Friday, December 23, 2016

"They Were Not Treated as Prisoners of War" - The Loyalist Escape from an Albany Jail

Following the outbreak of the American Revolution, many Loyalists began to secretly recruit men for provincial regiments that would assist in suppressing the rebellion. One such man was Daniel Fraser. A prosperous farmer from Ball’s Town, New York, Fraser quietly recruited forty men on behalf of the British government. Unfortunately, a rebel spy learned of the recruitment scheme and reported it to Colonel James Gordon, commander of an Ulster County (NY) militia regiment. Gordon, in turn, mobilized his men to arrest Fraser and the recruits.

Fraser immediately recognized the danger he and his men were in. The men fled to the woods north of Ball’s Town and remained in hiding for almost ten days. When the group realized they could not return home, Fraser decided to lead the men to Canada, following “infrequented and impassable ways.”

Twenty miles north of Ball’s Town, Colonel Gordon and his party ambushed Fraser. The Loyalist and his men changed course and tried to cross a waterfall. (According to period accounts, there was a thirteen foot single plank which served as a footbridge.) Regrettably, Fraser’s attempt failed and all but one man was captured.

The group was marched back to Albany and promptly thrown into a jail below the town hall. One by one, the loyalists were brought before the Tory Committee, tried and found guilty. All but William Fraser were ordered to remain jailed until payment of a fine of fifteen dollars was received and an oath to the State of New York was given. Fraser was sentenced to one year in jail.

According to Fraser, “They were not treated as prisoners of war, but handcuffed like ordinary criminals . . . the rebels did not undertake to feed their prisoners and it was custom for [Tory families] to come every day to the gaol with provisions.”

One day, Fraser’s wife arrived at the jail with her husband’s daily provisions. Surprisingly, she was not searched by the rebel guards. According to two period accounts from Loyalists James Dearin and Alexander Laughlen, inside a loaf of bread were tools and coil of rope. After some effort, Fraser and twenty of his men were able to break free of their shackles, remove at least one of the iron bars on the window and escape. 

Unarmed and without provisions, the men fled from Albany towards Fort Edward. Fraser and his men were forced to remain in hiding until the arrival of General Burgoyne in August, 1777.

The jail break caused outrage in Albany. The local Committee of Safety immediately conducted an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the escape. Unaware that Fraser’s wife had provided material assistance, she was never questioned.  None of the guards were held responsible for the break. However, those prisoners who were left behind were quietly transferred to jails in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to avoid a repeat of Fraser’s actions.    

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