Schauber, Seelye, Hollister, Van Vorst. Residents of the town of Ballston most typically know these names from the local roads they drive on or the cul de sac down the road, but Town Historian Richard Reynolds would remind them that these names can also be found in Hillside Cemetery, next to the Burnt Hills Baptist Church.
“A lot of the names we know in this town today come from this cemetery,” he said. “We are because of what we were. There’s a connection between the people buried here and our lives today, and it’s those connections that we want to keep alive by doing things like this.”
Reynolds had just unveiled a new historic marker at the gravesite of Abigail and Joseph Bettys, the parents of a convicted traitor and Revolutionary War spy hanged in 1782.
On a crisp, sunny Saturday morning, the historian was proud to orate the history behind the town’s first new marker in at least 10 years. Only a handful of people were gathered at the cemetery, including Hillside Cemetery Association President Richard B. Gribben, who was excited to have company at the cemetery he’s overseen and maintained since 1970.
The cemetery on the hill saw its first burial in the 1780s. Its weathered gravestones today show their age — some have toppled over, some are overgrown with thick moss and many are barely readable.
If not for the new marker, town lore might have forever cast a shameful pall over the entire Bettys family. That was one of the reasons Reynolds pursued a historic marker grant through the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which supports the preservation of history through the state’s Historic Roadside Marker Program and just last year expanded eligibility outside of Central New York to the rest of the state.
“How often do we honor the typical American family of the past?” said Reynolds, reading aloud from a letter he submitted to the foundation. “Unfortunately, the answer is seldom. But this family, which we choose to honor with a historical marker, was touched by a son who committed the most dastardly of all deeds known to man.”
Joseph and Abigail Bettys ran a tavern off of what is now Route 50 in an early colonial town on land they bought for $1. Their life was turned upside-down, though, when their son Joe joined the military against his father’s wishes.
Young Joe Bettys fought valiantly in the Revolutionary War for the rebels who wished for independence from the British crown. He fought in many northern New York and southern Canadian battles.
“However, when he, just like the even more infamous Benedict Arnold, was not recognized for his bravery and cunning, he traded sides and became a spy, delivering rebel secrets to the British,” recounted Reynolds.
When he was found out, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to die by hanging for his treachery. Local lore tells two stories of the day of his death: The first has Joe jumping off of the platform, hanging himself so no one else could claim responsibility for his death, while the other has his father pulling the rope that hanged him.
“To this day, we do not know which is true, if either is true,” said Reynolds with a hint of a smirk.
Joe Bettys was buried in a pauper’s grave in Albany. His mother, who died in 1791, and his father, who died in 1804, were buried side by side in Hillside Cemetery.
“They were, of course, disgraced by his actions and lived the rest of their lives with the burden of his actions on their shoulders,” said Reynolds.
Maybe the Bettys weren’t your typical American family after all, he admitted, but, at the very least, Joseph and Abigail Bettys deserve respect for what they endured through no fault of their own.
Historical markers cost about $1,500 a piece, which is why in today’s economic climate, municipalities are less likely to purchase and install them. Reynolds had to prove every word of the marker text down to the smallest detail. He had to prove that Joe Bettys was a traitor, which he did through the British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom in London.
Once he submitted his proof, the state sent it back to him to confirm that Joseph and Abigail Bettys were “local innkeepers,” which he did by scouring old newspaper clippings at the state archives in Albany.
Finally, the sign was ready. If you happen to drive by the cemetery, you should notice its distinct blue and yellow trim up on the leaf-covered hill. It reads: “Bettys Family: Joseph died 1804 and Abigail died 1791. Local innkeepers and unfortunate parents of Joseph, convicted traitor & spy who was hung in 1782.”