During the American Revolution it could be difficult to determine who was supporting the American cause and who remained loyal to Great Britain. Many times support changed from one side or the other depending on the fortunes of the war. This was especially true in upstate New York, in the valley of Schoharie. A case in point is Francis and Gottlieb Otto, two brothers from Schoharie, who served at times as patriots and at other times as loyalists.
The Ottos came from a typical working class family. Franz Otto, the father of the Otto brothers, was a doctor of sorts and established the first distillery in the county, famous for its cider brandy. In fact, he was one of that useful class who could turn their hand to almost anything, being a brandy-maker, a doctor, a phlebotomist, a barber, or a fortune-teller as the occasion required. He believed in witchcraft as well. Franz Otto married Maria Elizabeth Schnall in Schoharie around 1755 and they had three children. Johan Gottlieb was born in 1758 and Francis came in 1762. Franz Otto, Senior, died just before the start of the Revolution.
Schoharie was then part of the New York frontier, the borderland between the Indian country and the white settlements. Schoharie valley’s rich soil and prosperous farm families were the ingredients which made abundant crops of grain, principally wheat. James Madison noted the importance of the area, writing, “The settlement of Schoharie alone was able to furnish 80,000 bushels of grain for public use.” The British employed a strategic policy of disrupting the flow of supplies to Washington’s army by destroying grain harvests, farms, and livestock throughout the valley. Their raids began in 1777 and continued till the end of the war in 1781.
As early as 1774, a Council of Safety was formed in Schoharie for the defense of the valley. A regiment of militia, the 15th Regiment of Albany County Militia, was raised under the command of Col. Peter Vrooman. The militia was called out when needed and kept out as long as the danger remained. Sometimes the regiment or a part of the regiment was called out half a dozen times a year, and for half a dozen days at a time, and again sometimes it was not needed in the entire year. The Council of Safety resolved “that all the persons between the ages of sixteen and fifty years, from the dwelling house of Christian Shaffer and to north ward in Schoharie, are to bring their arms and accoutrements when they come to the meeting at either of the two churches in Fountain Town and Foxes Town, on Sunday or any other day when kept; and if any of them shall neglect in bringing their arms and accoutrements to either of the churches, shall forfeit and pay the sum of three shillings, New York currency, for the use of paying the cost for the district of Schoharie.” Any person furnishing a substitute was exempt for the time that the substitute served.
Francis and Gottlieb first enrolled in the militia in 1777 as the valley became the target of the frequent Tory and native depredations. Francis Otto served from 1777 until 1781, serving as a volunteer or as a substitute, serving up to six months in a year. He served at Fort Edward and on the Mohawk River in 1777 and at the “different forts in Schoharie” during the other years. Francis recalled:
That in the month of April 1777 he served in the Army of the United States as a Private soldier in the Militia of the State of New York and for the term of six months as a substitute for his brother Gottlieb Otto who was drafted from said Militia. That he marched to Fort Edward & up the Mohawk River. That his place of abode when he entered the said service was the County of Albany at a place called Schoharie, State of New York. That in said year 1777, he served in said Militia as a volunteer for three months in the Upper Fort in Schoharie. That in the year 1778, he served three months as a substitute for one John Weaver in the militia. That in said 1778 he served as a volunteer in the militia for three months. That in the year 1779 he served in the militia as a substitute for one Lombard Lawyer for three months in the Upper Fort at Schoharie. He served as a volunteer & substitute in the years 1780 & 1781.
In August 1777, the Albany County militia was called out to help stop Gen. John Burgoyne’s advance from Canada. The 15th Regiment got as far as Fort Edward and then had to return to Schoharie to put down an uprising by Tories and Indians. There were three wooden stockade forts constructed in Schoharie during the war to shelter families against tory and Indian raids.
The pay roll of the 15th Regiment shows that Francis served in the militia and was paid for fourteen days in 1779, receiving fourteen days’ of subsistence. His name also appears on the pay rolls for 1780 and 1781. He received a final payment in December 1784: “Frantz Otto, Pvt, paid 5 pounds 4 shillings 1 pence.”
Gottlieb served along with his brother in the militia as his pay roll details. He was paid for five days in 1777 and for five days in 1778. On Oct 15, 1779, at “Schoharry, the undersigned men received ¼ pound of powder and fifteen bullits each. Gottlieb Otto received twelve bullits.” He was paid for 14 days in 1779 and received 14 days of subsistence. His name also appears on the pay roll for 1780 and 1781. He received a final payment in April 1785, “Gottlieb Otto, Pvt, paid 15 pounds 14 shillings 13 pence.”
The Ottos served as patriots but it seems certain that their real sympathies did not lie on the rebel side. While Francis stayed in Schoharie, Gottlieb joined the British as a private in Col. John Butler’s Corps of Rangers. It is possible that the Ottos were spies for the British, passing on valuable information on the rebel fortifications and forces on the frontier. Gottlieb was listed on the Butler’s Rangers payroll in 1778, as well as “Present at Niagara and on muster roll of Ten Broeck’s company covering the period 3 Sept 1782 to 9 April 1783.”
The Ottos were not alone in their support of the loyalist cause in Schoharie; many of the militiamen were secret Tories. Local tavern owner George Mann was also well known throughout the region for his support of the crown. Mann was at one time a captain in the Schoharie Militia, but defected and recruited from within the militia’s ranks to aid the Tories. Mann’s tavern was utilized as a meeting place for Tories and Indians loyal to the Crown. In 1777, Captain Mann was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in the Albany jail. Mann was never brought to trial. He did not flee to Canada; he repented his behavior and lived the life of a model citizen after that.
When Butler’s Rangers were disbanded at Niagara in 1784, Gottlieb returned to Schoharie and married Elisabeth Papst. He was granted a military appointment in the New York State militia, serving as a surgeon mate in Lt. Col. Johannes Dietz’s Albany County Regiment, Gen. Peter Gansevoort’s Brigade in 1793. Francis had married Elisabeth’s sister, Mary Barbara Papst, on May 20, 1783 at St Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Schoharie.
The loyalists who remained in Schoharie after the war were often harassed by their neighbors. There is a story passed down in Gottlieb’s family that says Gottlieb’s oldest son was playing outside of their house when he saw a bunch of Whigs approaching. He was afraid and ran to hide himself under the hog pen where he had been to collect eggs. But this time he stood fast, and when the Whigs came up, one of them said, “Let us run a bayonet through that Tory brat!” One of his comrades intervened, and challenged him, “If you do, you will get what is in my gun through your body. That boy is not doing you or anyone else any harm.” What was probably said in jest by a few older boys to frighten a youngster, was lodged very firmly in the mind of a small boy and has been repeated by generations in this family for many years.
Fearing that their neighbors continued to harbor feelings against the pair, Francis and Gottlieb started their move to Canada around 1793. They sold their land and houses and finally moved north. They petitioned for land from the British government once they arrived in Upper Canada. Francis’s petition recounts his attachment:
24 Oct 1797, Osnabruck, Upper Canada. During the late war in America with Great Britain, he was a true and loyal subject to his Majesty King George, and that he was imprisoned and driven from his place of residence which was in the County of Albany in the State of New York. His house set on fire and his property confiscated by the rebels for his attachment to the British Government and that he came to the province in 1794. He prays that your Excellency will be pleased to have his name inserted on the UE list that his children may partake of the bounty intended by his Majesty to be given to his loyal subjects.
It is hard to say how much of this actually happened. Francis was in full possession of his lands in 1793 as he began to sell off his property in Schoharie prior to his move to Canada.
On June 14, 1798, Francis Otto petitioned Peter Russell, President for Administering the Government of Upper Canada, “praying for land as a Settler, 200 acres.” Francis settled in Osnabruck and began his new life. Francis and his wife Mary were sponsors at the baptism in Osnabruck Township of Rudolph and Elizabeth Pabst’s daughter, Mary Barbara, on November3, 1794. Later, Otto petitioned for a clear title to the land in the west half of lot 13, concession 2, Osnabruck Township, on which he had been living for nineteen years. He had purchased it from Jacob Markle, who lived on the land for three years after exchanging it with Morris Curry who could not locate the original title.
Gottlieb also submitted petitions to the Commissioners for American Claims for Losses and to be included on the United Empire Loyalist list for service in Butler’s Rangers. His petition stated:
Estimation of Losses sustained by Gottlieb Otto of Niagara in Consequences of his Loyalty to his Majesty and attachment to the British Government, wit: a barn, blacksmith shop, 2 guns, a still house with kettle, sundry medicines left to him by his father,sundry articles of furniture and wearing apparel, 25 skipples of pease, 25 skipples of wheat, 2 barrels of flour, 1 blanket, 2 dollars in cash which the rebels robbed of him. Total sum in NY Currency at 53 pounds, 11 shillings, 0 pence.
Gottlieb, his family and members of his community sent several more petitions for land and inclusion on the United Empire Loyalist list. In April 1789, Rudolph Papst declared, “that this deponent is the brother in law to Gottlieb Otto and that he knows the said Otto belonged to LTC Butler’s Rangers.”
Gottlieb Otto filed for land on October 23, 1797, claiming that he “Served during the late American War in Col Butler’s Corps of Rangers and was discharged as a private soldier. Request he be granted such a quality of vacant lands of the Crown as is usually allowed to others of his description.” Nicholas Shaver appeared with Gottlieb on October 24, 1797, stating: “Personally appeared Gottlieb Otto of Osnabruck a Soldier in Col Butler’s Corps of Rangers and has been discharged as such. Signed Nicholas Schafffer.”
Gottlieb’s son petitioned on May 9, 1807: “Petition of Francis Otto of Osnabruck, a son of Gottlieb Otto, who was a resident of County of Albany in the State of New York and joined the Royal Standard before the year 1778 and served as a private soldier in the Corps of Col John Butler Rangers and settled in this province on land provided him.”
Gottlieb was at first included in the United Empire Loyalist list but was removed by the Order-in-Council in 1802. It took another five years for his children to get him reinstated and receive lands as a Loyalist. His children, Peter, Gottlieb, Hannah, and John, received land in the Eastern District, Osnabruck Township, Upper Canada, along the St. Lawrence River, on March 17, 1807. “Yeoman of Osnabruck Township was allowed before Mr. Justice Powell the east half of lot 1, Concession 3, containing 100 acres.” Gottlieb had died on July 21, 1803 and was buried at the Upper Canada Village Cemetery, Ontario.
But the families were suffering in their new home. Compared to the fertile lands in Schoharie, the land there was poor and had to be cleared of lumber before anything could be grown. Roads were little more than trails. It was well into the nineteenth century before these areas in Upper Canada, now Ontario, came to enjoy the same degree of settlement as New York State. Francis Otto decided to move back south and relocated in Huron, Ohio, around 1820. He filed for a pension in 1844 for service in the militia: “That he was living at Schoharie when he was called into service. That since the Revolutionary War, he has lived in Schoharie, in Canada, in Genesee Co., State of New York, and in Sandusky County, State of Ohio. That he served as a volunteer or a substitute for other men. That he is acquainted in his neighborhood with Francis Lafaver and John G. Hunter, as who can testify as to his character as for veracity and their belief of his many services as a soldier in the Revolution.” Francis was awarded a pension on November 22, 1844 in amount of $20 per year.
Francis died on March 4, 1855 and was buried in the Perkins Cemetery, Sandusky, Erie County, Ohio. “Francis Otto, a Soldier of the American Revolution, died in Huron, Erie County, Ohio, on the 4th inst., at the age of ninety-nine. Mr. Otto was a German by birth, came to this country before the War of the Revolution, embarked the cause, and fought through the terrible contest under the command of Gen. Washington”
There were many cases of soldiers changing sides during the Revolution. It is rare, however, to find examples of claims filed with both the US and British governments for services in the war.
A phlebotomist was one who was able to let blood with a lancet, the universal remedy for all illnesses at the time. His medicine kit was inherited by his son Gottlieb who included them in his loses as “Sundry medicines left to him by his father who died and was a doctor.”
“He passed away in the following manner. He had spent the evening at the house of John Ingold, and left there to go home, with the bosom of his shirt, his general traveling store-house, filled with apples. He may have, to keep off the chill of the evening, and increase his courage, tasted a potation of his own distilling, of which he was very fond. On the following morning, he was found in a bruised state, having fallen off the rocks not far from his own dwelling. He was alive when found, but died soon after. As he was much afraid of witches, and the like evil genii, it was confidently asserted and generally believed, that witches had thrown him off the rocks. Thus ended the first distiller, poor Otto, of bewitching memory.” Jeptha R. Simms, History of Schoharie County, And Border Wars of New York; containing also a Sketch of the Causes which led to the American Revolution (Albany: Munsell & Tanner, Printers, 1845), 91-92.
Col. Peter Vrooman, one of the Schoharie committee, was a major of militia before the Revolution. He was a captain in the French and Indian war, and assisted in erecting fortifications at Oswego. The soldiers who served under him, represent him as having been a bold and determined man, and his conduct on several occasions during the war, gave good evidence of that fact. He was very much respected in the county, and served nineteen years a member of either the senate or assembly of New York. He was a delegate to the New York State Convention on the ratification of the Constitution.
Pension application of Francis Otto, S.16216, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration, Washington, DC. The original application was filed in 1834, which was lost by the pension commission.
Butler’s Rangers (1777–1784) was a Loyalist provincial military unit of the American Revolution, raised by American loyalist John Butler. Most members of the regiment were Loyalists from upstate New York. They fought principally in Western New York and Pennsylvania, but ranged as far west as Ohio and Michigan and as far south as Virginia. Their winter quarters were constructed on the west bank of the Niagara River at Fort Niagara.
“Another Schoharie Tory, Ben Beacraft, was a notorious villain, and partial justice was awarded him after the Revolution. Beacraft repeatedly like to boast of the murder of a Vrooman boy on one his raids. He had the impudence to return, after the war closed, to Schoharie. His visit becoming known, a party of about a dozen Whigs surrounded the house he was in, and leading him from it into a grove near, they stripped and bound him to a sapling; and then inflicted fifty lashes, with hickory gads, upon his bare back, telling him, at intervals of every ten, for what particular offense they were given. He was then unbound, and given his life on condition that he would instantly leave the valley, and never more pollute its soil with his presence. He expressed his gratitude that his life was spared, left the settlement and was never afterwards heard from by the citizens of Schoharie.” Simms, History of Schoharie County, note, pg.377. This is one of several stories on Beacraft. There are others with a much different outcome for the tory Beacraft.
“A small book of pharmacological interest has been passed down within the Otto family. This leather-bound book contains nearly 200 prescriptions for botanical remedies and descriptions of curative roots, leaves, barks, and berries found in eastern North America. The book was owned and carefully passed on within the Otto family. Another branch of the family preserves a lancet that may have been his.” Stephen Otto, “Identifying a Family Heirloom: The Indian Doctor’s Dispensatory,”Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol. 12, Issue 2 (Fall 1995), 443-445.
Nicholas Shaver was listed as “On the frontier for intelligence in spring of 1782,” and in Butler’s Rangers, McKinnon’s Company, December 1, 1783. He is listed on the United Empire loyalist list as of 1797 and settled in Osnabruck. Ibid, 165.