How do we accurately know and report what happened in the past? We learned in school that we should consult primary sources- oral histories; diaries; newspaper reporting; birth, death and marriage certificates, etc. – things created by the people who participated in the events. Of course, we know that everyone experiences an event differently, people’s memories can be faulty, and recorders make errors, so even primary sources can be inaccurate or incomplete. Then historians put together the information in the primary sources and write journal articles and books- creating secondary sources. I know as a historian who does this herself that it is very hard to be totally objective in this process, and I am always worried there is more information to find. In fact, some writers of history have a deliberate bias. As students, we mostly depended on secondary sources of information when we learned history, along with lectures from teachers with different levels of ability and knowledge. So what we know is certainly a fuzzy snapshot of the past.
So a new source of primary information on a long-ago event is welcome, and surprising. One of the classic tales in the history of Schaghticoke during the American Revolution is that of the murder and scalping of Major VanVeghten. As the story goes, Dirck or Derrick VanVeghten, a Major in the 14th Albany County Militia, our local regiment, made a trip to check on his farm, near the Knickerbacker Mansion, just before the battle of Saratoga, in summer 1777. The 14th was based at Stillwater, helping transport supplies for the American Army across the Hudson. VanVeghten and his aide, Solomon Acker, were attacked by a group of Indians and Tories. VanVeghten was killed and scalped, but Acker escaped. He returned with help to retrieve the Major’s body. VanVeghten was shot through the tobacco box, which was preserved by his family.
Acker gave a simple version of the tale in his Revolutionary War pension application in 1832, placing it in July 1777, but told a longer story which long outlived him, making it into Sylvester’s “History of Rensselaer County” in 1880 and elsewhere, with some variation. Acker’s tale is a good example both of traumatic events being seared into a person’s memory for life, and the possibility of a bit of change and embroidery of the tale over the passing years.
Recently, a gentleman named Charlie Frye, who has a blog called “Duty in the Call of Liberty,” wrote to tell me of a version of the story told in the “History of the town of Wilton, New Hampshire,” published in 1888. It includes the narrative of another long-lived Revolutionary War veteran, Joseph Gray. Gray’s narrative had been recorded in 1839. As a youth of 16, he marched as part of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment to Ticonderoga in May, 1777. They retreated before the British General Burgoyne down the Hudson Valley, destroying bridges to slow the British advance. Once they reached Stillwater, about the beginning of August, a detachment, including Gray, was sent to Schaghticoke, “a small Dutch village.” This would have been the settlement around the Knickerbocker Mansion- where there was a church- near the junction of current route 67 and Knickerbocker Road- and a small log fort. The “inhabitants being alarmed at the appearance of savages who were lurking about, sent for a detachment of troops to guard them off.” I have read in the pension files of local militia men that they were either assigned to guard supplies at Stillwater or help move artillery from Fort Edward to Stillwater at this time. If they had been at Stillwater, one might think they would have been able to return to help their families, but perhaps not. They were in the Army, after all, and subject to orders. Hence the need for the New Hampshire men, who were not militia but Continental troops.
Perhaps this is the kind of “white frock” the Indians were wearing
Residents of the farms from the area had gathered together for safety. Gray was on guard that night, sitting near the Dutch Reformed Church, “on a beautiful level plain,” now the Weir Farm. If the men saw anything moving they were to yell, then if they got no answer, to shoot. They had been told that the Indians were wearing “white frocks”, probably long, loose linen jackets. He saw something white coming towards him in the starlight and shouted, “Who comes there?” No answer. After three hails, he fired, and found he had shot a “meager white faced bull.”
The next day, two of the local farmers, among those gathered near the church, rode their horses to their farms, “about ¾ of a mile distant,” to get some provisions. The soldiers soon heard “the well-known report of Indian fusees (muskets), and were much alarmed for the safety of the men.” One of them soon rode in at full speed, calling for help. His friend had been shot and scalped, his throat cut. The New Hampshire commander, Major Ellis, called for reinforcements, and the militia men escorted the villagers four miles down the river “to a place of safety,” presumably Lansingburgh. Gray went on to fight in the battle of Saratoga, then on to other battles of the war with his militia.
In 1840, Gray’s narrative was published in a magazine in New Hampshire, “The Farmers’ Cabinet.” A resident of Schaghticoke, Mr. B.A. Peavey, wrote to the magazine in reply. Peavey was inspired by the article to speak to elderly residents of town to see if they knew of this incident. Amazingly, Peavey reported speaking to Major Vanvecton(sic), “aged between 70 and 80”, who remembered the man shot by the Indians. “His name was Siperly;” “the man who came riding back was Old Poiser.” VanVecton even showed Peavey where Siperly had fallen, on the “bank of the Tompanock Creek, where a point of the hill presses the road close to the creek.”
He added that “immediately after the death of Siperly, Major Knickerbocker of the settlement sent his negro to the North River…where some of the neighbors were engaged in placing their property aboard of boats to secure it from the enemy.” Major VanVecton’s father and Solomon Ackerth (sic) started for the settlement. They were shot at by Indians, and “Vanvecton received two balls in his thigh, which passed through his tobacco box in his breeches pocket, and he fell…Ackerth shot one Indian and killed him…took VanVecton’s gun and wounded another.”
Major VanVecton had preserved the tobacco box with the bullet hole. His father had lived just to the south of the Dutch Reformed Church. Another informant, “Black Tom,” presumably an African-American, was 12 at the time and told Peavey he remembered the bull being killed.
So, let’s look at each part of this wonderful statement. Certainly, this account emphasizes how dangerous it was in Schaghticoke in summer 1777. It also confirms the story of Solomon Acker about the death of Major Derrick VanVeghten, and adds the death of another man. It also makes it seem that Derrick VanVeghten and Solomon Acker went to check on the beleaguered citizens of Schaghticoke, probably including their own wives and small children, rather than just checking on VanVeghten’s property.
First, as to the man writing the letter to the “Farmers Cabinet,” there was a Benjamin A. Pevey living in Schaghticoke in 1840. In the 1850 US census, he was a 54-year old laborer, with a wife and many children. He moved to New Hampshire by 1860 and died in Massachusetts in 1864. Second, as to the “Major Vanvecton” who was the informant, I feel this was John, son of the man killed, Derrick VanVechten. John was born in 1773 and lived until 1860 in Schaghticoke as a wealthy farmer. He did serve in the local militia, though I cannot find he was a Major- perhaps there was an exaggeration of his rank. But he could have been Pevey’s informant.
As to the man who died, Siperly, there was one Sipperly, Jacob, on the roster of the 14th Albany County Militia, but he survived the war. But there were other Sipperlys in town. “Old Poiser” could be Piser, I suppose, and there were Pisers in town early on. For example, a Christian Piser is buried in the Lutheran Church in town. He died in 1800 aged 77. There are just not death records, newspapers, nor surviving tombstones from that era. Plus, Sipperly and Piser were Lutherans, who lived in the Melrose/Pittstown area, so would they have been over near the Dutch Reformed Church? Perhaps they too had moved to what was then the town center for protection? We just won’t know, I think.
Returning to the letter, of course, there wasn’t a Tompanock Creek, but Tomhannock, so we know there was an error here. But the Tomhannock is close to the road along Buttermilk Falls Road today, where there is a hill on the east side, making the location a possibility. It is also interesting that Major Knickerbocker’s “negro” was sent to the North River- this was certainly the Hudson River- and the North River was another name for it. He was actually Colonel Knickerbocker, a higher rank. The VanVechtens did live just south of the church. And finally, “Black Tom” , who remembered the incident with the “murder” of the bull, was certainly Thomas Mando, who began life as a slave of the Knickerbockers, born about 1767, and lived on in town until at least 1850, when he appeared in the census at age 83. So it seems that much of this account is possible, and perhaps probable.
This article from Harper’s Magazine in 1876 was all about the Knickerbockers of Schaghticoke. Was this supposed to be “Black Tom”?
In doing more research as a result of reading Gray’s account, I found that there was lots of confusion about the murder of VanVeghten in the Van Veghten family itself. “Genealogical Records of the VanVeghten Family”, by Peter VanVeghten (1900) tells a wildly inaccurate version. In this version, Major Derrick was part of a group including a Colonel Solomon Acker, that pursued the party of Indians and Tories who had murdered Jane McCrea near Fort Edward. As you may remember from middle school, Jane McCrea was the fiancée of a Tory soldier in the British Army and was killed and scalped by Indian allies of the British while being taken to him on July 27, 1777. Her fate was one of the rallying cries which brought American militiamen to fight at the battle of Saratoga.
Illustration from “Spirit of ’76”- now calling the tobacco box a “bullet pouch”
This VanVeghten story promotes Solomon Acker to a Colonel, includes a wild image of the tobacco box, labeled “Major Derrick VanVeghten 1777”, which it states is in the possession of Henry C. VanVechten of Racine, Wisconsin, a great-great grandson. It adds a quote from the “Troy Telegram” of July 21, 1882: “the bones of Lieut. VanVechten were accidentally exhumed at Fort Edward yesterday by workmen…VanVechten was a soldier…and was killed while in pursuit of the party who murdered Jane McCrea. He was buried on the brow of the hill near the spot where he fell…the ball was still in the skull when found.” It seems this story really is about a Tobias VanVeghten, who was a Lieutenant in Colonel Goose VanSchaick’s Batallion, the 2nd NY Regiment in the Continental Army. Tobias and some others were based near Fort Edward and were attacked by a group of Native Americans who were rampaging in the area and were probably those who killed Jane McCrea as well. So this happened on July 27, 1777. Tobias was buried near the spot where he fell.
The inaccurate story in the VanVeghten genealogy also appears in “The Spirit of ‘76”, written in 1896, as a part of a longer article about VanVeghten family and memorabilia, and completely shifts the story from Schaghticoke, to a Derrick VanVeghten who has now become a Major in the Tryon County militia regiment of Cornelius VanVeghten, with Colonel Solomon Acker. The tobacco box remains but now is pewter. There was a Lt. Col. Cornelius VanVeghten, but he was with the 13th Albany County Militia. I have found no Colonel Acker. One possible source of the some of the confusion could be that the death of Major Dirck VanVeghten of the 14th Albany County Militia on August 8, 1777, is reported in a list of casualties in a Tryon County regiment at Oriskany on August 6 (Documents relating to the colonial history of the state of New York vol XV, Albany 1887- appendix, p 549). Indeed, a photo of the tobacco box was exhibited at a World’s Fair in Wisconsin in 1893, labelled as from Major VanVeghten, who died at the battle of Oriskany.
So I can conclude that the great article in the Wilton history confirms the very dramatic story of Major Derrick VanVeghten and his aide Solomon Acker riding near the Denison Farm on Buttermilk Falls Road on August 8, 1777, when they were set upon by a few Indians. The Major was shot, killed, and scalped. Acker escaped and returned with help to retrieve his body- and his tobacco box- . It adds the information that another local man was murdered the day before and that the settlers of our little town were evacuated to Lansingburgh with the help of the New Hampshire Militia. Just to wrap up the story, Major VanVeghten’s wife, Alida Knickerbocker, lived on until 1819, his son John reported the events in 1840. Solomon Acker lived in Schaghticoke until 1836, when, at age 83, he moved to Connecticut to live with his son David. He is recorded there in the 1840 census, listed as 90, but died before 1850.