THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR often drove a wedge between members of the same family, with some supporting the Revolution while others remained loyal to the king. A vivid illustration is supplied by the Savage family which, by the early 1760s, had settled on the southwestern corner of the intersection of Routes 9 and 203 in today’s town of Austerlitz. The brothers James (1741-1824) and John (1743-1826) Savage, the protagonists of this story, by the time of the Revolution had become prominent citizens of the King’s District, which occupied what became the northeastern part of Columbia County.
James was a leader of the King’s District settlers as they fought for their land against the Van Rensselaer and Westenhook patentees from the Crown, who viewed the settlers as illegal squatters. When the New York authorities referred this land dispute to the Board of Trade in London, it was James Savage, together with Nathaniel Culver, who journeyed across the ocean in 1774 to plead the settlers’ case. The outbreak of the Revolution in April 1775 aborted this proceeding. On his return from England, James Savage was briefly detained in New York on suspicion of Tory sympathies, but was soon released.
It was brother John who was the Tory. He also was a civic leader, serving as constable and tax collector for the King’s District. In May 1775, as the Revolution began, John was approached by a group of Patriots and asked to assume leadership of the local militia. Among this group were two of his brothers-in-law: David and Joel Pratt, whose sister Ann had married John. The Pratt family home, built in the 1760s, is believed to be the oldest house in Austerlitz. The Pratts strongly supported the Revolution, and no doubt David and Joel expected that John Savage would take the same stance.
But John was cut from different cloth. He wanted no part of the militia and openly declared his allegiance to the king. This led to his arrest and residence for three days in the Albany jail, in February 1776, on a charge of “disaffection to the American cause.”
“Disaffection” understates John’s loyalty to the king. During the Revolution Savage was imprisoned five times for Tory activities, escaping each time until the last. His daring exploits had “an almost story-book-hero” quality, in the words of one scholar. Some details, taken from Savage’s wartime diary:
• After his brief February 1776 imprisonment in Albany, he was arrested again in August for “treasonous activity,” namely recruiting loyalist guerrillas. He escaped on his way to prison in Connecticut
• Captured soon thereafter around October, he escaped in Great Barrington and then, traveling by night, he and 24 cohorts were able to reach British forces on Long Island
• On a mission heading north, Savage was captured in December 1776 in the Nine Partners area of Dutchess County. Now held in irons to prevent escape, Savage was imprisoned in Fishkill Barracks, then Kingston and finally Hartford, where he managed to escape yet again
• By 1780-81 he was active carrying messages for scouts conducting raids against the colonies organized by Gov. Haldimand of Quebec. Captured one last time, Savage narrowly escaped hanging. With the noose around his neck, the story goes, he made some witty remark that caused his captors to spare his life. He remained in custody until the war’s end. At that point, no longer welcome in his hometown, he left in exile for Canada, patriot brother James succeeding to ownership of John’s farm.
Both James and John prospered after the Revolution. James served as a justice of the peace, a local school commissioner and, from 1789 to 1792, a member of the state Assembly. In 1804 he sold his valuable farm to David Morehouse, who soon built on the site the Federal style house still standing, the neighborhood thereafter and still known as Morehouse Corners.
John Savage became the leader of the Township of Shefford in eastern Quebec, which he settled with 38 others in 1792. He was Shefford’s first justice of the peace and funded the construction of the Anglican church. His loyalty to the king undiminished by time, at the age of 70 he served as an officer in the War of 1812.
John’s old Spencertown and King’s District neighbors and in-laws continued to hold him in high regard, notwithstanding his Tory activities. In 1786 brother-in-law Colonel David Pratt and Asa Waterman of New Concord attested to his good character in support of his petition to acquire a land grant. Warm correspondence has survived between Savage and his Pratt in-laws in Spencertown through the 1820s.
Tom Moreland is Austerlitz Town Historian