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John L. Nellis: An early patriot worth knowing

Nothing is known about John L.’s painter, Thomas Wilkie. He is believed to have been an itinerant, traveling artist. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

This article can’t appear on July 4th, but it’s close enough to feature one particular Revolutionary War veteran, Johannes (John) Ludwig Nellis, someone to whom I owe a lot of thanks, it being John L. who inadvertently brought me into this history business. He’s also special for being almost the only Mohawk Valley militiaman of whom a painting exists.

In the spring of 1972, I attended a Tribes Hill house sale. The owner, a collector of historic ephemera, had recently died. I wandered upstairs and noticed on the bedside table an old leather-covered book. Opening it, I observed inscriptions written in bold, confident lettering, the ink browned with age, one side in German, one in English. It read, “Johannes Ludwig Nelles, His Book, God Give Him Grace Therein to Look, Stone Arabia, 1777.”

This “Ready Reckoner” consisted of tables converting every sort of measurement, liquid, length, volume, money, etc., from one form to another, a veritable mathematical reference work from the pre-calculator age. I held a relic first owned by someone living during local Revolutionary War events.

Who was this John L. Nellis? I experienced a strong desire to know, so I bought the book. My subsequent interest in Mohawk Valley history all developed from researching this one little book and the life of its original owner who’d written his beautifully-scripted signature inside 197 years earlier. Sometime later I gifted it to Helen and Curt Nellis, having discovered Curt was John L.’s direct descendent, and on that occasion Curt showed me John’s 1841 portrait, attributed to a Thomas Wilkie, painted shortly before the old patriot’s death at 79. He also showed me John’s hunting rifle, a maple-stocked muzzle-loader built by Hall, the Johnstown gunsmith.

That even more of John L’s possessions still existed I discovered much later from reading the July 21, 1932 Fort Plain Standard’s coverage of Washington’s Bicentennial Week — the newspaper enumerated local historic objects displayed in Fort Plain store windows, among which were “the sword and epaulets of Captain John L. Nellis, 1804, the Commission of John L. Nellis signed by Governor George Clinton, also 1804, and a “Ready Reckoner” printed in 1774,” undoubtedly the same little book I discovered sitting on the deceased collector’s bedside table 40 years later. How it arrived there we’ll never know.

Who was John L. Nellis and what did he do? Born Dec. 3, 1762, the third child of Ludwig Nellis, who was the fifth son of William, the Stone Arabia pioneer, John enlisted in 1778 as a drummer in Captain Christopher Fox’s Company of Klock’s Regiment, Tryon County Militia, later serving in Captain Henry Miller’s Company. In 1779, John discarded his drumsticks and upgraded to private. During that summer, he related in his 1832 pension application, “He went to Otsego from the Mohawk with a team four trips, aiding and assisting our men to supply General Sullivan and his army with boats to perform his pursuit after Tories and Indians in the Susquehanna country.”

John did a lot of long-distance hauling — he listed other trips such as driving twice to Fort Stanwix, once “to deliver living cattle” and once “with a sleigh and team carrying provisions to the army.” Again, he “carried to Albany of his own pease (peas) thirty-seven bushels for our soldiers delivered to the continental store.”

When he wasn’t a teamster, he was either scouting or stationed at Fort Paris, just down the road from his Stone Arabia home.

He was also an active soldier. Being young and healthy, he was in that class of militiamen we refer to as minute men. In his own words, “from the time of being enrolled to the close of the Revolution he has been armed and equipped with musket, powder and balls, ready at all times on a minutes warning.” He used that musket too.

Promoted to Corporal in 1780, John was in the unfortunate Oct. 19 battle of Stone Arabia when the American forces were routed by Sir John Johnson’s troops and Col. John Brown was killed, and he also participated in the Battle of Klock’s Field the following evening. He soldered in the July 1781 Battle of Sharon Springs, where Willett’s militia routed a larger force of Indians and Tories, and later that same month on July 29, he and 25 other minutemen located, attacked and routed a raiding party in the small but important engagement known as Lampman’s battle. Perhaps his bravery was most seriously tested that Oct. 24 at the hard-fought Battle of Johnstown.

A letter to John exists, written probably in his last year of life, by a fellow veteran. It reads in part, “My dear friend, I am informed the Lord has seen fit to afflict you much in your old age, that you suffer a great deal of pain.”

The writer advises John to look to his Bible for comfort and adds, “I do not expect to see you again in this world, but hope our spirits will meet each other in Heaven,” this from one aged revolutionary soldier to another.

Sometime during 1841, during his last months of life, his family thought enough of John to have the painting rendered. Ponder that aged face, the hardships and struggles etched in its lines, backed by the resolute belief that the quest for America’s freedom was worth it all.

Happy, slightly late, 4th of July.

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