1939 was Hollywood’s Golden Year. Its classic films included “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Jessie James”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” as well as two iconic films directed by John Ford – the definitive “Stagecoach” and the highly-successful “Drums along the Mohawk”.
Set during the American Revolution/War of Independence, and starring Claudette Colbert and Henry Fonda, ‘Drums across the Mohawk’ followed the lives of settlers in the strategically important Mohawk Valley on the frontier of New York state. The couple suffered attacks on their farm from the British, from Native Americans and from “Tories” (those allied to the British cause). Finally they were forced to take refuge in Fort Herkimer. Reinforcements arrived in the nick of time from Fort Dayton. The war ended and the patriots raised the American flag above the Fort.
Archie Thomson – great-great-great-great grandfather of David Thomson, Chairman of Thomson Reuters, took an active part in these historic events. He was not, however, one of the loyal Americans defending Fort Herkimer. He was on the other side.
Archie Thomson the loyalist
Followers of my blog, may remember “Archie Thomson of Eskdale“. Here, I cast some light on the history of the Thomson clan in Eskdale, Scotland. More specifically, I charted the early life of Archie Thomson, a young country carpenter. Our last glimpse of Archie was in 1773, on a sailing ship, unfurling its sails as it set out from the port of Dumfries, bound for the British Colonies of North America.
Legend has it that the ship was a 300-ton two-masted brig. The voyage lasted a month.
The ship was crammed with emigrants. On board was Jimmy Park, another young Scot of about the same age as Archie. The two young pioneers struck up a friendship and, upon reaching America, sensibly decided to combine their energies.
Archie and Jimmy made their way to Tryon County, near Johnstown, a district now incorporated in Upper New York State. Within a few months they had cleared an area of land and had acquired some horses and cattle. Settled on land close by were the McKay family – fellow Scots with a daughter named Elizabeth. A romance between Archie and Elizabeth was kindled. But several more years were to pass before they would marry.
After two backbreaking years, twelve acres of land had been cleared and a log cabin erected. And then came the 19th April 1775. On that momentous Wednesday – at Lexington in Massachusetts – British troops were defeated by the American colonists. The world was “turned upside down”. Britain’s possession of upstate New York collapsed. Within much of New York State, however, “loyalist” sentiment remained strong. And so (I am sorry to have to tell my US friends) Archie and Jimmy decided to abandon the fruits of their hard labour and throw in their lot with the British Crown. Both enlisted in the forces of the “United Empire Loyalists”.
Escape from Mohawk Valley
From this point, we lose track of Jimmy. As a skilled carpenter, Archie was soon employed in the repair of British military forts at Niagara. Oswegatchie and Post St Vincennes. But his life took on a much more dangerous turn when he became a scout for Captain Joseph Brant, Chief of the Mohawk tribe, who led his people and other American “Tories” in raids and attacks against patriot settlements and homesteads in the Mohawk Valley. For Archie, things became seriously warm in August 1778 when he and six others were arrested by the “Albany County Committee for detecting and defeating conspiracies”. He and his fellow conspirators pleaded that they were sick, although whether real or feigned we shall never know. What we do know is that they were placed under sentry-guard in hospital, and somehow escaped shortly afterwards.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that this adventurous, outdoor, “living on your wits” life was one to which Archie so readily adapted. The wild and rugged terrain of the Mohawk Valley in the 18th Century was not dissimilar to Eskdale where he had been born and raised. He was after all a Thomson and Scottish “Reiver” blood pumped through his veins. For generations, cattle rustling, sheep stealing and horse thieving had been the stuff of life for his ancestors, as had giving government forces (English or Scottish) the slip and melting away into the night.
A loyalist in Canada
By 1780 the war was over. King George of Great Britain had “lost” the Colonies. For Archie, this might have constituted a low point. But, resourceful as ever, the reality was quite the opposite. Along with many Empire Loyalists, he settled at Carleton Island, near Cataraqui on Lake Ontario in Canada. His “Loyalist” days did not go unnoticed or unrewarded. Venturing into business as a provision merchant, he was soon authorised to build a dock serving boat traffic on the lake. Within three years, the small settlement had been named Kingston – not surprisingly. And Archie’s wharf and store were flourishing.
This was not the only important change in Archie’s life. For the McKay family – also United Empire Loyalists – had decided to move to Quebec. On August 2nd 1781, the Quebec Gazette carried the following announcement:
Married on Friday last in this city Mr Archibald Thomson, of Carleton Island, Merchant, to Miss McKay, Daughter of Mr Hugh Mckay, Merchant in this place – a young lady possessed of every qualification to render that state happy.
The couple were to have eleven children! And their adventurous lives were to continue. But these must be the subject of another story…