Old Stone Fort Days this weekend offer history, some solace

Despite the recent disaster, the Schoharie County Historical Society will go forward with its annual

Standing on a hill overlooking the village of Schoharie, the Old Stone Fort — built in 1773 — has been around for a number of disasters.

About 231 years ago, the British and their Indian allies burned down just about every building south of Middleburgh all the way north to Central Bridge, setting fire to the crops used to feed the Continental Army.

Four years later, in 1784, a massive flood swept through the Schoharie Valley, destroying many homes that were rebuilt following the Burning of the Valleys. And most recently, flooding from storms Irene and Lee devastated may of the valley’s communities.

But despite the most recent disaster, the Schoharie County Historical Society will go forward with its annual Old Stone Fort Days this weekend, only this time with the goal of raising money to again rebuild the valley.

The annual event includes Revolutionary War re-enactments and demonstrations of colonial craft. But it will also commemorate the fortitude displayed by hearty rural residents who picked up the pieces after disasters and put their communities back together.

“Primarily we’re saluting the survivors, then and now. We’ll try to get some inspiration from the fact that this has happened from time to time starting in 1780 and the Schoharie Valley has always recovered, always rebuilt, and will do so again,” said Carle J. Kopecky, director at the Old Stone Fort Museum.

Murphy’s rifle

A week before Irene blew in, the Schoharie County Historical Society was poised to broadcast big news about its growing collection of historic artifacts: They were loaned a rifle owned by Revolutionary War hero Timothy Murphy, who settled in the town of Middleburgh after his service. The .40-caliber, double-barreled rifle will be on display during Old Stone Fort Days on Saturday and Sunday.

Murphy grew up in Pennsylvania, joined the local militia and was recruited into Morgan’s Rifle Corps, a group of elite sharpshooters, Kopecky said.

During a battle at Bemis Heights — the second of two decisive Revolutionary War battles in Saratoga — Murphy is credited with shooting British General Simon Fraser. Fraser was a skilled tactician and his loss weakened the British command. The Battle of Saratoga is considered the turning point in the Revolutionary War.

There’s evidence on both sides that Murphy took that shot on October 7, 1777. The story on the American side is that Murphy was instructed to shoot General Fraser during the battle, despite the fact that it was considered “poor form” to target officers. The Americans said he climbed a tree and fired from several hundred feet away.

The wife of a German commander supporting the British in their campaign sat by Fraser’s bedside as he was dying. She recorded in her diary that Fraser said he saw the man who shot him climb a tree before he was shot.

“He thought he was too far away to be hit,” Kopecky said.

But Murphy’s skill as a rifleman was widely known. Kopecky said the Morgan’s Rifle Corps members often held competitions to display their skill. They’d nail a playing card to a tree and take shots at it. “So from 100 or 150 yards, these guys would try to hit a playing card nailed to a tree. Murphy repeatedly would hit the nail,” Kopecky said.

Fame grows

Murphy’s fame grew in 1780 when the British started burning the valleys that provided food for the troops. He was inside the stockaded “Middle Fort” in today’s Middleburgh when the British showed up. Kopecky said the non-local commander at the time intended to entertain discussion with the British about possibly surrendering the fort.

Murphy took a shot at the white flag carried by the small contingent of British. Despite the threat of arrest, Kopecky said Murphy did it again. As the story goes, Murphy was concerned if the British made it into the fort, they’d realize how weakly they were supplied both in numbers and equipment. And even if a surrender took place and the residents were given safe quarter, Murphy and his close friends knew they wouldn’t be taken alive.

Shortly after the Battle of Saratoga, Murphy and his buddies served as rangers — scouts who sought out and killed bands of British and Indian raiders.

The British gave up attacking Middle Fort and headed north, burning everything in their path and attacked the lower fort — the Old Stone Fort in Schoharie that stands today.

Hand made

The rifle — a unique .40-caliber over-and-under double-barrel — isn’t likely the one used to shoot Fraser, Kopecky said. It’s too short and the double barrels likely made it less steady.

But there’s little doubt it belonged to Murphy.

Loaned by George P. Wilbur of Howes Cave, the stock appears to have been made of maple and the name J. Worly is stamped on one barrel.

The gun is accompanied by a page of business accounts from Pennsylvania gunsmith Isaac Worly who, in an entry dated Feb. 19, 1776, wrote “a Rifle Made for Timothy Murphy a two barrel Rifle — with both barrels Rifled only one made.”

It cost 20 pounds, which today is between $3,000 and $5,000.

Kopecky said it’s unclear what Murphy — who couldn’t read or write — did for a living. That much money amounts to about 100 days of pay for a common farm laborer back then.

“His skill was that he was a woodsman and a crack shot,” Kopecky said.

Murphy married a local woman and settled in Middleburgh in the vicinity of where Barber’s Farm is today.

The Old Stone Fort Museum has a photograph of Murphy’s home before it was torn down to make way for state Route 30. The museum also has Murphy’s pocket watch, a powder horn and one of his snowshoes.

Old Stone Fort Days will run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Events Saturday include a Ben Franklin presentation, a community barn-raising, a ladies’ social, a committee of safety meeting, a battle re-enactment, a Colonial surgery display, a Colonial stew dinner and music by Rural Felicity. An 18th century wedding will take place at 5 p.m. followed by a cannon firing and gun salute to the newlyweds, and an English country dance will take place from 7 to 9 p.m.

The museum and snack stand will open at 10 a.m. on Sunday followed by a 10:30 a.m. drumhead church service, a battle re-enactment, children’s games, Ben Franklin presentation, artillery and horse demonstrations, and music by Rural Felicity until Old Stone Fort Days end at 5 p.m.

Categories: Schenectady County

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