General Ellis and the War of 1812: It’s Not Easy Being Rich
By Lynne Pascale
Wealth, status, respect, General John Ellis seemed to have it all. His military bearing, attractive wife and children, and large farm on Onondaga Hill, all made him widely admired and universally acclaimed. But being rich on the central New York frontier in the days of the early American republic had its responsibilities. At the time, a man with some money and military experience was expected to serve as an officer in the militia. For John Ellis, the privilege of command during the War of 1812 came at a price.
As a teenager living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Ellis was drawn into military service as the drama of the American Revolution unfolded. In 1779, he enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment and served until the end of hostilities. He also served in the militia after the war. Historian Donald Hickey, writing in his book, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, observed that New England militias in the post-Revolutionary era were the most organized and efficient in the country. Some of that excellence rubbed off on Ellis who would continue his military experience when he migrated to the central New York frontier at age twenty-three.
John Ellis became a significant settler. He was one of the 134 original signers of a petition to establish Onondaga County in 1794. In 1796, he returned to New England, courted, and married a woman named Submit Olds from Hebron, CT, bringing her back to New York to raise a family. In 1797 Ellis became adjutant in Col. Asa Danforth’s regiment, advanced to the rank of colonel, and was eventually commissioned brigadier general of Onondaga County’s militia by Governor Tompkins.
Like so many frontier developers with capital to invest, Ellis speculated in land while operating a large farm and a variety of other business concerns. He was one of the founding members of the First Presbyterian Church in Onondaga Hollow. Despite coming from Massachusetts, the first state to abolish slavery, John and Submit became slaveholders in the Town of Onondaga, as were many of the more affluent central New York settler-developers. In 1808, the Ellises had the largest assessed property value for the Town of Onondaga, worth $3,682. By comparison, the average assessed value in the town as a whole was $333.
Money and assets were far less secure in those days. During an economic crisis, it was common for the rich to lose everything and end up in debtor’s prison. In addition, those with even modest amounts of wealth were expected to make road repairs out of their own pocket, see to it that the Pound Master was doing his job rounding up stray farm animals, serve in a variety of public offices including postmaster, judge, sheriff, and coroner, and donate money to build churches and schools. Ellis juggled it all very well. But the War of 1812 had its price.
Even before the war, the local economy became depressed. As a result of the embargoes of 1807 and 1809, salt production drastically declined as the Canadian markets of Montreal and Kingston were closed. This continued through the War of 1812. Uncertainties about frontier safety during the war led to a reduction in land values as the stream of settlers dropped precipitously. Many speculators found themselves sitting on large inventories of land without any takers. The Ellis family began to feel the pinch.
When war broke out in 1812, Ellis was in command of the 6th Onondaga regiment of the 27th brigade of infantry. Militia duty was a burden on time and resources. Through the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, the militia man was expected to supply himself with “a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch with a box therein to contain not less than twenty-four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock . . . .” In addition to this, a commander would also have been responsible for outfitting members of his company who didn’t have the means to supply their own arms. He would also need to shod and feed his horse and perhaps some of the junior officers. Plus, he might even have to pay them out of his own pocket when the payroll was late. Also, muster days, drilling, and service took men of all classes and ranks away from their home and work responsibilities.
In 1812, the security concerns over the port at Oswego prompted a general order from the governor’s office. Ellis was to have “in readiness to march to Oswego, at a moment’s warning, two companies of infantry, or one company of artillery of not less than forty men, and one company of infantry of one hundred men, including officers . . . .”
Ellis brought his troops to Sackets Harbor in response to the attack there of June 2, 1813. On the 19th of June, the British were also repulsed at Oswego, and Ellis was there with the 27th Onondaga brigade. In a letter to Ellis dated July 17, 1813, Governor Tompkins enthused: “your conduct in relation to the defence [sic] of Oswego was prompt & military, for which I tended you my sincere thanks, & by you to communicate to the officers & soldiers who turned out on that occasion my high sense of their patriotism and zeal.”
On May 8thof the following year, Ellis marched his militia to Oswego and Oswego Falls after the British cannonaded the port village’s old, decrepit stockade in an attempt to destroy a large cache of naval stores they believed were there (the stores were actually at Oswego Falls, what we now call Fulton). A few days later, Ellis again had to call up “two to three thousand” militia and march again to Oswego. Later in the month, he and his brigade oversaw the safe departure from Oswego Falls of the military stores, which then headed north up Lake Ontario to Sandy Creek and Sackets Harbor. By June 4th, 1814 Ellis was done with his duty but had no pay to show for it. Four years later in April of 1818 he finally appealed to now Vice President Daniel Tompkins. Ellis claimed he didn’t receive “any pay, rations, or any compensation whatsoever from the State of New York or the United States” for a period of twenty days while in service at Oswego. It’s unknown if Ellis ever did receive his pay.
If lack of pay was aggravating enough, Ellis had a hard time keeping all his interests afloat in the soft wartime economy. After the war, the Ellises managed, but in 1820, John died at the age of 56. Submit and her children continued to work the farm and managed to bring it back to prosperity. However, as was the case with militia officers, John Ellis was for the remainder of his life, referred to as “General,” one of the few perks of militia command.
House of John and Submit Ellis on Onondaga Road, built in the early 19th century. From 1934 to 1957, the house served as the Henry E. Makayes American Legion Post. However, it had suffered extensive fire damage and was eventually torn down.