Our first sheriff was a staunch loyalist

Seeber’s Tavern, reputedly where Loyalist Sheriff Alexander White and “Big William” Johnson threatened the life of young Jacob Seeber. From a painting by Canajoharie artist Rufus Grider, 1899, courteously shared by Grider authority Alice Smith Duncan.

When Sheriff Giardino reminded me that 2018 was the 180th anniversary of the 1838 founding of Fulton County, and therefore also the founding of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, I commented that he enjoys a much more positive relationship with our citizens than did Alexander White, the first sheriff of Fulton’s colonial predecessor, Tryon County.

When Sir William Johnson lobbied the colonial legislature to create a new county in 1772, he suggested it be named Tryon County, after colonial governor William Tryon, but neither Johnson nor Tryon foresaw that within several years Johnson would be dead, Tryon deposed from office, and a revolution would transform our colonies into states.

Counties require officials to run them, and not surprisingly, the majority of Tryon County’s first appointees were Sir William’s choices. He wanted to name Robert Adems sheriff, but this appointment escaped him.

It probably both surprised and displeased Sir William when he received an unexpected letter dated March 20th, 1772, from Alexander White, someone presumably unknown to him, declaring, “His Excellency Governor Tryon, having been pleased to appoint me Sheriff of your county, I think it my duty to inform Your Honour of it, not doubting his Excellency’s Appointment will meet with your approbation.” White pompously informed Johnson he considered himself a good choice (whether Johnson did or not) because, “I am especially well acquainted with a great number of the inhabitants, having commanded at Fort Harkaman (Herkimer) in the year 1764.” Tryon’s unexpected appointment of outsider White as sheriff hardly received Johnson’s ‘approbation’ but the governor’s appointment wasn’t debatable.

On May 10, Johnson received a letter from Hugh Wallace in N.Y. bringing the expected news that Johnstown was “fixd” as the county seat, and explaining why his sheriff’s office nomination failed. “The list of officers you sent me,” Wallace wrote, “came too late to get the Sheriff and Clerk you mentioned fixd, as the Governor gave both away. Who recommended White I cannot tell. All judges and Justices you recommended are fixt, and as Mr. Adems could not be Sheriff, I put him down for coroner.” By way of consolation, Wallace remarked, “I have no doubt you will get both Sheriff and Clerk fixt next year to your mind.” “Next year” likely referred to the new county’s first general election, when Johnson could promote his own candidates without offending Tryon. While Johnson did continue White as sheriff, White undid himself after Johnson’s death through his arrogance and loyalist politics. The proverbial ‘seeds’ leading to White’s downfall were real seeds, pea seeds, sown in one of prominent Whig John Fonda’s fields just east of White’s home, roughly where Fonda’s ‘old’ courthouse still stands.

On June 25, 1775, a ‘servant’ of Sheriff White’s, John Hunt, began crossing Fonda’s newly-planted pea field rather than go around it. In brief, Fonda warned Hunt to walk the edge, Hunt got mouthy, and Fonda, tradition claims, knocked him down with a hoe. Hunt informed White, who eventually arrested Fonda, placing him in the Johnstown jail. On July 20th, a Whig mob released Fonda and sought White at Robert Pickens home. ‘Treed’ on the second floor, White supposedly hid inside a chimney after firing a shot from the window down at Sampson Sammons, yelling “Here goes your brains!” but he missed Fonda’s brains and the rest of Fonda as well. White was saved when the mob, hearing cannon fired at the Hall to call Sir John’s Loyalist friends to arms, dispersed. White escaped to the Hall, remaining for some time under Sir John’s protection.

White’s conduct was discussed at the August 25th and 26th Committee of Safety meetings, at which John Fonda and others testified. Major Jelles Fonda related, “He heard the sheriff say oftentimes he would fight for King and country with his association, and on the King’s side like a brave man, and swore to be sure they would conquer, but the party on the country’s side do fight with halters on their necks.”

Canajoharie taverner Seeber then testified, “On a certain day in the beginning of May last at about nine o’clock in the night came William Johnson (‘Big William’ of Canajoharie, the half Indian son of Sir William), another Indian, and Sheriff White, into the deponent’s house, calling for liquor.” Referring to a Committee of Safety meeting held earlier that day, White declared, “with many curses”, that “had he been there this day, he would have shot some of ’em through their hearts, and the rest he would have carried away to the westward, to be hanged there. Upon which deponent’s son, Jacob Seeber, did reply it was not such an easy matter to do that; whereupon the Sheriff got his pistol, cocked it, and presented it to the breast of said Jacob, saying, “You damned rebel, if you say one word more, I’ll blow your brains out,” and the Indians had swords and knives in their hands; notwithstanding, there was no hurt done, as said Jacob made himself out of their sight.” How White could have blown Jacob’s brains out while aiming at his chest is a good question.

At this same August meeting, the Tryon committee appointed their own district constables and soon replaced White’s jailhouse personnel. As the tempestuous summer of 1775 advanced, the safety committee continued consolidating governing powers. Alexander White’s sheriffing days were numbered. His story concludes with the next article.

Photo Caption – Seeber’s Tavern, reputedly where Loyalist Sheriff Alexander White and “Big William” Johnson threatened the life of young Jacob Seeber. From a painting by Canajoharie artist Rufus Grider, 1899, courteously shared by Grider authority Alice Smith Duncan.