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Historian dusts off heroic story along with militia leader’s grave

Historian dusts off heroic story along with militia leader’s grave

For his day job, Frederick Visscher was a farmer in the Colonial days. But like so many others durin
Historian dusts off heroic story along with militia leader’s grave
Fultonville historian Ryan Weitz is pictured with the headstone and military honors recently bestowed on Revolutionary War Col. Frederick Visscher, who was scalped by an Indian and lived to tell about it.

For his day job, Frederick Visscher was a farmer in the Colonial days.

But like so many others during the 1700s, he played another role in his life: he was a soldier, a leader of the Tryon County Militia.

He’d led numerous soldiers into the bloody battle of Oriskany — where he was nearly hit with a musket ball that tore off his ponytail.

He also suffered a major injury during the Revolutionary War — he was scalped by an Indian that had just killed both his brothers, tied his mother to a chair and set his home on fire.

He lived to tell about it, and later served in the New York State Assembly and as a judge, among other titles he held.

Despite his heroics, his headstone lay on the ground during the Memorial Day holiday last year, likely toppled by a vandal at the Old Caughnawaga Cemetery in Fonda.

This Memorial Day, things are different following months of work by Fultonville Historian Ryan Weitz.

“Veterans or not, it’s just a shame when our ancestors’ final resting site and memorial falls into disrepair,” said Weitz, who completed his project about two weeks ago.

Weitz cleaned up Visscher’s headstone, re-set it in a protective holder and contacted the Veteran’s Administration to get a bronze plaque that’s now set in front of his headstone, acknowledging his military service.

Weitz also pored through history books and learned a great deal about Visscher, a patriot who is well-known among historians in Montgomery and nearby counties.

To Weitz, Visscher stood out for his vigor and capabilities, but he represents many of those who lived during the tumultuous days when rivals — in this case British and German soldiers and their Indian allies and the Colonial militia, regular army and their Indian supporters — were fighting in their yards and burning down each other’s homes.

At the end of military service, Visscher went back to his farm.

“He was just an average farmer who believed in liberty and did what he thought was his duty to serve what would become his nation,” Weitz said.

Brutal history

Visscher is easy to find in lists of members of the Tryon County Militia; he served as a colonel.

What nearly became his final day has turned into a nearly unbelievable story: a man surviving a scalping.

Weitz’s research, compiled in a paper he drafted this year, details the gruesome day that changed Visscher’s life forever.

Around 1780, Indians and other loyalists earned between five and eight pounds for a scalp, said historian Scott G. Haefner, site manager at Old Fort Johnson, built in 1749 west of Amsterdam.

“The problem with that program was that once it was removed, you didn’t know whether it was from a friend or foe. There is no doubt the British paid for scalps that belonged to [Loyalists],” Haefner said.

The story is well-known at Old Fort Johnson in part because of the old chair stored there.

It’s the chair Visscher’s mother was tied to by Indians before they set the family home on fire during the raids of 1780.

That day, Visscher and his two brothers, John and Harmon, fought the assailants while other family members tried to escape.

John was killed in the fighting, Harmon jumped out a window and died, and Frederick Visscher was knocked out with a tomahawk before an Indian removed his scalp.

An Indian then cut his throat but it wasn’t a fatal cut, according to Weitz’s research. Col. Visscher wore a necktie colored red on the inside; the Indian figured he was dead.

With his home on fire, Visscher dragged his brother John’s body outside and grabbed his mother in the chair she’d been tied to, saving her life.

“Both his brothers were killed, his mother survived. I’m not sure how much longer she lived after that experience,” Haefner said.

To historians, Haefner said, Visscher wasn’t just a soldier, but one of the early supporters of independence.

“He was really in the forefront. He was raising and starting to raise a Tryon County Militia in the very beginning of the Revolution,” Haefner said.

“He was one of the people who saw, apparently, what was going to happen, before a lot of other people realized it,” Haefner said.

There aren’t any portraits or drawings of Frederick Visscher. That may be because he was a shy man not interested in the limelight, Haefner said.

And after being scalped and having a silver plate fitted on his head to cover the wound, Visscher didn’t even want to attend a dinner in Schenectady where Gen. George Washington served as the honored guest.

“He didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to be seen in public without a scalp,” Haefner said.

“They had to persuade him. He didn’t want to make a public spectacle of himself.”

But he had no choice in the matter.

“Washington had him sit on his right-hand side,” Haefner said.

The dinner was at Clench’s Tavern in downtown Schenectady, currently the site of the bus station across the street from the former YMCA.

Though Visscher’s headstone was likely vandalized, his body isn’t beneath it. His and his wife’s headstones were moved by a descendant who wanted to bring the stones to a more public place.

Frederick Visscher lived from 1741 to 1809. He is interred in a family cemetery at Danascara Place on Mohawk Drive west of Tribes Hill in Montgomery County.

For Weitz, 18, who graduates this year from the Fonda-Fultonville High School, which abuts the Caughnawaga Cemetery property, achieving military honors for Visscher is one part of a bigger task he believes should be accomplished to honor the veterans.

He believes there are nine Revolutionary War soldiers in the cemetery; he’s identified five so far.

“His restored gravestone and new bronze plaque commemorating his service to America is a small step in the right direction of honoring all of our heroes who have given so much so that we can live in this wonderful country,” Weitz wrote in his research paper.

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