By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
A major theme for Saratoga National Historical Park is “People at Saratoga: By Choice or by Chance”. This is a lovely catch-all category that allows the park to avoid taking sides while interpreting the Northern Campaign of 1777. It also helps us remind visitors that there were people here in that time that probably would have been happy to be elsewhere, such as many of the inhabitants.
In certain ways the stories of several of the families who lived in what is now Saratoga NHP are a microcosm of the choices of allegiances during the war. The stories of John Neilson and John Freeman are illustrative of those who, respectively, fought for Independence and against it. Neilson prospered and his home is the only structure on the Saratoga battlefield from the time of the battles. Freeman, by contrast lost his livelihood and property; more tragically he and most of his family perished from smallpox while living as refugees.
Jotham Bemus, owner and proprietor of the eponymous tavern, was someone whose allegiances during the Revolutionary War are somewhat shadowy. One 19th Century genealogical work lists him as “Major” Jotham Bemus “soldier and officer of the revolutionary war”. This is at best wishful thinking on someone’s part as whatever service Bemus rendered; it was certainly not an officer. No record of his receiving a commission exists.
There are indications that Bemus was not exactly enthusiastic about American Independence. In February of 1777, Jotham was fined £25 for failure to report for militia duty. His neighbor, John Neilson collected the fine in form of Bemus’ team of oxen.
An 1894 “history” by a descendant claims “…in the battles occurring near the Heights Jotham Bemus and three of his sons took part.” Well, maybe. With the Army of the United States occupying his property, Bemus would have been hard-pressed to skive off without notice. However, his sons William and John would have been about 13 or 14 at the time, technically too young for militia service; his oldest son, Jotham Jr. was miles away serving with a Rhode Island Continental Regiment. (How and why he did so is not known.)
For Bemus, the remainder of the war couldn’t have been a positive experience. In fact, he found himself in a lot of hot water with the Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York beginning in late 1778. Bemus “..evinced Disapprobation of the Measures pursued by the United States of America….” A warrant for his appearance before that august body was issued and he did so in December. Bemus was confined and in early 1779 posted a £500 [around $50,000 US] surety for his future good behavior.
His troubles weren’t over. In 1779 Holtham Durham and Jeremiah Taylor were ordered to appear and give testimony “respecting the Conduct of Jotham Bemus at the Time Genl Burgoyne came from the Northward….” While the testimony apparently has not survived, it seems that Bemus’ actions during the Battles of Saratoga were not exactly what his descendants have claimed.
Worse was to come.
Bemus was accused in 1780 of having “carried on a Correspondence with the Enemy and have aided and comforted and assisted Parties going to and from the enemy…” He was duly arrested and “confined in Gaol [jail]”. Fortunately for him a “petition signed by a Number of the well affected Inhabitants of Saratoga District” painted a different picture. Bemus “since his Liberation from Confinement has acted in every respect as a friend to the American Cause that he has chearfully contributed all his Power towards supplying the Army and has in every Respect manifested a Disposition to support the Independence of the United States….”
The Committee apparently felt that Bemus was not quite the dangerous individual as previously believed. Although he was released from gaol, he was required to post another bond of £100 in order to be “a true and faithful Prisoner in the City Hall” of Albany. His parole was extended to include “the City of Albany and that Part of Rensselaerwyck which lies to the South of the North end of Steenbergh and not farther East and West in the last mentioned Place than the River to the East and the Foot of the Hill to the West….”. The only exceptions to restricting his movements would be if called before a panel of Commissioners or “when called upon to do Militia Duty.”
Just when it appeared that things might be righting themselves, a new problem arose:
“Jan. 10, 1781. It appearing to the Board from Examination of Jotham Bemus that his wife Mrs Bemus is knowing to many enimical Transactions of Angus MacDonald of Livingston’s Manor resolved therefore that an order be made out and sent to Mrs Bemus to appear forthwith before this Board in order that she may be examined as to the above.”
It is not clear if Jotham’s testimony had accidently implicated his better half or if he threw her under the bus to save his own hide. Two days after the Committee decided to examine Hannah Bemus, Jotham received permission “to go to Stillwater to settle his Business” for “fourteen days”. We can only wonder about any meeting with his wife, but on the 29th of January Hannah was before the Board.
She was “interrogated as to Angus McDonald of Livingston’s Manor carrying on an Intercourse with the Enemy and harbouring British Officers who were passing through the Country as Expresses”. Hannah refused to answer and “there being great Reason to suppose that she is acquainted with the above Circumstances Therefore resolved that she be committed until she gives Satisfactory Answers to the same….”
Sadly, the historical records about Jotham and Hannah Bemus’s confrontation with the revolutionary government come to an abrupt and screeching halt at this dramatic moment. There are so many questions that are unanswerable today. Were either Bemus or his wife actually Loyalists? Were they merely people caught in the middle of a wartime society’s paranoia?
Hannah and Jotham apparently lived out the remainder of their lives on their property in Stillwater, dying sometime after 1786. It would indicate that the State of New York didn’t hold them to be reprehensible Loyalists, if indeed they were Loyalists at all.
And that knowledge they carried with them to their graves.