Did Benedict Arnold’s fleet plunder an American settlement?

The War Years (1775-1783)

August 29, 2017
by Ennis Duling Also by this Author


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As the sun set, Saturday, August 24, 1776, three American schooners, a sloop-of-war, and six gondolas sailed north from Crown Point toward the widest part of Lake Champlain. Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold aboard the schooner Royal Savage had been ordered by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates to position his fleet at a narrows on the lake and to be defensive and cautious. But Gates wrote that if he was confronted by the enemy, “you will act with such cool determined Valour, as will give them Reason to repent their Temerity.”[1]

That evening the fleet sailed only four miles, drew together in line of battle, and dropped anchor in four fathoms of water. On Sunday morning, they were under sail soon after sunrise and by 10 o’clock were beyond Buttonmould Bay (today’s Button Bay) on the eastern side of the lake, a dozen miles from Crown Point. Throughout the day, thirty-two-year-old Lt. Bayze Wells of the gondola Providence sounded the lake and recorded the fathoms. North of Split Rock, the three-quarter mile-wide gateway to the broad lake, he found no bottom after lowering all 240-feet of line.[2]

On the night of August 25-26, the fleet anchored at the mouth of the Boquet River off Willsborough (today’s Willsboro, New York) on the western side of the lake where it is three-and-a-half miles wide. During the Revolution, the area was most often referred to as “Gilliland’s” after wealthy landowner William Gilliland. The settlement boasted twenty-eight houses, forty other building, two grist mills, and two saw mills, and prosperous farms and orchards.[3]

In his early forties at the start of the war, Gilliland was the wealthiest and most influential man on northern Lake Champlain. Born in County Armagh in today’s Northern Ireland, Gilliland made his fortune as a New York merchant and then became a pioneer and landed gentleman with tenants, slaves, and more than 50,000 acres in today’s Clinton and Essex counties. He was man with a temper, given to flowery writing, wounded pride, and exaggeration, but he was generous and good company—and from the start of the war, he was a supporter of the American cause.[4]

In May 1775, Gilliland wrote to the Continental Congress calling for the defense of Lake Champlain following the surprise capture of Fort Ticonderoga. (Along with many others, he took credit for the idea of seizing the fort.) Calling himself “a lover of my liberty and my country,” he congratulated Congress on the victory achieved “under the prudent and spirited conduct of Colonel Arnold and Mr. Ethan Allen.” Although Gilliland awarded Arnold the first mention and a military rank, he praised Allen as “enterprising and heroick.” Allen’s men were “as brave as Hercules, and as good marksmen as can be found in America.[5]

Two years later, Gilliland claimed that during the spring of 1775 he calmed “an unhappy dispute, wh subsisted between Mr Allen and Mr Arnold.” Gilliland’s accomplishments combined the aspirations of land-speculator Allen and merchant Arnold, and the two bitter rivals might have deferred to him, if only briefly. When Arnold was forced from command on the lake in the early-summer of 1775, Gilliland wrote a fawning letter of thanks purportedly from six hundred families on Lake Champlain. The address maintained that Arnold was “a bright example of that elevation and generosity of soul, which nothing less than real magnanimity and innate virtue could inspire.”[6]

In the summer of 1775, Gilliland’s mills supplied lumber to build the bateaux to transport the American army north. There were British attempts to seize Gilliland and imprison him in Canada. It was said that “the Regular Troops declared, that when they came up the lake, they would destroy Esquire Gilliland’s settlement.”[7]

In a memorial to Congress two years later, Gilliland enumerated the services he performed for the army that invaded Canada. “From the Gen’l down to the centenel, he [Gilliland, writing in the third person] has entertained 3 or 4000 men at his own expence—he never charged a shilling for vegetables, salmon, milk or any thing he had to spare them—has complimented them with 1500 salmon in one season . . . . has lain weeks together on straw in a com’n room, that sick and wounded officers and sold’rs that were sent to or stopt at his house might be more comfortably accommodated . . . . had every sold’er who died in his settlement inter’d in decent coffins, with the honors of war.”[8]

Although Gilliland may have exaggerated, accounts by men who served in the north agree with the memorial’s essence: Gilliland’s was the final comfort before the misery of Canada and the first welcome on the way home.

Dr. Lewis Beebe of Charles Burrall’s Connecticut State Regiment stayed at Willsborough on his way to Canada in April 1776. “We were Elegantly entertained,” he wrote.  He was especially charmed by Gilliland’s teenage daughter, who sang in Latin, French, and English “with the greatest propriety.” After officers went to bed, he and Gilliland stayed up until 1:00 A.M. discussing religion, politics, education, and marriage. In the morning, Gilliland accompanied his guests to the beach where the troops were encamped to see them off.[9]

Chaplain Ammi Robbins traveled with Seth Warner’s regiment, sometimes called the Green Mountain Boys, as they left Canada in mid-May 1776. At Gilliland’s, wrote Robbins, we were “most kindly received and entertained by that hospitable man.” Robbins had been sick with dysentery and believed he was revived by “excellent spruce beer.” He dined on tea and fish and slept well in a bed. Gilliland is “truly a benefactor,” he wrote.[10] A month later, as the American hold on Canada collapsed, Dr. Samuel Merrick, who was shepherding the first wave of sick from Île aux Noix, stopped at Gilliland’s: “Treated with great hospitality by him. Eat a fine Venison stake & lay down in a tent for sleep.”[11]

But with the final retreat of the American army from Canada to Ticonderoga and Mount Independence in the early summer of 1776, Gilliland’s settlement was exposed to the enemy. Tenants moved south; others wondered if they could turn a British invasion to their own advantage. In July, Gilliland supplied the American forces at Crown Point with a hundred cattle. In his opinion he was paid less than they were worth, while American officers complained that he was profiteering. He raised the issue of money constantly at a time when he feared he was losing everything. On July 24, Lt. Col. Thomas Hartley of the 4th Pennsylvania Battalion, in command of the advanced post on the lake at Crown Point, warned Gen. Gates at Ticonderoga not to trust Gilliland any longer. Hartley’s report was vague: information “inclines me to apprehend, that the supposition that Gilliland and some others had sent down one Edward Watson and another to St. John’s [the British fort and harbor on the Richelieu River, the outlet of Lake Champlain] had some foundation.”[12]

And that’s where matters stood on August 25-26 as the fleet anchored off Gilliland’s. Arnold and Gilliland had been close; Gilliland was or at least had been an ardent supporter of the American cause; American soldiers had relied on being welcomed to the settlement; but by the late summer of 1776, there were doubts. A week later Gilliland alleged that Arnold’s men plundered houses and farms. Some historians of the Revolution and Arnold biographers dismiss the charges; local historians take Gilliland at his word.

However, evidence in the journal of Lt. Wells has not been carefully weighed.[13]

On the afternoon of Monday, August 26, faced with gale winds from the north, driving  rain, and what Arnold termed “an amazeing Sea,” the fleet raced back through Split Rock to the shelter of Buttonmould Bay on the eastern shore. The gondola Spitfire was left behind and feared lost. The mast on the gondola Connecticut broke, and the schooner Revenge took her under tow.[14]

At Buttonmould, the fleet rode out the storm Monday night and all day Tuesday and Wednesday. About sunset on Wednesday, to everyone’s surprise, the Spitfire rejoined them. The weather finally moderated on Thursday, and Arnold and his officers celebrated with a pig roast on the rocky point that rounds the bay.[15] After the storm, the wind died.

On Saturday, while the fleet was still becalmed, Arnold received the first complaints of plundering by his men. As Wells recorded the story, local inhabitants claimed “thare houses were Robd of Furneture thare fields and Gardens of the frute thareof in thare absence and Sepsd it to be done by the fleet.” In response, Arnold called his captains together and ordered Isaac Seaman of the Revenge and Job Sumner of the gondola Boston to go ashore to “view the houses & fields that the Inhabitants might Get Satisfaction for their Loss.” No boat could go ashore unless accompanied by an officer.[16]

This incident of plundering on the east shore in today’s Vermont was separated from events at Willsborough by the width of the lake, a sail of some fifteen miles, and a fierce storm. Perhaps success at Willsborough led to continued stealing. Most of the men had been drafted unwillingly from regiments stationed at the forts and were not accustomed to life afloat. Arnold himself had nothing but contempt for his “wretched motley Crew.” The marines, he told Gates, were “the Refuse of every Regiment”; few of the sailors had ever been “wet with salt Water.”[17]

On the afternoon of September 1, the fleet left its sanctuary at Buttonmould Bay and again sailed toward Canada. Although still only 25 miles from headquarter at Ticonderoga, they felt themselves to be deep in enemy territory.

On the same day, Gilliland wrote to Arnold, complaining that his property had been plundered a week earlier. They “wantonly and wickedly committed great destruction on several of my plantations on this settlement,” Gilliland claimed. They stole—“forceably raised,” were Gilliland’s words— two fields of potatoes. They ruined an acre of peas and five or six acres of corn. They carried off tools, two sleighs, five new window sash, a bedstead, and several chairs. If the accusations are true, men had turned to stealing useless items out of the joy of having no restraints.[18]

Gilliland claimed men broke down doors and committed “every villany in the most insolent and licentious manner even before my servants’ face.” When challenged, they said, “it was by order of the officers they came for the vegetables, and have them they would, were I present myself.”

William Gilliland (Fort Ticonderoga)

But Gilliland did not blame Arnold. “As I am convinced you would not by any means countenance such proceeding,” he wrote, “I rely and request you will have immediate justice done me, by ordering a survey or inquiry to be made to ascertain the amount of my damage.” If that sounded like a demand, Gilliland softened it in a postscript. His salmon cribs, the apparatus used to catch lake salmon, had been swept away by the flood. “If your carpenters could be spared to assist me one day or two, I should very soon be able to send you some salmon.”

On September 2, the fleet paused briefly off Willsborough where Arnold received Gilliland’s letter and sent a letter of his own to Gates in which he mentioned the destruction of the salmon cribs, but said nothing about either accusation of plundering.[19] Arnold had reason to be wary. During the winter of 1775-1776, while in command outside Québec, he had accused Maj. John Brown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, of allowing his men to plunder private property on British vessels captured on the St. Lawrence River. Consequently, Arnold denied Brown promotion, shared his charges with prominent officers and politicians, and gained a lasting enemy. Then there were rumors that Arnold had seized goods from Montréal merchants not to benefit the poorly supplied American army but for personal profit. So claims that Arnold’s men had plundered would be doubly embarrassing seen in the light of earlier controversies.

Arnold left Willsborough quickly with the issue unresolved. The fleet sailed as far north as today’s border with Canada, skirmished with the enemy, and was battered by gale winds and heavy seas. Finally on September 24, the fleet, now grown to 13 vessels, anchored between rocky Valcour Island and the western shore of the lake where it awaited the arrival of three row galleys.

On September 28, a day in which gun crews engaged in target practice, Arnold at last turned to the accusations of plundering and struck with a ferocity that all but ruined the rest of Gilliland’s life. “Gilliland is a most plausible and artful villain,” Arnold wrote to Gates, enclosing a copy of Gilliland’s complaint, “not one syllable of which is true.” A few men had been sent ashore at Willsborough, “but the whole stuff that was brought off, was not worth forty shillings.” On the return to Willsborough, one bateau of men harvested vegetables on an abandoned farm.

Arnold included the testimony of a French Canadian man and his wife that several tenants sent by Gilliland had supplied the British with intelligence. He included a deposition taken earlier at Crown Point from Thomas Day of Willsborough, who was a prominent resident. In April 1776, Day had been chosen as moderator at a Willsborough town meeting.[20]

Day testified to a justice of Charlotte County, New York, that Gilliland had sent men to the British in Canada. He had also heard Gilliland say the American army “acted like a parcel of damned robbers.” In the spring when several American officers passed by an open window, Gilliland commented, “There comes a company of damned buggers.” Gilliland also encouraged a tenant to exchange “a mere trifle rum” for tents, axes, and guns. And tenant John Watson said he was not afraid of the Regulars, having relatives among them.

Day’s testimony against Gilliland presents a puzzle. On September 15, Arnold sent Sgt. Thomas Day, a deserter from Allan Maclean’s Royal Highland Emigrants, to Gates at Ticonderoga. Originally a matross (assistant to the gunners) in John Lamb’s Independent Company of New York Artillery, Day had been captured in the attack on Québec, December 31, 1775. In exchange for his release, he agreed to enlist in Maclean’s regiment. Gates hurried Sgt. Day south, so that by the time the deposition against Gilliland reached headquarters, Gates could no longer question him and assumed Day had firsthand knowledge Gilliland’s actions and opinions in 1776.

But the timing appears to be wrong. According to Arnold, the sergeant deserted Maclean’s regiment on August 31, 1776, while on the St. Lawrence River. The testimony against Gilliland, although undated, was taken at Crown Point during the summer at Arnold’s orders and shows Day to be in Willsborough in the spring and summer of 1776. Something is not right with Arnold’s explanation to Gates, but what?[21]

As a result of Day’s statement, Gilliland, Watson, and another man were taken as prisoners from Crown Point to Ticonderoga. Even Lt. Col. Hartley, who had warned Gates about Gilliland, expressed guarded support. “General Arnold doubtless will inform you the reasons that induced him to make these orders,” he tactfully wrote. “I thought that as Mr. Gilliland’s family and Mr. Watson’s family were in our power, there would have been no danger of either of the men, had they been inclined to act against us.” Watson, whose wife was pregnant and “very unwell,” offered no threat, “let his offence be what it may.”[22]

Gilliland was not confined at Ticonderoga. He and Watson dined several times with engineer Jeduthan Baldwin, who was a good companion. Gilliland sold Baldwin a china bowl for three dollars, an indication of his diminished finances. He was never indicted on whatever charges could be made from Arnold’s and Day’s accusations.[23]

With the destruction of the fleet on October 11 off Valcour Island and during the two-day retreat, the ruin of Gilliland’s frontier empire was assured. Champlain was a British lake to within sight of Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. Had Gilliland been able to return home, he would have been viewed as an enemy by both sides.

In 1777-78 Gilliland was twice arrested in Albany and once imprisoned for a week with Loyalists. Gates, who was in command in Albany in the spring of 1777, made suppressing Loyalists a priority. According to Gilliland, he encouraged Gilliland’s slaves to escape, even offering them shelter in his own house.[24]

In 1777 (the exact date was unrecorded), Gilliland appealed to Congress for payment for the loss of property. By then he blamed Arnold for all his woes. “Bursting with pride and intoxicated with power to whch he ever ought to have been a stranger, but whch he has art enough to obtain from you, he tyrannizes where he can.” Arnold has “done more injury to the American cause, than all the ministerial troops,” he told Congress.[25]

For the rest of the war, Gilliland’s property was behind enemy lines, and then as the war ended, the land with its overgrown farms and neglected buildings was granted to others. For six years in the late-1780s, early-1790s, Gilliland was jailed in New York City by creditors. When he finally returned to Lake Champlain, he was a broken man in failing health, living with his daughter and son-in-law. Some said he was insane, still believing that he controlled hundreds of tenants and thousands of acres. In February 1796 after a visit to friends, he became lost in the woods. His frozen body was found a few days later.[26]

Today, away from the western shore of Lake Champlain where he was a pioneer, Gilliland is a forgotten figure, deep in the shadow of Arnold’s accusations of deceit and treason.

But whatever happened when Arnold’s fleet visited Willsborough, Gilliland deserves to be remembered for his many services early in the war. Whether he was an enduring patriot or by the summer of 1776 a man whose loyalty was wavering, his way of life was destroyed by events far beyond his control.


[1] Gates to Arnold, August 7, 1776, in William James Morgan, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1972), 6:95.

[2] Bayze Wells, “Journal of Bayze Wells of Farmington, May, 1775-February 1777, At the Northward and in Canada,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1899), 7:270-271.

[3] Winslow C. Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley: being an account of the settlement of the town of Willsborough by William Gilliland, together with his journal and other papers: and a memoir, and historical and illustrative notes (Albany, N.Y.: J. Munsell, 1863), 55.

[4] Ibid.; David Glenn, “William Gilliland, 1734-1796: Pioneer Settler of Essex and Clinton, Counties, New York” (August 22, 2008; revised March 15, 2009) online at http://gillilandtrails.org.

[5] Gilliland to Congress, May 29, 1775, Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D.C., 1837-1853), Ser. 4, 1:731-732.

[6] Gilliland to Congress, undated but apparently 1777, Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley, 175; “Address of the principal Inhabitants on Lake Champlain to Benedict Arnold,” July 3, 1775, American Archives, Ser. 4, 2:1088.

[7] Russell P. Bellico, Sails and Steam in the Mountains: A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain (Fleischmanns, N.Y.: Purple Mountain Press, 1992), 121; American Archives, Ser. 4, 3:14, 35; Watson, 49.

[8] Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley, 176-177.

[9] Lewis Beebe; Frederic R. Kirkland, ed., “Journal of a Physician on the Expedition Against Canada, 1776,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 59, no. 4 (Oct. 1935), 325-326.

[10] Ammi R. Robbins, Journal of the Rev. Ammi R. Robbins, A Chaplain in the American Army in the Northern Campaign of 1776 (New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1850), 23-24.

[11] Samuel Fisk Merrick, “Medicine in the Canadian Campaign of the Revolutionary War: The Journal of Doctor Samuel Fisk Merrick,” David B. Davis, ed., Bulletin of the History of Medicine 44, no. 5 (Sept.-Oct. 1970), 467.

[12] Hartley to Gates, July 24, 1776, American Archives, Ser. 5, 1:564.

[13] Readers can find a variety of approaches to the question. Gilliland lied about his property being plundered: James Kirby Martin, Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 257. Arnold had solid proof of Gilliland’s disloyalty: Willard Sterne Randall, Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1999, original 1990), 273. There is no doubt Arnold’s men plundered the property of a patriot: Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley, 58-59; David Glenn, “William Gilliland.” No mention of Gilliland or his property: Isaac Newton Arnold, The Life of Benedict Arnold: His Patriotism and Treason (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Company, 1880); James L. Nelson, Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution. (Camden, Maine: McGraw Hill, 2006); and many others.

[14] Arnold to Gates, August 31, 1776, Naval Documents, 6:371.

[15] Wells, “Journal of Bayze Wells,” 272.

[16] Ibid., 273.

[17] Arnold to Gates, September 18, 1776, Naval Documents, 6:884.

[18] Gilliland to Arnold, September 1, 1776, American Archives, Ser. 5, 2:112-113.

[19] Arnold to Gates, September 2, 1776, American Archives, Ser. 5, 1:1267.

[20] “Testimony of Thomas Day,” American Archives, Ser. 5, 2:592-593; Thomas Day as Willsborough town moderator, April 9, 1776, Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley, 173.

[21] Information on Sgt. Day appears in Naval Documents 6:790-791, 837-838, 858; American Archives, Ser. 5, 2:847.

[22] Hartley to Gates, October 1, 1776, American Archives, Ser. 5, 2:834.

[23] Jeduthan Baldwin, The Revolutionary Journal of Col. Jeduthan Baldwin 1775-1778, Thomas Williams Baldwin, ed. (Bangor, Maine: 1906), 79.

[24] Gilliland to Albany Committee of Safety, January 15, 1778, Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley, 182-189.

[25] Watson, Pioneer History of the Champlain Valley, 180.

[26] Ibid., 83-85.


  • As I read this article, it’s purpose seems to be, contrary to its title, to rehabilitate the reputation and legacy of William Gilliland. While I am a strong supporter of most attempts to present information about a Rev War figure to counteract what history seems to say about him or her with relevant factual information, the problem here is that the substance of the article is not what is in the title.

    I am aware that there is a trend today to try to attract the attention of potential readers using catchy phrasing in a title of an article. However, I feel that the title should reflect what the article is about. This one has 27 paragraphs relating to William Gilliland who was obviously an important player in the Lake Champlain area in the mid-1700’s. There is more about Gilliland than the American fleet that anchored at his compound in Sept 1776.

    In my opinion, the information in the article does not provide sufficient details to justify the use of the word “plunder” in the title. Plunder seems a more appropriate phrase to describe an attack by pirates than a visit by American vessels on their way to establish a location to contest the advance by the British down Lake Champlain. Describing what happened as plunder might attract readers attention but it’s use in the title is not justified.

    1. And, there aren’t many raisins in Raisin Bran. Nevertheless, like the cereal, the article’s title is deceptive to some degree but there still is value here. In this case, it certainly would have been better to present more raisins in the form of information on the possible plundering but I’m sure many readers have little knowledge of Gilliland’s doings in the Champlain valley or of the influence of his community on the activities in the valley. Like bran, any intake of knowledge is generally a good thing.

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