Timothy Murphy, Rifleman
American history has its share of frontier culture heroes. Daniel Boone is known for a variety of exploits in the Cumberland Gap region of Tennessee and Kentucky during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as is Davy Crocket from Tennessee to Texas in the early 19th century. Old West explorers such as Lewis and Clark, mountain men and guides such as Kit Carson, lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, and even outlaws such as Billy the Kid, are also familiar names to us. Native Americans such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse have legendary status. But a name not so widely known is that of Timothy Murphy. A famous sharpshooter of the Revolutionary War, his fame endured through the 19th century. Murphy also achieved some popular culture status in the 1950s-60s through John Brick’s novels. Perhaps a successful movie or TV show about him would have kept his name widespread to the present day, as Disney’s 1954-55 miniseries Davy Crockett did for that historical figure. In any case, Murphy is still celebrated in Schoharie County, known to many there as “The Rifleman” – the name of Brick’s 1953 novel about him – or as “Sure Shot Tim.”
Timothy Murphy, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in 1751 near the Delaware Water Gap, an area where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge of the Appalachian Mountains between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. When Timothy was about eight years old, his parents moved farther west, settling in Shamokin Flats (present Sunbury, Pennsylvania) along what was then the western frontier. At some point in the next years, he was placed in service to the Van Campen family, moving northeast with them to the Wyoming Valley of the Susquehanna River (near present Wyoming, Pennsylvania). Timothy developed frontier skills, becoming an expert marksman.
On June 29, 1775, two months after the start of the Revolutionary War, Timothy and his brother John enlisted in the Northumberland County Riflemen. Under Captain John Lowdon, the infantry unit saw action at the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Long Island, and the Battle of White Plains.
Timothy later became a sergeant in the 12th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Line and fought at Trenton, Princeton, and New Brunswick in New Jersey. Given his great skill as a marksman, he was recruited for Morgan’s Rifles, also known as the Sharpshooter Corps, an infantry unit headed by General Daniel Morgan.
In August 1777, Morgan and his best 500 riflemen, among them Murphy, were sent to upstate New York to resist a British force under General John Burgoyne. On October 7, 1777, at the Battle of Bemis Heights (the Second Battle of Saratoga), legend has it that Murphy, positioned in a tree, shot and killed Brigadier General Simon Fraser at a distance of 300 yards, as well British Senior Officer Sir Francis Clerke, Burgoyne’s chief aide-de-camp. Their deaths shook the morale of British forces who were driven back.
Morgan’s Rifles soon traveled to Valley Forge, joining General George Washington’s force and suffering through the winter months. In June 1778, they helped in the pursuit of a British force evacuating Philadelphia. The next month, Washington then dispatched the unit to the Schoharie Valley of upstate New York to help counter Tory and Indian raids (see our earlier blog “Revolutionary” about the Schoharie Valley being the “breadbasket of the American Revolution”). They manned the forts along the valley, carrying out long-range patrols in the region. In the summer of 1779, Murphy was part of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign against the Iroquois.
Murphy’s term of enlistment in the Continental Army expired in late 1779. He soon joined Captain Jacob Hager’s Company of Colonel Peter Vrooman’s 15th Regiment of the Albany County Militia and continued to participate in patrols throughout upstate New York, including parts of present-day Schoharie, Otsego, Delaware, and Greene Counties. Murphy’s skill as a long-distance sniper was reportedly feared by Loyalists and their Native allies.
In October 1780, a Loyalist force under John Johnson, including Joseph Brant’s Volunteers, mounted a series of attacks on settlements along the Schoharie Valley. Murphy and about 200 other militiamen defended Middle Fort (north of present Middleburgh). The regular army commanding officer, Major Melanchthon Woolsey, made the decision to surrender the fort, but Murphy refused to do so, firing shots over the heads of Johnson’s truce party and driving them back. Johnson’s entire force soon withdrew, harassed by Murphy and other militiamen while retreating to Canada.
Early in 1781, Murphy reenlisted in the Pennsylvania Line and that fall served under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at the decisive Siege of Yorktown.
After the war, Murphy returned to the Schoharie Valley settling in the hamlet of Fultonham southwest of Middleburgh. He never applied for a veteran’s pension or a grant as many of his peers did, but he became a successful farmer and ran a grist mill. Although Murphy reportedly did not know how to read or write, he became involved in local politics. By his first wife Peggy Pleck, he had five sons and four daughters. After marrying Mary Robertson, who gave him four more sons, he moved out of the Schoharie Valley for a time. But he returned to Fultonham to live out his years, dying there in 1818 at age 67. He was buried next to his first wife.
It became an accepted fact among 19th-century historians that Timothy fired the shots at Saratoga that killed Fraser and Clerke. As a result, his name appears in modern books on the history of snipers. Yet the first documented account of his deeds at Saratoga did not appear until 1845 and Jeptha R. Simms’ History of Schoharie County and Border Wars of New York. So it is not known for certain whether Murphy’s marksmanship that helped turn the tide of the battle is indeed fact or whether it’s battlefield lore, leading to a writer’s assumption decades later. Murphy was also famous for having one of the first double-barreled rifles, designed by John Golcher of Eaton, Pennsylvania, although it cannot be known for certain when he first acquired one during or after the war. Yet, based on reports by his friend Aaron Wright in his diary – with entries from June 1775 to March 1776 – and Murphy’s service in the elite unit Morgan’s Rifles, there is no doubt that Timothy Murphy was one the Revolutionary War’s most skilled sharpshooters. And his story is remarkable in that he went from being a youth raised humbly on the western frontier to an acclaimed soldier who saw action in so many of the war’s critical battles. Regarding the defense of the Schoharie Valley’s Middle Fort, the fact of Murphy’s rebellious stand is considered indisputable, based on the number of witnesses who passed the story down.
In 1819, the year after Murphy’s death, the New York State legislature voted to erect a monument to him, although the decision was not carried out. In 1872, his remains were reinterred in Middleburgh, and, in 1910, some of his descendants commissioned the sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman to create a bronze bas-relief plaque, placing it on their ancestor’s grave at the Upper Middleburgh Cemetery. In 1913, the Ancient Order of Hibernians dedicated a marker to Murphy at the Saratoga Battlefield. In 1929, the state also commemorated Murphy with a marker. At the dedication, then-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt eloquently stated:
“This country has been made by Timothy Murphys, the men in the ranks. Conditions here called for the qualities of the heart and head that Tim Murphy had in abundance. Our histories should tell us more of the men in the ranks, for it was to them, more than to the generals, that we were indebted for our military victories.”
The names of political, business, and military leaders from upstate New York’s rich history are known to many. Timothy Murphy is one of the common folk whose name also endures.
The History Boys are
Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.
Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.
Carl has recently published an ebook through Alva Press, Streetscape: A Jake Soho Mystery
In the comments section below, tell us about a Tim Murphy that you know!