Who Killed Capt. Bratt and David Ketlin?
By Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr., City Historian
If Albany was founded by the Dutch in 1614, why wasn’t our Mechanicville area settled for another 150 years, around the time of the American Revolution? Albany is only twenty miles away as the crow flies, after all. The answer is both simple and complex, but it may be understood best by examining a little-remembered incident at the end of Queen Anne’s War, the second of four intercolonial wars between England and France which ebbed and flowed from 1689 until1763, the end of the French and Indian War.
On October 20, 1711, Capt. Johannés Bratt and his brother-in-law, David Ketlin, left their frontier cabins on "the Flats" just south of present-day Mechanicville to go to Schaghticoke "where the Indians live." How long Ketlin had lived in the area we do not know, but it must have been for at least a few years. He knew the Indian language; could recognize most Schaghticokes on sight; and he and his family lived on a farm which included a house, a barn, and a corncrib. His brother-in-law, Capt. Bratt, and his family lived nearby. England and France were technically at war, but the local frontier had been quiet for a number of years, and the French sacking of Schenectady was a distant memory, having occurred in 1690. Since 1676, the area’s Schaghticokes had lived under "a tree of peace," serving as protection for Albany’s northern flank. But, few European settlers ventured north of the Mohawk River in order to avoid confrontation with "north" or "French Indians" who traversed the upper Hudson and Hoosick valleys on hunting and raiding expeditions.
What business Bratt and Ketlin had with the Schaghticokes, we do not know. However, on that fateful October day in 1711, they chanced across a lone Indian whom they did not recognize, challenging his claim that he was merely "a-hunting." By the time Ketlin turned to warn Bratt that this was an interloper, the Indian had shot the officer from his horse, killing him instantly. A wrestling match between Ketlin and the assailant then ensued, ending with the Dutch settler chasing the attacker off into the woods while brandishing the hatchet he had seized from him.
The following day, with the aid of three Albany militia men, Ketlin moved Bratt’s wife (his sister) and her two children into his home with his wife, his 16-year-old son, at least two Negro slaves, and a young Indian boy who stayed with him. Another older Schaghticoke lived in a wigwam nearby. Late evening when he opened the door of his cabin in response to what he believed were local natives, "French Indians" greeted the household with six gunshots. Returning their fire, the men inside temporarily drove off the attackers, but they returned and set fire to the house, forcing the occupants to flee. Ketlin and two of the three soldiers were shot dead almost immediately; his wife, his sister, and her two children, the two slaves, his son, and the remaining militiaman were captured. The "French Indians" now completed their work by burning the house, the barn, and the corncrib. However, despite their immediate success, they knew that they would be reported quickly by the Schaghticokes to colonial forces at nearby Halfmoon who would come up to "the Flats" and drive them off. It was now late October, the autumn weather could be quite fickle in the wilderness, and Quebec was a long way off.
In such circumstances, raiding parties made calculated decisions on how to ensure successful return trips when they were hundreds of miles from home. They had to wrestle with two disparate urges: the desire to secure captives who could be adopted by Indians to replace family members who had died; or, the contrary urge to take scalps for which they would receive bounties. To the modern mind, adoption by Indians seems to be an unattractive prospect, but almost half of the captives adopted at this time refused repatriation when offered the opportunity. As for scalping bounties, the English had introduced the practice and the French responded in kind. Escaping raiding parties also engaged in "mercy killing," dispatching any captives who might slow their retreat. In this case, the raiders killed Ketlin’s wife ("so big with child"), along with her nursing infant. Scalping their dead victims, they then fled northward with their captives: Ketlin’s son, the two slaves, and the lone surviving soldier. Behind them, they left the bodies of three fellow raiders, Johannés Bratt, David Ketlin, his wife, her baby, and two soldiers. The following day, Capt. Jacobus Skoonhoven from Halfmoon fort went up and buried the bodies of the two soldiers, along with "what part he found" of Ketlin’s remains. Those of the other victims he brought to Albany for burial.
What we know of this incident is revealed in a document filed by the colonial Indian Commissioners with Governor Hunter, based upon information provided by the wounded Indian boy who escaped from the burning house and by the old Schaghticoke who lived in a wigwam near Ketlin’s home. He had hidden under a fallen tree upon hearing the first shots. The document is one of tens of thousands collected and published by the State Archives in the 1850s, a gold mine of information about New York colonial history. Besides being included with others dealing with Indian affairs at this time, the description of the incident stands alone without any additional context provided. This is not unusual given the apparent randomness of the event, and in its bluntness, it seems to confirm Hobbes’s famous dictum that life on the frontier was "nasty, brutish, and short." To those immediately involved, the event was dramatic and compelling; but, it was a small matter in the wider scope of affairs, an incident of no larger significance. Or, so we would be led to believe.
Imagine my surprise when I chanced upon another document, dated 1720, which made direct reference to the Ketlin-Bratt affair which had occurred nine years earlier. Rather than being a random event, the attack on the household was a retaliatory strike by the French against British interference with their attempts to build a fort in Iroquois territory. To the west, this new document demonstrated that the local settlers had been caught up in the tide of international affairs as the two super-powers of that age wrestled for control of North America. Now in 1720, Iroquois sachems warned the Governor’s Council on Albany that an overly aggressive policy against the French might backfire as it had done nine years earlier. They reminded the New York leaders that the English "paid dearly for it…with blood by [the] killing of David Ketlin, [the] family of Johannés Bratt" and others. Would the English like to see a repeat performance now?
While the Iroquois remained unmoved by pleas to bolster British defense plans, colonial authorities were successful in convincing some Schaghticokes to move to a newly established fort near present-day Schuylerville. However, the outpost was abandoned at the first sign of trouble, thus embarrassing the British in Native American eyes.
Victimized by corrupt traders who plied them with rum, their hunting grounds and corn fields overrun by white settlers beyond the control of the colonial own government, and drawn by the powerful attraction of reuniting with relatives who had settled in Canada, the Schaghticokes played less and less of a role in protecting the frontier. Forty years after the Bratt-Ketlin incident, "north Indians" invaded "the Flats" with impunity, sacking the Leland farm just south of here in 1748. Six years later, on the eve of the French and Indian War, they brazenly raided the remains of the Schaghticoke settlement, making off with numerous "captives," many of whom may have gone willingly.
The Peace of Paris in 1763 brought an end to France’s presence in North America, and English take-over of Canada brought the promise of peace to the local frontier. The next year, a large settlement of Connecticut Congregationalists migrated north of the Tenendehowa to the Town of Stillwater. However, they soon found themselves caught up in a guerrilla-like civil war we call the American Revolution where loyalties of local citizens ebbed and flowed between the Americans and the British, depending upon the proximity of the two warring armies. When a group of them fled to the island north of the present-day power dam on the Hudson in anticipation of British collapse in 1777, American forces (including some of their neighbors) compelled them to accompany Burgoyne’s defeated army back to Canada following its surrender. At long last, over sixty years after the Ketlins, Bratts, and others had been caught by surprise on a late October night, the local frontier was calm and settlement could begin in earnest.