Washington Irving’s famous story, “Rip Van Winkle,” about a fictional man who returns to his village after mysteriously disappearing for twenty years, takes place in the Catskill Mountains along the Hudson Valley. Some people theorize, however, that in real life the story might have been influenced by a man from the Mohawk Valley—Petrus (Peter) Groot of Cranesville, about 25 miles west of Albany.
On June 8, 1807, John Sanders posted a notice in several newspapers, describing an experience he had. “On Thursday the 4th inst. about four miles from Schenectady, aside of the Mohawk turnpike, sitting under a tree, I discovered Petrus Groot, who was supposed to have been slain in the Oriskena battle, under General Herkimer, on conversing with him he confessed to be the person I took him to be.”
John Groot had previously assured historian Jeptha Simms that his brother Petrus, a Lieutenant in the Third Battalion of the Tryon County Militia, was captured on August 6, 1777 during the Battle of Oriskany, the bloodiest battle of the American Revolution, and then murdered at Wood Creek. Peter Ehle, a fellow prisoner, claimed also to have seen Groot killed. In truth, Groot had been tomahawked, stabbed and scalped and then, after surviving, taken prisoner to Canada. According to former Glenville historian, Donald Keefer, writing in the April 13, 1944 issue of Mohawk Valley Genealogy and History, after his release, Groot wandered from place to place, his memory impaired due to his head injuries.
Groot was born on March 7, 1743. He married his cousin, Neeltje Groot, and had two children—Annatje (1773) and Phillip (1776). According to one Groot descendant, the family received a pension after the Revolution based on testimony that Petrus had died.
Tragedy was not new to the Groots. The French and Indians captured Groot’s grandfather, Philip, during the Schenectady Massacre of February 1690. He survived the death march to Canada and returned a year later. He bought land at Adriutha (now Cranesville) but while sleighing there to survey it in the Winter of 1716, he drowned in the Mohawk. His wife and sons moved to the land, and were Cranesville’s first settlers. Groot’s father Lewis was also captured by Indians in 1755 and labored as a slave in Canada for more than four years before being returned to his wife and ten children.
Petrus Groot told Sanders that when he returned to the Mohawk Valley, he approached one of his former neighbors, who “would not recognize him,” therefore he wouldn’t go home because “he was fearful his children and brothers would not” recognize him either. Sanders took Groot “to the nearest tavern, “where I left him to be sent to his children and brothers, from whence, however, he departed before day the next morning, and was seen in Albany on Friday.”
Groot’s disappearance from the tavern and fear for the safety of the now 63-year-old man prompted Sanders to post a notice in newspapers. According to Sanders, Groot “said he would go to the Governor’s. Being at times deranged, it is fearful he will stray too far away for his friends to find him.” Sanders promised to compensate anyone who found, cared for and helped Groot return to his family.
Washington Irving had an older sister, Anna Sarah “Nancy” Dodge, who lived in Johnstown, NY. She died in 1808 and is buried in the Colonial Cemetery there. Irving might have learned about Groot from his sister’s family as there is evidence that he visited Johnstown. But he also might have read the story in one of the newspapers carrying Sanders’ notice.
My belief is the Groot story probably influenced Irving only a little. Irving had travelled in Germany, studied German language and literature and many scholars believe “Rip Van Winkle” was a rewrite of the German folktale “Peter Klaus.” “Rip Van Winkle” is a comical story about a lazy, hen pecked man who fell asleep for 20 years. The story of Petrus Groot is a tragic one about a wounded warrior, wandering for 30 years, not always sure who he was, and to the best of anyone’s knowledge, never reunited with his family.
Regardless of whether or not Petrus Groot was the inspiration for “Rip Van Winkle,” his story deserves to be told and never forgotten. The story of the entire Groot family deserves memorialization because because it contains in a nutshell the entire history of the Mohawk frontier during the harsh and violent colonial era. The Groots also represent the best qualities—courage, determination and patriotism—of the early settlers of New York State.
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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.