Remembering Captain John Vincent
By Julia Purdy
Captain John Vincent was regarded in his own time as the last Indian left in Mendon. He appears in town histories as a mysterious Indian who traded in town occasionally; neighbors and the townspeople knew him as “Indian John.” Thanks to diligent U.S. military recordkeeping and painstaking research by the D.A.R. to identify both Indigenous and Black Revolutionary War veterans, historians know quite a bit about him, but he remains unknown to almost everyone else.
Depending on various accounts, he was Abenaki — or Mohawk — or Huron, who lived out his life quietly in the mountains flanking present-day Route 4. Yet in his lifetime he was an active participant in and witness to pivotal events of early America.
The most direct evidence from his life story comes from his petition, “To the Fathers of the People of Vermont,” as the General Assembly convened in Rutland on October 1804. In it, John Vincent requested state support in his old age. His petition is a highly personal statement, transcribed but signed in his own hand, that recounts how he “during the whole war, was engaged in the American service,” guided Benedict Arnold through the wilderness of Maine, fought under Gen. Montgomery at the siege of Quebec and Gen. Gates at Stillwater and was present at the surrender of the British at Saratoga.
He describes how, settling after the war “on your mountains and in your forests,” he subsisted by hunting and “some handicraft business.”
But now, “having lost his youth and activity, the means of his support are cut off, … he is obliged to ask of you a maintenance.” He appealed to “the men of Rutland” to vouch for his friendship and honesty. On recommendation of a committee assigned to review the petition, and after fact-checking Vincent’s story, the General Assembly awarded him $25 for life and the same to go to a guardian, James Butler, an early leading citizen of Rutland.
In his last weeks, Capt. Vincent became bedridden at the tavern of Selectman Richardson, the owner of a roadhouse near the present day Old Turnpike Road in Mendon. Butler reported his death occurred on July 3, 1809, at age 79, 34 years almost to the day from when George Washington arrived in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army.
The young Dr. John Cleveland of Rutland certified “that Capt. John Vincent so called in the course of the fore part of the Summer past was very ill for two months or more so that he was confined to the house and a good part of the time to his bed at Mr. J. Richardsons and that it appeared to be quite a task to take care of him at the time.”
Richardson and others were duly reimbursed by the state of Vermont for “taking care of Capt. John Vinson an old Ingin.” After his death, petitions for reimbursement were presented by Richardson, James Butler and Jacob Galusha, the first town clerk of Shaftsbury. Richardson’s final invoice itemized $61.75, including $41.00 “in his last sickness From May 24 to July 3 at one Dollar per day,” $2.50 for a coffin, $2.25 for a “sheet and shirt for to lay out the deceased,” and $1.00 for “diging the grave.”
John Vincent’s trail to Mendon
While assuring the state of his patriotism, Vincent ommitted the fact that during the earlier French and Indian War he, like many warriors, had sided with the French. That’s where he first appears in history.
He likely was born about 1730 and grew up in the native settlements – in Canada, the Abenaki village of Odanak, the location of the St. Francis Mission, or the Mohawk village of Kanawake, centered around the Jesuit mission on the Mohawk River in present-day New York. The largest group at Odanak-St. Francis was Abenaki, but Hurons, Mohawks, Pennacooks, Oneidas and other tribes were there also; groups were collectively called “St. Francis Indians.” or “Caughnawaga Indians,” depending on their village.
Generations of various native groups had migrated north to the relatively safety of the Jesuit missions in Canada to escape the genocidal persecutions mounted against them in the New England colonies. Many accepted Catholicism alongside their own beliefs.
The vicious massacre carried out in 1759 at the Odanak-St. Francis mission by Rogers’ Rangers embittered those tribes permanently towards the English, and throughout both wars they fought the English, allying first with the French and then with the Americans.
So when England and France went to war over control of the continent, there was lucrative work for a generation of skilled fighters and guides, as allies to either side in the struggle.
In 1755, a British force under General Braddock set out to capture the strategic French star fort, Fort Duquesne (present-day Pittsburgh), where the French garrison included Indian allies. Foolishly thinking it abandoned, Braddock’s over-confident and ill-trained army marched into an ambush along a narrow forest path. French regulars and hundreds of Indian warriors encircled the trapped column and began to cut them down, targeting officers and drummer boys.
But there was one soldier no one could seem to hit.
That was the young George Washington, Braddock’s unpaid aide-de-camp, the only surviving member of Braddock’s staff despite having two horses shot from under him and ending up with four bullet holes in his coat. But he kept his cool and not only helped the mortally wounded Braddock off the field, but ordered covering cannon fire for the fleeing troops.
The man who would become John Vincent was among the warriors that day. Washington’s strong medicine impressed Vincent – not the least because they were almost the same age. Washington was 21. In 1804 Vincent gave his age as 73 years, putting his birth year at 1731. The year of Braddock’s defeat, he was 24.
Twenty years later, as the American revolution heated up, both sides courted the Indians. Most Iroquois sided with the British, but the Mohawks, Hurons, and Abenakis chose to ally with anyone who opposed the British. Ethan Allen, who knew the tribes intimately from his forays throughout the territory, went on a recruiting mission among them, and wrote that the Indians “act upon political principles, and are inclined to fall in with the strongest side.”
John Vincent encountered Washington again and remembered him clearly. By his own account, Vincent was among the St. Francis cotingent that arrived in Boston during the siege in 1775.
George Washington – now a general – was also in Cambridge in 1775, putting together the Continental Army, and he commissioned Benedict Arnold march through the Maine wilderness in an (ill-fated) attempt to take Quebec City. Forty St. Francis Indians, including John Vincent, joined the Arnold expedition as guides.
Vincent’s initial service in the Continental Army was as scout and courier; in 1779 Washington promoted him to the rank of captain of a company of 17 rangers (scouts). Col. Timothy Bedell of New Hampshire compiled the muster roll for payment in 1780, listing them all as “belonging to the St. Francis Tribes” and Vincent as “Abnaki or Huron.”
Capt. Vincent received a regimental jacket from George Washington, which he bequeathed to Johnson Richardson, at whose roadhouse he spent his last days.
“Indian John” shared his stories with his Mendon neighbors. He related how he had helped white settlers in New York avoid an ambush; for his treachery, the Iroquois slit his ears. After he retired to Mendon, three Iroquois came looking for him. He hid and shot them down, one by one, as they crossed a stream on a fallen tree. One of the items that John Vincent was said to trade in town was lead, chopped out of a seam only he knew of. He promised to divulge the location before he died, but when the moment came, and everyone crowded around to hear, he could no longer speak. Years later, a local man claimed to have found an old pick and shovel above Cranberry Marsh on the side of East Mountain, but the source has never been confirmed.
Capt. John Vincent has been posthumously recognized locally and nationally.
In 2003 the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation erected a historic marker at the junction of Route 4 and the Old Turnpike Road in Mendon, near the presumed location of Richardson’s roadhouse.
On June 13, 2004, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a military style headstone in a tiny, quiet burial ground in Mendon, complete with a color guard and wreath-laying.
In 2008, in an effort to recognize without exception all who served, the DAR published “Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War,” which documents the service of nearly 6,600 non-white veterans. John Vincent is among them. Visit dar.org/library and search the catalog for “Forgotten Patriots.”
For the muster roll call of “Captain John Vincent’s Company of Indian Rangers in the Service of the United States of America (belonging to the St. Francis Tribes)” visit angelfire.com/lorrsworld/genealogy26.html.
For those wishing to pay their respects:
Drive east on Route 4 past the Mendon town office. Take the first right onto the Wheelerville Road. The little cemetery is .1 mile from Route 4, on the left. Park at the locked gate and walk up a short rise to the cemetery.
For the scenic route, take Killington Road east to the T and turn R onto Notch Road. A winding, sometimes narrow gravel road; be prepared to stop or squeeze by. Continue past several trailheads. The cemetery is on the right, 9.3 miles from Killington Road, marked by pull-offs on both sides.