Hero of Oriskany
The Early Years
Nicholas Herkimer belonged to the third generation of German Palatines who had immigrated to the New York Colony. Initially, the Palatines were offered a very raw deal, being forced into virtual servitude on patroon estates along the Hudson. Eventually, they were freed from this bondage, and allowed to settle along the Mohawk River Valley corridor. The Colony's motives in this deal are not entirely altruistic: living on the fringe of civilized New York, the Palatines served as a buffer to French advances, and would bear the brunt of any French attack on the Valley.
Nicholas' grandfather, Johan Jost Herkimer, took advantage of this opportunity, and settled on a tract near Little Falls known as Burnet's Fields. Herkimer set himself up as a trader, supplying goods to the then under construction Fort Oswego. Succeeding generations of Herkimers continued in the trading business, as well as land speculation and farming. The family home at Little Falls was very substantial, a sign of their prosperity. The Herkimer family home was fortified during the French and Indian War. Young Nicholas had his first military command here at Fort Herkimer in 1757. He was named first lieutenant in the Schenectady militia on January 5, 1778.
Mohawk Gentry: from land owner to military leader
Nicholas was the eldest of thirteen children; in 1760 his father give him his own tract of land where he built his own brick home. His prestige and influence continued to grow: in 1775, he was the Colonel of the first battalion, Tryon County militia. Herkimer participated in politics as well, and served as chairman of the Canajoharie District Committee of Safety. Despite these offices, Herkimer was a "Dutchman" to his English neighbors. Like many Palatines, he spoke English with a heavy accent, and his writing was in the dialect known as Mohawk Dutch. Herkimer's writings are an interesting mix of pidgin English and German - probably fairly typical for the Palatines.
Dutchman or not, Herkimer was commissioned Brigadier General of the Tryon County militia on September 5, 1776. Guy Johnson, the Butlers, and their retinue(including Joseph Brant) had already fled the valley. The threat of Indian attack hung in the air, a palpable threat. Herkimer took action to head off any possible trouble. He had ordered the arrest of Sir John Johnson in January of 1776. He held a meeting with his former neighbor Joseph Brant in June of 1777 at Unadilla. Both men brought their troops with them, but agreed to go unarmed to the meeting. The end result was Brant declaring himself for the king, and the neighbors parted, now enemies.
If this meeting had turned up the heat, it would not be long till the pot boiled over. Thomas Spencer, a half-breed Oneida blacksmith, brought word to Herkimer of a force under Barry St. Leger coming down from Oswego. The army of British regulars, American Loyalists, and Indians intended to lay siege to Fort Stanwix. Herkimer quickly sent out word to gather the Tryon County militia.
The militia assembled and began the march towards Stanwix. Herkimer had sent runners to the fort, alerting them that help was on the way. A plan to have the fort's garrison provide a diversion as the militia drew near was agreed upon. Herkimer would wait for a signal of two guns, signifying the garrison's sortie, before they advanced to the fort. While the militia drew up and waited, trouble broke out among Herkimer's officers. Colonels Cox and Parish were the instigators, calling Herkimer a coward and a Tory sympathizer (Herkimer's brother Johan Jost had in fact joined the Loyalist forces now surrounding Fort Stanwix). Herkimer was stung by their barbs, and now hotheaded himself, ordered the troops forward.
Oriskany: road to destiny
Ahead lay Oriskany Creek, and a deep, shaded valley that was swampy and made the going slow. Also ahead was an ambush; Sir John Johnson's Greens, Mohawks, and Senecas had picked this spot to lie in wait for the militia. The Indians burst from the trees just as the rear guard entered the valley. Those not already committed fled in terror. Musket fire rattled from three sides, militia men falling dead on top of each other.
Herkimer's horse was hit; he went down, a bullet passing through his leg. Tradition says that General Herkimer had his men drag him under a tree and prop him up with a saddle. There, he calmly filled his pipe, and began directing the defense. The battle raged, men fighting hand to hand as they closed in, interrupted only by a heavy rain storm. Both sides suffered heavy losses. The militia held the field, but they would travel no further. The wounded, Nicholas Herkimer among them, were gathered up for the long retreat.
Herkimer was carried back to his home at Little Falls. His wound festered, and the decision was made to amputate his leg. The bleeding would not stop; Herkimer called for his pipe and bible, and read aloud until he slipped away. It was August 16, ten days after Oriskany.
Lyttle, Eugene W. "Nicholas Herkimer"' in "Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association". Argus Co., Albany NY 1904.