Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)




Director: John Ford

Starring:  Claudette Colbert )(Lana Martin), Henry Fonda (Gilbert 'Gil' Martin), Edna May Oliver (Mrs. McKlennar), Eddie Collins (Christian Reall), John Carradine (Caldwel), Dorris Bowdon (Mary Reall), Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Weaver), Arthur Shields (Rev. Rosenkrantz), Robert Lowery (John Weaver), Roger Imhof (Gen. Nicholas Herkimer), Francis Ford (Joe Boleo), Ward Bond (Adam Hartman), Kay Linaker (Mrs. Demooth), Russell Simpson (Dr. Petry), Spencer Charters (Innkeeper).

The film portrays the lives of colonial settlers during the Revolutionary War in upstate New York along the Mohawk River that heads west to east to the Hudson River in central New York.



Good movie.  In Albany, at the Borst home, Gilbert Martin (Henry Fonda) has just married Lana Borst (Claudette Colbert).  They move out onto the frontier area of New York State to Deerfield, vicinity of the Fort at German Flats with Fort Dayton being the next closest military facility.  Mrs Martin is a city girl and she is filled with trepidation about life on the frontier.  And when the friendly Indian Blueback shows up at the door, thinking she is going to be killed, Lana becomes hysterical.

The story is set during the American Revolution and the Tory leaders are using their Indian allies to wipe out American settlements on the frontier.  The situation is very dire as the farms are separated from each other by quite a distance.  At any sign of trouble, the Americans haves to retreat into the fort at German Flats.  There General Herkimer (Roger Imhof) is in command. 

The movie illustrates the terribly risky situation the new settlers find themselves in.  The farm of the Martins is attacked by some 8 whites and 100 Indians.  They just do get away from the enemy who then burn their farmhouse and crops.   This attack will be followed by a much worse attack by the enemy following the winter lull. 

The Martins are now homeless and so poor that they both have to go to work for room and board for the widowed Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver).  The character of the widow, who is quite outspoken, provides some needed comic relief in the tense situations facing the new settlers. 

Further danger awaits the Martin family.  In the coming spring Colonel Fisher with a regiment of Continental soldiers is sent to punish the local Tories and their Indian allies for their attacks on American settlements.  Gil and the other local men have to join in on the campaign and Lana is very worried.  And an assault on the local fort by forces under Caldwell also awaits them.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


The Mohawk River flows east across New York State into the Hudson River at Albany, New York. 

Deerfield  --  a town in Oneida County, New York in the Utica-Rome metro area.

German Flats  --  located on the southern side of the Mohawk River in Herkimer County, New York.  It is 5 miles SE of Herkimer and 75 miles from Albany.

Fort Dayton  --  Herkimer, Herkimer County.



The Campaign of 1777

1776 (May 1)  --  Sir John Johnson (son of the famous Indian friend William Johnson), fearing an attack on Johnson Hall, fled from his homestead  and 19 days later reached Canada.  There Johnson, with other Mohawk Valley refugees, formed a battalion of the "King's Royal Regiment of New York," (also known as "Johnson's Greens)." Together with Butler's Rangers and Chief Joseph Brant's Indians (a Mohawk protégé of Sir William's), the three groups scourged the Mohawk River Valley.

British strategists planned an invasion to capture control of New York.  This would separate New England from the Middle Atlantic and Southern states.  The plan was a three pronged approach:

1)  the main force under General John Burgoyne would start from Montreal and descend the Hudson, via Lake Champlain, to Albany;

2)  the second fore, under General William Howe would head north from New York City to Albany;

3)  a third force under Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger would head east from Oswego to Albany by way of the Mohawk Valley.

In the Mohawk Valley, there were three forces:

1) St. Leger and the main body of troops (Sir John Johnson was second in command);

2) Colonel John Butler commanded the loyalists; and

3)  Chief Joseph Brant was in charge of the Indians.

Things did not go as smoothly as planned.  Their progress was blocked at old Fort Stanwix (now renamed Fort Schuyler) by troops under Colonel Peter Gansevoort.

Fear swept through the Valley.  

1777 (August 4)  --  Gen. Herkimer gathered his militia at Fort Dayton and with 800 men march to the relief of Fort Stanwix. 

1777 (August 6)  --  hearing of the oncoming Herkimer's relief column, the British set up an ambush at a ravine near Oriskany. Herkimer was shot in the leg.

The Americans were forced to return to Fort Dayton. Back home, General Herkimer died 11 days after the battle.

A force from Albany under Benedict Arnold set out to relieve Gansevoort at Ft. Stanwix.

Fearing the exaggerated reports of the size of Arnold's force, the Indians retreated.  This then forced St. Leger to end the siege and retreat to Canada.

British plans to march through the Valley failed and Arnold and his men from along the Mohawk River were free to join the forces opposing Burgoyne.

1778 (Aug. 1)  --  Chief  Joseph Brant and Captain William Caldwell led a mixed force of 450 Loyalists and Mohawks on a raid on the German Flats area. A scouting party was sent out to find the raiders and were ambushed with only Adam Helmer surviving.  With the Indians at his heels, Adam ran twenty miles (dramatized in the print and film versions of Drums Along The Mohawk) to deliver a warning to Fort Herkimer (two miles east of Fort Dayton). The raiders left a ten mile strip of scorched earth between today's Frankfort and Little Falls.  Source: Stockades and Settlements: Being a Tour of Historic Sites in Northern Department of New York: www.nyhistory.net/~drums/stockade.htm)

1781  --  Fort Stanwix was destroyed in an accidental fire and was abandoned.

1782 (July 15)  --  another Tory and Indian raid on German Flats.

1783 (Aug 5)  --  raid on the south shore of German Flats.

c. 1850  --  most of the remains of Ft. Stanwix had disappeared as the city of Rome grew around the location.



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