Lt. Thomas Boyd
Indeed, young men as a rule think they are immortal and chance fate. Older people do not know a thing in their opinion. If a young man survives he will become an old man who will tell the tales of his foolish youth and wonder how he survived. Nature must expect this and provides us with more male births than female. Lt. Thomas Boyd sounds like many of the young men I see in today’s world. He was brash and full of unfounded confidence. Boyd lived life on the edge, bullet proof, we would say today.
Lieutenant Boyd was not only arrogant; he knew he was going to be famous. The war was his chance to make a name for himself. He did that all right.
Lieutenant Boyd was born in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. He was described as "about the usual height, stout built, a fine looking young man; being very sociable and agreeable in his manners" which had gained him many friends in Schoharie. He was named a Sergeant in Captain Stephen Bayard's Company.
Boyd set about to be noticed and he succeeded, but not in the way he had planned. On January 14, 1778, his eagerness, apparent leadership qualities and skill as a rifleman brought him promotion to the temporary rank of Captain-Lieutenant. At age 22, Thomas Boyd was soon named a full Lieutenant and Company Commander in Colonel William Butler's 4th NY Regiment and he was a member of the elite Daniel Morgan Partisan Corps. Boyd was assigned to lead one of Major James Parr's rifle companies.
On July 1, 1778, three companies, including Boyd’s, were ordered to Schoharie to help defend the borders and residents of New York against Joseph Brant's Indians.
In Schoharie while he was assigned there for duty, he courted Miss Cornelia Becker. They apparently were very intimate. When the troops were preparing to leave Schoharie, Miss Becker, in a frantic state of mind approached her lover, caught hold of his arm and in tears begged him to marry her before he left Schoharie. Boyd tried to put her off with future promises and tried break free from her grasp. In the midst of this unpleasant scene, his commander rode up and reprimanded Boyd for his delay because the troops were ready to march. Boyd was mortified at being seen in such a position and he drew his sword. Miss Becker was told he would stab her if she did not instantly leave. She did leave and seeing her future shame before her, angrily called down the vengeance of heaven upon him.
She told him: "If you go off without marrying me, I hope you will be cut to pieces by the Indians!"
Her curse was answered.
This is a fearful warning to those who trifle with a woman's affection. And it was the last interview of Lieutenant Boyd with the girl he was engaged to marry.
While on picket duty guarding a portage wagon road, Boyd's alertness paid off. He surprised a pair of Tories hiding behind a pile of stones. He captured them and brought them back to headquarters for questioning. Boyd was commended for discovering and capturing the two Tories. They soon discovered that Boyd had captured two of the most notorious Tories known to the colonists. They were Lieutenant Rolf Hare and Sergeant Gilbert Newbury. Their barbarities were particularly heinous during earlier actions at the Cherry Valley massacre. Both men were taken to Canajoharie and jailed.
On September 12, 1779, Lt. Boyd was called to the tent of Major General John Sullivan, his commander-in-chief. He was commended for the capture of Hare and Newbury. Sullivan gave him orders to scout ahead of the army that night and report back to him no later than dawn the next morning. Boyd’s task was to find the strength of the enemy near Chenussio, (2 1/2 miles SE of present Geneseo, New York, on the west side of the Genesee River). Sullivan ordered Boyd to take five or six men, including either Chief Jehoiakim or Chief Hanyerry as guides and scout Chenussio.
Boyd was also told:
Under no circumstances engage the enemy. Above all, be back by dawn the next morning with the report.
Lieutenant Boyd's ambition now blinded his common sense and overcame any intent to follow his orders to the letter.
First, instead of four or five men, he picked twenty-eight men, including Sergeant Michael Harper of Captain Simpson's company, and Timothy Murphy, a highly respected Indian fighter who was well known for his bravery. As guides, he summoned both Chief Jehoiakim and Hanyerry. Finally, instead of a quick, quiet scout on foot for ten miles to and from Chenussio, he mounted everyone on the best available horses.
So much for a quiet scout with five or six men! He had twenty-eight men on horseback.
A mile and a half from Sullivan's camp, the Indian path divided, one branch leading to Canasaraga in the direction of Williamsburg, and the other to Beard's Town. Boyd advanced cautiously and took the Canasaraga path. On arriving at the latter place, he found it deserted, although the fires of the enemy were still burning. The night was far advanced so he encamped near the village, intending to seek out the location of the enemy the next day. This was a most hazardous enterprise, 28 men, seven miles from their camp, in a dense forest, with a thousand foes waiting and watching. But danger was what the party courted.
So much for obeying the order to be back at dawn.
Before daybreak, Boyd sent two of his men to Sullivan's camp intending to push forward still farther into the wilderness. Since they never reached it, quite possibly they were met by the enemy and killed. Before they were put to death, the enemy no doubt learned from them the exact situation of Boyd's command. Twenty-six men remained in the scouting group.
Just after daylight, Lieutenant Boyd, accompanied by Murphy, crept from his place of concealment. Near the village of Canasaraga, they discovered two Indians coming out of a hut, fired at them, and a ball from Murphy's rifle sealed the fate of one.
So much for not engaging the enemy.
Murphy, as was his usual custom when he killed an Indian, took off his scalp, and then took the Indian's moccasins. After the escape of the other Indian, Boyd rightly supposed his visit would soon be made known and he decided to return to the American Camp with haste. Boyd was advised by Han Yerry to pursue a different route back, this advice he did not follow.
Boyd after all, knew better.
Unknown to Boyd, a large force of Tories and Indians under Joseph Brant had already set an ambush for General Sullivan's troops in that location. Boyd believed he had the Indians in a pincer, between him and Sullivan's army. Chief Hanyerry was more cautious. He feared a trap. As they went on the Indian saw signs others could not read and he knew he was right. They were heading straight into an ambush. Boyd laughed at the news and called Hanyerry an "old woman who was too old to fight and wanted only to sit by the fire".
Why take such advice, he knew better.
The enemy was hidden in a ravine through which they rightly guessed Boyd would approach. What could 26 men do, when they were opposed by nearly 10 to one? Discovering the enemy to be concealed in great numbers, Boyd attempted his escape by cutting through his thickly opposing ranks.
In the first round of fighting, not one of his men fell, although their fire took a toll upon the enemy. A second and third attempt was made, and this time seventeen of the Americans had fallen. At the third try, the ranks of the enemy were broken, and Murphy led his liberated comrades away from the ambush.
If any one escaped with his life it would be the wily Murphy, he was a survivor. Boyd was determined to follow him but since he was not as fast a runner probably because of his stout size, he was soon overtaken by a sergeant named Parker.
Murphy ran for his very life and after he was pursued for some time, he noticed he lost all his followers except two, a tall and a short Indian. Several times as they neared him, Murphy would raise his rifle (which was unloaded) and they would fall back. He found as he ran, his moccasins were too tight, because of the swelling of his feet. He opened a pocketknife, and while running (at the hazard of cutting his shins wide open) he slit the tops of his moccasins, which gave him relief. Shortly after, he entered some underbrush, and his feet become entangled in long grass. He fell. The place proved to be a good hiding place, and he stayed still and waited. His pursuers did not discover him, although he did them, and the pursuers altered their course. Murphy loaded his rifle, and cautiously proceeded on his way to the camp. He knew from the beginning, should he be taken prisoner, what his fate would be if he was found alive with the scalp of an Indian in his pocket and the stolen moccasins on his feet. A special torture would be his.
Shortly after Murphy again started forward through the woods, he discovered an Indian close by. The discovery was mutual and both Murphy and the Indian hid behind trees. After dogging each other for some time, Murphy drew his ramrod, placed his hat upon it and gently moved it aside the tree. The Indian, fired a musket ball through it. The hat was dropped, and running up to scalp his man, the Indian received a bullet from Murphy's rifle through his breast, exclaiming as he fell backwards, “O-wah!"
The elusive Timothy Murphy plus seven others continued on, broke through the ambush and plunged into a steep ravine. They left their horses behind hoping to divert their pursuers and headed away on foot. Murphy's strategy worked. Those eight men were the lucky ones. They escaped, but the other fifteen men, except for Lt. Boyd and Sgt. Harper, were killed, mangled by knives and axes and scalped.
Recognized by his attackers, Hanyerry was horribly mutilated. Of the fifteen bodies of Boyd's detachment only nine could be identified later.
Boyd had taken a rifle ball through the flesh of his side. He had been recognized as the leader of the men and was taken alive, as was Sgt. Harper. They were both taken to Chenussio.
When Sullivan's army arrived at Chenussio the next day, they found the only living people were a white woman named Sara Lester and her eight-month old baby, both severely malnourished. All the Indians were gone.
Moses Van Campen and Paul Sanbord of Clinton's Brigade found the bodies of Boyd and Harper. Only through sheer will power were the men able to refrain from vomiting after finding the remains.
The physical mutilation both men endured was practically beyond the belief of those who saw it and there is no need to expand on the torture they endured at the hands of their enemies.
Boyd and Harper probably were questioned either by Colonel John Butler or more likely by his son, Walter N. Butler, known for his cruel methods for extracting information.
An unsigned letter from Niagara dated Sept 19, 1779 to a Robert Hamilton reported that..."upon examination" Lt. Boyd gave accurate information to the Tories. It is not known if this was extracted by torture, but it is likely so, as the indignities resulting in their deaths were characteristic of torture deaths Iroquois subjected to captives. Apparently the bodies of the two men were then turned over to the Indians to do with as they wished.
General Sullivan ordered the two men be interred at once with full military honors. They were buried near a clump of wild plum trees beside Little Beard's Creek. The mound was visible from a trail for many years. In August 1842 they were re-interred in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. The Boyd-Parker State Park now marks the place where the men died.
Lt. Thomas Boyd was covered with the glory he wanted; only he never lived to enjoy it.
Make no mistake about this, Lt. Thomas Boyd suffered greatly and it is a real tragedy so many died in such a horrific fashion. He did not follow his orders and acted in a typical fashion of young people his age. Caution comes with the aging process and he never had his chance to finish maturing. There is nothing glorious about war, and there was nothing glorious about this one. The person who said, “War is hell!” said it well.