Our Independence Day

Burgoyne’s Surrender at Saratoga by J. Trumbull

As Independence Day approaches, we’re stepping back into the turbulent time of the Revolution. We’re so far removed from those days that the Boston Tea Party, the ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill are events usually romanticized in our imaginations. For us, it’s difficult to understand the reality of those times with its limited communication, resources, and transportation. The War was hard-fought by both regular army soldiers and thousands of volunteers. They were ragtag bands of farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, teenagers—just ordinary men who left families and businesses to put everything on the line to win America’s freedom from Great Britain.

Digging into the Wallace (Wallis) family history, I found insights into the volunteers who fought alongside the regular army. Henry Wallis, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, was one of those men. Henry served the United States various times over the eight years of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). He was an early settler in the Town of Perry, and with his son, David established a successful farm just outside the Village of Perry in 1816.

Early Days
Henry Wallis was born in Worcester, Massachusetts September 23, 1758. The Wallis family was well established there, the first arriving a few years after the Mayflower in 1620. The family was a large one with ten children, and they moved to Colrain, Massachusetts, around 1760. It was from this town that Henry mustered in as a volunteer in the Revolutionary War.

Since the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which was a complex and vicious struggle between France and England to control North America, anger fomented over Great Britain’s unjust use of taxation and governmental control.  The famous tea tax was implemented in May 1773, and the Boston Tea Party occurred on December 10, 1773.

Colrain Resolutions
Here is a transcribed portion of some of the resolutions the town of Colrain, MA, passed as war threatened. There is no doubt as to the mindset of Americans at this time in 1774.

First.—Resolved, That as freemen and Englishmen we have a right to the disposal of our own, are certain there is no property in that which another can of right take from us without our consent, and the measures of late pursued by the Ministry of Great Britain, in their attempts to subject the colonies to taxation by the authority of British Parliament is unjust, arbitrary, inconsistent and unconstitutional.

Secondly. –Resolved, That by landing teas in America imposing a duty by an act of Parliament (as is said), made for the support of government, etc., has a direct tendency to subvert our Constitution and to render our General Assembly useless and government arbitrary, as well as bondage and slavery which never was designed by Heaven or earth.

Sixthly. –Resolved, That we will not, by ourselves, or any under us, directly or indirectly, purchase any tea, neither will we use any on any occasion, until that unrighteous act be repealed, and will use our utmost endeavors with every person in our town as we have opportunity, that they shall do the same; and those that buy and sell teas contrary to our true intent and meaning, shall be viewed as enemies to their Country, and shall be treated as such.

Henry’s Service
Men with military experience from the French and Indian War began training and organizing volunteers—minutemen. Muskets and shot were gathered, houses on higher ground became forts as fences were constructed to help defend these lookouts. Women readied pots of boiling water to throw on enemies from second-story windows. Riders galloped from nearby towns to spread the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—“the shot heard around the world” on April 19, 1775. The War was on.

Henry, an 18-year-old first volunteered on June 1, 1777. He was a farmer, living at home when he served ten weeks under Captain Agrippa Wells (a Colrain resident) in the Massachusetts State troops. He marched from Colrain, MA to Fort Edward, NY, which was around 80 miles. There the state militia joined the U.S. Army to fight the Battle of Fort Edward, which ended in retreat. The dilapidated house named Fort Edward was in such bad repair the men weren’t able to defend the area and retreated some 20 miles to Bemis Heights, near Stillwater, NY.  Battling both the Six Nations tribes and British, Henry returned safely to Colrain after this first campaign.

On September 1, 1777, Henry served seven weeks under Captain Hugh McClellan, another resident of Colrain. McClellan’s Company of Volunteers marched immediately back to Bemis Heights. The men were put under the command of General John Fellows, who quickly retreated nine miles toward Shaftsbury, VT. The army stayed in that area for two weeks before marching through the woods about 12 miles opposite Saratoga, NY. It was here at the battle of Bemis Heights the Americans finally turned the direction of the War.  The British sought control of the Hudson River to cut off the New England colonies from the western frontier beyond the Hudson.  General Horatio Gates determined to turn back the redcoat tide, which he did on October 17, 1777. This victory must be partially credited to the unsanctioned efforts of General Benedict Arnold, who led a surprise attack on the British. His actions sent the British troops into confusion and secured the American advantage. An American army surgeon, James Thatcher, M.D., kept a detailed diary about the War and writes about this battle. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Thatcher’s diary:

General Arnold, in consequence of a serious misunderstanding with General Gates was not vested with any command, by which he was exceeding chagrined and irritated. He entered the field however, and his conduct was marked with intemperate rashness; flourishing his sword and animating the troops, he struck an officer on the head without cause and gave him a considerable wound. He exposed himself to every danger, and with a small party of riflemen rushed into the rear of the enemy, where he received a ball that fractured his leg, and his horse was killed under him.

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga convinced the French to enter the War to aid the Americans. I can imagine the cheers of Henry’s cadre of volunteers when they received the news they’d won the day. After Burgoyne’s surrender, Henry again made the long march back to Colrain to help ready the farm for winter. It was crucial to secure what crops they could to survive the long winter.

Captain James Walworth of Colrain put out the call for volunteers in July 1779, and Henry joined the troop that set out for New London, CT. Meeting up with more men under Elihu Porter, they rendezvoused at Norwich Landing, NY, where Colonel Peas of the regular army was in command. Henry, now 20-years-old, kept guard at Roger’s Point for the two months he was there.

His final stint began in July 1780 under Captain Isaac Newton in a regiment commanded by Colonel Seth Murray. The regiment marched to Claverick, NY (back of the Hudson), where they camped for a week. Then it was on to Fishkill and then to West Point, where General Benedict Arnold was in command. Henry was shifted to various locations around West Point—Verplanck’s Point and King’s Ferry. It was during this time that Arnold turned traitor. General Arnold felt he hadn’t received enough recognition for his efforts and entered into secret talks with the British in 1779. He promised to surrender West Point to the British for a hefty fee and a command in the British Army. The plot was uncovered, and Arnold escaped to the British. Henry says in his pension affidavit that he “saw the boat and crew on their return from the British ship Vulture, which put Arnold on board of that vessel.” What an event to have witnessed!

The Revolutionary War in Western New York
One of the best accounts of what happened in New York and Pennsylvania’s western frontiers is in Moses Van Campen’s biography, Sketches of Border Adventures in the Life and Times of Major Moses Van Campen. I highly recommend this book which is available online at Internet Archive. The fight for American independence tragically took the lives of many women and children. The British hired the Senecas, Mohawks, and other Six Nation tribes to destroy villages, farms, and everything in their path. Then, for payment in rum and empty promises of land, the tribes executed the British order. Ebenezer “Indian” Allan played a prominent role in this slaughter.

The British soldiers were no better in their ruthless killing and burning of settlements without regard for the helpless. The fight was intense along the waterways and thick woods with small bands of Americans who quickly learned guerilla warfare against a seemingly numberless foe. Crops were destroyed, food stores ruined, livestock shot. Starving, frightened mothers gathered their children to run to any nearby fortified house for shelter. Farmers secretly tilled land in hollows, attempting to eke out a crop of grain and corn to sustain life. It was unimaginable hardship in those years. Van Campen’s biography states:

The unexampled barbarities committed by the Indians and British, led General Washington to turn his thought to this part of the great American conflict. With little outlay of means themselves, an immense destruction of life and property resulted from their murderous inroads; leading him to believe that the most effective remedy would be to strike a blow at their homes, and break up if possible, those hives that sent forth these swarms to prey upon the defenseless.”

After the War
The surrender of Cornwallis to Washington at Yorktown, VA, on October 17, 1781, brought the bloody conflict to an end, although there were skirmishes for another two years. Cash was scarce after the War, and the former colonies scrambled for alternatives to pay those who had served. New York decided to offer large tracts of land in the western frontier (up to 600 acres) to veterans from any state who’d fought in New York. Albany was eager to see state population growth and the wild and fertile river valleys to the edge of Lake Erie cultivated.

Henry, who married Sabra Dodge in 1784, accepted the offer from New York, moving to Burlington in Otsego County in 1796. From there, the Wallace family moved several more times until Henry purchased farmland in Genesee County in 1816. (The property became part of the Town of Castile in 1821 and in 1841 Wyoming County was formed.) The family found a permanent home in the Genesee Valley, and some of Henry’s descendants are still there, 205 years later.

Major Moses Van Campen’s life after the War was similar to Henry Wallis’ experience. After marrying, Van Campen moved his family northward to Almond, NY, in Allegany County in 1796. Traveling up the Chemung and Canisteo Rivers on flat-bottomed boats with all their household goods was a dangerous trek through Six Nations country.

Henry and his family went by ox cart through the wilds of New York to claim his land the same year. Both were men of faith, starting churches–Henry in Perry and Moses in Almond. They worked hard to build a good life for their families and the generations to come. Henry and Moses had very different responsibilities during the War. Still, the goal was the same—America’s freedom, which is our privilege to enjoy today 245 years later because of their service and those who followed their example in every war to follow. 

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.

Beer’s 1880 Wyoming County History
Henry Wallis Revolutionary War Pension Affidavit and Supporting Papers
Sketches of Border Adventures in the Life & Times of Major Moses Van Campen
The Early Settlers of Colrain, Massachusetts, Charles McClennan
James Thatcher, M.D. Military Journal 1775-1783
Wallace Family Archive
U.S. Census Records, 1790, 1820, 1830, 1840

Locations Henry Wallis served in Revolutionary War
A page of Henry Wallis’ Revolutionary War affidavit, 1832, National Archives

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