He married Chestinah Hagaman; their daughter Jane Vunck married James Dingman, my g-g-g-grandparents. 

From 1776 to 1783 the British made use of decommissioned ships (incapable of going to sea) as floating prisons.  At least 16 rotting hulks were moored in Wallabout Bay, the inner harbor along the northwest shore of Brooklyn, now part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Among the ships were the Good HopeWhitbyThe Prince of WalesFalmouthScorpionStromboliHunter, and the most infamous HMS Jersey, nicknamed Hell by the men.  Over 10,000 men, perhaps at least 11,500, died on these ships due to the deliberate deplorable conditions.  Men were crammed below decks with no windows for lighting or fresh air.  There was a lack of food and clothing, with vermin and insects running rampant, and a lack of other humane efforts to aid the ill, all leading to the death of thousands. 

Prisoners died virtually every day, reportedly as many as fifteen a day.  Some were not found right away, their bodies not disposed of until days later.  Often, those who died were sewn into their blankets (if they had one) to await pick up by cart the next morning.  Many were buried in shallow graves along the shore (unearthed during major storms) or were simply tossed overboard, later washing ashore.  With development of Walloon Bay area over the last two centuries has come the discovery of their bones and parts of ships.  To commemorate these soldiers’ lives and what they gave in the fight for independence, the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument was built.  Located in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, it was dedicated on April 6, 1808 with improvements made to it several times since.  

At least another 5-6000 men died in the sugar houses, bringing the total who died as prisoners to more than 17,500 in the sugar houses and ships, more than double the battlefield losses.  Sugar houses were buildings meant to store sugar and molasses.  Affidavits by my ancestor, Henry Vunck, and friends note he was held for a few months in the “stone sugar house.”  This could only mean the Livingston Sugar House, a six-story stone building built in 1754 by the Livingston family on Crown (now Liberty) Street in Manhattan.  Demolished in 1846, buildings No. 34 and 36 are now on the site.  

A second sugar house, the Rhinelander, a five-story brick warehouse, was built in 1763 at Rose (now William) Street and Duane Street.  This building was eventually replaced and is now the headquarters of the New York City Police Department.  A third, Van Cortlandt’s sugar house, was built about 1755 by the early Dutch family of this name at the northwest corner of the Trinity Church in Manhattan.  It was demolished in 1852. 

10. Hans Georg Jacob Dubendorffer (George Jacob Diefendorf), b. 01/23/1729, Basserstorff, Switzerland – a Loyalist during Rev War, he left Mohawk Valley for Philadelphia and New York City, returned to a daughter’s home in Canajoharie, NY after the war rather than remove to Canada.  A patriotic son disowned his father, taking his middle name (his mother’s maiden name) as his new surname, removing to Virginia.  George Jacob married Catharine Hendree; their son Jacob Diefendorf married Susanna Hess, my g-g-g-g-grandparents. 

On February 3, 1783, the British government acknowledged the independence of the American colonies.  The next day, they formally agreed to halt all military operations.  A preliminary peace treaty was ratified in April, and Canada offered free land that summer to Loyalists who sought a new life.  Still, the British military maintained a presence in Manhattan.  When Britain signed the Treaty of Paris September 3, 1783 to end the war, the hated Redcoats finally and slowly began to abandon their New York City stronghold.   

Next would begin the task of establishing the government and president of this new nation, the United States of America.  George Washington rode into Manhattan on November 25, 1783 with his officers and troops, eight horses abreast.  At the same time Washington’s parade began, British soldiers and ships were setting sail for their homeland across the Pond.   

Flags were joyfully waved, church bells rang in celebration, and cannons were fired in honor of those who had fought and for those who had lost their lives, all for the independence of this fledgling nation.  The war had definitely taken its toll; but, on this day, great joy was felt in every heart for what had been accomplished. And that is why we continue to celebrate our 4th of July heritage in style – as we remember and commemorate those who gave so much that we might enjoy so much.  And, I trust we will never forget what their efforts wrought for us in America!

Read my full research article by clicking below at: Celebrating Independence Day! – Homespun Ancestors – Twin Tiers Living

Linda Roorda writes from her home in Spencer.