William Berry, Revolutionary War POW

Watchers
Browse
Article Covers
Surnames
Berry
Places
Canada
New York
Year range
1753 - 1839

We know William Berry was born November 25, 1753, in Warwick, Rhode Island, but other than that his life before the American Revolution is a complete blank. He signed up for duty four different times from eastern New York state (first from New Britain and later from Warrensbush) — May 1775 for six months, June 1777 for four months, May 1779 for two months, and for six month beginning May 1780.

His tour of duty was all but up on October 22 — isn’t that always the way? — when, as his pension application states (pronoun confusion in the original):

   "He was called out on an expedition to burn the
   enemy’s boats on Onondago Lake marched on towards the
   Lake until we found fresh fires which induced the commander
   to suppose that the enemy had gone on before us and on the
   23d. day of October of the same year when we were surprised
   by the enemy and this applicant and all or nearly all of the
   American troops in the expedition were taken prisoners and
   carried to Montreal in the province of Lower Canada and then
   he was taken to an Island, then called prisoner Island and kept
   there until the 4th day of July 1784 when he was released and
   started from thence for home and arrived at his home in the
   town of New Britain aforesaid on the 8th day of August 1784."

As far as I know, this is all we have from William himself. The fact that it’s a legal document (filed in Allegany County in 1832) probably makes it even more laconic than it might have been. But we can piece together more of the story from other sources.

Prisoner Island is apparently at Coteau-du-Lac, about 30 miles SW of Montreal (upstream on the St. Lawrence River). According to British officer John Enys’s journal,

   “Near this place in the middle of the River is a small
   Island so surrounded by Rapids that it is exceedingly difficult
   to get either off or on it. Its situation had during the         Disturbances
   [the American Revolution] pointed it as a proper place to keep the
   most Violent of the American Prisoners…and the Barrackes being
   built there for that purpose it was called prison Island.”

According to Gavin K. Watt’s very detailed book, The Burning of the Valleys: Daring Raids from Canada against the New York Frontier in the Fall of 1780, Berry’s regimental commander, Col. John Harper, was not a successful commander. Morale was said to be so low that the ill-fated expedition was made up of volunteers; at any rate, they were drawn from several different companies.

When captured, rebel captives were often given a choice: they could be imprisoned, or they could turn Loyalist and enlist in the British army. Since conditions in the army were better than conditions in prison, some took advantage of this opportunity, perhaps intending to desert from the British army once they got back closer to home.

Some such men may have been involved in an abortive mutiny on Prisoner Island in late 1780. It’s possible that some members of the captured group were serving as guards there, while others were prisoners. Their plot to kill their guards and escape was betrayed by their Canadian Indian guide, and nine men were tried in a court- martial in Montreal in June 1781. At least two of those tried, Peter House and Peter Sharpe, had been captured in the group of which William Berry was a part. House was acquitted. One of those convicted was sentenced to 500 lashes on the bare back but reprieved, perhaps for turning crown’s evidence. Sharpe and two others got the maximum — 1000 lashes followed by having “to serve His Majesty in foreign parts for life.” One is known to have died of his punishment; Watt states that the others, “if not dead, were most likely crippled for life.”

Berry evidently avoided this plot, or at least avoided getting caught. And a year after the peace tready had been signed, he was let go to walk from Montreal to Albany.

WILLIAM BERRY

born 25 Nov 1753 Rhode Island

married about 1785, name unknown

died soon after 17 Oct 1839, when he made his will in Almond NY

ANCESTORS: Unknown.

COUSINS: His siblings are unknown. Five of his children are believed to have had descendants, although some evidence is sketchy: William Jr. who married Martha Hungerford, Rachel who married Asahel Palmer, Jr., Thomas who married Sally ____, Lydia who married _____ Hungerford, and John who married Mehitable Hungerford.