Monday, February 20, 2012

Marinus Willett: The Rest of the Story


Last week we explored Marinus Willett’s early life and his remarkable expulsion of raiding British forces from Peekskill in March of 1777.
Following his victory at Peekskill, Marinus Willett and his 3rd New York Regiment were transferred to strategic Fort Stanwix, guarding German settlements in the Mohawk Valley.
Besieged by a superior force led by British Lt. Col. Barry St.Leger, the fort’s garrison showed its defiance by hastily sewing together a battle flag. The camlet cloak seized by Willett at Peekskill supplied the material for the blue field of the pennant flown over the fort.
While St. Leger was attacking the relief column of militia Gen. Nicholas Herkimer attempting to reach Fort Stanwix, Willett led a small force from the fort and raided St. Leger’s lightly guarded camps, seizing equipment and supplies and carrying them back to Fort Stanwix.
As second in command at Fort Stanwix, Willett later responded to St. Leger’s demand for its surrender. He told the major who brought the ultimatum that it was "a degrading message for a British officer to send and a less than reputable message for another British officer to carry."
Willett followed his defiance with another remarkable feat. Accompanied by militia lieutenant Levi Stockwell, a resourceful hunter and woodsman, he slipped from the fort and through the lines of the besieging British and Indians.
Each man was armed only with a spontoon, a wooden shaft about eight feet long with a sharp blade at one end. To conceal their tracks, they walked in streams. Lighting no fires, they ate only the cheese and hardtack they carried.
After covering the 50 miles to Fort Dayton in two days, they learned that a relief force commanded by adventurous and unpredictable Gen. Benedict Arnold had already been dispatched to raise the siege of Fort Stanwix.
For Willett's repeated acts of bravery, Congress later presented him with "an elegant sword," now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Worn out by incessant fighting, Willett retired on New Year's Day in 1781, but soon accepted Gov. George Clinton's appeal to return to the Mohawk Valley to repulse continuing Tory and Indian attacks.
Following the Revolution, estates of Tories confiscated by the Commissioners of Forfeitures were sold at ridiculously low prices. Marinus Willett bought a large tract formerly owned by the DeLancey family in an area called Corlear's Hook overlooking the busy East River.
Willett built a two-story mansion with small wings at each end as a home for himself and his wife. Surrounded by spacious grounds containing gardens, it was famous for luscious pears and delicious melons. He called the estate Cedar Grove.
Willett's estate, which would later became part of the teeming Lower East Side, is today the site of public housing projects. Two street names--Willett Streetand Sheriff Street--were the only reminders of his presence there.

An Enlightened View of Indians
Taking advantage of Willett’s experience with Indian adversaries in the Mohawk Valley, President Washington sent Marinus Willett as his personal representative in 1790 to negotiate with the Creek Nation, a powerful Indian tribe in Georgia and Alabama. So successful was his diplomacy, he returned to New York escorting Alexander McGillivray, the tribe's wily half-breed chief, and a delegation of sub-chiefs.
After a succession of festivities, including a reception by President Washington and Governor Clinton, the Creeks signed a peace treaty. Willett's signature appears on this historic document as a witness.
Because Indian tribes north of the Ohio River were actively resisting the inroads of settlers, to take advantage of Willett's knowledge of Indians, George Washington appointed him a brigadier general in 1792 to conduct a campaign on the Ohio frontier.
In a little-known letter to Washington demonstrating how astute he was about Indian affairs. Willett thanked the President for the honor, but declined to attack the Indians.
"It has been my uniform opinion that the United States ought to avoid an Indian war. I have generally conceived this to be our wisest policy. The reasons alleged in support of the present Indian war have never brought conviction to my mind.
"From my knowledge and experience of these people, I am clear that it is not a difficult thing to preserve peace with them. That there are bad men among them and that these will at times do acts which deserve punishment is very clear. But I hold that to go to war is not the proper way to punish them.
"Though they are not free from chicanery and intrigue, yet if their vanity is properly humored, and they are dealt justly by, it is no difficult matter to come to terms with them. The intercourse I have had with these people, the treatment I have myself received from them, and which I have known others to receive, makes me an advocate for them. To fight with them would be the last thing I should desire."
If others in government had shared Willet’s enlightened attitudes, the entire course of this nation's relations with Indian tribes might have been different.

Family Matters
We get an indication of the mores of the period from Willett’s marital history and a scandal that erupted in 1781. While stationed at Fort Plain, four miles west of Canajoharie, the tall and handsome Willett met Elizabeth Seeber, an attractive woman living apart from her husband.
Separated from his wife and still mourning the untimely death of his son, a Continental soldier, three years before, Willett began a liaison with Mrs. Seeber that set tongues to wagging.
In the course of time, Mrs. Seeber gave birth to a boy, who was named Marinus W. Seeber. Willett made no secret of his paternity, providing child support and money for the youth's education. Years later, now a grown man, his son returned to Fort Plain as a teacher of dancing.
Illegitimacy was then a label one carried forever, and townspeople made life uncomfortable for him. An innocent victim of wagging tongues, Marinus W. Seeber left for parts unknown and disappeared from the pages of history.
Willett's wife of 33 years, Mary Pearsee, died at Cedar Grove in 1793. He lost no time in becoming enamored of Susannah Vardill, a beautiful widow who had already buried two husbands.
She was described as "the reigning toast of New York society." They were married on October 3, 1793, three months to the day after his first wife's death. The "toast" soon lost its zest for him, and the marriage became an unhappy one. Willett discovered that he had gotten more than he bargained for.
His new wife turned out to be a vixen and a spitfire. Susannah loved to gossip--even about her husband--and the marriage eventually soured. Mrs. Willett filed for divorce in 1799.
Marinus Willett next lost his heart to Margaret Bancker, the young daughter of Willett's friends, Christopher and Mary Smith Bancker. Willett was 59; she was 24. Despite the disparity in their ages, they married. This third marriage for Willett produced four children--three sons and a daughter. One son became a physician, another a minister, and the third a lawyer.

In Politics and Out
Willett was a founding member of the Society of the Cincinnati formed by officers of the Continental Army. To counter their aristocratic pretensions, the Tammany Society was organized. Willett became one of its leaders.
An ardent foe of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists, he cast his lot with the anti-Federalists, joining Gov. George Clinton and Aaron Burr in unsuccessfully opposing New York's ratification of the new national constitution.
Willett was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1784 but resigned to become sheriff of the city and county of New York.
In 1807, he was appointed mayor of New York City to succeed DeWitt Clinton, and served until 1808. [For the first 150 years of the city's existence, mayors were appointed.] Four years later, Clinton defeated Willett for the post of lieutenant governor.
In or out of office, Willett was always in the public eye. During the darkest days of the War of 1812, he gave a rousing patriotic speech to a large crowd assembled in City Hall Park. In 1824, he was named a presidential elector in the bitter election that made John Quincy Adams president.
Marinus Willett died in his home at Cedar Grove on August 22, 1830, three weeks past his 90th birthday. Coincidentally, this was the anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Fort Stanwix 53 years before.
The entire city mourned his passing. His immense funeral procession, including military units and the Common Council, wound through streets lined with grieving spectators from Corlear’s Hook to Trinity Church at Wall Street and Broadway.
After the funeral ceremony conducted by the light of flickering torches his body was placed in the family vault at the southwest corner of the churchyard. A cannon at the Battery solemnly boomed 90 times at one-minute intervals to mark his 90 years of life. He reposes in the same churchyard with his arch-enemy Alexander Hamilton, buried there in 1804 after his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
Time and the elements have badly eroded Marinus Willett's name on the red Connecticut sandstone slab covering the Willett vault, making it almost unreadable. A more permanent plaque erected in 1969 by the Sons of the American Revolution can be found nearby.
Yet, in Westchester Marinus Willett still waits to be memorialized. A plaque or some other tangible expression of Peekskill's gratitude to him would be a good start.

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