Since coming to Montreal last September, I have been asked by several people what my connection to Canada is.
One connection, my great x 3 grandfather Joseph Lewis, is from the mid to late 1800s. He left Canada to come to the US for work.
But another, slightly more indirect connection, dates back to the 1700s. And it involves war.
Henry Simmons (born Johannes Henrich Simon or Symon) was a farmer in Claverack, Columbia County, in the crown colony of New York, just south of Fort Orange and Albany. His grandparents had come over to New York in 1710 along with about 3,000 others from what is now Germany but what was then the war-weary region of the Rhine Valley called the Palatinate. Simple farmers, his grandfather and neighbors had petitioned the British government for refuge. They claimed the French were persecuting them because of their Lutheran beliefs and asked for help.
Eager to deal a blow to the French, England agreed. But a few hundred refugees turned into a deluge. As hundreds of Palatine farmers gathered for the crossing, thousands further inland in the duchies of Brunswick and Inhalt flooded into the Rhine Valley to join the exodus. All told, upwards of 13,000 desperate refugees swarmed through Holland and the Channel into England.
Then as now: Refugees and Immigrants
London was overwhelmed. Debate raged over what to do with the refugees. Should England, a Protestant country, deny entry to fellow Protestants? But Londoners were appalled by the “poor Palatines,” whose language they couldn’t understand and whose habits were alien. The Tory Party (anti-immigrant, then as now) attacked the Whig Party claim that immigrants would provide cheap labor. The Palatines, likewise, were at a loss what to do. All they wanted was a safe place for their families, free of persecution and strife.
After a few months, various plans were put into motion. Some would go to Ireland to settle in land confiscated from Irish Catholic landlords during the Williamite wars (primarily in Limerick and Wexford). Another group would go to the royal crown colony of New York. Recently taken from the Dutch, New York was still sparsely populated along the Hudson River. The New York Governor Hunter had a plan, though. The Palatine farmers would be settled into camps a hundred miles north of Manhattan, where the densely wooded areas provided plenty of resources (or so the British thought, incorrectly) for making pine tar and pitch for British warships.
Except nobody told the Palatines that’s what they were supposed to do. They thought they would receive farmland. After arriving in Upstate, they stubbornly refused to make any pine tar and secretly negotiated with the local Iroquois tribes along the Mohawk River valley. A few hundred relocated to the Schoharie Valley and began to farm, happy to have finally found the rich farmland they thought they deserved. Ultimately, they were to fall afoul of Sir Jon Johnson, William Johnson’s son, and fight the British without any help from George Washington and the Continental Army.
But that’s another story.
The Palatines that remained in the West Camp and East Camp areas of the Hudson River valley were eventually granted land deeds, and began to marry amongst themselves. Hessians married Saxons. Saxons married Dutch.
In the East Camp (now Germantown), Bonesteels married Simmons. Or, rather, Bohnestiehls married Symons.
And that’s where the story really starts…
Henry Simmons married the daughter of his family friends, the Bonesteels. Another Simon, Abraham, had also married a Bonesteel, and over the decades both families spread out to help found and populate the towns of Red Hook, Rhinebeck, Claverack, Petersburgh, Eagle Mills, Brunswick, Grafton, and other parts of the former Manor of Rennselaerwyck (now the counties of Albany, Dutchess, Columbia, and Rennselaer). The Lutheran farmers were fruitful and multiplied. Aggressively.
Although many of his neighbors and family kept their German given names, Henry anglicized his. Whether before or after he became a lieutenant is unclear. But what is clear is that between 1775 and 1777, American rebels throughout New England and Upstate New York had slowly but surely confiscated their Loyalist (or Tory) neighbor’s properties, frequently burning, pillaging, looting, expelling, imprisoning, torturing, and otherwise terrorizing their former friends.
That’s not in most US history books. Extreme right wing views would have Americans believe that all the Colonists rose as one to fight their British oppressors. But that’s not what happened. Families, villages, towns, and cities were ripped down the middle in a brutal and bloody civil war.
That’s exactly what happened with the Bonesteels and the Simmons.
“The Battle” of Saratoga
In August 1777, Henry Simmons took a small cadre of loyalist family members and friends and left his homestead in Claverack, to answer the call to join General Burgoyne’s army advancing south to Fort Orange. After sneaking though woods and along streams for several days, through rarely used pathways in the sparsely populated rolling hill landscape of Rennselaerwyck, Henry’s ragtag group of a couple dozen farmers joined Jessup’s Loyal Rangers, part of the King’s Royal American regiment. Under Captain Christian Wehr, Henry was made a Lieutenant in his company, probably because he was one of the few who had prior militia experience (most of his men had no guns, and none of them had a uniform — and after eleven days of tramping through the wilderness, they probably were close to starving and didn’t smell all that great, either).
In September and October of 1777, fighting took place intermittently over eighteen separate days of what later became called “The” Battle of Saratoga. Simmons and his men fought at both the major battles of Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights. In the end, surrounded, exhausted, sick, and (more importantly) out of supplies, the British forces capitulated, and Simmons and his company were obliged to lay down arms and flee to Canada.
Two of his wife’s family, Jacob and Philip Bonesteel, came with him on the flight to Quebec City. The Palatine farmers tended to use the same names for all family members in every family, which makes tracing them extremely difficult (lots of Philippus, Heinrich, Ludowick, and Nicholas middle names, with Johannes as their first name).
But based on my own research I believe the Philip Bonesteel in Henry’s Loyalist group was the son of Henry’s wife’s uncle David, who was in New York militia. Jacob was probably Philip’s brother, but I can’t tell for sure. These likely cousins of Henry’s wife Catherine Bonesteel were roughly 17 or 18 at the time and both ended up in Ontario in the 1790s. At least two of David’s daughters who at the time were barely old enough to walk also ended up settling in Ontario after the war ended.
However, records show that another Philip Bonesteel, Catherine’s younger brother and therefore Henry’s brother-in-law, fought in the Albany County Militia on the side of the Americans. At the same time, still another of Catherine’s uncles (yes, yet another Philip!) was a former cavalry colonel and local magistrate and postmaster in the town of Red Hook who supported the rebel cause. Other members of the Simmons family (Henry’s brothers, cousins, and uncles) fought variously on either the loyalist/tory side or the rebel side.
The family was divided, and these two farming families had dozens of family members, most of whom had militia experience. Dinners must have been explosive affairs. The pub must have been quite lively.
How do we know all this about Henry?
Because Henry kept a journal. The original is kept in Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, but several transcripts exist online, complete with “yay, we are awesome Loyalists” notes and commentary. Much of this material was initially published in newsletters such as the Canadian Loyalist Gazette but is now available in several university libraries and other repositories.
After the war ended, Henry was granted about 1300 acres of land in Ontario and he brought his wife and other family members from New York to an area east of Toronto. Along with other “United Empire Loyalists” they founded Ernestown, now part of Loyalist Township. Nearby, Henry built a sawmill that became the foundation for what is now Wilton (Henry’s middle name), Ontario.
While Henry Simmons is not my direct ancestor, his complicated relationship with the Bonesteels sheds light on a traumatic decade in North American history. Reading his experiences, I can only imagine how similar scenarios were playing out across the entire Hudson and Mohawk River valleys, as immigrant families from the Palatinate, Brunswick, and Anhalt interacted with local indigenous tribal peoples, imported “Hessian” mercenaries (some of whom were actually French, Irish, Swedish, and Flemish), Continental Army soldiers from across the colonies who were undisciplined and unruly, and British Army soldiers who wantonly destroyed the farms of their own subjects and treated both rebels and loyalists with contempt and derision.
Imagine the passion, the turmoil, the violence, the terror and fear of not knowing who was on your side and whether your family would have food (or shelter) to survive the long, cold winter. Imagine this going on for year after year after year with no end in sight.
Now, how can US history textbooks continue to be so damn boring?
While I was a student at Bard College, just outside the towns of Red Hook, Rhinebeck, and Tivoli, I had no idea that I was living and studying in land toiled over and fought over by my German Palatine ancestors. In fact, each Tuesday I would drive the student weekly newspaper up Route 9G to the offset printer in the city of Hudson, blissfully unaware that I was retracing the advance of Henry and his motley crew to war and exile.
History is still alive, folks. Sometimes it’s in your backyard.
On the American side, General Henry Dearborn kept a much more thorough, and longer, diary, including his perspective of the battles for Saratoga and Stillwater. His account of the treachery of “General” Wilkinson and Aaron Burr are also illuminating.
To see how complicated life was during the Revolutionary War for the average colonist, who often had little desire to choose sides and simply wanted to be left alone, check out Washington’s Spies, which has recently been transformed and televised as the series TurN: Washington’s Spies.
Read this article for more on the “Hessians,” several thousand of which stayed in Canada and the US after the war was over. Thanks to them, many formerly indifferent colonists became rebels with a cause. A LOT of mercenaries from the Germanic kingdoms wrote diaries, but this one is probably the cheapest (some are out of print and others range in the hundreds of dollars now).
Following the US victory at Saratoga, Congress ordered a national day of Thanksgiving — the first time the holiday existed by that name. Sorry, everyone. No turkeys, Pilgrims in goofy hats, or native Americans were involved. (Doubtful the “holiday” was observed by many, but still.)