Portrait of Marinus Willett
Home > Dwellers > Marinus Willett
The Early Days
Marinus Willett was descendant of Thomas Willett, who arrived on The Lion in 1632. Thomas served as the first English Mayor of New York. Marinus' father was Edward Willett, a Quaker farmer who lived near Jamaica, Long Island. Marinus was born on July 31, 1730; he was the second child in a family of thirteen.
French and Indian War Service
Marinus left the family farm to seek his own fortune; instead, he got caught up in the events of 1758, and raised a company of militia from his Long Island friends and neighbors; Willett was commissioned as a lieutenant in Captain Thomas Williams' company. Theirs was one of three battalions commanded by Oliver DeLancey. Lieutenant Willett was part of Ambercrombie's attack on Fort Ticonderoga, and was also part of Bradstreet's mission to destroy Fort Frontenac(modern Kingston, Ontario). Returning from this expedition, Willett was ill and was hospitalized at the then being constructed Fort Stanwix.
Willett in the Revolution
To date, I don't have any clear facts on what Marinus Willett did between wars. One article hints that he may have been a cabinetmaker. We do know that Willett was very active politically in the New York City Sons of Liberty. He appears to have been a street level leader like Isaac Sears and John Morin Scott. Scott and Willett, backed by other Liberty boys, seized arms from a British party trying to remove the arsenal from the city. These muskets were used to arm the New York troops raised in 1775.
Willett was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in McDougall's regiment on June 28,1775; Willett was 35 years old at that time. He participated in the Canadian campaign, and commanded Fort St. John during the American occupation.
Marinus spent some time attached to the Main Army, then returned to the Northern Department as Lieutenant Colonel of the 3rd New York. He helped MacDougall defend Peekskill against a British raid in 1777, before being assigned to Fort Stanwix on the Mohawk River.
Seige at Fort Stanwix
Willett was soon summoned to join the rest of the 3rd New York at Fort Stanwix. The post was the last in a line of Patriot defenses stretching from Albany to Oneida Lake. Stanwix guarded the portage between Oneida Lake via Wood Creek, and the Mohawk River. Washington recognized the strategic importance of this spot, and ordered the French and Indian War post rebuilt and garrisoned. Willett and his commander Peter Gansevoort worked feverishly to bring Fort Stanwix(also known as Fort Schuyler)up to par.
The British force under Colonel Barry St. Leger(who was promoted to brigadier general for the campaign)laid siege to Stanwix on August third. Surrender was demanded, and refused. The troops assembled a makeshift Stars and Stripes, and flew it in defiance. On the fifth, word came in that relief in the form of Nicholas Herkimer's Tryon County Militia was on the way. A distraction in the form of a sortie was arranged; the Militia would be signaled in by the sound of three guns.
When Willett led his troops out of the fort's gate, he found the enemy camp deserted. John Johnson and John Butler's Loyalists were down the trail at Oriskany, lying in ambush for Herkimer. Willett's men ransacked the British camp, carrying off nearly all of the Indian's belongings. The Regulars, Loyalists, and Indians returned from the bloody day of fighting to find their camp ravaged; a disheartening end to an already brutal day.
The following day saw another demand for surrender, this time accompanied by threats of rampaging Indians if the garrison did not surrender immediately. Willett dressed down the messengers(Colonel John Butler included), and the siege resumed. The Tryon County Militia had been turned back; no help was on the horizon. Willett and Major Levi Stockwell slipped out the fort's sally port at about one a.m. on the ninth, and set out cross country to summon help. They reached Fort Dayton by three o'clock, and learned that Learned's Massachusetts troops were on the way, led by General Benedict Arnold.
Willett and Stockwell returned back through the valley with Arnold's command. Willett stopped on the 19th to visit with General Nicholas Herkimer; it was now nearly two weeks after the battle of Oriskany. Herkimer had had his leg amputated that day, but seemed in good spirits. A day later he would die from infection and blood loss.
The Trial of Walter Butler
Willett was to come face to face with his primary antagonist Walter Butler on the 20th. Butler had gone on a bold mission to recruit Loyalists behind patriot lines; he was captured at Shoemaker's Tavern. Willett served as judge for Butler's crimes. Butler was convicted of spying, a crime punishable by death. Unfortunately for Willett and the Mohawk Valley, Walter Butler would be transferred to a jail in Albany, a jail that he would escape to continue his own brand of guerrilla warfare.
Arnold sent Willett and Stockwell back to Albany to summon up the 2nd and 4th NY regiments(attached to Horatio Gates at Saratoga). They finally returned to Stanwix(without the promised reinforcements)to find the siege had been lifted; Stanwix and the New York troops were saved, and the 1777 invasion of the Mohawk Valley was over.
Willett spent some time with the main army, then returned to the valley to accompany Van Schaick's troops on a raid on the neutral Onondaga villages(near present day Syracuse)on April 18th. The expedition most likely had the effect of moving the Onondagas from neutrality towards siding with the British. Willett had further experience in Indian Country in 1779 when the New York Brigade joined the Sullivan-Clinton expedition. The Yorkers burned Indian villages and crops throughout the Finger Lakes area; the one major battle occurred at Newtown(present day Elmira).
The Savior Returns
Willett moved on to the Fifth New York, serving as it's Lieutenant Colonel, and then it's commanding Colonel (after the resignation of Lewis Dubois). When the New York Line was reorganized in 1780, Willett was essentially bumped from regular service, and offered command of the levies and militia on the Mohawk. Governor Clinton had made this offer to Willett once before; at the time, Marinus felt the position was a step down in rank and prestige, so he declined. Now he found he really didn't have any option if he wished to remain in military service. Willett accepted the command, and was charged with the overall defense and command of the Mohawk Valley-no small task.

The Sullivan-Clinton expedition, meant in part to alleviate raids in the Valley, had actually caused more grief for the Mohawk. Rather than removing the threat of Indian attacks, the American raid had kicked over the proverbial hornet's nest. Iroquois warriors, hungry and homeless, thirsted for revenge. 1780 saw an increase of Loyalist and Indian raids on the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys. In one of these, militia General Robert Van Rennselaer had badly bungled the pursuit of Sir John Johnson's raiding party. It was the valley's disdain for Rennselaer that had led Clinton to recruit a symbolic, trusted leader-Marinus Willett. But would he succeed where others had failed?

The Defense of the Valleys
Like all of his previous military endeavors, Willett plunged headlong into the defense of the area. There were many grave problems: Fort Stanwix had been destroyed by fire and flooding, and was abandoned; the troops were scattered in a thin line at various posts from Fort Dayton to Schenectady; supplying and provisioning the garrisons was a logistical headache. Willett hit the ground running; he rotated his command post through the valley, and used the flying camp system to keep his troops at the ready (while confusing the enemy as to actual troop dispositions).

Still to come...a return meeting between Marinus and Walter Butler

send any comments to Greg Ketcham
All Material 1997 - 2003 Gregory F. Ketcham, except where noted.
Contributing authors retain all rights.
No part of this website may be reproduced, either in print or electronically,
without the express written permission of the author.
K-12 and higher education institutions are actively encouraged to use this material.
No prior consent is required for this purpose.