Revolutionary War Gen. John Stark displayed his fighting spirit well before his heroics at the Battle of Bunker Hill or the Battle of Bennington.
As a young man, Stark was captured by Abenaki Indians and forced to run the gauntlet. He fought back against his tormenters, earning their admiration. They adopted him into the tribe.
Stark’s experience with Indians served him well during his long military career as a bold commander of Roger’s Rangers and as an inspirational battlefield leader during the American Revolution.
A Hunting Trip Gone Awry
John Stark was born Aug. 28, 1728 in Londonderry, N.H. He left home at 23, on a hunting expedition with his brother and two others – Amos Eastman and David Stinson — in a wilderness that is now Rumney.
In March and April of 1752 they hunted and trapped, collecting furs worth 560 pounds.
In late April, they saw signs of Abenaki Indians and decided to leave the hunting ground. It fell to John Stark to collect the traps. At sunset he was bending over to pick up a trap from Baker’s River when he heard a sharp hissing sound. He looked up. A war party of gun-wielding Indians surrounded him.
The Indians, with Stark in tow, found the rest of the hunting party canoeing down the river. They shot and killed Stinson and captured Eastman. Stark’s brother escaped after Stark yelled a warning – for which he was severely beaten.
The Indians took their two captives to their town, St. Francis, near Quebec.
According to Stark’s own account in the Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark,
The young warriors of the tribe arranged themselves in two lines, each armed with a rod or club to strike the captive, as he passed them, singing some ditty which had been taught him for the occasion, and bearing in his hands a pole six or eight feet long, with the skin of some bird or animal attached to one end of it.
Eastman advanced first, singing words which meant, “I’ll beat all your young men.” The latter, considering themselves insulted, beat him so severely with their rods that he fell exhausted as soon as he had passed the lines.
Stark followed, singing the words, “I’ll kiss all your women,” his pole being ornamented with a loon skin. After receiving a blow or two, he turned his pole right and left, dealing a blow at each turn, and made his way without much injury, his enemies making way for him to avoid the sweeping blows dealt by his pole.
This feat pleased the old Indians, who enjoyed the sport at their young men’s expense.
From then on, Stark was treated well in captivity.
The next spring, an agent from the Province of Massachusetts Bay ransomed him for $103 Spanish dollars, Eastman for $60. The captives returned to New Hampshire.
Roger’s Rangers to Bennington
John Stark was named second in command of the daring Roger’s Rangers, where he put his knowledge of Indian warfare to use during the French and Indian War. But when Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered Roger’s Rangers to attack St. Francis, Stark refused out of respect to his foster parents. He went home to New Hampshire.
Years later, Stark marched his New Hampshire militia to Boston as soon as he heard about the Battles of Lexington and Concord. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, he led his men to a spot where he anticipated the British would attack. He may or may not have said, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” (Someone did; it just isn’t clear who.) His men forced the British to withdraw and inflicted heavy casualties.
He was an unsung hero of the Battle of Saratoga. Stark and his men contributed to the British surrender by preventing them from retreating north.
Two years later, the British decided to invade Vermont, then known as the New Hampshire Grants. Vermonters pleaded for help. Stark raised a militia of 1,500 New Hampshire men in six days, more than 10 percent of the colony’s male population over 16.
He marched his men to Bennington, where he led them against British forces shouting, “There they are boys! We beat them today or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight!” (Molly Stark did not sleep a widow that night.)
The battle seriously damaged the British army and caused them to lose Indian support.
Stark went home to his farm after the war, one of the few (if not the only) Revolutionary War generals who left public life. In 1809, veterans from the Battle of Bennington invited Stark to a gathering to commemorate the battle. Stark, at 81, was too feeble to travel, but sent a letter that closed with the words, “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” Live Free or Die became New Hampshire’s state motto in 1945.
John Stark died on May 8, 1822.
Photo: ‘General John Stark‘ by Chandler Eastman Potter in the History of Manchester, Formerly Derryfield, in New Hampshire (1851). This story was updated in 2017.