- Historic Sites
Three Forgotten Heroes
Who today remembers John Paulding, Isaac Van Wert, or David Williams? Yet for a century they were renowned as the rustic militiamen who captured Major John André
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
Unwilling to be outdone by Congress, the New York state legislature rewarded each with two hundred acres of farm land. And, in accordance with customs of the New York militia, they were allowed to keep André’s watch, horse, saddle, and bridle. They sold these items, the watch alone bringing thirty guineas, and divided the money.
The classic account of André’s capture came at the trial of Joshua Hett Smith, who was accused of participation in the Arnold-André conspiracy but was acquitted for lack of evidence that he had knowingly taken part in the plot. At the trial the stories of John Paulding and David Williams—for some reason Isaac Van Wert did not testify—became a part of the public record. In this way their version of what they said and did and what André said and did was handed down to posterity.
Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s brilliant aide-de-camp, also helped bring Paulding, Williams, and Van Wert to public attention. In one of his letters to Elizabeth Schuyler, his fiancée, Hamilton enclosed a copy of an account of the conspiracy. In it he contrasted Arnold’s “base conduct” with that of the “three simple peasants” who, “leaning only on their virtue and an honest sense of duty,” had indignantly refused André’s offer of money in exchange for his release. Hamilton’s written recital of the dramatic events helped make the three captors well known, for a number of influential people read his account soon after he wrote it. It appeared later in several magazines and newspapers, including Hamilton’s own New York Evening Post .
Numerous songs and ballads of the time showed that the story of André’s capture caught the popular fancy. “Brave Paulding and the Spy,” printed on ballad sheets in 1783, was representative of these popular songs. One stanza went:
And the ballad concluded:
There is ample evidence to show that the story of the three simple, incorruptible farmers who captured the clever, aristocratic spy fascinated the American people for decades. The popular historian and mythmaker Mason Locke “Parson” Weems made good use of the exploit. His bestselling Life of Washington gave five pages to the account of the capture, with the names of Paulding, Van Wert, and Williams in capital letters each time they were mentioned.
Asher B. Durand, a founder of the Hudson River school, was probably the most distinguished of the many artists who painted the incident as they imagined it to have taken place. About ten thousand copies of an engraving based on his Capture of Major André were sold in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Currier and Ives also distributed several popular prints, all showing the three captors refusing André’s offer of money for his release. Still other versions of the capture or images of its principal characters were depicted on china plates and pitchers, on the lids of snuffboxes, and on other surfaces suitable for patriotic adornment.
In the early nineteenth century John Henri Isaac Browere, an American sculptor, invented a process for making life masks by spreading warm wax over the faces of consenting celebrities of the time. In this way were preserved the features of such famous persons as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James and Dolley Madison, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Along with these Browere made life masks of John Paulding, David Williams, and Isaac Van Wert that are still on display in the Fenimore House of the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown.