“If I am Dead and Gon”: Oliver Graham of Saybrook, Connecticut
and Elizabethtown, Upper Canada (1758–1838)
–Pamela Vittorio, Professional Genealogist, Brooklyn, NY
Oliver Graham was both patriot and opportunist. His reasons for accepting acres of Crown Land with a Loyalist’s oath, may have included coercion and despair. Having no family ties and no home to return to in America may have pulled him into the sphere of the Loyalists and away from the Patriot dream. Later, he returns to the U.S. to draw a Revolutionary War Pension.
“Liberty or Death,” the well-known phrase from Patrick Henry’s famous 1775 speech, symbolized the battle cry etched into many Revolutionary War powder horns. Oliver Graham’s horn was no exception. Born in Saybrook, Connecticut on September 27, 1758, Oliver Graham stood only five feet five inches tall when he volunteered in the
summer of 1776. He served for a few months in Col. Samuel Mott’s Regiment and then under the command of Lt. Matthew Scoville in Col. William Hart’s regiment, never knowing that one day his horn would be displayed at Hart House in his birthplace. By 1777, Oliver was a non-commissioned private in the infantry of Colonel Seth Warner’s 8th Company in the Seventh Regiment. For a good part of his military career, he had received no pay.
Oliver’s service records reflect the chronology of a young man who had bravely joined the rebel cause. But Oliver’s story takes an unexpected twist that led him from New England to New York’s Champlain Valley and later, to the wilderness of Upper Canada.
Connecticut Yankee or Green Mountain Boy?
Oliver Graham’s service was not without tragedy: he was severely injured at Mount Independence, Vermont, in the spring of 1777, when a tree fell on him. After he recuperated, he mustered back in. His exploits continued in Hubbardton, Vermont,
where his regiment engaged in several skirmishes. Oliver and his company marched to Bennington in August, and from there, to Saratoga where Burgoyne was captured. In the fall of 1777, Oliver was made a drummer and he troops moved back and forth between Fort Edward and Fort George several times. He was with Wait (Weight) Hopkins’ company at
Fort Stark, Bennington, Vermont until 1779. Oliver remained under the command of the Green Mountain Boys, in Col. Seth Warner’s Regiment. He was a drummer at Fort George from March until October 1780 – when events occurred that would forever change his life.
Captured and Turned
On October 10, 1780, Guy Carlton’s forces attacked Fort Ann, Fort Edward, and Fort George, burned the valley, and took hundreds of soldiers and civilians as prisoners. In his pension deposition, Oliver described having been shot and wounded and how he was captured by another corps of Carlton’s militia. He was recovered from his wounds at a Montreal hospital, and then imprisoned at Fort St. Jean. By 1781 Oliver’s attentions had been turned toward the Loyalists, and he joined Ruiter’s Company, part of the King’s Rangers. In his testimony, Oliver claimed he had returned to Fort Edward in 1781 – confirmed by Kezia Baker, who had conveyed her father Albert’s eyewitness accounts to New York historian A.W. Holden, in 1867. Baker said that Oliver came back to Sandy Hook briefly after the war.
Guy Carlton and Robert Rogers endeavored very seriously to recruit captured Colonial militiamen, as numbers in the British army had greatly dwindled. Perhaps Oliver realized it was a “join-or-die” situation. His future father-in-law, Jacob Thompson, a Vermonter who was also a member of the King’s Rangers, may have influenced Oliver’s decision.
Both men’s names are found on a Loyalist muster list in 1781. In his deposition, Oliver claimed that he stayed at St. John’s for two years and then proceeded to Upper Canada. He must have known he had to withhold the story of his time spent with the Loyalist
regiments. In his deposition, he remains silent about his time in the King’s Rangers.
A New Life
When the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783, Oliver Graham was freed from
his military obligations to the King’s Rangers and briefly returned to New York. Apparently, there was not enough to persuade Oliver to remain. The offer of Crown land in Upper Canada and perhaps a young wife, held enough promise for him to settle in
Elizabethtown, Johnstown District. By 1784 the name Oliver Graham appears on Crown Land petitions and on a landowner map of Elizabethtown, Upper Canada. Oliver married Mary Thompson, daughter of fellow Ranger, Jacob Thompson and had eleven children – ten of whom survived into adulthood. For a while, Oliver and his father-in-law shared 200 acres
on the St. Lawrence River and many acres of farmland in Elizabethtown. An “early settler,” Oliver’s name appears on a 1797 Nominal Census of Elizabethtown.
By 1818, Oliver had been appointed one of the area’s constables. By 1827, Oliver, was a widower. He went to live with his son Oliver Jr., in Brownville, in Jefferson County, New York. He returned to Elizabethtown in 1832, and shared half of a lot of property with his
daughter Mary, and her husband, Peter Peer.
On the morning of May 20, 1834, Oliver Graham of Elizabethtown, Upper Canada, put on his best clothes, and left the home he shared with his daughter and son-in-law and his grandchildren. Oliver crossed the St. Lawrence to Ogdensburgh, New York with three former Loyalist soldiers: one was a well-known judge from his neighborhood and the other two were close friends. During his testimony, Oliver recalled his military career and experiences that had taken place half a century before. The court valued his service and
good character, and later granted him a very modest Oliver’s final years were spent with his youngest son William, in Fredericksburg (today in Lenox and Addington County). On August 12, 1838, was attacked near his home, where he lived with his son, William T.
Graham. A man named Young, suffering from mental instability, had gone on a rampage throughout the county. When he encountered the elderly Graham, Young turned his rage upon him. Oliver was brutally stabbed and left for dead in a marshy area near his home. William did not find his father’s body until later that day. Oliver Graham’s obituary called him an “old UE…of nearly 80 years — with 10 children.” Though Oliver had survived the perils of war, he sadly met with a violent end.
A Painting Leads to the Original
Oliver Graham’s Powder Horn is part of his legacy. Its chain of custody from the end of the Revolutionary War until it came into the possession of Samuel Ludlow Frey is unclear. Perhaps Oliver gave it to Oliver Jr after he had applied for his pension, so it remained in New York. In October 1887, nearly 100 years after Oliver’s capture, artist Rufus A. Grider, of Canajoharie, NY, included Oliver’s horn in a special project that immortalized hundreds of powder horns.
After viewing Grider’s watercolor sketch in the New York Historical Society’s archives in 2014, I contacted the Old Saybrook Historical Society in search of the original horn, but it eluded discovery. For three years, I sent messages to various horners’ guilds and historical societies, in an attempt to track it down. Finally, in 2017, I contacted OSHS after seeing an image of the horn in an annual appeal; it had been in storage and rediscovered in 2016. I hopped the train from New York to Saybrook and was soon able
to actually hold my ancestor’s powder horn. This little piece of family history was a thrill to see. Grider’s painting and the original powder horn will be together on exhibit at the OSHS for visitors to see. Descendants of two of Oliver’s daughters, Mary Peer, and Lydia Billings, are in touch to this day. The Oliver Graham powder horn reminds us of
the fragility of life — particularly through the eyes of a young man during wartime. His personalized inscription speaks to his own sense of mortality: “When this you see, remember me, if I am dead and Gon’.” Oliver will never be forgotten.
Weehawken, New Jersey by Rufus Alexander Grider. Courtesy of the Department of Rights and
Reproductions, New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, NY, NY. Permission granted to Pamela Vittorio expressly for scholarly publication.
This image may not be reproduced without permission of the New York Historical Society.
Pamela Vittorio is an associate professor at the New School, historian, linguist, and professional genealogist. Her areas of interest are workers on North American Canals, genealogy in Canada, Italy, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, women’s suffrage, railroad workers, and migration patterns. Pamela obtained a certificate in Genealogical Research from Boston University and is currently working on her PLCGS in Canadian Studies and Librarianship from the National Institute of Genealogical Studies (Toronto U). She is a member of APG, NYG&B, NGS, Ohio GS, Ontario GS, NEHGS, CNYGS, Old Saybrook Historical Society, and several other genealogical organizations and historical societies. Pamela is also a Trustee of the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum and on the Collections Committee at Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.