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Article Number 19 - The Catskill Patent No. 12 - The Capture of David Abeel, Con't

Originally published in the Catskill Examiner by Henry Brace between the years 1876 and 1879. Article 19 was published on December 1,1877. Extracted from the microfilm copies of the Catskill Examiner located at the Vedder Research Library. Transcribed by Barbara Bartley.

Local Sketches.--No. 19. An Outline of the History of the Town of Catskill, To The Year 1783. By Henry Brace. 

For at least a hundred years, a foot-path had existed down the Schohariekill from its source at the head of the Plattekill Clove. It was one of the trails which the Iroquois had been wont to take upon their frequent forays into the valley of the Hudson. During the War of the Revolution it was often trodden by Brant, the Mohawk chieftain, and it was by him, it is said, that the fort upon the Round-Top was built. Along this foot-path, and from this stronghold, the Indians led their captives. At first, David Abeel, by reason of his age, lagged behind, but hearing it said he must be killed, because he was delaying the party, he succeeded, by straining every muscle, in keeping up with his comrades. Soon afterward, he spoke in Indian to the leader of the band, who quickly asked, in a tone of surprise, where he had learned the language. “I was for a long time,” he answered, “a trader upon the Mohawk.” Henceforth he was treated with as much kindness as was consistent with his being a prisoner.

The destination of the band was Canada, but the route which was taken is no longer known. It is probable, however, that the party went by the way which the captors of Frederick Schermerhorn of the Round-Top and the captors of Jeremiah Snyder of the Plattekill pursued. That way led down the Schohariekill, thorough Bushnell’s Clove or over the mountains near Prattsville, and down the Delaware to the junction of its east and west branches. The mountain was then crossed to the Susquehannah; the Susquehannah was then descended to the Chemung; the Chemung was ascended and the Genesee reached by a laborious clamber over the intervening hills. The route then lay down the Genesee, and thence to Fort Niagara.

Whatever course the party pursued, it was through a vast and unbroken wilderness. In its depths the Indians and then prisoners nearly died from hunger. They first ate the dogs, two or three in number, which they had with them, and then, until they reached the British outposts, lived upon such roots and herbs as they were able to find. It shows the kindness with which David Abeel was treated, after he had made known who he was, that while the famine was severest, the leader of the party, finding a goose’s egg, cooked it and gave the half of it to his prisoner. At the end of the journey, probably at Fort Niagara, Anthony Abeel was made to run the gauntlet, David Abeel being excused on account of his age and as a further proof of friendship on the part of the Indians. Before stripping for the race, Anthony was told that the younger Indians would probably throw themselves in his way, to hinder him in his course, and that, if any one of them did, to knock him down. He then took off his coat and shoes and began to run. What he had been warned against happened. A young Indian put himself in Anthony’s way and tried to stop him, but Anthony gave him a blow under the ear which knocked him down. Instantly, at his mishap, the Indian spectators filled the air with shouts of derisive laughter, and leaped and yelled with delight, so that, in the confusion and uproar, Anthony reached the goal without receiving a blow.

In May, 1781, the Abeels were put into the Prevot at Montreal. This prison was a large building of stone, and was filled with thieves and murderers, with deserters, and with captive Americans. The latter spent the day in a large room, about twenty feet square, on the second story of the building, and slept at night in a corridor, so narrow that when the men were lying on the floor, with their heads against the parallel walls, there was barely room enough between the two rows for the guard to pass, on the usual inspection at nine o’clock.

The keeper of the prison was named Jones. He had married in Albany, and he seems to have kindly treated the prisoners who had come from the Hudson. Their food was coarse and scanty, and consisted of salted beef and salted pork, with an allowance of peas and of oat meal for porridge, and of three pints of spruce beer daily.* [*I suspect that this beverage was solely administered as a preventive against scurvy.] These rations were drawn on Monday for the week, and were usually exhausted by Friday, so that Saturday and Sunday were spent in fasting. The cooking was done by the prisoners themselves, at the wood fire on the hearth of the guardroom, on the ground floor of the Prevot. The guard was composed of Hessians, a boorish company, who often drove the Americans from the fire.

The prison was full of vermin, and it was a daily occupation of Abeels and their companions, the Snyders of the Plattekill, to spend an hour after dinner in ridding themselves of these pests. Their amusement was card-playing. Anthony Abeel, however, occupied himself, during his stay in Canada, in making oars, brooms and baskets, and was able, by the sale of these implements, to supply himself with tobacco, rum and a few other luxuries.

In June, the Abeels, with the Snyders and other Americans, were paroled and were billeted upon the inhabitants of the Isle of Jesus, in the St. Lawrence, above Montreal. In August, David Abeel, on account of his age, was released and was sent home under guard.

In May of the following year, that is, in May 1782, Anthony Abeel and Jeremiah and Elias Snyder, with James Butler, of Philadelphia and Jonathan Millet, of Stonington, agreed among themselves to violate their parole and to endeavor to escape. Deer skins were bought and made into moccasins, and the elder Snyder, upon a visit to Montreal, procured three pocket compasses, in a shop which was tended by an unsuspicious boy. The plotters luckily were well clothed. The Quakers of England had sent to Montreal a roll of woolen cloth, of a kind then known as London Brown, for the use of the American prisoners. One of the number cut the material, the ingenious Jeremiah Snyder made it into ill-fitting garments.

Early in the evening of the 10th of September, the Snyders took secretly three loaves of bread and a quantity of salt pork from the cellar of the house at which they were billeted, and hid them in a hovel behind the barn. At vespers father and son went to their room, as if to go to bed, but jumping out of the window with their packs, and taking their scanty store of food from the hovel, they joined their companions, Millet, Butler and Anthony Abeel. The night was dark, it was raining, and the fugitives groped their way to the lower end of the island, seized a boat and began the descent of the St. Lawrence.

The route which they took was down the river to the Richelieu, and thence eastward to Lake Memphremagog and the head waters of the Connecticut. It was a toilsome journey, through swamps, through thickets of spruce and tamarack, among great forests of pines, and along the rocky beds of swift-running rivers. The little band spent one cold day, in wet clothes, in the long grass which grew on the banks of the St. Lawrence, and heard the Canadian boatmen talking in French and singing rude songs, as they passed in their bateaux. Another day was passed in an old hedge near a hamlet on the Richlieu. Two days and two nights were consumed in crossing a great morass, which was covered by a tangled growth of alder and tamarack, and the water of which was unfit to drink. In another swamp, in the dead of the night, Anthony Abeel was awakened by what he thought was the yell of Indians. He and his companions quickly covered their fire, and hid themselves in the thicket. But the cry was the hooting only of an owl.

After reaching Lake Memphremagog, they began to suffer from hunger. For four days they lived upon spignet root. One day they stayed their appetite upon the flesh remaining upon a thigh bone of a moose, which they found in the ashes of a hunter’s fire. At another time they made a hearty meal upon some steaks which they cut out of the hind quarters of a stray cow. 

Near the Connecticut river, between the upper and the lower Coos, they came to a log cabin, in which, upon a shelf, they found a loaf of bread. They eagerly ate a portion of fit, nor was the owner displeased when he soon afterward came in from the fields. That evening they slept in the house of a farmer named Williams, who kindly gave them his own supper of hasty pudding and a moose pie.

On Sunday, the 29th of September, the fugitives reached the headquarters of General Bailey, upon the lower Coos. They were received with kindness; their clothes and their shoes were repaired; and six meals of light food, it is said, were daily furnished to them. A horse was given to Jeremiah Snyder, who left his companions and rode homeward through Massachusetts and northern Connecticut, crossing the Hudson at Poughkeepsie. Anthony Abeel walked by the way of Pittsfield and Kinderhook. So eager were the people, whom he met, to hear the story of his captivity and escape, that, on some days, he journeyed only three or four miles.

I do not know when or how Jannetje Van Valkenberg returned to Old Catskill. From 1806 until her death she was a servant of the Van Vechtens. In her old age she delighted to talk about her journey to Canada; of her sufferings from hunger, from her wounded feet and from her fear of being killed, and of the relief she got by being now and then allowed to ride upon a pony of her captors. It was her habit, too, to use the Indians as a bugbear to keep the children quiet in their beds, or to bring them into the house, when she was sent out after them.

David Abeel died at the Bak-Oven, in February, 1813, in the eighty-seventh year of his age. He was buried upon a ridge between his house and the highway. The place is marked by a group of eight ancient cedars, of which all but one is dead or dying. About thirty years ago, grave stones of white marble were brought out from Catskill to be placed at the head of the grave of David and of other members of his family. But no one could tell which his grave was. The stones were put upon their edges against one of the cedars, and there they remain. Their weight has cut into the tree to the depth of three or four inches.

Gerrit Abeel, about 1785, moved to Catskill Landing, and built for himself the stone house, which is now occupied by Capt. Spencer. He was for many years a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the County of Greene. Though he was not a lawyer by profession, his good sense and impartiality enabled him to perform the duties of his office to the entire satisfaction of the community.

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