Almond’s Davy Crockett: Part II from “The Almond Story” by John Reynolds
Continuing John Reynolds’ account of Moses Van Campen as found in The Almond Story:
At the close of Sullivan’s campaign, Van Campen was taken ill and had to retire from the service. He returned to the home father in Wyoming Valley.
In spite of the punishment General Sullivan had inflicted upon them, the Indians were not entirely subdued and the desire for vengeance burned within them. In the spring of 1870 they resumed their attacks upon the outlying settlements. Some settlers were killed; others were carried away into captivity. Believing that Sullivan’s campaign had discouraged Indian attacks, the unsuspecting settlers were looking forward to the spring when they could again work their farms without molestation from the savages. Near the end of March, Van Campen with his father and younger brother left the fort one morning to work upon the father’s farm. With them went Van Campen’s uncle and his son, a boy of twelve, and a man named Peter Pence. The uncle had a farm located in the vicinity. While they were busy at work in a field, the Van Campens were attacked by a party of ten Indians. Caught completely by surprise, there was no possibility of escape. The Indians had already killed the uncle on an adjoining farm and had taken the boy and Pence as prisoners.
Van Campen’s father fell immediately with a spear transfixed in his breast, and the younger brother also was slain. Both were scalped at once and the boy’s body thrown upon the fire where the Van Campens had been burning brush. Then an Indian, jerking his spear loose from the elder Van Campen’s body, lunged at Moses who quickly dodged aside. The spear passed through his shirt and vest, inflicting only a slight flesh wound. He was then seized, his hands tied behind his back and with his young cousin and Peter Pence, led away in the direction of the Seneca country.
When the Indians made camp for the night, the prisoners closely guarded, were made to obtain firewood sufficient to maintain the fire throughout the chilly night. Then, they were bound hand and foot as before and made to lie down for the night, the Indians sleeping five on either side of them.
The next morning, as they continued their march upstream, a man named Pike was taken prisoner by the Indians. Later the same day, they came upon the bodies of five warriors. Some time later, it was learned that this was where one Bennett, afterwards a resident of the Town of Canisteo, and a man named Hammond, who had been taken prisoners by another band of marauding Indians, had made a thrilling escape by killing all five of their captors.
Van Campen knew well their lives were being spared temporarily in order that they might grace a war feast upon their arrival at some Indian village in the Niagara frontier. The idea of being burned at the stake or put to some other form of torture did not appeal to him and he knew that some effort to escape must be made very soon. Pike and Pence at first were reluctant to try but Van Campen finally convinced them that their lives depended on some sort of desperate action.
The second night, the prisoners gathered the firewood as before, after which they were again bound hand and foot and made to lie down upon the ground. When one Indian was getting settled for the night, his knife accidentally slipped from his belt and fell upon the ground near Van Campen’s feet. Taking full advantage of this piece of good fortune, Van Campen quickly placed his feet over it to hide it from view. Soon the Indians were asleep. About midnight, Van Campen stealthily moved the knife up within reach of his hands and cautiously rolled over to Pence. They cut each other’s bonds as well as those of Pike and the boy.
Moving about with extreme caution, knowing that their lives depended on it, the guns were gathered and stacked about a nearby tree. Pence was assigned to do the shooting while the others would wield the tomahawks with which they had armed themselves. Van Campen was to dispatch three Indians on his right, Pike, two on his left and Pence would do as much execution as he could with the guns..
Everything was almost in readiness when the two Indians assigned to Pike awoke and started to get up. Pike proved a coward and lay back on the ground as though nothing was amiss, but not so Van Campen. He knew that in another instant, all could be lost. It was a critical moment. Quick as a cat he leaped over and planted his tomahawk deep in their heads, then bounded back to the three originally assigned to him and dispatched them also. In the meantime Pike had been very effective with the guns and had killed four of their captors. Van Campen had killed five. Only one remained and he darted for the guns. Van Campen intercepted him and aimed a blow at his head with the tomahawk which missed but struck the Indian in the shoulder. They clinched and a terrific struggle ensued but the savage managed to free himself and escape. Years later, Van Campen learned that this Indian was John Mohawk, a renowned Seneca warrior who lived in the village of Caneadea. While Van Campen was living in Angelica they met on several occasions and always treated each other with much respect.
This incident occurred along the Susquehanna River near Tioga Point, now Athens, Pennsylvania. Realizing they must leave quickly before the escaped warrior could bring reinforcements, they built a raft, loaded on the spoils of war such as the guns, blankets, supplies and the scalps of his father, brother and uncle, and according to the custom of the times, the scalps of the Indian victims also. Then they floated down the river and eventually reached their homes and safety.
In the spring of 1782, a company of men he was leading in Northern Pennsylvania was attacked by a superior force of Indians under command of Captain Nellis, a notorious renegade. After a valiant though hopeless struggle during which a large number of his men were killed, Van Campen was taken prisoner. Captain Nellis with his warriors then started for Niagara where the reward then being offered for prisoners by the British could be collected.
The trail led through the Indian village of Caneadea where they stopped to rest for a few days. To provide amusement for the residents, the prisoners were forced to run the gauntlet. At his turn, Van Campen ran like a deer with the Indians trying to reach him with their whips.. The council house about forty rods distant was the goal. (This council house has since been moved and now stands in Letchworth Park). As he was very fleet of foot, Van Campen outdistanced his pursuers. With the goal very near, one last obstacle confronted him. Two young squaws stood in his path with whips raised and ready. It appeared impossible to pass them without suffering a severe lashing. At the last second he sprang at them with both feet forward, striking each one in the breast, and sent them sprawling. He found himself on the ground between two kicking females whom he did not wait to help to their feet. He got up quickly and finished the course while most of the warriors were doubled over in laughter. A large boulder to which is attached a bronze plaque marks the spot where this incident took place a short distance outside the present village of Caneadea.
After being turned over to the British authorities at Niagara, Van Campen was adopted into the family of a Colonel Butler. Shortly thereafter a party of Indians came to the fort and demanded that Van Campen be given back to them. They had somehow learned he was the man who had killed five of their warriors at the time of his escape. They wanted him so badly that they offered fourteen prisoners in exchange. Colonel Butler refused to give him up. To insure his escape from the Indians, he was smuggled aboard a ship and taken to Montreal where he was held prisoner for several months until released through an exchange of prisoners. He returned to Luzerne County, where he remained until moving to Almond several years later.
After settling in Almond, his services as a surveyor were much in demand and he assisted in laying out some of the original roads in this region.
In July 1801, Philip Church who had just graduated from law school, wished to explore the 100,000-acre tract of which he and his father had recently become joint owners. Engaging Evert Van Sickle, John Gibson, John Lewis and Stephen Price to accompany him, he procured camp equipment and supplies at Geneva and Bath and proceeded to Almond. Here, on the recommendation of Charles Williamson, he enlisted the services of Van Campen because of his valuable frontier experience and general knowledge of the country they intended to visit.
They left Van Campen’s home in McHenry Valley and journeyed south along the present route of the Erie Lackawanna Railroad until they reached the settlement of Nathaniel Dike at Elm Valley. Here they slept in Dike’s log barn overnight and in the morning continued on to the Genesee River.
In spite of almost constant rain, they scouted the tract thoroughly. Upon arriving at the northwest corner of his lands, with the exploration completed, young Philip Church desired to continue on to Niagara Falls as a sightseeing and pleasure trip and induced Van Campen to accompany him. The party then broke up. Van Campen and Church started along an Indian trail that bore off in the direction of Niagara, and the rest of the party returned to their homes.
Two or three days later, the travelers reached New Amsterdam (Buffalo) with their clothing torn, unshaven, tanned and smelling of camp smoke. They visited Niagara Falls, returned to New Amsterdam and then started their homeward journey. With only a short distance covered on their return trip, their money and provisions were exhausted except for a surplus of chocolate which they traded with settlers along the way for food.
Shortly thereafter, with the development of the tract underway, Philip Church engaged Van Campen permanently as a surveyor and it was he who suggested to Church the location of his stately dwelling at Belvidere. About 1805, he moved to Angelica with his family and into the fine old brick house which he had built and which is still standing just outside of the eastern entrance of the village. (See AHS Oct/Nov/Dec 2006 issue for related story)
He was very active in civic affairs. On August 12, 1807, he was appointed judge of the court of common pleas and on November 10 of that year he was the leading judge at the first court in the county and charged the jury, the first of many that he so charged. He held the offices of judge or justice of the peace almost constantly until 1821. From 1814 to 1826, he was county treasurer and in 1828, deputy county clerk. In 1831 he left Angelica and moved to Dansville.
In 1845 he was stricken with paralysis and in May 1848, he was moved to the home of his daughter, Mrs. George Lockhart, in Almond. Here he stayed until June of the following year when, at his request, he was taken back to his old home in Angelica. He died October 15, 1849, at the age of ninety-two years.
In his funeral sermon, the Rev. Thomas Aiken said, “His Christianity was pure, his views of religion sound and scriptural, and his fidelity and integrity of character were like his well-aimed rifle, true to the mark.”