A revised edition of "Otzinachson: A History of the West Branch Valley of the Sesquehanna" by John Franklin Meginness was published 1889. This edition expanded considerably from the sketch of Moses Van Campen that appeared in the original 1857 edition of similar title. "Moses Van Campen and His Thrilling Adventures" from Chapter 26 appears below in its entirety.
A History of the West Branch Valley of The Sesquehanna:
Its First Settlement, Privations Endured by the Early Pioneers,
Indian Wars, Predatory Incursions, Abductions and Massacres,
An Account of the Fair Play System:
Trying Scenes of the Big Runaway;
Copies of Curious Old Documents, Biographical Sketches of the Leading Settlers,
Together with Anecdotes, Statistics, and Much Valuable Matter Entirely New.
By J.F. Meginness,
(John of Lancaster.)
Gazette and Bulletin Printing House.
VAN CAMPEN AND HIS THRILLING ADVENTURES
DURING the closing years of the Indian troubles on the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna a new and daring character suddenly appeared, whose deeds of prowess, and his hairbreadth escapes, are unparalleled in the annals of adventure. This was the famous Moses Van Campen. His father's name was Cornelius Van Campen, and his mother was a Depue, of French extraction. Moses, the son, was born in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, January 21, 1757. Soon after his birth his parents emigrated to Pennsylvania and settled on the Delaware River, in Northampton County, near the Water Gap. Here our hero spent his boyhood days. The family of Mr. and Mrs. Van Campen consisted of six sons and four daughters. Moses was the oldest, and he was named after his maternal grandfather, Moses Depue. In his early days he became a noted hunter and an unerring shot.
When the troubles of 1775 broke out with the Connecticut settlers at Wyoming, a company was raised and sent there to preserve order. Young Van Campen was permitted to join the company, and in this service he gained a knowledge of soldiering. In the meantime his father removed his family from Northampton County, and settled on Fishing Creek, in what is now Columbia County, for the purpose of following an agricultural life.
On the breaking out of the Revolutionary war Moses Van Campen joined Colonel Cook's regiment from Northumberland County, and marched to Boston to join the Continental army, and in 1777 he had fairly entered on the life of a soldier. In 1778 he was appointed lieutenant of a company of six months' men and assigned to the protection of the frontier. He was under Colonel Hunter, and assisted to build Fort Wheeler, on the North Branch. He also accompanied General Sullivan in his famous expedition up the North Branch.
Lieutenant Van Campen says that his father's house having been burned by a marauding party of Indians in 1778, he soon afterwards requested him to go with him and a younger brother to their farm, about four miles from Fort Wheeler, where the family was staying, to begin preparations for building another house and to make an effort to put in some grain. Little apprehension of Indians were felt. They left the fort about the last of March. Van Campen says: "I was accompanied by my father, uncle and his son, about twelve years old, and Peter Pence. We had been on our farm about four or five days when, on the 30th of March, we were surprised by a party of ten Indians. My father was lunged through with a spear, his throat was cut and he was scalped, while my brother was tomahawked, scalped and thrown into the fire before my eyes. While I was struggling with a warrior, the fellow who had killed my father drew his spear from his body and made a violent thrust at me. I shrunk from the spear, and the savage who had hold of me turned it with his hand, so that it only penetrated my vest and shirt. They were then satisfied with taking me prisoner, as they had the same morning taken my uncle's little son and Pence, though they killed my uncle." Soon after this, at another point, they took a boy named Rogers prisoner and also a man named Pike.
With their captives the Indians then rapidly made their way over the mountains to the North Branch, near the mouth of Tuncannook Creek, and thence toward their concerted rendezvous.
The warriors were ten in number; but Peter Pence and Van Campen were not the kind of men to pale in view of peril, and determined to avail themselves of the first opportunity to strike a blow for freedom. The opportunity came at length, and the blow was struck. One evening, when above the Wyalusing Flats, while the prisoners were being bound for the night, an Indian accidentally dropped his knife close to Van Campen's feet. By a movement that escaped observation it was promptly covered. About midnight, when the warriors were all asleep, Van Campen secured the knife and released Peter Pence, who in turn cut from the others the bands that held them fast. Cautiously, but quickly, the weapons were secured and a plan for action decided on. The prisoners had been placed in the midst of the warriors—on either side five. Van Campen and Pike were to use the tomahawk on one group, while Peter Pence opened fire on the other with the rifles.
At this juncture a warrior assigned to Pike started from his slumber, and Pike was overcome with fear. In an instant Van Campen buried his tomahawk in the head of the wakeful savage, and then made quick work with the adjoining four, while four of the other group were as speedily dispatched by Peter Pence. Then followed a desperate hand-to-hand contest between Van Campen and the surviving Indian—John, the Mohawk Sachem.
The two were athletes in their way, well matched in skill and strength. Van Campen with his left hand grasped the wrist of the warrior's right, in which his keen-edged knife was held. The Mohawk with his left hand seized Van Campen's right, in which the bloody tomahawk was clutched. Thus grappling, they struggled, fell, and struggling, rose again, each vainly seeking to take advantage of the other's first false movement, while Pence, unable to distinguish the two combatants, dared not fire a shot for fear of killing the wrong man. At length the Mohawk, breaking from Van Campen's grasp, turned to flee. Springing after him, Van Campen, with uplifted tomahawk, aimed a deadly blow straight at the retreating Sachem's crest; but the wary Mohawk, by an agile movement, saved his head, the hooked blade sinking deep in the muscles of his shoulder. With a bound that wrenched the weapon from Van Campen's hand, the Indian dashed into the darkened forest and escaped, bearing the truculent trophy in his quivering flesh.
The liberated captives, after scalping their late captors and securing their plunder, embarked on a hastily constructed raft down the river, and after a series of adventures reached Wyoming in safety, there leaving Pike and young Rogers. Van Campen, with his nephew and Pence, made their way by canoe to Northumberland.
In 1831 Major Van Campen became a resident of Dansville, N. Y., some twenty miles south of Geneseo, and the interchanges of visits between the old Indian fighter and the old Indian interpreter were occasions of much mutual enjoyment. Their associations with the aborigines had been very unlike, though their early adventures were similar. For the Indians Mr. Jones retained a true liking, and was looked up to by them as a friend. Among those who frequently visited him, and by whom he was greatly beloved, was the Mohawk Sachem, John.
John Mohawk, as he was commonly called, often expressed a desire to see his former antagonist, Moses Van Campen, but hesitated from doubts as to the old Major's good will toward one of his race. At length, persuaded to accompany Mr. Jones to Dansville, the two met and clasped in friendship hands that had once been joined in deadly strife. John showed the Major the great scar in his shoulder, and told him how he had carried off his tomahawk as a trophy, from that battle field above Wyalusing.
Previous to this visit the Mohawk had presented the long cherished tomahawk to Mr. Jones, to be preserved as a keepsake and token of personal esteem. The weapon has ever since been retained in the family as an heirloom, and is now in the property of the old interpreter’s only surviving son – the youngest but one of sixteen children.
Mr. Charles Jones, now past the age of three-score years and ten, has related to me* many interesting incidents connected with the events here referred to, and in a letter says of this tomahawk: "It was given to my father, Captain Horatio Jones, by John Mohawk, who received it, together with the scar it made in his back, from the hand of old Major Van Campen," and adds: " I have heard my father and Major Van Campen, and my elder brothers (who if now living would be one hundred and five and one hundred and three years old) say this identical instrument was the one that old John captured in his back from the hand of the Major when Van Campen was in full chase after him, and after he had dispatched five of said John's companions."
"The handle," he writes, "is not the one that was in it during the Revolutionary war, but was put in about sixty years ago."
The tomahawk is 9 1/4 inches in length; the blade 6 inches long by 1 7/8 inches broad at the widest part. The head, or pole, is a pipe bowl 1 7/8 inches deep and 7/8 of an inch across the top. The handle, a reproduction of the original, is 18 inches long by 1 ½ inches thick, where it enters the socket and forms the stem of the pipe.
The old relic must have been, as may be judged from its picture, a formidable weapon in the hands of an intrepid and muscular man like Moses Van Campen.
After his remarkable escape and return, Van Campen was not allowed to remain idle very long. In the latter part of March, just at the opening of the campaign of 1782†, the companies that had been stationed during the winter at Reading were ordered back by Congress to their respective stations. Lieutenant Van Campen marched at the head of Captain Robinson's company to Northumberland, where he was joined by Thomas Chambers, who had recently been commissioned as ensign of the same company. Here he halted for a few days to allow his men rest, after which he was directed to march to Muncy, and there rebuild the fort which had been destroyed by the Indians in the year 1779. Having reached his station he threw up a small block house, in which he placed his stores and immediately commenced rebuilding the fort, being joined shortly after by Captain Robinson, in company with several gentlemen, among whom was Mr. Culbertson, who was anxious to find an escort up the West Branch into the neighborhood of Bald Eagle Creek. Here his brother‡ had been killed by the Indians sometime before, and being informed that some of his property had been buried and had thus escaped the violence of the enemy, he was desirous of making a search to obtain it.
Arrangements were made by which Lieutenant Van Campen was to go with him at the head of a small party of men as a guard; and after he had been permitted to examine his brother's premises, the company was directed to take a circuitous route around the settlements and waylay the Indian paths, since it was about the time when the return of hostilities was expected. In forming this party Van Campen selected his men according to his usual custom, by taking in his hand a small piece of board, on the end of which was a mark of white paper, and standing a few rods in front of his men, who would fire at the mark, as it was held up before them, and every man who hit the paper was permitted to have his name enrolled as one of the scouts. He did not experiment long before he would thus find a sufficient number for his party. Having selected his men, twenty in number, he took with him a supply of provisions and marched along the bank of the river, while Culbertson and four others advanced up the river in a boat, and soon arrived at the Big Island. The boat was pulled on shore and all the party proceeded together by land until they reached Culbertson's farm in the evening, and encamped for the night. It was about the middle of April, and the Indians being expected every hour to pay their annual visit to the settlements, they could not observe too much caution in their movements; and having selected their resting place for the night with wisdom, placed their sentinels to give the first alarm of the enemy.
They were not disturbed, however, during the night, but early the next morning were awakened by the appearance of their foes.
While Van Campen with his company was ascending the river a large party of Indians, not far from eighty-five, were on their way down, paddling along in their little bark canoes, and were intending, when they came into the vicinity of the settlements, to separate themselves into small companies, commit depredations and return home. As they were floating down with the current of the river, they came to where the boat had been drawn on shore. Informed by this of the presence of whites, they secured their canoes and followed the trail of those who had but a short time before left the river.
The Indians crept along the path that had been taken, and by the morning light, concealed by the bushes, approached very near to the sentries, and burst so unexpectedly upon these that they had only time to run to the camp, crying, "The Indians, the Indians," before the savages were in their midst, with the tomahawk and scalping knife. Van Campen and his men started upon their feet and in a moment were ready for action. The enemy had a warm reception. The combat** was at first from hand-to-hand, and so well sustained was the resistance that the Indians were obliged to retire; but they came up on all sides, and one after another of Van Campen's men were cut down with the rifle. Perceiving that the party of warriors was so large as to offer them no hope of escape, and beholding their number every moment growing smaller, they determined, though reluctantly, to surrender themselves to the enemy, under the belief that their lives would be spared. The Indians were commanded by a Lieutenant Nellis, who was in the British service, and often led the savages in their descent upon the frontier settlements. To him they made their surrender. Nine of their number had been killed, several were wounded, and three in the early part of the action effected their escape.
The Indians, thus becoming masters of the ground, came up and took possession of the prisoners and their arms, after which they began to dispatch those that had been wounded. Two of Van Campen's men—Wallace and Stewart—were killed with the tomahawk immediately before him. Another by the name of Craton was placed on a large stone, and as he sat bending over, half unconscious of what was transpiring around him, was made the mark of four or five savages, who took their position a few rods from him, and all aiming their rifles at his head fired at once and with their balls tore the top of his skull from his head. Craton fell over, and his brains rolled out and lay smoking upon the ground!
The blood coursed quick through Van Campen's veins as he saw his brave soldiers treated thus, and it was not the least of his suffering to be obliged to witness the scene without the means in his power of affording them aid. He was obliged to stand as insensible as a rock, for had he shown the least signs of sympathy or disapproval, it would have been at the peril of his life.
Himself and his men that were not wounded were taken into the custody of Indian warriors, and one of them had tied a cord around his arm, and stood holding it, while the executioners were dispatching those that had been hurt in the battle. Near him stood one of his men who had received a shot through his arm when raised in the attitude of firing, the ball having entered his elbow, had passed up his arm, and gone out near his shoulder blade. His name was Burwell. Van Campen seeing him, spoke and said: "Burwell, you are losing blood pretty fast, are you not?" "Yes," said he, "I can't hold out much longer." "Stand as long as you can, my brave fellow. Your wound is such that if they pass you by now they may perhaps spare your life."
Just then an executioner saw that one more remained to finish his duty, and he came up towards Burwell with his tomahawk raised to strike him in the head. Van Campen, perceiving his movements, jerked from the warrior who was holding him by the arm, sprang forward with his right hand clenched, and gave the Indian executioner a blow in the breast which sent him reeling backward until he fell upon the ground like one dead. The warriors then turned with their hatchets upon Van Campen. But a party who had witnessed the scene were highly pleased with the bravery that had been shown by their prisoner, and as the tomahawk was about to descend, they leaped forward over his head to rescue him from death. For a few moments Van Campen could hear nothing but the clashing of tomahawks, as the warriors engaged in a fierce struggle for his life. He was pushed about in the scuffle, a part of the time his body bent over by those who endeavored to shield him from the threatened blow, expecting every moment to have the hatchet enter his head; but at length the fortune of the contest turned in his favor, the majority being determined to spare his life. When the strife ceased they gathered around him with looks of exultation and delight, and he could discover, from the pleasure which beamed from their every look, that his life would be protected from any further injury. This well-timed blow was the means of sparing Burwell from falling under the hatchet of the executioner, for as they came around Van Campen they repeated one after another: "Brave warrior, brave warrior.” They seemed by common consent to yield the life of the one as a tribute to the noble deed of the other.
Immediately after this struggle for Van Campen's life the prisoners were stripped of all their clothing, except pantaloons, and taken a short distance from the battle ground, where they were made to sit down in the form of a circle, while the Indians made a larger one around them, and bringing up five Indians who had been killed during the engagement, laid them down near the prisoners. In their movements they observed the stillness and solemnity of death, and as the captives eyed their motions and beheld the dead warriors stretched out before them, they felt that the ceremonies that were in progress deeply concerned themselves; and though their minds had in a measure become callous to the thoughts of death by familiarity with the field of strife, still the voice of silence whispered even into their ears lessons of the tomb, which they could not help but regard. Under the present circumstances it was very natural for the prisoners to turn from the slaughtered warriors to themselves, and each one began to reflect upon the destiny which should await him. Van Campen anticipated little short of a cruel and lingering death, especially if he was discovered to be the one who had killed so many Indians while effecting his escape in the year 1780.
When everything was arranged, and the warriors were standing in a large circle around the prisoners and the slain, an Indian chief came forward into the ring and commenced making a speech. Every eye was turned upon the speaker, and as he advanced, Van Campen watched the countenances of the Indians, and could see them alternately swell with rage, and with the stern and awful looks of revenge, and then melt away with the voice of the orator into expressions of pity and compassion. He said to his men, in a low tone of voice, that their fate would probably be decided by the speech of the warrior, and that they had better prepare themselves for the last extremity. Said he: "If the conclusion is unfavorable it can be but death at any rate, and we had better part with our lives as dearly as possible. Let us fix upon the weakest point of their line, and if we are condemned to die, let us run upon it with all our might, snatch their weapons from them and engage from hand-to-hand; it may be that some of us will be able to effect our escape during the struggle." He kept his eye upon the speaker, and carefully watched the effect of his words until he was through, and, happily for them, his conclusion was brightened by a smile, which was the token of mercy. There was left no ill-boding cloud behind to warn them of coming evil.
Directly after the Indians proceeded to bury those who had fallen in battle, which they did by rolling an old log from its place and laying their bodies in the hollow thus made, and then heaping upon them a little earth. They then divided the prisoners among them, according to the number of their fires, Van Campen being placed with the party which encamped with Lieutenant Nellis, who, having the first choice of prisoners, chose him because he was an officer. From him he learned the substance of the warrior's speech, who, as he said, had been consulting the Great Spirit as to what should be done with those that had fallen into their hands. He presented arguments on the one hand to show that the prisoners should be immediately killed, and again he proceeded to remark that they should be treated with lenity. At one time, pointing to the lifeless bodies before him, he exclaimed: "These call for vengeance; the blood of the red man has been spilled, and that of the white man must flow." Yet he represented again that enough blood had been shed, that vengeance had been taken in those of their enemies that had been killed, and that such of their own party as had fallen met only the common fate of war. He suggested finally that the lives of the prisoners should be spared, and they be adopted into the families of those that had been slain.
In accordance with this recommendation the prisoners were unharmed and put in readiness to march with the Indians. Packs were prepared for them, and having shouldered these, they began to march towards the place where the warriors had first seen the marks which led them in pursuit, and having reached this they entered their bark canoes, rowed across the river, and then sent them adrift down the stream.
The Indians then took up their line of march back to Niagara, proceeding across the valley and its tributary streams. On the morning of the second day of their march, as Van Campen passed by one of their fires, he saw one of his soldiers, named Henderson, seated upon a billet of wood, and two Indians standing by his side. His countenance was sad and pale, indicating the presence of anxious and painful thoughts. He had been wounded by a ball, which struck his left hand as it was raised for the purpose of firing, and cut off four of his fingers. Van Campen, supposing that the fate of this soldier had been decided, beheld him with mingled pity and concern; yet there was no remedy, and he passed on, bearing his mournful countenance before him. He did not go far before he heard a noise like the sound of a tomahawk entering the head, and in a few moments saw the two Indians who had been standing by Henderson run by him, bearing a scalp and carrying a hatchet dripping with blood. The sight filled him with maddening thoughts, yet he did not reveal his emotions by action or look, but continued to march reckless of every event that should befall him.
Their march during the day was continued without provisions until they arrived at Pine Creek, where they halted while the Indian hunters went out in pursuit of game. In a short time they returned, bringing along an elk. This was soon dressed and prepared for roasting. The prisoners were allowed the same liberty that was taken by the warriors themselves. They cut from the animal as much fresh meat as they wished and roasted it on coals, or held it on the end of a sharpened stick to the fire. This made them an excellent supper, and was quite a relief to their keen appetites.
Burwell, whose life had been spared, marched with the Indians as a prisoner; but his wound in a few days became very much inflamed and painful to such a degree that it was with great difficulty he proceeded on his march; and though he promised to give them trouble, they did not seek to rid themselves of his care in the summary manner in which they generally treated their prisoners, but exercised their skill to restore him to health and soundness. Having collected a parcel of suitable herbs, they boiled them in water, thus making a strong decoction, in which they dipped the feather of a quill and ran it through his wound. Whenever this was done Van Campen, who had been quartered with a different company, was brought to see the attention which was given to his soldiers—a very simple but flattering token of the respect they paid to his bravery. The operation was exceedingly painful, and as Van Campen stood by he encouraged him to bear up bravely under his treatment, saying that he must prove himself a man, and that if he suffered the keenest anguish, he should not manifest it by a single sign. The Indians who were by seemed to understand the instructions that were given, and were highly pleased with them, as well as the manner in which the soldier endured the pain. In a short time the inflammation was removed, and the wound healed under this harsh but salutary treatment.
Burwell lived to enjoy many a pleasant day after the Revolution, yet whenever he told the story of the blow which Van Campen gave to the Indian executioner, whose hatchet was raised to destroy his life, and when he described the fierce and doubtful struggle that followed, it was always with tears in his eyes. Several years afterwards he paid Van Campen a visit at his residence in Angelica, saying that he was about to remove to one of the Southern States, and that he had come to see once more the man who had saved his life at the risk of his own!
Van Campen and his fellow prisoners were marched through the various Indian villages, and some of them were adopted in families to make up for the loss of those killed in the battle on the Bald Eagle. Van Campen passed through all the villages†† undiscovered; neither was it known that he had been a prisoner before and had effected his escape by killing four men and seriously wounding John Mohawk, until he had been turned over to the British at Fort Niagara. As soon as this fact became known among the Indians they were furious, and demanded of the British officer that he should be returned to them. So anxious were they to get him in their power for torture that they offered several prisoners in exchange for him. The commander of the fort, on these appeals being made, sent an officer to examine him. He stated the facts of his killing the party of savages on the North Branch. The officer stated that his case was a grave one, and he did not know whether they could hold him when the Indians demanded his return. Van Campen stated to the officer that he considered himself a prisoner of war to the British, and claimed protection as such; that he believed the British possessed more honor than to hand him over to the savages to be burned at the stake; that if they did they might expect retaliation in case one of their officers fell into the hands of the Americans.
The officer withdrew, but soon afterwards returned and informed him that there was but one condition on which his life could be saved, and that was to abandon the rebel cause and join the British. As a further inducement he was offered the same rank in the British service. The answer of Van Campen was worthy the hero of any age or people, and showed that the courage of the patriot never quailed under the most trying circumstances. It was: "No, sir, no—my life belongs to my country; give me the stake, the tomahawk, or the scalping-knife, before I will dishonor the character of an American officer!"
That settled it. No more dishonorable overtures were made to him, and he was held and protected as a prisoner of war. And sometime in March, 1783, he was exchanged and returned home. He immediately went into service again with his company at Northumberland. Soon afterwards Captain Robinson received orders to march with his company to Wyoming, and Van Campen and Ensign Chambers accompanied him. They remained in the service until November of that year, when the army was discharged, and they retired to private life, poor and penniless, after what they had endured in the service of their country.
Moses Van Campen, some years after his marriage, moved his family to New York, where he resided until the close of his long and eventful life. He died at Angelica October 15, 1849, aged 92 years, 8 months and 24 days. The following is a very good likeness of the old hero as he appeared at the age of 90 years:
* Rev. A. P. Brush, of Bath, New York, who has seen and examined the famous tomahawk, had it photographed, and furnished the accompanying description.
† See Life of Van Campen, by his grandson, Rev. J. N. Hubbard, page 244.
‡ William Culbertson. Before locating here he had taken up a tract of land on the north side of the river above Lycoming Creek, in 1774, which he sold to Abraham Latcha. Andrew Culbertson, his brother, had made a settlement on the south side of the river, where DuBoistown now stands.
** The place where Culbertson built his cabin and was killed, and where the battle took place, was near what is now the Bald Eagle dam, about five miles from the confluence of Bald Eagle Creek with the river at the Great Island. The land on the north side of the creek, at this point, is considerably elevated, and at the dam it rises in a rocky bluff from the water's edge. A narrow and rather deep ravine puts into the creek at this point, through which a small stream of water flows. The mouth of the ravine at the creek is quite narrow and deep; but a short distance back from the creek it widens and forms a small level plot of ground, on which the cabin of Culbertson was built, near a fine spring of water, which flows to this day. The distance from the cabin to the creek was about forty rods. The location is near the residence of Mr. John Berry, and about one mile from the village of Flemington.
†† At a place called Pigeon Wood they fell in with a large body of Indians on a hunting expedition, and were received with wild demonstrations of savage glee. The arrival of the war party with their prisoners was followed by a feast. What Van Campen most feared was recognition. While the festivities were at their height, one belonging to the new party approached him, looked at him intently, and speaking in a low tone called him by name, adding that he knew of his escape two years before by killing his captors. Van Campen now thought that he had nothing save torture and death to expect. Great, however, was his surprise when told by the stranger that he himself was a prisoner, held by the Indians to act as an interpreter; assured that he would probably remain unrecognized, and put on his guard against revealing his identity until under British protection in Canada. This was Van Campen's memorable meeting with Horatio Jones, the interpreter. Horatio Jones was born in Chester County, Pa., November 19, 1763. At the age of sixteen he enlisted as a volunteer in Captain John Boyd's company, and a year or two later was with Boyd in his disastrous expedition, when captured by the Indians under Nellis. Like his captain, young Jones, after running the gauntlet, escaped death through the intervention of pitying squaws. He was subsequently adopted into an Indian family, and remained in captivity, serving as an interpreter, until after the treaty of 1784. After the war he settled at Geneseo, N. Y., then known as Big Tree, was appointed by Washington as interpreter of the Six Nations, frequently acting as the favorite interpreter of Red Jacket, and rendered invaluable service to the Government in its treaties with late hostile tribes. By his bravery, tact, physical strength and manly traits of character, Horatio Jones acquired great influence over the Indians, and retained their entire confidence through life.
The earlier and original 1857 edition of similar title included a first-hand account of Moses Van Campen's Revolutionary War service, as detailed in his 1838 Petition to Congress for his pension.