If you were one of the thousands of children who passed through the Schuyler Mansion for about 80 years your biggest takeaway was probably the story of the Indian Raid and the very cool mark in the banister of the main staircase made by a tomahawk. It turns out, not so much.
Here’s the compelling version we learned as kids. According to the Schuyler Mansion Facebook page, “The legend developed from conflicting versions of the story told immediately after the event, as well as another version told in 1859 by the granddaughter of Philip and Catherine Schuyler’s youngest daughter, Catherine.”
In the story we were told as children, the attackers were: 2) Iroquois Indians allies of the British, or 2) Tories dressed as Indians, a la the Boston Tea Party, or 3) both. In any event, the family fled upstairs, but inadvertently left the youngest child, Catherine, behind in the tumult. Peggy (Marguerite), the youngest of the Schuyler sisters (the other 2 were Angelica and Elizabeth- married to Alexander Hamilton) ran back to rescue the infant. As Peggy ran up the stairs clutching her sister, one of the attackers flung his tomahawk. It sliced through her gown, tearing off a piece of the skirt and embedded itself in the staircase banister. If you were a kid, that was the most thrilling story. And you could touch the mark made by the tomahawk 200 years later, probably enlarged by the small hands of at least 4 generations of kids running their fingers across it.
Now here’s the real story.
In summer 1781, as the Revolutionary War wound down, there were a number of Tory loyalists and the British in Canada who concluded desperate times called for desperate measures. They hit upon the idea of kidnapping key patriot leaders, in an effort to demoralize the War effort, with a view to “trials” of the traitors and possible hanging. One of those targeted was Major-General Philip Schuyler of Albany. By July the plot was already in motion.
However, information about the proposed kidnapping soon reached the patriots and Schuyler was warned of the imminent danger, but he and his family remained at the Mansion, near the southern border of the City in an unpopulated area, with a minimal guard.
On the night of August 7, a raiding party including British soldiers and Tories broke through the Mansion gates and launched an attack within the house itself while the family was eating dinner. Two white soldiers and one black servant (probably a Schuyler slave) attempted to repel the intruders. The household, which included Catharine Schuyler, the General’s wife, their daughter Margaret, several other children and a number of servants descended into chaos during what was a bloody and fierce attack. Schuyler went upstairs to find his pistol and faked out the attackers as they reached the second floor. He yelled “Come on my lads. Surround the house; the villains are in it”. Thinking they were outnumbered, the attackers retreated, leaving behind several of their own who were wounded, but captured two of the Schuyler guards and made off with some of the house silver.
Brigadier General Barry St. Leger, a British Officer in Canada, subsequently wrote: “The attack and defense of the house was bloody and obstinate, on both sides. When the doors were forced, the servants fought till they were all wounded or disarmed. The uproar of Mrs. Schuyler and the cries of the children obliged them to retire with their two prisoners being the only persons that could be moved on account of their wounds.”*
In any event, we will never know how the gouge was made in the staircase, but it probably happened that night in 1781. And you can see it yourself. The Mansion is a NYS Historic Site and a National Historic Landmark, located at 32 Catherine St. in Albany NY. It was built in the 1760s by the Schuylers and is a wonderful example of Georgian architecture and design, interpreted in Colonial America. Its guests included Ben Franklin, British General John Burgoyne (defeated at the Battle of Saratoga). George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. It was in the Mansion’s parlor that Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler 8 months before the raid in December, 1780. The Mansion is open May thru October, Wednesday- Sunday – 11AM to 5PM, with tours on the hour. A special tour, “When Alexander Hamilton Called Albany Home,” is held at 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at the Mansion.
*Fryer, Loyalist Spy, The Experiences of Captain John Walton Meyers during the American Revolution (Brockville, Ontario: Besancourt Publishers, 1974),