When Sir John Johnson made his secret and expeditious return to the Mohawk Valley in 1780, for the recovery of the treasure which at the time of his flight he had buried in the cellar of Johnson Hall, his followers took captive Jacob and Frederick Sammons. They were the sons of an old gentleman who had been occupying the Hall since the confiscation of the baronet's estate by the American Congress.
The two young men were carried prisoners to the fort at Chamblee, in Canada. This prison was one of the most loathsome and awful dungeons from which the light of day was ever shut out. On their arrival Jacob Sammons took an accurate survey of the garrison and the facilities for escape. He noticed that the guards were few and undisciplined. Once a day the door of the prison was opened for an inspection by the commanding officer. The quick eye of Sammons also detected the fact that the guards stacked their arms in the prison-yard. He at once conceived a bold plan for the escape of the prisoners, of which no less than forty were immured in the awful place. When the door was opened for the inspection, a part of the prisoners were to rush upon and overpower the sentinels, while the rest were to rush forth and seize the arms there stacked up. But the timid prisoners shrank from the bold undertaking.
Foiled in this, Jacob Sammons and his brother Frederick studied day and night for some mode of escape for themselves alone. Within a few days their ingenuity had devised a plan. The prisoners were allowed a supply of spruce beer. Each day two prisoners, under a guard of five men, with fixed bayonets, went to the brew-house to obtain the keg of beer. Sammons also discovered that the garrison generally carried their arms charged, but not primed. By a shrewd stratagem Jacob and Frederick Sammons contrived one day to be sent together for the beer. Their plan was at a certain point to break boldly from the guards and run for their lives, hoping that the delay occasioned by the lack of priming in their muskets might enable them to escape beyond the reach of gun-shot.
At the concerted moment the project was boldly executed. The young men cashed across the plain at the top of their speed. The excited garrison at once gave hot pursuit. Jacob had not proceeded far when he stumbled into an open ditch, and was thrown down with terrific violence. His ankle was badly sprained. Frederick turned to the assistance of his brother, but the latter generously commanded him to leave him to his chances and make good his own escape. Jacob managed to crawl, unobserved, from the ditch into a clump of bushes, where he hid himself between two logs. The guards passed him, unnoticed, in their wild pursuit of Frederick. The fleet-footed young Dutchman was, however, soon lost to their sight. In half an hour they returned greatly out of breath and furiously enraged.
The brothers had arranged, in case of separation, to meet at a certain spot at ten o'clock that night. Under cover of heavy darkness, Jacob Sammons left his hiding-place and made his way to the rendezvous. No one was there. He called aloud to his brother Frederick, but only the sighing of the midsummer-night breeze among the branches of the forest answered his anxious cries.
Disheartened at the disappointment, Jacob at once began his journey through the wilderness. On the morning of the 14th of June he was about to swim the Sorel River, neat fort St. Johns, and make his way homeward by the shores of Lake Champlain. Just as he entered the water he discovered a boat approaching filled with British soldiers. He concealed himself quickly and eluded their observation. Proceeding two or three miles through the forest he heard a noise from a vast number of woodsmen's axes. A party of several hundred men from the fort were felling trees to strengthen its defenses. By a wide detour he succeeded in avoiding these enemies.
About noon he came upon a small clearing, in the center of which stood a cabin. Near by a man and a boy were in a small field, hoeing potatoes. Sammons, who was famished for want of food, resolved to throw himself upon the mercy of these people. Instead of finding, as he hoped, a friendly Frenchman, the forester proved to be a malignant Tory, and declared his intention of surrendering Sammons to the soldiers. Sammons replied that it was more than he could do, that all Canada should not take him alive.
The Tory returned to his potato field, leaving Sammons upon the door-step, where the compassionate wife of the forester gave him a bowl of bread and milk. Hanging on the wall Sammons discovered a musket, powder-horn, and bullet pouch. If he could possess himself of these he felt that he might make his way home. He traveled into the woods but a little way. At nightfall he returned to the cabin to take the weapon by force. Scarcely had he entered when the noise of voices without caused him to hurry up the ladder into the loft. Here, through the cracks of the floor, he beheld with anxiety, eleven British soldiers buying and drinking milk from the people of the house. His situation was critical. At any moment the proprietor of the house might discover his presence. At last the soldiers were satisfied, and left the place.
The man and boy went to bed. Jacob stealthily descended from the loft. The good woman supplied him another bowl of bread and milk. She tried to persuade him to surrender himself to the British. Her arguments failing, she told him that if he would conceal himself in the woods for two days she would procure for him a supply of provisions and a pair of stout shoes. To this dangerous scheme Sammons would by no means consent. He was meanwhile undergoing an inward struggle as to whether should take the gun and ammunition. He reflected that the theft would discover to the good woman's husband the fact that he had returned to the cabin, and perhaps might betray the kindness of the woman. With reluctant heart he resolved to forego this breach of hospitality, and without food, or means of procuring it, he gallantly bade his benefactress farewell, and plunged into the forest.
Arriving at the shore of Lake Champlain, he came upon a cabin full of soldiers. A canoe was lying at the water's edge. Waiting till night, when the soldiers were asleep, Sammons boldly jumped into the canoe, and rejoiced at the prospect of an easy journey home, proceeded up the lake. His glad anticipations were not realized. As he approached the Isle Au Noix, he discovered a fortification. A hundred bayonets glistened in the moonlight. To pas the fort was impossible. He ran his canoe ashore, and footsore and famished, again began his dreary journey through the forest. His only subsistence was birch-bark.
On the fourth day he succeeded in catching a fish, from a brook, with his hands. Being without means to make a fire, he ate it raw. His feet were cut and bruised, his legs full of thorns. When he fell asleep hungry swarms of mosquitoes feasted upon him. On the fifth day he caught a black duck. Removing the feathers, he at once devoured the whole, not omitting head and feet. He then attempted the eggs which he found under the duck. In the first he found a half-formed duckling. Such food even his appetite would not accept.
On the tenth day he lay down, unable to proceed farther. Lying there, half stupefied, he felt a sharp pain in his right leg. It was the bite of a rattlesnake. Quick as thought, he cut out the poisoned flesh with his pocket-knife. Next he seized the serpent, killed it, and made a meal off of the body. Further advance was impossible. Unable to crawl more than a few feet, he lay there for three days, subsisting upon the remains of the serpent. At last, when his resource was gone, his weakness increased hourly. Feeling that death was very near, he crawled to the foot of a tree, and feebly attempted to carve his name upon the bark, hoping that when his bones were found, they might not be unrecognized.
Strange as it may appear, he felt somewhat stronger the next day. He cut up his hat and waistcoat, and bound them upon his feet. Hobbling along through the day he came upon human habitations. It proved to be the town of Pittsford. Here kind hands bound up his wounds and ministered to his wants. In time he made his way home.
Not less interesting were the adventures of Frederick Sammons. Having escaped the pursuit from the fort at Chamblee, he concealed himself until the hour at which he was to meet his brother at the rendezvous. He arrived at the appointed time, but Jacob, as we have seen, come and gone. He lingered till toward morning, then crossed the river. He proceeded to a barn, hoping to find some chickens on which to breakfast. No poultry was to be found, but a fine bullock afforded a better prospect. Frederick succeeded in cutting the animal's throat. He then severed one of the hind quarters, shouldered it, and marched off into the forest. Arrived at a safe retreat, he dressed the beef, cut it into strips, and packed in a knapsack made from the skin.
Proceeding five or six miles he came across a cabin. Here he attempted to obtain bread, salt, and a means for kindling a fire. The latter only could he procure. Again making his way through the woods, he paused to build a fire, dressed and smoked his beef, and cured the knapsack of rawhide.
On the third day he had the good luck to kill a fawn. Reaching Lake Champlain he found an old canoe. Scarcely had he launched the shell, when it split asunder and he was precipitated into the water. He journeyed on by land in good spirits until the close of the seventh day.
He had slept but an hour or two when he was attacked by an enemy. The foe could not be seen or heard, but only felt by Frederick. The same enemy had attacked him before. Poor Sammons recognized him at once. For several years this sleepless foe had followed him day and night, seeking a favorable moment to accomplish destruction. The name of the enemy was Pleurisy. A drenching rain came on, continuing steadily for three days, during which time Sammons lay at the foot of a tree without food, fire, or shelter, and racked by the most agonizing pains.
On the morning of the fourth day the sun rose clear. The sufferer crawled to a stagnant pond near by for a sup of water to quench his thirst. The pool was full of frogs. Some of these he caught. Unable to build a fire he ate them raw. For fourteen days Frederick Sammons lay here unable to proceed. He was on a high bluff, in full view of the lake. Supposing that he would die, he nevertheless hung his hat on a pole as a signal if distress. At last some sailors on a passing ship noticed the hat. A boat was sent ashore and Sammons, living but speechless, was transferred to the vessel.
After all this suffering Frederick Sammons was again a prisoner of the British! As soon as he recovered he was returned to Chamblee. Heavy irons were forged to his limbs by blacksmiths. He was not allowed to leave his dungeon for a moment. The irons inflicted wounds upon his limbs, eating their way to the bone; even then an order for the removal of the irons was obtained by the prison surgeon with the greatest difficulty.
In November of 1781 Sammons was transferred from Chamblee to another hell-hole called Prison Island. Here with nine fellow-prisoners he organized a conspiracy for escape. By this attempt Sammons succeeded in having the irons restored to his limbs. In time, however, the manacles were again removed.
Day by day, week by week, month by month, Sammons watched with sleepless vigilance for an opportunity for escape. At last it came. On the 17th of August fifty prisoners were allowed to walk to the foot of the island around the shores of which a chain of sentinels were extended. Sammons and a fellow-prisoner, McMullen, watched their chance. The two prisoners at once leaped down a precipice into the foaming surges of the St. Lawrence. The tremendous current bore them swiftly away. Before the sentinel discovered the escape they were beyond reach. Both were expert swimmers. In their perilous course they descended foaming rapids, one hundred and fifty rods long. Two miles below the island they attempted to land, but the buffeting waves only mocked their mad endeavors and drove them farther from the shore.
Two miles farther down they succeeded better. A cluster of houses stood near the place of their landing. Arming themselves with clubs, they entered the nearest house. No one was in it except an old lady. She was paralyzed with fright at the wild and savage appearance of the escaping prisoners. The latter ransacked the house for food, fire-arms, and ammunition. The woman was poor. The plunderers found only one small loaf of bread. This they took, broke it in two, and greedily devoured. To them it was but a crumb. The old lady had depended upon it for a week's subsistence! Only one other article in the house was worth taking. This was a small, thin blanket. It was the old woman's bed-cover. In the bitter cold of the Canadian winter she had been accustomed to double it and draw herself up, so as to make it cover her shriveled limbs. This, she said, was "quite a luxury."
As the prisoners started to leave the house they were assaulted by two Canadians. In criminal courts insanity is a defense. Imprisonment makes men insane. The prisoners beat the two Canadians to the ground with their clubs, and yet were innocent. They made their way to the woods. Amid excessive hardships they pursued their journey homeward. For the first few days they subsisted on a calf which they had stolen. Both men were destitute of pantaloons. Their hats they bound upon their feet.
At last they reached Schenectady. They had forgotten their appearance. They were half naked. Their nails were an inch long. During their lengthened captivity their hair and beards had grown into vast matted masses. The people of Schenectady gathered around them, supposing they were wild men of the woods. Suddenly a lady named Ellis recognized Frederick Sammons. She rushed through the crowd, seized his hands, and fainted. The adventures of the fugitives were over.
One singular coincidence remains to be mentioned. At the time when Jacob Sammons lay weak and exhausted on the shore of Lake Champlain, and tried to carve his name on the tree, that his bones might not be without memorial, his brother Frederick was near at hand. With his hat hoisted upon the pole as a signal of distress. At the time of their greatest suffering, when each, ignorant of the other's fate, felt that death was near at hand, the brothers were not two miles apart!
Retyped and reformatted by Ray and Kathy Leigh