A blue jay rose suddenly from a tree and hung in the air, chattering and crying, breaking the stillness of the forest on that lovely May day in 1776. The blue-uniformed soldiers, who had been resting from their march watched him idly—most of them, but a few with more interest and speculation. What made the bird leave the tree? Was it just its habit or had something disturbed him? Had he perhaps heard what human ears could not—the sound of Indian warriors approaching through the trees? For in that year the Mohawks, under their leader Joseph Brant, had joined forces with the British and the War of the Revolution was being fought with tomahawk and scalping knife as well as musket and cannon. Colonel John Patterson, commanding a regiment of soldiers enlisted from the district that is now Columbia County, was one who wondered if the bird had sensed Indians. He talked it over with one of his junior officers, Captain John McKinstry of Livingston. They were alarmed enough to rouse the soldiers and begin preparing for an attack. It was a wise decision, for scarcely had the regiment gotten itself together when a frenzied, high-pitched scream sounded from the woods, followed by another and another, and the battle later known as “The Battle of the Cedars” had begun on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The knife-wielding Indians—only a few of them had guns—were backed up by British musketeers. Before nightfall ended the battle there were many deaths on both sides. When the Indians retreated into the forest they took many prisoners with them, among them John McKinstry of Livingston, Columbia County. Shoved along with the other prisoners through unending tract of forest, McKinstry stumbled and fell many times, only to be roughly pulled to his feet and forced to go on, the sharp point of a knife pressing through his torn uniform. For hours and hours they walked until they reached a camp. It was divided into two sections, with the British soldiers keeping to themselves and the Indians to themselves. According to the rules of the alliance, each partner kept its own prisoners—and McKinstry was an Indian prisoner.
In the Indian section maddened warriors danced screaming around the fires, their halfnaked bodies streaked with paint, dirt and blood. McKinstry’s heart stopped beating for a moment at another sound that rose even above the noise the Indians were making—the screams of prisoners being tortured. Now he understood why he still had his scalp, why his captor had not killed him immediately. Then an Indian, paint- and bloodstained like the rest, stalked gravely across the clearing, without appearing to see any of the frenzied activity around him. His cold, severe manner was in such complete contrast to all the others that McKinstry’s eyes naturally followed him. He saw him cross the Indian encampment into the British part, and with the same gravity stalk to a cluster of guarded tents, probably the British headquarters. He passed the guards without a sign and disappeared inside the canvas. McKinstry let out his breath. He knew without question that was the infamous Joseph Brant, the leader of the Indians, commissioned a Captain in the King’s Army. Brant was a strange and tragic figure. Both the British and Americans had wooed him but he had finally gone over to the British after a trip to London the year before, when the British government had promised to return the Schoharie and Cherry Valleys to the Mohawks if they were victorious, or deed them a tract of land in Canada if the Americans were victorious. It was a better offer than the Americans could make, although Colonel Herkimer had told Brant the Indians might come back and live in the valleys. The Mohawk chief had angrily replied that his people would never live on land they had once owned, and promptly established a treaty with the British. His alliance with them had been a bloody one for the Americans.
McKinstry stood watching the tent into which Brant had disappeared, until he was roughly jerked along by his captors. From then on everything was a nightmare. He was struck with sticks, cut with knives, had burning torches thrust against his flesh. It was almost dawn when he was roughly thrown against a stake and bound. A fire was started at his feet. His mind was growing blank, he knew he was near unconsciousness. The flames licked at his legs and he knew it was only minutes now. Without consciously thinking about what he did—he was past that now—he gave a Masonic sign of distress. He heard a cry, then voices. He was aware the fire was being stamped out and then he blacked out. Sometime the next day he awoke, still in the Indian camp. Near him stood the fearsome Captain Brant. When he spoke his English was correct and with no trace of the pidgin used by most Indians. “I had you cut down because you gave the Masonic sign of distress and I am a Mason. I had to do it. I will give you safe conduct back to your own lines.” McKinstry tried to thank him but he stalked away. Later a messenger from Brant came and, as the chief had promised, took McKinstry through the Indian lines back to his own territory. After the Revolution was over Brant and McKinstry met again. The Mohawk had taken his people to Canada but was unhappy there and frequently made the trip back to the lands of his people. McKinstry heard he was going to be in Albany and made the trip up to see him. This time the Indian was more communicative and the two became friends. Thereafter, whenever Brant was in Albany, he always journeyed the extra mile to see McKinstry and sometimes he, with McKinstry, attended meetings of Hudson Lodge 7 F & A M, where he was greatly admired as a selfless leader of his people and an exceptional Mason.
McKinstry lived many years after his narrow escape following the Battle of the Cedars and eventually became a Colonel. Today he rests in a crumbling mausoleum in the Livingston Reformed Church Cemetery. The symbols of the organization which saved him, Freemasonry, still stand out on the inscription stone, though most of his epitaph is fast fading away.
The Brother referenced in this article is Capt. John McKinstry, a Revolutionary War veteran and a member of Hudson Lodge 7, Hudson, NY. At the end of the War Capt. McKinstry established a residence in Hudson, Columbia County. At his death he was interred in a mausoleum in Livingston. The site bore no recognition identifying him as a Revolutionary War veteran. Through
disregard for maintenance, time has taken a toll on the mausoleum. The front brick facade separating from the main structure allows water to enter, and with freezing temperatures it has caused severe damage to the brick work. Recognizing the problem, Hudson Widow’s Son Lodge 7 (recently merged) stepped up to the plate to try to restore and preserve the mausoleum containing the remains of their Brother and Revolutionary War veteran. Unfortunately, the estimated costs for restoration far exceed funds available at the Lodge level. For the reasons outlined, the Lodge is publicizing its mission, for assistance in this restoration project.
Upon completion there will be a program with a Grave-Marking Ceremony by the Empire State Society Sons of the American Revolution, a Veterans Administration Plaque Dedication and a Military Gun Salute with accolades from American Legion Post 184, Hudson. More information may be obtained by contacting RW Henry W. Croteau, Jr. at 518 / 755-2615.
JOHNATHON MAYNARD; as chronicled in the Gleason Genealogy 1607-1909: indicates that the Chief ’s last name was Brant, a Freemason. His story further colors the Chief… Jonathan Maynard, second son of Jonathan and Martha (Gleason) Maynard was a graduate of Harvard University and Sgt. in Capt. Drury’s Company at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was subsequently Lieut. in the same
Company. In 1778 he was Lieut. in one of Col. Ichabod Allen’s Companies and on May 30th of that year, while stationed near West Point, he with a small party went on a foraging excursion. When at a considerable distance from the camp they were attacked and captured by Indians. They were taken some distance further from the American lines and all the party tomahawked excepting Lieut.
Maynard. Recognizing the uniform as that of an officer, the Indians took him to their chieftain, whose name was Brant. It was decided to burn the captive, and all preparations were accordingly made, when as a last resort, Lieut. Maynard gave the Freemason’s sign of distress, though ignorant of the fact that any of those present were members of that organization. It so happened that the chief was a Freemason, and recognizing the sign, ordered the execution postponed. Lieut. Maynard was later taken, with other prisoners, to Quebec, where he was held until December 1780, when he was exchanged. The next month, January 1781, he rejoined his company
at West Point, and in the same month was promoted to the Captaincy and continued in the service until November 19, 1782.