story relates to St. Ledger Cowley, [Adjutant of the Fifth Regiment of Tryon
County Militia commanded by Colonel John Harper] and Isaac Sawyer. Their
capture is a fairly routine story in Tryon County but their escape is truly
an amazing tale.
The best story in print is excerpted from The Frontiersmen of New York, Jeptha R. Simms, Geroge C. Riggs, Publisher, 1883, Vol. II, pp 233-235.
PRISONERS ESCAPE.- Early in the spring of 1779, two men, St. Ledger Cowley and a man named Sawyer, were captured by four Schoharie Indians; Han-Yerry, who escaped from the Borsts the day before the Cobleskill engagement, Seth's-Henry, Adam, a sister's son, and Nicholas, also a relative. One of the captives was a native of the Emerald Isle; and the other of refugees from Harpersfield, who sought safety in Schoharie at the beginning of difficulties; where their families in their absence remained.
The prisoners could speak Dutch, which those Indians understood nearly as well as their own dialect; and the latter could understand but little, if any, of the conversation of those Anglo-Americans. When surprised, they intimated by signs as well as they could, that they were friends of the King; and not only evinced a willingness to proceed with their captors, but a desire to do so. An axe belonging to one of them was taken along as a prize. The prisoners set off with such apparent willingness on their long journey to Canada, that the Indians did not think it necessary to bind them. They were compelled to act, however, as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," for their red masters.
They had been captives 11 days, without a favorable opportunity to mature a plan for their escape, which they had all along premeditated. On arriving at a deserted hut near Tioga Point, the captives were sent to cut wood a few rods distant. On such occasions, one cut and the other carried it to the hut. While Cowley was chopping, and Sawyer waiting for an armful, the latter took from his pocket a newspaper, and pretended to read its contents to his fellow; instead of doing which, he proposed a plan for regaining their liberty. After carrying wood enough to the hut to keep fire over night, and partaking of a scanty supper, they laid down in their usual manner to rest, a prisoner between two Indians.
The friends kept awake, and after they were satisfied their foes were all sound asleep, they arose agreeable to concert, and secured their weapons, shaking the priming from their guns. Sawyer, with the tomahawk of Han-Yerry-who was thought the most desparate of the four-took his station beside it owner; while Cowley with the axe, placed himself beside another sleeping Indian. The fire afforded sufficient light for the captives to make sure of their victims. At a given signal the blow fell fatal upon two; the tomahawk sank deep into the brain of its owner, giving a sound, to use words of an informant,* "Like a blow upon a pumpkin." Unfortunately, Sawyer drew the handle from his weapon in attempting to free it from the skull of the savage, and the remainder of the tragic act devolved upon his companion. The first one struck by Cowley was killed, but the blows which sent two to their final reckoning, awoke their fellows, who instantly sprang upon their feet. As Seth's-Henry rose from the ground, he received a blow which he partially warded off by raising his right arm; but his shoulder was laid open and he fell back stunned. The fourth, as he was about to escape, received a heavy blow in the back from the axe. He was pursued out of the hut-fled into a swamp near, where he died. The liberated prisoners returned into the hut, and were resolving on what course to pursue, when Seth's-Henry, who had recovered and feigned himself dead for some time, to embrace a favorable opportunity, sprang upon his feet-dashed through the fire-caught up his rifle, leveled and snapped it at one of his foes-ran out of the hut and disappeared.
The two friends then primed the remaining guns, and kept a vigilant watch until daylight, to guard against surprise. They set out in the morning to return, but dared not pursue the rout they came, very properly supposing there were more of the enemy not far distant, to whom the surviving Indian would communicate the fate of his comrades. They recrossed the river in the morning in a bark canoe, which they had used the preceding afternoon, and then directed their course for the frontier settlements. The first night after taking the responsibility, Sawyer was light headed for hours, and his companion feared his raving would betray them; but when daylight returned, reason again claimed its throne. As they had anticipated, a party of Indians thirsting for their blood, were in hot pursuit of them. From a hill they once descried ten or a dozen in a valley below. They remained concealed beneath a shelving rock one night and two days, while the enemy were abroad, and when there, a dog belonging to the latter, came up to them. As the animal approached, they supposed their hours were numbered; but after smelling them for some time, it went away without barking. On the third night after their escape, they saw fires lit by the enemy, literally all around them. They suffered much from exposure to the weather, and still more from hunger. They expected to be pursued in the direction they had been captured, and very properly followed a zig-zag course; arriving in safety after much suffering, at a frontier settlement in Pennsylvania, where they found friends. When fairly recruited they directed their steps to Schoharie, and were there welcomed as though they had risen from the dead, among which latter number, many had supposed them.
Sawyer is said to have died many years after, in Williamstown, Mass.; and Cowley in the south part of Harpersfield. At the time Cowley and Sawyer returned from their captivity, the upper Schoharie fort was commanded by Maj. Posey, a large, fine looking officer, who, as an old lady of Schoharie county (Angelica, a daughter of Col. Peter Vrooman,) once declared to the author, was the handsomest man she ever saw.
* Lawrence Mattice. The adventures of Cowley and Sawyer were principally derived from Mr. Mattice and Henry Hager, who learned the particulars from the captives themselves. Corroborated in 1847, by Asahel Cowley, a grandson of St. Ledger Cowley.
Narrative of the imprisonment, and extraodrinary manner of escape of Ledyer
Cowley and Isaac Sawyer (late of Tryon County, at the head of the Delaware)
from the Savages, who with their brethren the tories, infest the frontiers.
LEDYER COWLEY and Isaac Sawyer, on the 22d of April last, were taken from their families at the head of the Delaware by 7 Indians, who plundered their houses, stripped their wives and children, and loaded their horses with the plunder of their goods; thus, leaving their wives and children naked and forlorn, were the two prisoners carried off, and obliged to travel down the side of the river to Unadilla, where they arrived next day, the 23d; on the 24th made two bark canoes, in which on the 25th, they proceeded down the Susquehanna river; the 26th, arrived at Acquago, 25 miles from Unadilla down said river, to Tuscarora; the 27th; Cowley travelled from Acquago to Chuckonut, and found his fellow prisoner, Sawyer; 28th, proceeded to Owago, about 3O or 4O miles from Acquago, where they were kept two days, this being a settlement of about 3O houses; here the savages stripped the prisoners, shaved and painted them, and with the warriors of Owago held a council; May 1st, proceeded on their way for Niagara, as they were told by their guard, and got within 1O miles of the mouth of the Teoga; here the guard (having left their horses at Owago) drew up their canoes, and cut them to pieces, to cover their camp; intending to make their prisoners walk, as they said, 3OO miles to Niagara. The prisoners had previously combined to make a desperate attempt to escape, by destroying their savage guard, and getting off in their canoes, which being now cut up, obstructed their design, and partly discouraged them; however, three of the guard having stayed at Owago, and but four being with the prisoners, they determined that night to effect their purpose. - In the evening, the Indians as their manner was, lay down two and two opposite sides of the fire, with their guns and the prisoners shoes under them, and a prisoner between each couple. About 1O at night, the full moon being about 2 hours high, Sawyer perceiving his Indians asleep, beckoned to Cowley, signifying now was the time; Cowley fearing his Indians were still awake, lay still; after a few minutes, Sawyer being fearful his comrade would also fall asleep beckoned him, and suddenly springing to a wood axe sunk it into the brains of one of his guard; Cowley snatched a tomahawk, and smote one of his guard, and the blow not being effectual, he kicked violently with his feet to keep Cowley off, who was several passes at his head; Sawyer's second Indian, on [paper is torn] blow being given to his fellow, sprung without a weapon on Cowley, who was dispatching his [paper is torn] Sawyer with his ax, felled him at his feet; thus they were killed, but the other two, though badly wounded got off, one of them taking with him a gun; [paper is torn] they fled, the prisoners flew to the guns; which they snapped several times, imagining them to be charged, as they hitherto had been every night; but finding them not loaded, and uncertain whether the Indian's gun was loaded or not, they desisted from following them; but taking up their arms, ammunition and provision, (viz. half a peck of roasted corn pounded, which was all they had to subsist upon, on their way through the wilderness, being about 15O miles any inhabitants where they dared to show themselves). Thus equipped, they immediately crossed the Susquehanna, in a canoe they percieved the preceeeding day, and travelled east southwardly a fortnight, living most of the time on wild onions, sassafrass roots, and berries of the last year; thus they travelled over rocks and almost inaccessible mountains, till almost worn out with fatigue and hunger, they on the 15th of May instant, arrived at Minisink, and the 22d at Poughkeepsie, on their way to Schohary, to seek their distressed families.
Source: The Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser, Thursday, July 1, 1779, page 1, column 3.
was excerpted from the Journal of William McKendry, Massachusetts
Historical Proceedings, Vol. II, 1886, pp 457-458.
"Ditto 2d Cool weather for the season - This day was informd not many days agone 6 Indians Took two men prisoners from turlough (12 miles from Fort Alden) carried them as far as Ocquago where two of the Indians left the party to go on to inform their brothers of their success, when the 4 that was left got asleep the two prisoners took their hatchets and killd 2 of the Indians the other 2 awoke and started the white men being two ready for them wounded them both and the 2 indians fled, the two late prisoners took the Indian's Arms of the dead & those that had fled with only their lives, and made their escape - The Indians soon were alarmed in that quarter and came to the ground, set the woods all on fire, so that they might discover their tracks that had made their escape, but to no purpose the 2 late English prisoners escaped clear - I have had the pleasure Since to see the man that killd the two Indians it was Mr Sawyer"
The following excerpt was taken from Stories of the Revolution, Joshiah Priest, Hoffman & White, Albany NY., 1838, pp 11-12.
The Escape of Cowley and Sawyer.
Sethen Henry, the noted Indian named in the forgoing account, together with a brother equally murderous with himself, were ever on the alert to take captive and kill as many as possible of the Whig party, not regarding women, children, nor even the aged, as the British paid the same price for scalps of every kind.
These two Indians, in company with two others, were prowling along the Delaware, knowing that Cowley and Sawyer were living somewhere in that region, now called Waterville. That these men were whigs was known to the tories living near them, from whom Sethen Henry and his fellows derived their information respecting where they lived.
These were times when the tories made their calculations how to speculate and make money by the destruction of their neighbors, as much as in clearing their land, or shooting the game of the woods, by the sale of their scalps and the plunder of their goods.
"I do not recollect," said the Judge, "in what particular manner these four Indians took Cowley and Sawyer prisoners, whether while asleep at home, or hunting in the woods, traveling together, at work in the field or in the woods, but in some way they were taken and secured."
They immediately set off with their victims for Fort Niagara, which was the grand resort of the Tories and Indians, and the place where Butler paid for scalps. They had traveled a week or thereabouts, so closely watching their prisoners by day and night, that as yet they had not had an opportunity of speaking to each other. But on coming within range of the Indian country on the Genesee, their captors began to relax their severity in a considerable degree, loosening them from their cords, and sending them to cut and gather wood for their night encampments.
At such opportunities they used to exchange a hasty word or two in a low voice, respecting the means of escape. It was in the fore part of summer, so that they were enabled to get roots, buds and wintergreens to eat, suffering, however, much from hunger. The Indians had stolen a narrow axe at the time they took these men, which makes it probable they were at work in the woods. With this axe they used to cut their fuel, rendering it easier than to use a mere Indian hatchet.
They began also to relax a little of that extreme care heretofore practiced in securing them while asleep, which was usually to lay one of them between two Indians, either tying them to their own bodies, or laying poles across them, sleeping on their ends, so that if they moved at all the Indians would awake. But now the time was becoming more and more precious, as that in a little while they would arrive among some of the tribes, from whom it would be still more difficult to get away, or they would be sold to the British at Niagara, from whose power it would be impossible to escape, till the end of the war, should they live to see that day.
According one evening, when they had stopped to encamp, and were told to gather wood as usual, they agreed that night to make the hazardous attempt; fixing upon their signal, or token, so as to act in concert. The axe before named, they contrived to lay down so near where they were to sleep as to be able to reach it if either of them should so prosper in their exertions as to want it. Observing also the exact spot where the Indians had laid their guns and hatchets, which was always near their heads, they lay down to sleep as at other times between their savage masters.
Here is a point the reader will perceive in which the human soul is brought to its highest energies, just when the attempt was to be made, which would recover lost liberty, and sweep at a stroke the enemy from being; or, to fail and sink powerless to rise no more. Under such feelings, they continued to watch the breathing of the Indians, till near the hour of midnight, when, from the deep slow pulse which coursed their veins, it was evident that the time had come; the sign or token agreed on was reciprocated; this was a strong aspiration of the breath.
Now each at the same moment began with the head and gradually to rise on one side, resting on the palm of the hand. In this position they waited a moment to listen; then another effort was made to draw their feet under them so as to be able to stand in a squatting posture, which if they could but attain, it would be easy for them to spring, or rise erect without a noise. This they were so happy as to effect without awakening the Indians and reaching to the axe and a hatchet, each aimed a deadly blow, when two of them were no more. A second attempt to destroy the other two, but neither of their blows took a deadly effect, on account of the distance they had to reach, though both the Indians were badly wounded. In an instant Sethen Henry was on his feet, and finding a dreadful gash on his shoulder, fled from the contest; but the other was not quick enough to avoid a second blow, when he went the way of his fellows.
Cowley and Sawyer now each seized a gun, a horn of ammunition, and pouch of bullets, two hatchets, the narrow axe, and fled; making the best of their way toward the forts of Old Schoharie, where they arrived, when there was a great rejoicing on their account.
"We gathered around them," said his honor Judge Hagar of Schoharie, of whom we received this account, "caressing them, feeling willing to carry them in our arms, so glad were we to see them again alive, and to think in what a heroic manner they had rescued themselves, if not from being burnt alive, yet from a long imprisonment among either the Indians, or British.