Thursday, April 7, 2011

descendant Walks In Steps Of POW Who Fled Captivity

“CAPTIVE! The Story of David Ogden and the Iroquois,” by Jack Harpster and Dr. Ken Stalter, the Oneonta surgeon and Ogden descendant, has just been published by Greenwood Publishing Group.

Joseph Brant – the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait hangs in The Fenimore Art Museum – comes off well in “Captive!”
The story of David Ogden and his ordeal is one of many similar stories of people being captured by the Iroquois during the American Revolution as it played out in Central New York.  Among the other such captivity ordeals of local interest is that of Daniel McCollum of Middlefield Centre, who was taken at a young age and recovered many years later. 
In that sense, the ordeal of David Ogden may not be unique; what is unique is how well Ogden’s ordeal has been documented and how well it is recreated in this book.
The best source of the Odgen experience is indeed from Ogden himself, who related his tale to Josiah Priest in 1840.  It is on this narrative that Harpster and Stalter (a descendant of Ogden) base much of their fine work. 
The basics of the tale are rather straightforward.  For safety, Ogden’s family went from Otego to Cherry Valley, by way of Newtown-Martin, or Middlefield Center, during the early stages of the American Revolution.  They were in Cherry Valley during the Massacre. 

Ogden descendant, surgeon and author Ken Stalter
Ogden enlisted in the war effort and was captured by the Iroquois, led
by Joseph Brant, on March 2, 1781, while chopping wood for Fort Stanwix (Utica).  He had to endure a winter march to Fort Niagara, where he and other captives had to run a gauntlet.  He was adopted into an Indian family, who, after he proved a poor surrogate for their dead son, was given back to the Tories.  From thence he ended up in Oswego, where he escaped and literally ran back to Warren’s Bush, where his family had made their home.
Throughout the book, the authors make a point of differentiating how Tories and the Iroquois treated prisoners of war. To a great extent, the Iroquois were generally more humane in terms of keeping prisoners well fed and comfortable, notwithstanding forced winter marches and the running of gauntlets. Indeed, in general, the Iroquois are treated quite sympathetically throughout this book.  Even Joseph Brant, leader of the Iroquois who was reviled by Americans for much of the 19th century, is shown to be a much more decent warrior and much less barbarous then early works have portrayed.
To their credit, Harpster and Stalter do not merely retell the tale as Priest told it.  Through extensive primary and secondary source research they have been able to flesh out many more particulars about Ogden’s life and what his captivity may have really been like.  To be sure, to do this there is a fair amount of “filler” which helps to bring the people in the book to life. 
For example, there is a detailed description of the Indian Yaup early in the text which can be based on nothing more than a supposition of what this Iroquois looked like and could have been wearing.
This book makes admirable use of primary source material to tell Ogden’s story more completely than did Priest.  Ample use of the Brant manuscripts, the Campbell Family Papers, the Haldimand Papers, and the orderly books of the Fourth and Second New York Regiments among other documents was made.  These sources give the book both an air of authority and reliability. 
Among the highlights of this book is the detailed telling of David Odgen’s run to freedom from Oswego to Cherry Valley.  This part of the story is told vividly in light of Stalter’s own experience retracing his ancestor’s steps.  I am at a loss to think of many historians who have taken the time to recreate such a trek made by their subjects.
On the whole, this book is an excellent retelling of an aspect of the American Revolution that is not often heard.  This is a  personal tale of one man’s harrowing experience and through his experience it helps shed light on other aspects of the human toll of the American Revolution.
In the hands of Harpster and Stalter, the tale comes alive and reads both as historical narrative and as well-crafted fiction.  In the reading, one could easily lose sight of the fact that this is a true tale and not a novel.  The story moves at a fast pace and, as the title implies, “CAPTIVE!” is captivating.

Dominick J. Reisen is author of “Middlefield and the Settling of the New York Frontier” and past president of the Otsego County Historical Association.

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