Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Brave Peggy Schuyler, 1781

Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Susan reporting,

As much as I love reading about history, there are times when the tangible scars of a long-ago incident are infinitely more memorable than a thousand written words. A long time ago (oh, in the last century or so), when I was still in elementary school, my parents took me to Historic Deerfield as part of a family vacation. All the details of that trip are long gone from my memory except for one incredibly powerful object: the "Old Indian House Door" from the 17thc Capt. John Sheldon House.

The door survived the infamous 1704 Deerfield Raid by the French and their Native American allies, a massacre that killed fifty English men, women, and children, made captives of dozens of others, and left the town in ruins. The Sheldon House door stands as a mute testament to that harrowing day, with its broad beams hacked to form a ragged hole through which the French fired their muskets on the inhabitants. I recall the door being displayed complete with a tomahawk in place, but I might be imagining that. In any event, the door fed my nightmares for years. Still does.

That door has yet to appear in any of my books, but I thought of it immediately while I was researching my new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton. I've written before about the Schuyler Mansion, the house in which my heroine Eliza Schuyler Hamilton was raised (here, here, here, and here.) Originally known as The Pastures in the 18thc, the elegant brick mansion was surrounded by a large estate that overlooked the Hudson River.

But even The Pastures didn't entirely escape the American Revolution. Gen. Philip Schuyler, Eliza's father, first served in the Continental Army, and later in the war continued to advise his close friend Commander-in-Chief General George Washington. By the summer of 1781, the majority of the fighting had moved south, but the general's importance still made him a target to the enemy, and a small group of soldiers was assigned to the house to guard the general and his family. At the time, this included not only his wife Catharine and their younger children, but also his two older, married daughters, Angelica Church and Eliza Hamilton (both of whom were pregnant and visiting while their husbands were with the army), and Angelica's two children.

On a warm evening in August, the house was attacked by a group of local Tories and Native Americans. While the guards attempted to fight them off, the family fled upstairs to barricade themselves in one of the bedchambers until help arrived. Too late Catharine Schuyler realized to her horror that her youngest child, a baby also named Catherine, had been left asleep downstairs.

Bravely - or impulsively - the third daughter, twenty-two-year-old Margarita (better known as Peggy, and shown right in a later portrait) raced back downstairs to rescue her baby sister. Challenged by the attackers who were now ransacking the house, Peggy thought quickly, and told them that armed reinforcements were on the way from the town. As she raced up the stairs with her sister in her arms, one of the attackers swung a tomahawk at her, catching her skirts and and hacking a deep gouge into the banister.  Soon afterward, reinforcements did indeed arrive, the general and his family were saved, and Peggy was lauded as a heroine.

Today some of the details of the attack are suspected to have been 19thc embellishments. But there's no doubt that the raw tomahawk gouge remains in the banister, above left, carefully preserved over the centuries as proof. The gouge has grown wider over time as early 20thc visitors who were intrigued by the story carved out slivers of the railing for themselves as souvenirs. But as I ran my fingers over it, I couldn't help but picture brave Peggy Schuyler, her skirts flying and her baby sister wailing, as she faced down the enemy who'd dared attack her home.

Left: Photograph of the Schuyler Mansion staircase, ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.
Right: Photograph detail of a miniature portrait of Magarita Schuyler Van Rensselaer by James Peale, c1796.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton (and yes, Peggy as well) in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.


Gracie McNeal said...

I was taught about the same incident when I was in 7th grade and living in New York State, was required to learn about NY history. I often wondered if I had been mistaken, since no one else seemed to remember this story, so thanks for given credence to my memory. My only thought is that the tomahawk cut on the bannister that's seen in the picture seems a bit fresh and the one that I saw in a picture had been worn down a bit from years of having hands go up and down the bannister.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Gracie - It must be my photo! The cut does have that "patina" of many, many hands having touched it over the years, which to me adds another level of history. I'm glad you remember it from seventh grade - just like I haven't forgotten the Indian Door. :)

yarngoddess@hotmail.com said...

Forensically speaking, the cut runs at a strange angle in my opinion. Unless the staircase is in the middle of a hall... and the intruders were far to the right of the stairs.

If she were running up the stairs the tomahawk would have sliced the outer side of the banister at the opposite angle. This cut would have to have been directed at her before she set foot on the stairs.

Romantic stories. I've done first person reenactment and we really liked to make them sound exciting.


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