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How A Madman Helped Save The Colonies

June 2024
10min read

Fort Stanwix was doomed—until the Iroquois heard the ravings of Hon Yost Schuyler


August 22, 1777. The militia had marched and been defeated. Behind the stockades of the New York frontier, many widows wept, not for their dead husbands only but for their still living children. The invader, Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger of His Majesty’s Thirty-fourth Foot, did not lead a civilized army; his troops were largely cruel Iroquois. In star-shaped Fort Stanwix on the banks of the Mohawk a few militiamen remained in arms, but a tunnel dug under the direction of British engineers approached the mud walls to the sound of scalping knives being sharpened. Casting around for a source hope, the settlers found no comfort in the fact that Hon Yost Schuyler, a hall-insane Tory in leathers, was raving by the hostile council fires.

Three weeks before, the fort’s 750 defenders had watched 800 Tories and British regulars and roughly a thousand Indians surround the wilderness clearing in which Stanwix stood. That night great shadows of primeval trees, thrown by a hundred campfires, flickered and interwove. If, as a patriot looked over the walls, his head was silhouetted against one of the encircling fires, muskets cracked.

At the present site of Rome, New York, but then far beyond the confines of ordinary settlement, Stanwix guarded a wilderness entry to the embattled colonies. Northward ran Wood Creek, the narrow watercourse through almost unbroken forest down which St. Leger had traveled from Canada; eastward the Mohawk stretched 110 miles to Albany and the populous Hudson Valley.

For a century and a half, settlement on the Mohawk had been impeded by the Iroquois nations that were now besieging Stanwix. The few villages huddled around stockades into which the inhabitants could flee with their cattle when war whoops sounded. Yet mansions stood by themselves surrounded with ornamental grounds, for the great families of the region had little to fear from the Indians. They had achieved their eminence through control of the Indians, whom they had now persuaded to join the Tory cause. St. Leger’s Iroquois irregulars were commanded by members of the Johnson and Butler dynasties, one of them, Sir John Johnson, both a Mohawk chief and a British baronet.


These were cultured gentlemen, often educated in Europe. Associated with them in the Indian command was Hon Yost Schuyler, one of the coarsest and most disreputable inhabitants of the valley. Good patriot blood flowed in his veins—his father was a cousin of General Philip Schuyler, his mother a sister of General Herkimer—but Hon Yost’s parents, in the manner of frontier black sheep, had found their most congenial society among the Indians. As poor according to European standards as the tribesmen among whom they lived, these renegade Schuylers would have fallen into complete insignificance had they not had the good fortune to produce in Hon Yost a son who was considered mad. Rising to strange exaltations, raving in unknown tongues, he appeared to the Indians to be in special contact with the supernatural powers, a prophet who spoke for the Great Spirit.

Hon Yost had adopted the manner and dress of his admirers. Adherents of the patriot cause despised him for this and for everything, but the Tory aristocrats employed the awe he inspired to increase their influence over the tribes; his lunacy was tempered by the ability to make his inner voices serve the interests of his friends. Prophesying to order, the madman was one of George III’s more useful American supporters. He was to become, against his will, even more useful to the United States.

The invasion in which he was engaged was an added menace in a situation which had already cast gloom over the thirteen revolting colonies. The British seemed about to cut the nation in half at the Hudson River. St. Leger was scheduled to join up with a much larger British force that General Burgoyne had already led from Canada via Lake Champlain. The northern American army, commanded by General Philip Schuyler, was falling back before Burgoyne; it had not even attempted to defend Fort Ticonderoga, on which all defense plans had been based. Nor could Washington come to the rescue with the Continental Army, for he had to watch a third British force, under General Howe, that was based on New York City and might march up the Hudson to join the other two.

If St. Leger overwhelmed Stanwix, as seemed probable since his army so outnumbered the defenders, he could sweep on to Albany, cutting General Schuyler’s supply lines and leaving him in the wilderness north of that city at the mercy of Burgoyne. Schuyler having been defeated, St. Leger and Burgoyne could march down the Hudson towards Howe, giving Washington the choice of abandoning the strategically invaluable river or being himself caught in a pincers.

Even before St. Leger had appeared from the forest, Washington had been in despair at Burgoyne’s seemingly irresistible advance. The best he could suggest was that Schuyler’s command be reinforced by one general: Benedict Arnold. The treason that was to change Arnold’s fame to infamy lay in the unforeseeable future; he was the most brilliant combat officer either side boasted, and miracles could be expected of him, as he had done miracles before.

As they prepared desperately to stop Burgoyne’s force which was much more powerful than their own, Schuyler and Arnold relied on the militia of the Mohawk Valley to handle St. Leger; but on August 6 the militia, under General Herkimer, was defeated by the Iroquois at the bloody ambush of Oriskany. Arnold volunteered to set out with a few regulars—no more could be spared—and try to enlist from the shattered militia of the valley the thousand additional men that would enable him to drive St. Leger back into the Canadian forests. “You will hear of my being victorious or no more.”

Cut off from the outside world, the garrison of Fort Stanwix did not hear that Arnold was endeavoring to save them, but St. Leger took care to notify them that Herkimer’s force had been stopped. Then three British officers appeared at the walls under a white flag, demanding a parley. They were blindfolded before they were led through the defenses, and only allowed to see again in a room where the blinds were drawn. Candles relieved the unnatural gloaming; a table was set with bottles of wine. For some minutes, the ritual of a social call was adhered to, and then Major Ancrum delivered his sinister message. The Indians were “very numerous and exasperated”; if the fort surrendered at once, the British could control them, but should resistance continue it would be impossible “to prevent them from executing their threats to march down the country and destroy the settlement with its inhabitants. In this case, not only men but women and children will experience the sad effects of their vengeance.”

“This garrison,” the patriot commandant replied, “is committed to our charge.… After you get out of it, you may turn round and look at its outside, but never expect to come in again, unless you come as a prisoner.”

The Tory officers who led the Indians thereupon signed a proclamation to the inhabitants of the valley: if the defenders of Stanwix adhered to their “mulish obstinacy,” the Iroquois would “put every soul to death—not only the garrison, hut the whole country—without any regard to age, sex, or friends; for which reason, it has become your indispensable duty to send a deputation of your principal people to oblige them immediately to what, in a very little time, they must be forced—the surrender of the garrison—in which case, we engage, on the faith of Christians, to protect you from the violence of the Indians.”

The resulting terror was so great that Arnold, whose name usually worked like magic on militia levies, was able to add only some hundred frontiersmen to the few regulars he led. The fighter who would take any risk that promised a faint chance of success, who had tried to capture the great fortress city of Quebec with a handful of men in a blinding blizzard, could not disagree when his officers voted to halt at German Flats (Herkimer, N.Y.) and await reinforcements from some direction which hope said must exist, even if it was not visible.

The crucial reinforcement arrived unheralded and unrecognized, raving and in irons.

The Tory officers had become so bold that they held a recruiting rally behind the American lines. The principal speaker was Ensign Walter Butler; he was captured with the madman, Hon Yost Schuyler. Arnold appointed a court-martial which sentenced them both to death as spies. After the verdict, a wave of sympathy swept Arnold’s local officers for Butler—they had been to school together—and Arnold was persuaded to send him to Albany for imprisonment.

But Hon Yost had no friends in Arnold’s army to save him from the gallows. He was allowed to twitch and writhe unpitied, until bursts of female wailing advanced through the countryside, and a gypsy-like woman threw herself at Arnold’s feet in an excess of grief and entreaty. Copious tears made pale valleys down her unwashed cheeks. Behind Hon Yost’s mother stood a stolid young man who looked like an Indian: Hon Yost’s brother, Nicholas.

As the madman seconded his mother’s pleas, Arnold noticed that a vein of shrewdness seemed to direct his ravings. Arnold, his light eyes burning with menace from his dark face, asked Hon Yost if he could use his special powers to make St. Leger’s Indians flee. Instantly the shouting ceased and the meeting got down to efficient business. Hon Yost expressed complete confidence in his ability to save Fort Stanwix; Nicholas agreed to remain as a hostage until the result was known. Having borrowed a musket, Hon Yost shot several holes through his clothes to give color to a story of a perilous escape from Arnold’s camp. He threw down the musket and disappeared with the tireless lope of an Indian.

To help things along, Arnold wrote a letter addressed to Stanwix’s commandant, hut designed to fall into British hands. The militia, he lied, had flocked to him to make his force irresistible. “Howe with the shattered remnant of his army are on board ship … in the Gull Stream becalmed, Burgoyne, 1 hear, this minute is retreating to Ty [Ticonderoga]. I have no doubt our army, which is near 15,000, will cut off his retreat.”

At Stanwix, the situation had become desperate. Zigzagging forward, always at an angle that frustrated colonial marksmen, a British trench had advanced to within 150 yards of the northwest bastion. There the trench stopped, but continuing activity indicated that the enemy was digging a tunnel to place mines beneath the wall. When night fell, Ely Pixley and Ely Stiles dropped silently from the patriot ramparts, crawled past Indian sentries, and hurried eastward to report that help must come at once or it would be too late. Somewhere in the blind forest they passed Hon Yost, now accompanied by some Oneidas sympathetic to the patriot cause. Neither party saw the other.

When Pixley and Stiles beat on Arnold’s door, his force was still hardly more than hall of St. Leger’s. However, he “determined to hazard a battle rather than suffer the garrison to fall a sacrifice.” Before his little army lay thirty miles of wagon track and corduroy bridges so hemmed in with virgin forest, so thick with underbrush, so dark even at noonday, that the most painstaking care might not save these alert soldiers from ambush.

On the morning of August 22, St. Leger, surrounded with officers, chiefs and’ interpreters, was happily surveying the approach to Stanwix for the best spot from which to ambush Arnold; it was an embarrassment of riches. He received scornfully Indian runners who came from his camp with rumors that kept increasing the size of Arnold’s command. Only when a terrified Iroquois reported that “Burgoyne’s army was cut in pieces and Arnold was advancing with 3,000 men” did St. Leger, as he remembered, begin “to suspect cowardice in some and treason in others.” He hurried back to his encampment.

During St. Leger’s absence, Hon Yost had burst into an Indian council, raving so loudly that it was clear he brought an all-important message from the Great Spirit. At first, no sense could be made of his babbling; then he pointed to the holes in his clothes and gave an account of his own escape. Only when anticipation was at fever heat did he begin to report on Arnold’s army. Its might augmented as prophecy fell increasingly upon him, until he asked his hearers to count the leaves on the trees. Arnold’s force was even more numerous; the tribes were doomed if this army once descended on them.


At a prearranged cue—Hon Yost had staged his production with care—an Oneida appeared matter-of-factly with a belt of wampum, which he said was from Arnold. He announced that the great Christian war chief had no quarrel with the Indians; if they would desert the British, they would not be harmed. Then the woods seemed to open. One after another, Oneidas rushed in, each with a more grievous tale. The last told of a talking bird which had croaked from a dead tree that the Indians had better flee before it was too late.

St. Leger had Hon Yost brought before him, but could not terrify the madman out of his ravings. A hastily called council of chiefs broke up at the news that 200 Indians had already deserted. Then an Iroquois deputation demanded immediate retreat; Arnold’s army, as numerous as the stars, was within two miles. (Arnold was still at German Flats, preparing to march.)

Now certain that treason was afoot, the British commander refused to withdraw. At this, the Indians rioted, rifled the officers’ baggage, seized the royal supply of rum, and became, so St. Leger remembered, “more dreadful than the enemy.” There was no time to dismount cannon, pitch tents, or even awaken a sleeping bombardier. The invaders lurched for the forest.

Whooping horribly, the Iroquois encircled their fleeing allies; they killed and scalped stragglers. Nor were regulars who kept a semblance of formation saved from aboriginal tricks. An Indian would rush up to a platoon and shout that Arnold was just behind the nearest clump of trees. Taking off like sprinters, the soldiers jettisoned their packs, which the Indians plundered at their leisure. The British officers became frantic with humiliation and rage. They bandied recriminations, and would have skewered each other on their swords had they not been separated by the efforts of the Indian chiefs.

Hon Yost savored the excitement and encouraged the confusion—he was not above a little plundering himself—but he did not forget that his brother was a hostage. Eventually he abandoned the rout and vanished into the wilderness.

The madman had already vanquished the British when Arnold’s troops set out grimly on the march they believed would throw them against terrible odds. After they had gone ten miles, a messenger appeared from Stanwix. He told how the defenders had become conscious of a strange hush in the British camp. When a cannonading induced no reply, a detail cautiously explored the deserted tents where dishes were still in place, the silent battlements where ammunition lay ready. They happened at last on the sleeping bombardier, but he was as puzzled as they. Evening had fallen before Hon Yost danced across the clearing to say that Arnold was on the march.

Even then the defenders of Fort Stanwix, who had been nerving themselves for a last-ditch fight, did not realize the incredible truth that victory had come—through the ravings of a madman.

British strategy was completely disrupted. Due to incompetence in the London War Office, Howe did not receive orders to advance up the Hudson from New York City until he had already committed himself to an attack on Philadelphia. The relief of Fort Stanwix completed the catastrophe by leaving Burgoyne in the wilderness above Albany unsupported. Furthermore, the flight of St. Leger’s army did much to destroy the legend that the British regulars were invincible. Militiamen who had been hesitating by their firesides picked up hunting guns and swelled the northern army until Burgoyne and his British regulars were hopelessly outnumbered.

Hon Yost’s prophecies were thus an important link in the chain that led to Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. Burgoyne’s surrender finally persuaded the French that the Americans were worthy allies, and the French alliance made possible the victory at Yorktown which forced George III to acknowledge the independence of the United States.

Although he might have ranked, on performance, as a patriot hero, Hon Yost continued to hate the patriots. As soon as he had secured his brother’s release, he rejoined the enemy; he took part in later raids on the Mohawk Valley. After the war, he lived with the Oneidas. That his reputation as a mediator with the supernatural powers remained unimpaired is revealed by his last appearance in recorded history: with the approval of the tribe, he tomahawked two Indian women to death as witches.

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