Joseph Bettys: Revolutionary War Patriot, Traitor, and “Desperado”

Illustration of the capture of British Loyalist spy Joseph Bettys in the Town of Ballston, New York, 1782 (United States Magazine, 1857, p. 569)

The Revolutionary War’s human landscape was populated by the famous, the infamous, and a vast number who have been forgotten. Some like Joseph Bettys were both infamous and largely forgotten. What little that has been remembered and written about him is often sprinkled with a liberal mixture of half truths and falsehood born from the raw emotions of a people who suffered terribly through a harsh civil war. Bettys was also the object of that special loathing which is heaped upon those who switched their allegiance to the losing side of a civil war. He, like his old commander, Benedict Arnold, didn’t just change sides. he made life very miserable for his former comrades and neighbors.

While few today have heard of Bettys, his name was well known in upstate New York for several generations after the Revolutionary War due to his active service to the Crown in New York State. A typical assessment of Bettys was that of the New York historian William L. Stone. Who wrote that Bettys was:

Bold, athletic, and of untiring activity; revengeful and cruel in his disposition; inflexible in his purposes; his bosom cold as the marble to the impulses of humanity; he ranged the border settlements like a chafed tiger snuffing every tainted breeze for blood, until his name had become as terrific to the borderers, as were those of Kidd and Pierre le Grande upon the ocean in the preceding century.[1]

Ninety years later time had not eased history’s assessment of Bettys. Saratoga, New York historian Cornelius Durkee described Bettys as:

An embodiment of every trait that would serve to render a man dangerous and to be dreaded. Secret and unscrupulous in his means, daring and desperate in action; malicious and revengeful by nature, he was the incarnation of all that was terrible in war. And fearful in the spy and desperado. His name to this day is held in merited execration for his manifold crimes and outrages on the Saratoga frontier in the days of the American Revolution.[2]

Bettys was an ordinary man who led an ordinary existence for the first twenty years of his life. Born 1750 in the Norwalk, Connecticut area, he moved with his family in 1770 to the new upstate New York frontier settlement of Ballston. There his father, Joseph, Sr., opened a tavern.[3] The senior Bettys was active and generally well thought of in his community. An area historian observed: “The elder Bettys appears to have been much respected and esteemed by his neighbors, and an unsuspected Patriot.”[4]

The first record of Bettys’ involvement in the conflict which was quickly engulfing and dividing community and state was his enlistment as a sergeant on March 13, 1776, in Capt. Samuel Van Vechten’s company of Col. Cornelius D. Wynkoop’s Albany County militia regiment.[5] Bettys owed his rank and enlistment to the company’s 2nd lieutenant, John Ball. Ball was a neighbor of Bettys and the son of Ballston’s founder, Eliphalet Ball. After the war Ball was politically active and rose to the rank of colonel of the militia. In a speech celebrating George Washington’s birthday, Ball explained why he recruited his old neighbor:

Being acquainted with Bettys, who was a citizen of Ballston, and knowing him to be bold, athletic, and intelligent in an uncommon degree, I was desirous of obtaining his services for my country, and succeeded in enlisting him with the command of sergeant ….[6]

In June and July 1776, Colonel Wynkoop and his regiment were operating in the areas of Fort Ticonderoga and Skenesborough supporting the American defenses and constructing the Lake Champlain fleet.[7] During this period we begin to get an insight into Bettys’s temperament. Captain Van Vechten’s company roster notes on June 3, 1776, Sergeant Joseph “Bettyes” was “reduced to Corporal.”[8] Ball again came to Bettys’s defense. Regarding the incident Ball later stated Bettys was

reduced to the ranks, on account of insolence to an officer, who he said, had abused him without cause. Knowing his irritable and determined spirit, and unwilling to lose him, I procured him a sergency in the fleet commanded by General Arnold, ‘afterwards the traitor,’ on Lake Champlain in ’76.[9]

A letter from Colonel Wynkoop to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates dated July 30, 1776, casts a light on Bettys and his new posting:

Dear General: I have sent you one gondola more down, which the carpenters have named after me. I hope you will send a good officer on board of her … I also send you one sailor out of my regiment down. I would be glad you would order him on board immediately, or I am afraid that he will run off and leave you ….[10]

That “sailor” was Bettys. John Ball unequivocally stated Bettys was “a skillful seaman.”[11] And a seaman he would soon prove to be.

Philip Schuyler and Benedict Arnold were strategically adroit enough to understand the importance of establishing naval control Lake Champlain to keep the British from moving south. They knew it was a question of when, not if, the reinforced British army in Canada would ascend the lake to capture Ticonderoga and points south.[12] To that end, the Americans began building a fleet in Skenesborough. The ensuing fleet action on Lake Champlain would be the first of two instances where Bettys would participate in an action that would prove critical to the survival of the American cause.

At the end of August 1776, Benedict Arnold moved his newly constructed, inexperienced fleet down the lake to find and engage the enemy. Arnold’s flotilla included two schooners, a sloop, a cutter, three galleys and eight gondolas.[13] Finding crews, much less experienced seaman, for his ships proved as challenging as building a fleet in a wilderness lacking essential naval stores. In July, only seventy out of several thousand soldiers around Fort Ticonderoga volunteered to serve on the fleet. Congress was subsequently forced to authorize several drafts from regiments serving in the Northern Army to crew Arnold’s ships.[14] Arnold referred to the draftees from the regiments as “motley, a miserable set” and the marines were “the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen, few of them, ever wet with salt water.”[15] Not an auspicious outlook for the upcoming events.

Bettys was assigned to the gondola Philadelphia. The ship’s payroll lists Bettys as “mate,” third in the chain of command and one of the first of Capt. Benjamin Rue’s forty-four crew members.[16] He, along with Captain Rue and three others, came aboard the vessel on August 1, a day after it was launched. Bettys probably assisted the captain in fitting out the new ship. The gondolas, the most numerous vessels in Arnold’s flotilla, were easily, quickly and cheaply built. Fifty-four feet long, flat bottomed, double ended, powered by sails and sweeps, having a shallow draft with a large capacity, the Philadelphia and her sister ships were functional vessels for Lake Champlain with its shallows and sheltered areas.[17] The gondolas were armed with one twelve pounder at the bow and one nine pounder on each side.

Arnold engaged Capt. Thomas Pringle’s British fleet off of Valcour Island, southeast of today’s city of Plattsburg, New York, on October 11. It was not a fair fight, but it was an important one. One historian wrote that the British fleet at Valcour Island “outmatched Arnold in size and number of ships, capability and size of cannon, number of cannon, quality of crews, and sailing capabilities on the water. In fact, Arnold possessed not a single advantage over the British fleet.”[18] Arnold however chose his battleground well. His one tactical advantage was that he could fight his fleet without maneuvering it. The British would have to come to him in a restricted area.

The battle began around eleven in the morning and continued to dusk, around five. At that point the British fleet pulled out of range and attempted to hem in Arnold’s fleet by blockading the southern narrows between Valcour Island and the mainland so they could complete its destruction in the morning. Arnold’s ships were severely mauled. The riddled Philadelphia sank at anchor about an hour after the battle ceased. She was the only American vessel sunk by gunfire. As the Philadelphia was sinking the row galley Washington pulled along side to evacuate the stricken ship’s crew. Bettys, Captain Rue and the rest of the ship’s surviving crew boarded a now crowded and badly damaged Washington. Aboard the Washington was Brig. Gen. David Waterbury, Arnold’s second in command, an experienced seaman and an acquaintance of Eliphalet Ball’s in Connecticut.

That night Arnold stealthily sailed his crippled fleet through a gap in the British line and began a desperate run for Crown Point. The riddled Washington was the last ship in the fleeing flotilla as they made their way south. On the morning of October 13, three British vessels caught the spent Washington five miles below Split Rock, about seventeen miles north of Crown Point. Waterbury wrote that the Washington “was so shattered she was not able to bare firing.”[19] Unable to put up a fight, he surrendered his ship around nine in the morning. Before the ship capitulated, Capt. Rau and sixteen of his crew escaped on a bateau and traveled through the woods to Fort Ticonderoga.[20] Bettys remained with General Waterbury.[21]

The following day a small British flotilla appeared before Fort Ticonderoga under a flag of truce. Aboard the flotilla were General Waterbury and one hundred and six prisoners taken when the Washington was surrendered. Maj. Gen. Guy Carleton, commander of the British forces, had paroled and released the American prisoners after having them swear an oath “not to say or do anything that may be contrary to the interest of His Majesty’s government.”[22] Carleton’s release of the prisoners had surprised the Americans and put them in an awkward position. Col. John Trumbull, an aid to General Gates who met the returning prisoners, wrote:

all were warm in their acknowledgment of the kindness with which they had been treated, and which appeared to me to have made a very dangerous impression. I therefore placed the boats containing the prisoners under the guns of a battery, and gave orders that no one should be permitted to land, and no intercourse take place with the troops on shore until orders should be received from Gen. Gates.[23]

The decision was quickly made to spirit the former prisoners off to Skenesborough without allowing them to land. Gates did not want the kind treatment by a not too distant enemy broadcast to his nervous men.

General Waterbury remembered Bettys’s fearlessness and pluck during the battle,

having noticed his [Bettys’s] extraordinary bravery, and conduct, he [Waterbury] stationed him on the quarter deck by his side, and gave orders through him until the vessel becoming altogether crippled – the crew mostly killed – Gen. Waterbury wounded, and only two officers left, the colors were struck to the enemy. Gen. Waterbury afterwards told my father that he never saw a man behave with such deliberate desperation, as did Bettys; and that the shrewdness of management, showed his conduct was no way inferior to his courage.[24]

Bettys was a hero in the general’s eyes. He was paroled by General Carleton and swore not to take up arms against the Crown. He kept his word.

For nearly a year after the battle of Valcour Island Bettys’s life is a mystery. Inexplicably he appeared next “at General Burgoyne’s Camp at Freemans Farm, with eight men.”[25] Bettys joined Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne’s invading army as a volunteer. How and why did Bettys go from a patriotic hero to a soldier for the King? It is not known. He left no account of his change of heart, and the only account of his life by someone who knew him, John Ball, did not venture to guess at his motives.

For the second time Bettys found himself playing a role in an event which proved critical to the survival of the American cause. It was not long after his arrival in the British camp that Bettys was actively serving his new master. Capt. Daniel McAlpin, one of Burgoyne’s Loyalist commanders and a large land holder in Bettys’ old neighborhood, recommended him to Burgoyne and Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser, commander of Burgoyne’s Advanced Corps, “as a person capable to be of service.”[26] Fraser sent Bettys on his first mission. He was to reconnoiter the American camp to determine how well they were provisioned and the number of cannon. He could not get into the camp, but he was able to secure the necessary intelligence from a rebel officer.[27]

His next assignment was to go “twelve miles west of Albany,” and guide Capt. Richard Duncan, an officer in Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of York, Alexander White, Loyalist sheriff of Tryon County, and twelve new recruits to the British camp.[28] Bettys accomplished his mission. General Fraser did not let his new asset rest. The day after he returned, Fraser, on October 4, directed Bettys south to learn of the whereabouts of Lt. Gen. Henry Clinton’s army and whether Clinton was in a position to assist Burgoyne.

Bettys returned to Burgoyne’s camp around three in the morning on October 16 to report his findings. Maj. Gen. Baron Friedrich Riedesel, commander of Burgoyne’s German troops, wrote, “I … recollect the circumstance of his being brought to me on the 16th of October very early in the morning, He being just returned with information from the Rebel Country, and that I had Him properly forwarded to General Burgoyne ….”[29] Bettys’ information was too little, too late. His message that the British fleet was five miles above Esopus[30] would not matter. What Bettys probably didn’t know when he returned to the British camp was that he had arrived on the eve of Burgoyne’s surrender.

Around 8:00 p.m. that evening General Burgoyne summoned Bettys. The general entrusted the recently converted Loyalist with an important mission. Burgoyne gave Bettys a verbal message he wanted delivered to Sir Henry Clinton. Burgoyne’s message was:

the Genl. was under the necessity of capitulating with the Rebels, that his provision was gone, that he was surrounded and could not retreat or come forward, that the army against him were 25,000 men, that the British troops was to go to Boston, and the foreigners and Volunteers to Canada. That the British troops were to go to England if not exchanged by Genl. Howe and Genl. Washington, the genl. further said it was the most advantageous capitulation that ever was made ….[31]

Bettys traveled night and day. He narrowly avoided capture several times. After four days of being constantly on the move, he arrived at the British fleet anchored in the vicinity of Esopus on October 20. He briefed Maj. Gen. John Vaughan, commander of the British force which Clinton sent north to secure the Highlands and probe up the Hudson toward Albany. Vaughan was the first British general to get “official” word of Burgoyne’s situation. Vaughan immediately sent Bettys down river to Gen. William Tryon in the Highlands. After examining the exhausted messenger, Tryon had Bettys taken to Sir Henry Clinton in New York. Bettys arrived at Clinton’s quarters and delivered his message the following day, four days after Burgoyne’s surrender. Bettys’ journey had not ended. Sir Henry ordered him to board a ship and to meet with Sir William Howe, the overall British commander in the Americas who was in Philadelphia, “for further examination.”[32]

Over the next several months Bettys appears to have been based in New York City as an independent agent not affiliated with any loyalist unit. In late 1777, and through much of 1778, he went on missions for Sir Henry Clinton and Col. Beverley Robinson. Robinson, a Loyalist landowner and colonel of the Loyal American Regiment, operated an active espionage operation for Clinton. Bettys was assigned missions in New York and Connecticut. One of his missions was to go into Connecticut “with printed proclamations to distribute amongst the inhabitants which he did for about eighty miles in length ….”[33]

Bettys was very successful carrying out courier and espionage missions deep into American occupied country for about a year and a half. In January 1779, his luck ran out. He was captured in Westchester County at the Saw Mill River not far from King’s Bridge by party of Patriot soldiers. Bettys told two versions of why he was traveling through this perilous area which was a no man’s land throughout much of the war. His first version had him in the area recruiting for Lt. Col. George Wightman’s Loyal New Englanders regiment, for which he had a warrant for a captain’s commission if he could enlist thirty men.[34] His second version was that Maj. Gen. William Tryon sent him on a mission to Danbury, Connecticut.[35] Regardless of which version was true, or even if both versions were, Bettys’s life was now in jeopardy.

He wrote of his capture and incarceration that he

was immediately stripped naked and lost all, and from thence was carried to Peekskill and was put into irons hand and feet chains down to the floor where [I] remained some time, and then was tried for his life and condemned to suffer death. On the approach of the King’s troops [I] was removed up to Fish Kills and there remained still in irons ….[36]

Bettys was tried at a military general court martial on April 6, 1779, charged with, “Having been a spy for General Burgoyne (in the services of the enemy) by coming within the American lines in the State of New-York in a secret manner and returning again to the enemies of the United States, and for having forged a certificate to facilitate the execution thereof.”[37]

The verdict was guilty and he was unanimously sentenced to “being hung by the Neck ‘till he shall be dead.”[38]

Bettys’ account of what happened next does not align with the facts. He claimed to have escaped from jail.[39] He did not escape, but was pardoned and released on July 4, 1779, by the American commander in chief, George Washington. Later accounts either use Bettys’ version or they attribute his release to pleadings to General Washington from his “aged” parents and influential Whigs. Shortly after his release Washington wrote to Philip Schuyler, “Bettis in whose favour you interested yourself, was pardoned on the 4th Instant, the Anniversary of our Independence, with several other prisoners in the same unhappy predicament.”[40] Washington’s decision to pardon Bettys was not simply based on pleas for this man’s life. As the commander in chief he had a number of issues to consider. The day before releasing Bettys, Washington wrote to Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall explaining his reasoning:

I intend in the orders of tomorrow to publish and approve the sentences of [Isaac] Depue, [John] King and [Joseph] Bettis; but as we have had frequent examples latterly in the main army, I feel a reluctance at present to add to the number – I therefore propose as it is the anniversary of our independence to proclaim a general pardon to all the prisoners now under sentence of death in the army.[41]

Joseph Bettys was a free man. He went home to Ballston where he “remained for some time to recruit his health and have his hand healed which he has lost the use of, by the irons eating into the flesh, when confined by the Rebels.”[42] His gratitude for having his life spared was, if ever, short lived. John Ball recalled, “The generosity of the act only added rancor to his hatred, and the whigs of this section of the country, particularly of Ballston, had deep occasion to remember the traitor, and to regret the unfortunate lenity they had caused be shown him.”[43] In November, Bettys left Ballston and arrived at St. John’s, Quebec with ten new recruits for the British cause.[44]

A new chapter began in Bettys’ activities. Beginning in 1780, his enterprises were generally conducted in Albany and Tryon counties. Often he operated out of St. John’s, Quebec, a hub for loyalist military activity on the Richelieu River, and the Loyal Blockhouse, the hub of much of the British secret operations in New York and Vermont.[45]

In early March, Bettys returned to Skenesborough. This time he was not a defender, but a member of a raiding party which attacked the village.  The raiders, led by Lieutenant Blurey of the Quebec Indian Department, were a force of mostly Indians. Bettys served as a volunteer and probably their guide. They burned Philip Skene’s mansion and several other buildings, took fourteen prisoners and killed two individuals.[46]

Portrait of British General Frederick Haldimand by Joshua Reynolds (National Portrait Gallery)

Frederick Haldimand, Captain General and Governor of Quebec, kept a constant eye on New York as one of his primary missions was to keep the area unstable and reduce the threat of another American invasion north. In the spring of 1780, Haldimand’s attention was drawn to the Mohawk valley, Sir John Johnson’s former region, due to the heightened patriot activity against the area Loyalists. He gave Sir John permission to lead a raid into his former neighborhood to remove Loyalists who wanted to leave and to strike a blow to the Patriots. The five hundred plus man raiding party was a mixed group including regulars, four companies of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York, a group of Indians, and about fifty loyalist volunteers – including Joseph Bettys.[47] The raid was a British success. One hundred and forty three Loyalists (men, women and children) and thirty blacks were removed to Canada; one hundred and twenty barns, mills and houses were burnt, and a large amount of provisions and stores were destroyed; thirteen prisoners were taken. Sir John was particularly pleased as he recovered his buried silver.[48]

At some point during Sir John’s raid Bettys left the raiding party and went in search of recruits for Maj. James Rogers’ King’s Rangers. As earlier with Wightman’s Loyal New Englanders, Bettys was promised a commission in the King’s Rangers if he could recruit enough men.[49]   On at least three occasions in the summer and fall of 1780 he ranged upstate New York scouring the countryside of New Scotland, the Helderbergs and Ballston seeking recruits.[50]

That fall Bettys began to turn on his former neighbors. He participated in an aborted attempt to kidnap Maj. Andrew Mitchell, an ardent Ballston Patriot and militia officer. Around this time he came to the attention of the Albany County Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies.[51]   The minutes of their October 16 meeting read in part that they “received information from Catharine Burlingham that Alexander Keerklaer of New Scotland has Harboured and concealed Joseph Bettis an Emissary from the enemy ….”[52]

Bettys’ name began to appear regularly in the minutes and actions of the commission. He was particularly active in Albany County during 1781. In March, the committee reported, “Henry Simpson of the west District of the Manor of Rensselaerwyck appeared before the Board & informed us that a few days ago Evert Jansen came to his House in a Sleigh and had with him Joseph Bettis and that the said Jansen & Bettis after remaining there sometime went away together ….”[53]

In an April meeting they reported, “Samuel Stringer Esq. informed the Board that he had advanced to Peter Seeger Eight new Emission Dollars for the Purpose of apprehending Joseph Bettis ordered that he be credited for the same ….”[54] Stringer and Bettys would soon again be connected.

From March 13 to August 22, 1781, Bettys’ activities in Albany County come to the commissioners’ attention at seventeen meetings. Their minutes chronicle Bettys’ movements, sightings, and activities and their attempts to apprehend him.

Bettys’ most peculiar episode occurred in July. It is an incident that offers a glimpse into his character. He wrote, “… on the sixteenth of July [I] was ordered by Doctor Smith[55] to go for Albany and there take Doctor Stringer prisoner.”[56] Doctor Samuel Stringer was an ardent patriot and member of the Albany Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies – the same Samuel Stringer who in April paid someone to apprehend Bettys.

Bettys became part of what is known as the Great Kidnap Plot of 1781. In July, Dr. Smyth and Justus Sherwood, the head of the Northern Department’s secret service, devised a plan to kidnap “the most obnoxious to the friends of Government, in the neighbourhood of Albany.”[57] The pair put together seven parties of kidnappers and identified seven targets of interest. The most prominent target was Philip Schuyler in Albany. John Walden Meyers, another loyalist scout, courier and recruiter, was given the assignment to abduct Schuyler. Bettys’ mark was Dr. Stringer at his Ballston home.

The kidnapping parties were instructed to be in place and not to strike prior to July 31. The day before the abductions took place, Jellis La Grange, a Loyalist whose farm was just south of Albany, requested to speak before the Albany Commissioners. He informed the commissioners that “Joseph Bettis with some others are lately come from Canada and that there is a prospect in case a party of men should be sent out that the said Bettis might be apprehended.”[58]

Due to Le Grange’s warning, Albany area Patriots’ vigilance was high and soldiers searched for the enemy. John Walden Meyers and his men near Schuyler’s mansion went to ground until the excitement passed. A week later, on August 7, they made their move. Their attempt to kidnap Schuyler failed. In the end, all seven attempted abductions ended in failure.

Bettys wrote that he “went according to orders and took the four men that was ordered for that purpose, on their arrival near Albany found it impractical to do any thing as three of the four men left him upon which he immediately returned to Canada.”[59] Bettys’ statement is mendacious. Jellis La Grange had been a good Loyalist up until the end of July. His motivation for speaking to the commissioners was simple. Although married, Bettys, rather than kidnapping Dr. Stringer, took one of La Grange’s daughters to Canada.

On Bettys’ return to St. John’s, Lt. Col. Barry St. Leger, post commandant, restricted him to the fort for “refusing to deliver up his Desdemona.”[60] Dr. Smyth questioned Bettys regarding the failure of the mission and the whereabouts of his “female recruit.” When she was finally located, Smyth hesitated sending her back “for I think he would not be long after her which would ruin many of His Majesty’s loyal subjects.”[61]

Bettys finally received a commission in a Loyalist regiment in October. He became an ensign in the King’s Rangers’ 2nd company. Maj. James Rogers was notified by General Haldimand’s office that “the Commander in Chief is please, from yours and other Recommendations to look over Mr. Beties’s late Indiscretions, and will appoint him as proposed in your Memorandum left with me.”[62]

March 1782, Bettys was again ranging through Saratoga County. Early in the month he was near the settlement of Newtown in the Town of Halfmoon. John Fulmer and two of his daughters were maple sugaring on his farm. They noticed a stranger “armed, with a pack on his back, and snowshoes under his arm” passing by their sugar bush. Fulmer immediately sent one of his daughters back to his house to alert his son Jacob that an “enemy” had gone by. Jacob later wrote, “I went immediately to John Cory, a near neighbor, whom I knew to be a whig … and requested him to go with me in pursuit of the supposed tory. With him were James Cory, his brother, and Francis Perkins, all good, true-hearted fellows.”[63] The group went to where the elder Fulmer was working and picked up the stranger’s trail in the new snow. The tracks led to the cabin of a noted loyalist by the name of Hawkins.

Listening to voices within the cabin for a few minutes, the patriots broke down the door and fell upon the stranger.   Fulmer remembered:

The man … sat at the table eating his breakfast, with the muzzle of his gun leaning upon his shoulder, and the breech upon the floor between is legs. He grasped his musket and presented it to fire at us, but was hindered for a moment to remove the deer-skin covering from the lock, and that moment lost his life.[64]

They bound the stranger who said his name was “Smith” and took him back to

Fulmer’s house. There both Jacob’s mother and sister Polly identified Bettys. He was next moved to John Cory’s house. As he sat next to a fire, Bettys asked if he could smoke. He took out his tobacco box, pretending to fill and light his pipe, bending down he threw an object into the fire. John Cory snatched the object from the fire along with a handful of live coals.[65] Cory recovered a piece of lead containing a slip of paper in code and an order for the bearer to be paid thirty pounds sterling by the mayor of New York City upon delivery of the message. In desperation Bettys offered the men 100 Guineas if he could burn the paper. When they refused Bettys was reported to say “It will take my life.[66]

Bettys was removed to Albany under heavy guard and again found himself in a patriot jail. He was taken before the Commissioners of Conspiracies in the City of Albany on April 1, 1782.[67] Justice was swift. The local commissioners decided to remove this recidivist and burr in their side once and for all. He was judged guilty, quickly hanged, and buried in an unmarked grave in the local pauper’s cemetery.

Joseph Bettys, a man without title, position or wealth, led a remarkable life during the American Revolution. It was an event that provided him with an opportunity to rise above the ordinary, and it was an event which claimed his life. He rose to notice on two occasions which were keys to a Patriot victory – the battles of Valcour Island and Saratoga. He met face to face with a constellation of British military luminaries during the war – John Burgoyne, Simon Fraser, Frederick Riedesel, Henry Clinton, William Howe and others. How many of the thousands of players in the drama of the Revolution could make such claims? He was a peripatetic soul who worked best independently. We can only wonder how history would have judged him if he had been on the winning side.

 

[1] William L. Stone, Life of Brant (New York: Kraus Reprint, Co., 1969), 2:210.

[2] Cornelius E. Durkee, Reminiscences of Saratoga (Saratoga Springs, NY: n. p., 1928), 103-105.

[3] Bettys’s tavern is still standing on Rt. 50, north of Burnt Hills, New York.

[4] Edward F. Grose, Centennial History of the Village of Ballston Spa (Ballston Spa: The Ballston Journal, 1907), 27.

[5] James A. Roberts, New York in the Revolution as Colony and State (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996), 219. Wynkoop’s regiment is listed under “The Militia: Miscellaneous Organizations.” It is interesting to note that Bettys is not listed in this version of the regiment’s roster, while his name appears in other rosters of Van Vechten’s company and the regiment. As an example, Bettys’ name appears in a roster of Van Vechten’s company published in J. B. Beers, History of Greene County published in 1884.

[6] The Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser (Wilmington, DE), March 29, 1827, 2.

[7] Correspondence to, from and mentioning Colonel Wynkoop and his regiment appear in Peter Force, American Archives, Series 4, v. 5 & 6, and Series 5, v. 1. Skenesborough is today Whitehall, NY.

[8] “Samuel Van Vechten’s Company, excerpted from J. B. Beers, History of Greene County, published in 1884,” accessed June 4, 2017, www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/-nygreen2/samuel_van_vechtens-company.htm.

[9] The Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser, March 29, 1827, 2.

[10] William B. Clarke, et al., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1964-), 5:1284.

[11] The Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser, March 29, 1827, 2.

[12] As Lake Champlain empties at its north end, ascending the lake meant moving south, while moving “down the lake” meant going north.

[13] John R. Bratten, Gondola Philadelphia (College Station: Texas A&M University Press), 57.

[14] Bratten, Gondola Philadelphia, 136-137.

[15] Ibid., 142.

[16] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 7:1333; Bratten, Gondola Philadelphia, 138-141.

[17] Bratten, Gondola Philadelphia, 18-19, 94.

[18] Douglas R. Cubbison, American Northern Theatre Army in 1777 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010), 233.

[19] Bratten, Gondola Philadelphia, 69.

[20] Jeduthan Baldwin, The Revolutionary Journal of Col. Jeduthan Baldwin, 1775-1778 (NY: New York Times, 1971), 81.

[21] Batten, Gondola Philadelphia, 146.

[22] Batten, Gondola Philadelphia, 146.

[23] Cubbison, The American Northern Theater Army in 1776, 253-254.

[24] Gen. Waterbury’s reminiscences of the battle were told to Eliphalet Ball and later recounted by John Ball. The Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser (Wilmington, DE), March 29, 1827, 2.

[25] Joseph Bettys to Frederick Haldimand, October 2, 1781, Haldimand Papers, Additional Manuscripts, No. 21874, folios 227-227.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Friedrich von Riedesel (Quebec) to Frederick Haldimand, October 5, 1781, Haldimand Papers, Additional Manuscripts, No. 21874, folio 226.

[30] Esopus is modern Kingston, NY.

[31] Minutes of verbal message delivered by Joseph Bettys, sent from Burgoyne on October 16 and received by General Vaughn on October 24 [probably the 20th], describing the capitulation, in Nath. Philips’ hand, corrected & indorsed by Jno. Smith. Clinton Papers, vol. 25:41, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[32] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781. Haldimand generally spelled Bettys surname as “Beaty.”

[33] Ibid.

[34] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] “General Orders, 4 July 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 21, 1 June-31 July 1779, ed. William M. Ferraro (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 342-345.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781.

[40] George Washington to Philip Schuyler, July 9-11, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0334; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 21:407–409.

[41] Washington to Alexander McDougall, July 3, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0279; original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 21:339–340.

[42] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781.

[43] The Wilmingtonian and Delaware Advertiser, March 29, 1827, 2.

[44] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781.

[45] The Loyal Blockhouse was located in North Hero, Vermont. St. John’s is at the end of navigation on the Richelieu River for vessels going north from Lake Champlain.

[46] Clarence E. Holden, “Local History Sketches, xlviii, Betty’s Raid” originally published in The Whitehall Times, Whitehall, NY, Febrary 1, 1917; “letter from Joseph McCracken to Col. Van Schaik, May 16, 1780,” Clinton Papers, v. 5, 719-720.

[47] Gavin Watt, Burning of the Valleys (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997), 77-78.

[48] Ibid, 78.

[49] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781.

[50] Ibid.

[51] The purpose of the commission was to seek, investigate and deal with enemies of the patriot cause within Albany County.

[52] Victor H. Paltsits, ed., Minutes of the Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies (Albany: State of New York, 1909), 2:549.

[53] Ibid., 653.

[54] Ibid., 688.

[55] Dr. George Smyth was a Loyalist from Albany County and second in command of the British Northern Department’s Secret Service.

[56] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781

[57] Robert Maguire, “The British Secret Service and the Attempt to Kidnap General Jacob Bayley of Newbury, Vermont, 1782,” Vermont History 44 (Summer 1976), 146.

[58] Minutes of the Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, 2:755.

[59] Bettys to Haldimand, October 2, 1781

[60] Mary B. Fryer, King’s Men (Toronto and Charlottetown: Dundurn Press, 1980), 285.

[61] Ibid., 285.

[62] R. Mathews (Quebec) to Major Rogers, October 6, 1781, Haldimand Papers, Additional Manuscripts, No. 21820, folio 16.

[63] James L. Chester, “Revolutionary Reminiscences,” The Family Magazine, v. 7, (New York: Published by J. S. Redfield, 1840), 176.

[64] Ibid., 176.

[65] Ibid., 176.

[66] Ibid., 176.

[67] Enclosed in George Clinton to Washington, April 7, 1782, in Library of Congress, George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence, 20 December 1781 – 5 April 1782.

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5 Comments

  • Excellent article! Bettys took so many chances, it is almost like he had a death wish. It is amazing that he was not caught earlier as did many other spies and couriers in the Champlain/Hudson corridor.

    It would be interesting to find out why he switched sides. Did Bettys have a relationship with Philip Schuyler? Washington’s correspondence seemed to intimate. That might provide a clue.

    • Thank you for your kind words. We will probably never know why Bettys switched sides. He appears to be one of those individuals who thrived on the excitement and dangers which are inherent in conflicts. He seemed most comfortable working alone, as suggested by his activities as a courier and his brush with authority in Capt. Samuel Van Vechten’s company. He may have simply been bored at home and the British offered him an enticing option. I suspect Mrs. Bettys and her two children were also asking themselves the question why he left.

      Regarding a possible connection to Philip Schuyler, I believe Bettys’ father, Joseph Sr., may have been the family connection to the general. The senior Bettys was a “respected” member of the Ballston community, an early pioneer, local tavern owner and a member of the Ballston committee of safety. As such, there is strong probability that he may have pleaded with Schuyler to free his son.

  • Great article with a personal side for me. My 5th Great grandfather, Lemma Bartholomew, was one of hose captured during “Bettys Raid” on Skenesboro. I’ve been trying to find more about Bettys for a number of years. Without any luck, other than a news clipping from the Whitehall Historical Socierty, until now. Thank you!

  • Nicely done, Mr. Aikey. Articles like yours go a long ways towards showing history to be so much more than great names and big events. It’s a soap opera.

    Whenever making use of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s “Philadelphia II” for programs over the years, Len Ruth portrays Bettys. And, yes, he is well aware of the rascal’s changing sides.

  • Thanks so much for your research and for the article. Joseph Bettys, Jr. was my 4th great uncle; his brother Jeremiah was my direct ancestor. We didn’t have much information on that period with our family, other than we were loyalists, including Joseph Sr. After the war, the Bettys family was not too popular in the Ballston area (with the exception of Joe Sr.) and most of the male children moved to what was then called “West Ontario.” Jeremiah Bettys/Bettis was one of the founders of what became Brighton Ontario.
    There are recordings in the minutes of the Committees of Conspiracies concerning Joe Jr.’s brother William, and his brother in law Daniel Taylor, who was also hung as a traitor.
    This adds so much to our genealogical research
    Thanks again!
    Richard Bettes

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