On this day in 1778, the “Paul Revere of the Mohawk Valley” makes his famous run. Unlike Revere, Adam Helmer didn’t have a horse to help him cover ground more quickly. Instead, he ran at least 30 miles on foot.
Information about the run is scarce. Were there moments of exhilaration as he ran so far so fast? Or did he spend more time worrying that he might not make it? At the time, the feat was regarded as nearly superhuman. Legend has it that the exhausted Helmer slept for 36 hours straight when he finally reached his destination.
At this point in the Revolution, things were tense in New York’s Mohawk Valley. Patriots were at odds with those who remained loyal to the British crown. Moreover, relations with local Indian tribes were difficult, as some tribes sided with the British and some sided with the Patriots.
There were many bloody events in the valley during those years, but one such event was prevented by Helmer’s extraordinary run.
In September 1778, Helmer was working with eight other scouts to track down Joseph Brant, a Mohawk leader who had been raiding settlements in the area. Was it safe for local residents to harvest their fields? Or was Brant planning a raid?
The scouts got their answer when they were attacked by a band of forty Indians near the Unadilla River. Helmer managed to escape by hiding behind some bushes. As soon as the Indians were out of view, he began his famous run.
Legend has it that he ran first to his sister’s home at Andrustown. He conveyed his warning, received fresh shoes, and then continued on. He ran for miles, warning settlers who were then able to find refuge in Forts Dayton and Herkimer.
One young girl saw Helmer as he was finishing his run. Many years later, she described what she remembered: “Helmer’s clothing was torn to tatters, his eyes were bloodshot, his hands and face and limbs were bleeding and lacerated from the effects of brambles and bushes through which he had forced his headlong flight. He halted only enough to shout ‘Flee for your lives.’ The enemy is not far behind, and hurried on to the next house.”
In the end, Helmer saved nearly all the settlers in the area. When a band of Iroquois and Loyalists attacked the next day, they destroyed 63 houses and nearly 60 barns full of grain. They took more than 800 horses, cattle, sheep, and oxen. Despite these losses, only two or three people were killed. One of these was a man who had failed to seek refuge, even after being warned.
Yet another unsung hero who has been largely forgotten by our history books.
Lorna MacDonald Czarnota, Native American & Pioneer Sites of Upstate New York: Westward Trails from Albany to Buffalo (2014)