Of these Revolutionary War heroes on whose grave a wreath is lain, Marinus Willett is the least well-known of the three. However, Willett is arguably of equal if not more importance to the history of the City of New York, as General Gates or perhaps even Alexander Hamilton.
Today Willett is better known for his relatively brief time at the Battle of Fort Stanwix (where the Marinus Willett Visitor Center greets you to the National Park Service facility) and his later defense of the Mohawk Valley during the Revolution. He was also an important politician and diplomat who played a critical role in the history of the nation and the City for almost fifty years after the Revolution.
Probably his most historically important achievement was his successful efforts in 1790 to negotiated the Treaty of New York with 27 Muscogee Creek. This treaty, which was one of the few treaties negotiated in the city of New York, was one of the early diplomatic triumphs for the nascent American government, and in certain respects would have major implications for the city’s future.
Willet’s Early Life and Role During the Revolution
Willet was born in what today is the Borough of Queens in 1740 to a somewhat prominent old line family of landowners, which is sometime described as having seen better days. He became a cabinet maker by trade and as a young man growing up in New York he became a member of the Sons Of Liberty.
After hostilities broke out in Boston, an incident occurred on June 6, 1775 when a convoy of British soldiers led heavy arms to Boston to join the Battle of Bunker Hill. Willett came out of a local bar and jumped unarmed in front of the armed line of British soldiers. He protested that only light arms, not heavy arms, were authorized by the City’s ruling council to be brought up to Boston.
Other members of the Sons of Liberty soon gathered on Broad Street to stop the convoy and the British authorities (presumably fearing another Boston Massacre) backed down and returned the heavy arms to the armory. As a result of what he would later call “the Broad Street incident,” Willett became a local patriot who would serve in the Continental Army and later in the New York and Federal governments for the next fifty years.
As active hostilities broke out, having served with the militia in the French and Indian War, Willett became an officer in New York’s militia. He was later assigned to Fort Stanwix near Rome, New York in 1777 as British troops under General John Burgoyne were driving down from Canada to split the colonies in two.
The British plan included sending troops under Barry St. Leger to take Fort Stanwix and attack the Revolutionaries from the west. St. Leger’s superior force of British regulars and Native allies besieged Fort Stanwix, and some 700 troops under the command of Peter Gansevoort.
Gansevoort sought and obtained reinforcements from Philip Schuyler near Albany and their arrival under Gen. Ebenezer Learned forced St. Leger to abandoned his attack from the west, helping to pave the way for victory at the Battles of Saratoga.
Willett took part in the Battle of Monmouth and would hold senior military positions in Upstate New York during the Revolution where he gained experience fighting Britain and her Indigenous allies, including during the punitive Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (1779) where he was second in command at the attack on the Onondaga in April, 1779. He would later express doubts about the wisdom of the United States policy of subduing Native People in bitter military actions.
Willett also presided over the trail of Walter Butler, a hated and feared Loyalist tried as a spy, found guilty and sentenced to death. On November 11, 1778 the son of John Butler (a wealthy Indian Agent associated with Sir William Johnson) had commanded the Loyalist and Seneca sack of Cherry Valley.
Willett commanded about 400 men, which he positioned at Saratoga, Ballston, German Flatts, Canajoharie, Fort Hunter, Catskill, Johnstown, and Schoharie. He led the militia in an ambush Loyalists and Indian allies at Sharon Springs and again at the Battle of Johnstown. Afterward, he led his troops to in pursuit of the Loyalists, during which Walter Butler was killed.
In 1781, from his headquarters at Fort Plain he wrote of his militia that “I don’t think I shall give a very wild account if I say, that one third have been killed, or carried captive by the enemy; one third removed to the interior places of the country; and one third deserted to the enemy.”
He was later assigned to take Fort Ontario, but withdrew when his movements were discovered. He was also assigned to build roads and improve access to Oneida Lake.
The Treaty of New York
After the war, Willett returned to the city of New York where he quickly became one of the leaders of the newly established post-Revolution government. In 1784 he was appointed Sheriff of the city, in which capacity he was in charge of restoring order and police functions, and also redistributing forfeited Loyalist lands. (In 1787, he took part in suppressing Shays’ Rebellion).
The City’s policy of redistributing land belonging to Loyalists soon met considerable opposition from former Tories, represented by lawyers such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. They claimed that the Treaty of Paris which had ended the war guaranteed that the rights of Loyalists to their pre-war property, thus nullifying New York’s laws that called for the forfeiture of all land belonging to those who had sided with the British. Ultimately the U.S. Constitution would uphold these Tories’ claims in its clause that stated the “No State shall impair the Obligation of Contract.”
It was for this reason that Willett would become a staunch Anti-federalist and ally of George Clinton who unsuccessfully opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. When the Federalist, led by Alexander Hamilton, his father-in-law Philip Schuyler, and John Jay, became ascendant in New York City politics, Willett lost some of his political power. He joined with the Tammany Society, originally a patriotic civic association which became the center of the Anti-Federalist opposition in the City’s politics.
The Tammany Society was primarily a group of disaffected Revolutionary War veterans who sometimes dressed in Native American outfits and held July 4th celebrations. They were opposed to the increasingly aristocratic Federalists who they viewed as betraying the ideals of the Revolution. The Tammany Society was said to be named after Chief Tammany of the Delaware, who supposedly had signed the peace treaty in 1683 with William Penn that established the City of Philadelphia. Chief Tammany (Tamanend) who was said to have believed in democratic ideals and peaceful and cooperative relations between Native People and Europeans.
After the formation of the Federal Government in 1789, New York City was briefly the nation’s capital (which as part of the deal forming the Constitution was later moved to Philadelphia and Washington DC). At the time, the federal government (then headquartered in what today is Fraunces Tavern) had a number of significant problems, not the least of which was its relationship with the Muscogee Creek, who had controlled most of what is today South Tennessee, Alabama, Western Georgia, and parts of Northern Florida.
Although all territory east of the Mississippi had been ceded over to the United States in the Treaty of Paris, the very powerful Muscogee had allied with the British. After conflicts with white settlers on their territory, Georgia officials insisted that the federal government send troops to protect white settlers and remove the Muscogee. George Washington and his Secretary of War Henry Knox believed the federal government did not have the capability of doing this and from their point of view a better solution would be to reach an accommodation.
After a delegation in 1789 led by General Benjamin Lincoln failed to achieve this goal, Washington and Knox reached across the aisle to Marinus Willett. Even though Willett was a stanch Anti-Federalist, he had a reputation for having dealt with Native People at the end of the Revolutionary War, and Washington reportedly thought highly of his service during the War.
Willett, who was about 50 at the time, accepted the assignment and gathered an experienced guide to undertake the mission to the Creek. He met with Alexander McGivillray (1750 – 1793, also known as Hoboi-Hili-Miko), son of a Muscogee mother and a Scottish father, an influential and controversial Muscogee Creek leader.
Willett informed McGivillray that he had come as the special representative of George Washington and that they should understand that the American government wanted peace and not war. He reportedly said that contrary to what they may have heard, the Americans were a peaceful people. Unlike the British who had in effect sold the Muscogee out in the Treaty of Paris, they could trust them to live with the Muscogee in peace for the mutual benefit of both groups.
Willett invited McGivillray to visit the American capital in New York to see how the people lived and perhaps meet with Washington. This proved persuasive and shortly thereafter a delegation of 27 Muscogee Creek traveled to New York. They reportedly received a warm reception in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia. In New York City, the Tammany Society members were allegedly out in force to greet them in their best Native attire, and there were a number of dinners and receptions in which the Society members assured them of their great interest and respect for their customs and traditions.
As skepticism and hostility began to fade a treaty was negotiated by Willett and his Tammany Society compatriots that secured rights to the ancestral lands of the “Upper, Middle and Lower Creek and Seminole composing the Creek nation of Indians,” but also allowed white settlers to enter and live in their territory.
The Muscogee Creek men also ceded a large area of their hunting grounds to the Oconee River, and agreed to surrender runaway slaves to Federal authorities (McGillivray had a plantation with as many as 60 enslaved people). The United States granted the Creek the right to deal with non-Indian trespassers, but were required to turn over non-Indians who committed crimes on Muscogee lands to white authorities. Secretly, McGillivray was rewarded with a commission as a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, including an annual salary of $1,500, and he was allowed to import goods through the port of Pensacola, then still ruled by the Spanish, without paying American import duties. He also received $100,000 as compensation lands that had been seized from his father.
This treaty, known as the Treaty of New York, was a significant triumph for the new United States – Washington and Knox were delighted.
Legend has it that at a final meeting of the Muscogee leaders and Tammany Society, McGillivray raised his glass and said:
“I see you gentlemen call yourselves the Tammany Society. I assume you know it was Chief Tammany of the Delawares who in 1683 signed the peace treaty with William Penn that formed the basis for the Pennsylvania colony and the City of Philadelphia. Chief Tammany firmly believed in peace between native Americans and white men and that if Native Americans and white men could work together in peace and respect their cities could be among the most important and wealthy in the world. It was for this reason that the City of Philadelphia became the most important city in the Colonies, more so than other colonies in which there were wars between our peoples. Although perhaps these principles have not always been followed, it was Chief Tammany’s dream that one day there would be a City in which the government and people would more closely adhere to his vision and that such a City would one day be the largest, wealthiest and most important and powerful in the world.”
With raised glasses they toasted to Chief Tammany’s dream.
Of course the Treaty of New York was broken some years later by the State of Georgia and ultimately the Muscogee Creek were driven from their land along the trail of tears by Andrew Jackson’s enforcement of the Indian Removal Act.
In New York City, the Tammany Society however grew in political influence and importance. In the elections of 1800 led by celebrity candidates such as General Horatio Gates and Governor George Clinton (with political strategist Aaron Burr), they defeated the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and Phillip Schuyler, and supported the election of President Thomas Jefferson, forming the modern Democratic Party in the city. Marinus Willett would decline George Washington’s request for a commission to lead the American Army against the Native People in Ohio, preferring to stay in New York City as Sheriff. It’s said he opposed the use military force to drive Native Americans from their land in the Ohio valley.
In 1807, Willett was elected Mayor of the city of New York. In 1814 at the age of 74 in a stirring speech from the steps of New York’s newly constructed City Hall he would rally the New York militias against a prospective British invasion. He died in 1831 at the age of 91. His funeral at Trinity Church included an estimated 10,000 mourners, one of the largest in the city’s history.
The Tammany Society and the Democratic Party would be a major force in New York politics for the next 160 years. It was sometimes stained with corruption, but its bedrock insistence on upholding Chief Tammany’s vision (real or imagined) of democratic ideals and supporting the immigrant poor and the full participation of all ethnic groups in New York politics would frequently lead it to electoral victory.
Illustrations, from above: Marinus Willett painted by Ralph Earl, oil on canvas, ca. 1791 (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art); “Cantonment of His Majesty’s forces in N. America… dated at New York 29th March 1766” (Library of Congress); “The Treaty of Penn with the Indians” by Benjamin West, depicting Penn negotiating with Tamanend; and the Willett Memorial in Albany’s Washington Park (placed 1907, relocated 2006).