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The 1775 Attack on Skensborough

Philip Skene

The following is an excerpt from the book: In Their Own Voices: Oral Accounts of Early Settlers in Washington County, New York by Jeanne Winston Adler.

Authors Notes:

The attack on Skenesborough by the Salem scout and other Washington County men took place on the same night as Ethan Allen's taking of Ticonderoga (as planned by Allen and Arnold). Skene was Public Enemy Number One as far as most Washington County Whigs were concerned -- because of his active schemes to develop his "aristocratic" estate and extend his power in the country. In 1777, Salem Whig "Hugh More went into Baum's camp on purpose to get a chance to shoot old Skene, but he did not succeed."; The attack on Skene's home was made before he had actually taken sides politically and when he was still on his way home from a trip to England. The Salem scout and/or William McNish weren't aware of this last fact.

William was the second son of Sarah and Alexander McNish.

William McNish:

About the same time [as an attack on a Salem loyalist], Barnes' company was ordered out to proceed to Skenesborough and capture Lord Skene. Father, the two Armstrongs, Isaac Lyttle, et cetera were at this time with Barnes. Intending to approach there in the dead of night, they did not start ill afternoon. When darkness overtook them they had twelve miles farther to go. A double sentry guarded Skene's house, a fact which they were not aware of. A sentry was placed at the house and another half a mile distant on the road. Before they were suspicious that caution was necessary a gun was fired toward the residence of Skene. Knowing the alarm was now given they started forward at their utmost speed. At the same instant, another gun was fired at the house. They rushed on and surrounded the house on all sides.

Some of their number now searched the house thoroughly -- but Skene had escaped. They supposed he had fled into the woods when the alarm was first given. They found the corpse of his wife in a small apartment partitioned off in the cellar. It was laid in a very nice wooden coffin, superior to anything which the carpenters of the country could make. And this was enclosed in a lead coffin which was sealed and soldered up so as to render it quite air tight. His wife had a legacy left her of a certain sum per day whilst she was above ground, and Skene had placed her there to receive this legacy.

On opening it [the coffin] the corpse was found but little changed. The coffin must have been purchased in Montreal or Quebec. The corpse was taken out and buried. The lead was too much needed for bullets to be buried, and it, together with the choice liquors found in the cellar, was delivered over to the commissaries of the continental army. There were about forty Negroes of both sexes upon the premises and these were about the only occupants they found. These Negroes were all full-blooded Africans, save one, a girl six or eight years old named Sylvia who claimed Skene for her father. Captain Barnes brought her home with him on his return. She remained in this town and died but a few years ago.

Skene may have had a natural daughter among his servants, but the other scandal related here -- about keeping his wife's corpse in order to collect a legacy -- is certainly false. this story was widely told and accepted at the time, though. Jacob Bitly, the son of a Whig family, tells us the tale again below. And George Webster, the son of Colonel Alexander Webster -- though he was only seven years old at the time of the raid -- can definitely state: "I have full faith in his (Skene's)having left his wife unburied to receive money thereby." But Robert Blake, a "Protectioner," gives a more sensible explanation: "Skene had placed his wife after her decease in the cellar in a lead coffin with her rings and her jewelry all upon her for the purpose of having her carried back to Scotland or Ireland -- wherever she was from -- to be there interred among her kindred. And the Americans when they captured Skene's mansion rifled the coffin of everything that was valuable, and what they did with the corpse I do not know."