Things were relatively quiet in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York during 1782, even though the American Revolution was not over. Men like Private Samuel Downing of the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment stationed at Fort Plain, also known as Fort Rensselaer, spent a lot of time cutting firewood, going on routine patrols and foraging for food. Late in life, Downing recalled one of those days when he was in Johnstown foraging for food.
“Once, in the Mohawk valley, we stopped in William Johnson’s great house. It would hold a regiment. Old Johnson appeared to us: I don’t know as you’ll believe it. The rest had been out foraging. One had stolen a hive of honey; some others had brought in eight quarters of good mutton, and others, apples and garden sauce, and so forth. Ellis and I went out to get a sack of potatoes, some three pecks. When we got back to Johnson’s, as we were going through the hall, I looked back, and there was a man. I can see now just how he looked. He had on a short coat. What to do with the potatoes we didn’t know. It wouldn’t do to carry them into the house; so I ran down cellar. When the man got to the middle of the hall, all at once he disappeared. I could see him as plain – O, if I could see you as plain!”
Since Halloween was only a little over a week ago and Veteran’s Day is today, it seemed an appropriate time to tell the story of a Revolutionary War soldier who saw the ghost of Sir William Johnson. The soldier is in many respects as interesting as the ghost.
Downing was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts on November 30, 1761, according to his grave stone but some historians believe he was actually born in 1764. He enlisted in the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment of the Continental Line in 1780 as a private and remained a private for the duration. Downing is representative of Stephen Foster’s song “Nothing but a plain old soldier,
An old revolutionary soldier,” except that he lived until February 18, 1867 and was one of the last surviving veterans of the war, dying at either age 102 or 105 depending on when he was actually born. It is alleged that the first time he voted, he voted for George Washington, and the last time he voted, he voted for Abraham Lincoln.
When Downing was more than 100 years old, he gave an interview to Reverend Elias Hillard, who included it along with five other interviews of very old Revolutionary War soldiers in his book, The Last Men of the Revolution, published in 1864. It was during this interview that Downing told about meeting Sir William’s ghost.
Hillard also included photographs of each man in his book. Such photos are extremely rare. The Fort Plain Museum currently has an original photo of Downing on display. Historian Don Hagist revisited Hillard’s book in his 2015 work, The Revolution’s Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs, and corrects some errors in Hillard’s book.
After the Revolution, in 1794, Downing moved to Edinburg in the Sacandaga Valley. It appears he got snookered into buying land there. According to Downing, “They said in Antrim we could live on three days’ work here as easy as we could on six there. So we ‘formed a company to come. There were some twenty, but I was the only one that came.”
Downing sold his 110 acre farm in New Hampshire for “a trifle,” and he and his brother went to Edinburg to look things over. As soon as Downing arrived in Edinburg, he realized his mistake. Turning to his brother, he said, “I’ve given my farm away, and have nothing to buy another with : so I’ve got to stay here. But you’ve sold well : so you go right back and buy another.” After spending so much time in the fertile Mohawk Valley, one wonders why Downing didn’t buy farmland there instead of in the less hospitable foothills of the Adirondacks.
Downing made the best of his situation, however. He built the first frame house in Edinburg and farmed successfully there for seventy years, even if he did have to work six days a week instead of three. He is buried in the Clarkville Cemetery on Tennantville Road in Edinburg, where the Sons of the American Revolution have honored him with a blue and yellow historic marker.
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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.