Battle of Oriskany

The founder of Jelloway fought in one of the bloodiest battles in American history, the Battle of Oriskany during the Revolutionary War, where the patriot forces lost over 50 percent of their men. In this painting, General Herkimer is seen directing the militia from where he fell.

JELLOWAY -- Other than its odd name, there's not much about Jelloway to slow down the traveler on US Route 3 in northern Knox County. The hamlet features a few old shop buildings, one of them a service station from decades long past.

On the other side of the road, a small gravel lane marked “Jelloway Cemetery” leads from the highway, past houses, and up onto a small hill. As the visitor drives up the path, an ancient oak overlooks over the way, no doubt predating the cemetery.

The bucolic rural setting offers no hint of the dramatic past of its first settler until you get to the cemetery itself. An official US military tombstone stands on the left, near the lane, marked at times with U.S. flags. The person buried there fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and later he became the founding father of the village.

His name was Jacob Phifer, and he must be one of earliest birth dates to be encountered in any Knox County cemetery. Phifer was born in or near the town of Straßberg, in what is today southwestern Germany, in 1757. Phifer, or Pypher as it was sometimes spelled, was among the wave of German settlers who came to the new world and settled in the Mohawk Valley area of upstate New York.

Like many of them, Pypher must have favored the independence movement, for he served in the Tryon County Militia as a corporal under Col. Peter Bellinger.

In August of 1777, a small revolutionary force was passing through the area, on their way to try and relieve the siege taking place at Fort Stanwix. When the troop was ambushed by a group of Loyalists and allied Natives, General Nicholas Herkimer rushed the Tryon County Militia and a group of Oneida Indians who had pledged to support the revolution to help.

The British rushed a large force to the area, too, and in turn ambushed General Herkimer's army of 800 near the village of Oriskany.

The Battle of Oriskany was under way without further notice. General Herkimer only had time to issue two commands, one of which was for militia riflemen to pair up behind trees, so that one could be reloading while the other was firing. His other command was for the militiamen to form circles, because they were being attacked on all sides by the various gathering Loyalist forces.

That maneuver saved them from a total bloodbath. As it was, the militia of 800 lost 450 casualties, including General Herkimer himself. They managed to take down over 150 of the attackers, and the distraction of the battle allowed other revolutionary forces to attack the Loyalists' supply camp and destroy their rations, effectively ruining their morale and nullifying their battlefield victory as they fled to protect their camp.

The creek where the ambush happened has been known ever since as Bloody Creek. The waters ran red that day.

While battlefield records from the Battle of Oriskany are scarce, Corporal Pypher was somewhere in the fray. One record lists him as being among the prisoners captured by the Loyalists and later released.

Whatever his experience, it didn't discourage him, for he returned to the Tryon County Militia and continued to fight in periodic campaigns throughout the Revolution.

Military records also indicate that Pypher served in the army during the War of 1812, as well. At some point after that conflict, he began moving west, ending up on the Ohio frontier in 1818.

At the intersection of two roads in northern Knox County, Phifer (as his name was later spelled), cleared trees for a farm, and then built an inn to serve travelers on the stagecoach road today known as US Route 3. The actual inn sat on what is now the south side of Jelloway, where the Ramser Arboretum begins.

It was also home to the area's first post office. Phifer's X Roads became known as a reliable place for weary travelers to rest, and the cluster of houses that gathered there became known as a town under that name.

Jacob Phifer — now sometimes spelled Peiffer — operated the post office until 1836. He passed away in 1846 at the age of 89, and was buried in the cemetery overlooking the town. As early as 1840, Phifer's son Freeman had laid out the official plat for the town, calling it Jelloway, after the nearby creek.

Big Jelloway Creek took its name from a Native American chieftain who lived in the area when settlers arrived. The settlers called him Chief Tom Jelloway, but the meaning of his Indian name isn't known, nor is any substantial history. He was known to be one of the chiefs of the Delaware (Lenape) tribe.

According to the 1881 History of Knox County, Tom Jelloway lived in Butler Township, though he hunted all over the area. Jelloway was said to be fond of white fashions and would dress like the white men, occasionally selling hand-made trinkets to the settlers in order to get some legal tender to buy clothes.

Jelloway also identified himself as a bird charmer. A settler by the name of Beatty didn't believe the old Indian, and challenged him to prove it. Jelloway immediately climbed up into a large cherry tree on Beatty's property, and began chanting a series of strange vocal calls. Instantly, birds began flocking to the upper branches of the tree, some of the birds landing on Jelloway's shoulders and head as he smiled down at Beatty.

According to the 1871 Caldwell map, the Beatty farm stood in south central Butler Township, just north of the Jackson Township line, between Esto Road and Wharton Road.

The only other known biographical information about Chief Tom Jelloway is that he declined to move west with the rest of the tribe to reservations. He lived out his life in Knox County, having friendly relations with the newcomers. Though it isn't documented whether or not the chief was aware of the town named after him, it is worth pointing out that the final western removal of the native tribes didn't take place until 1843.

The town may have taken its name before the chief's passing.

Despite Freeman Phifer's naming of the village as Jelloway, it appears on some maps in the later 1800s as Brownsville, taking its named from the township itself, which was named after Major-General Jacob Brown, a hero of the War of 1812, according to Norton's History of Knox County. The US Post Office informed the townspeople, however, that there was already another Brownsville in Ohio, and the post office was named Jelloway.

By the time that post office was shut in 1918, when mail service was transferred to Danville, the name had come to apply to the entire community, and has ever since.

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