The Palatines of Herkimer County

The following excerpts are quoted from "Herkimer County at 200"
published by Herkimer County Historical Society, Herkimer, New York, 1992


The first Europeans to reach the area were trappers and traders - French, Dutch, and English - who appeared in the late sixteenth century. The first permanent settlers were Germans, refugees from oppression in the Palatinate area of that country, who began arriving on the banks of the Mohawk River in 1723. After arranging the purchase of land from the Iroquois, ninety-two individual settlers were granted tracts of land under a patent issued in 1725 by the British royal governor of New York, William Burnet.

The Palatines were prodigiously hard and efficient workers. They began by clearing the heavily forested land for farming, built shelters and then homes, erected a stone church which stands today, and, in less than fifty years, achieved a prosperous economy based largely on agriculture.

But the Palatines, who had fled the tyranny of kings in Germany, encountered in the mid-eighteenth century another threat - that of war. Situated as they were on the western frontier of New York colony, they bore the brunt of hostilities between the french and the British, and the Indian allies of both, first during the French and Indian War, and later during the American Revolution. The word "hostilities" does not do justice to the brutality of the warfare waged against the Palatines and other frontier settlers throughout North America. Their farms were attacked, crops destroyed, livestock led away or slaughtered, buildings burned, and they themselves killed, scalped, or taken prisoner.

The dominate figure in central New York in the mid-eighteenth century - politically, socially, and militarily - was Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs north of the Ohio River.

Relations between Sir William and the Palatines, while not warm, were at least not openly hostile. When John Jost Herkimer, an original patentee and leader of the Palatines, was asked to help build a road through the wilderness, Herkimer replied that he could not because, among other reasons, he feared what Johnson's men, then stationed near Herkimer's home to protect the area, might do to his family in his absence.

This anecdote may serve as a metaphor for the Palatines' attitude toward the British and their leaders in America. In their opinion, the British, and their agents like Sir William, had done little during the late war to protect them from the savagery of the French and Indians. Thus when, after Sir William's death, the Revolution came, many of the Palatines became patriots.

In the early stages of the American Revolution, no passage of arms was more crucial than the defeat, in October 1777, of the large British army that was led against the northern colonies by General John Burgoyne. Among the events that led to that defeat was the battle of Oriskany, on August 6, 1777, in which eight hundred Palatines, led by General Nicholas Herkimer, were ambushed by a force of British and Indians, but fought them to a standstill in one of the bloodiest engagements of the war and forced their retreat to Canada. Had the British force, led by Colonel Barry St. Leger, been able to break through and come down the Mohawk Vailey, it might well have fallen on the American rear at  Saratoga and changed the course of that battle and possibly of the war.

Early in the battle, General Herkimer had been wounded in the leg, but he continued to direct his troops throughout the six-hour conflict. Afterward, he was carried back to his home east of the Little Falls, and nine days later his leg was amputated by Robert Johnson, an army surgeon, who was unable to stem the bleeding. The general died that evening.

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