Hidden Histories

Desertion, Murder, and Cannibalism on the Colonial Frontier

Wednesday, 3/13/13

Gottlieb Mittelberger immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany in 1750 in search of the “American Dream.” He returned to Germany late in the year 1754, never to return. Afterward he published his memoir of his sojourn in America1. From the start, both his voyage to the New World, as well as his life in the American colonies, did not turn out the way he’d expected. Nor was he particularly thrilled with events he learned of during his stay in Pennsylvania.

For the year 1754 (though 1752 is the correct year), Mittelberger gives details of what he calls “French deserters,” two of whom eventually arrived in Philadelphia with a horror story to relate. Purportedly with the intention of leaving their regiment on the Ohio on their way to the Carolinas, seven soldiers had become lost and disoriented, only to run out of provisions. This caused them to subsist on venison, rattlesnakes, and eventually--each other, once their powder was all gone. After crossing “many forests and swamps, crossing large rivers and small, they became so exhausted…and were fully convinced that they were doomed to…perish of hunger. They then agreed to cast lots to determine which of their number was to die first. They would kill him and consume his flesh.”

Accounts of cannibalism have always fascinated readers, but regrettably, many such acts have actually occurred under horrendous circumstances. One such circumstance was the fate of most of the Irish passengers from Belfast bound for Philadelphia in July of 1741, on board the ill-fated ship, the Seaflower2. Other early settlers such as the famed Donner Party of 1846-47 have gained much notoriety, though more recent evidence appears to reveal that this particular party of pioneers perhaps did not in reality devour one another3. Yet on film and screen the subject, as portrayed in such movies as Ravenous, a fictional frontier portrayal of an isolated army post in California resorting secretly to cannibalism, continues to generate interest in this macabre genre of history.

To return to Mittelberger’s story, various newspapers such as the New York Gazette & Weekly Post-Boy, Pennsylvania Gazette, Maryland Gazette, and others for March and April of 1752, relate a more detailed account of what exactly transpired in the forests of early America during the winter of 1752. All versions attest that two soldiers, John Cadogan, and Michael Finn, at Oswego, New York, on February 22 gave their affidavit concerning the events distorted in part by Mittelberger. Mittelberger perhaps has conflated two different accounts, since in the Pennsylvania Gazette for June 13, 1754, there is the description of 21 French prisoners who’d been on the Ohio, but were then in Virginia, all of whom had “for some time past,” been “in great want of Provisions….”

According to Cadogan and Finn, all the deserters had purportedly been members of Capt. Rutherford’s Company who’d left Fort Oswego, New York, on January 22 on their way to a French fort or Fort Caderaghway (Cataraque). Four of their number became so “fatiqued and Frost-bitten,” that they were unable to carry out their plan as designed. Thus, Mark Sampson was ordered by Corporal William Barry “to be shot…then the Corporal obliged them to draw lots [as Mittelberger had attested] who should be Executioner…The execution being over, they eat, and took with them, the Hind Quarters only of the deceased….”

As the days transpired and they became more destitute and famished, one by one lots were drawn, and men were executed. Eventually, the Corporal began attempting to murder individuals, or tried ordering others, such as Cadogan and Finn, to do so. Refusing to obey his orders, Barry “took up his Fire-lock and perform’d the bloody deed himself” on a private James Read, who was shot by the Corporal, after which his body “was cut into Pieces in the like manner as the two others had been.” The account is quite graphic, detailed, and lengthy, giving the names of each man killed, and the various ways in which the individuals were eaten. The narrative describes how Barry eventually became crazed, attempting to kill and eat all he could. He eventually disappeared, but Cadogan and Finn made it back to Fort Oswego, appearing “like Skeletons,” their report taken “verbally from them” upon their return.

Interestingly, Benjamin Stoddert, in a letter from Oswego dated March 25, 1752, related how “some Indians within a few miles of Cataraque…saw some remains of the most horrid scene…mangled Carcase and Bones of Others, with the Skule of Mark Sampson...,” and also “ found their [sic] had been Two and one of them Murer’d, as they found the Hands, Head, and Other Bones with the Flesh Cut of also a Piece of Flesh roasted…they came to where there had been Three and One Kill’d and used as the formers….” [original spelling retained]

Fort Oswego had been plagued by a number of problems for some time according to many accounts. Mutiny, misuse of rum given to the Indians and garrison, etc., being only a few of the irritants culminating in desertion. Interestingly, during the summer of 1752, another group of individuals from New York had gotten lost in the woods in an attempt to “view the Land called the Great-Patent, at the Head of the Delaware River.” Though they were “almost starved” and were reduced to eating a few “wild Herbs” and “a piece of raw Deer-skin” they’d found inside an old Indian hut, they never resorted to cannibalism.

Such were the dangers, depravity, murder, and mayhem which the early inhabitants, settlers, and soldiers of colonial America were at times forced to contend during our nation’s history. Our past is filled with both heroism and atrocity, but no one can ever say American history is boring!


1 Mittelberger, Gottlieb, Journey to Pennsylvania. Trans. Oscar Handlin & John Clive, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960). See particularly pp’s 92-93.

2 See “A Cannibal Cruise Liner of 18th-century Immigration,” Hidden Histories, April 7, 2009

3 See “Donner Party Ate Family Dog, Maybe Not People,” November 27, 2012. http://news.discovery.com/history/us-history/donner-party-cannibalism.htm

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