The first part of A Brief History of William Gilliland explores Gilliland’s beginnings and his pioneer settling of the North Country, but this segment of his history will reveal the unfortunate downward spiral in the latter part of his life.
American Revolution Begins Gilliland’s Downfall
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) destroyed the original Willsboro settlement. The effects of the war and accusations during that tenuous time of revolt began to ruin Gilliland financially and by reputation.
Gilliland supported the revolutionaries, and was involved in patriotic services including but not limited to the creation of a minute men company and signing a “Declaration of Principles” at Crown Point, but despite this he was mistrusted by some due to unfounded allegations (Smith, H.P. History of Essex County: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., Publishers, 1885. 132-133).
Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold were the military leaders in charge of American forces in the area. Gilliland got involved in disagreements between the two leaders and complained of Arnold’s undisciplined troops, and hence became Arnold’s enemy (Essex: The Architectural Heritage. 6).
Arnold cast doubts on Gilliland’s loyalty to the revolutionaries who saw the settlement as too near Canada (still a British territory) for the American militia’s comfort. The militia plundered as they moved–undisciplined, suspicious, and hungry.
“According to tradition, not a structure was left standing between the Boquet River and Split Rock.” (Essex: The Architectural Heritage. 6)
The settlers fled and abandoned the settlement, and buildings were burned to the ground by Tory refugees (British supporters) fleeing to Canada or those who believed Gilliland a traitor to the cause (Essex: The Architectural Heritage.6). Gilliland began to have enemies on both sides of the war as each side had some who believed him to support the other.
“During the war, [Gilliland] was removed from his settlement by the Revolutionaries and taken to Albany for confinement. More than once, he was released only to be confined again. At the same time the governor of Canada also considered him disloyal to the crown.” (New York State Museum).
Unfortunately this chaos resulted in the start of Gilliland’s impoverishment (due to litigation fees & land claim issues), and he was placed in jail for a time for debt, and all appeals failed (Noble, Henry Harmon. A Sketch of the History of the Town of Essex New York. 1940).
After the war, Gilliland tried to regain status and became involved in several developments and projects, but his name was discredited and he still had enemies. Many of “his estates were seized and patents for them obtained from the State, which, in deciding between the claimants gave judgement against Gilliland’s title,” and placed him further in debt (Smith, H.P. 156). He managed to gift what he could to his children so that his creditors couldn’t claim all of his land (“Old Gilliland Homestead”).
Released from jail in 1971, he lived out the rest of his life in the home of his daughter where he “is said to have become deranged and wandered around the estate” (New York State Museum).
He died a broken man from exposure on Coon Mountain on his way back to Willsboro on foot from a visit to a friend in Basin Harbor, VT (Noble, Henry Harmon. A Sketch of the History of the Town of Essex New York. 1940). He evidently struggled very hard to survive because when found his hands and knees had been worn bloody as he crawled on the frozen ground trying to make his way home (Smith, H.P. 158).
Gilliland is buried at Lakeview Cemetery in Willsboro, NY.
Find out More
You can discover more about William Gilliland, his life, and his pioneering efforts in the following resources:
- Pioneer history of the Champlain Valley: being an account of the settlement of the town of Willsborough by William Gilliland, together with his journal and other papers : and a memoir, and historical and illustrative notes
- Historical sketches of northern New York and the Adirondack wilderness: including traditions of the Indians, early explorers, pioneer settlers, hermit hunters, &c
- History of Essex County: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers
- The journal of William Gilliland: 18th century pioneer of the Champlain Valley
Leonard Duffy says
As an 18th century and Lake Champlain history buff, I just want to thank you for this interesting article. I plan to follow up on your references. Please keep up the good work.
Regards, Leonard Duffy
Katie Shepard says
Thank you very much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I’m happy to share what I learn about my local history with a wider audience so that these stories will live on.
Mary-Lee Gilliland says
I had not known that he became so distrusted by the Americans. Do want to alert you to a typo stating that ” he was released from jail in 1971…” His demise was so sad as he clearly wanted to keep living. I’d call that rather heroic.
Katie Shepard says
Yes, quite a complicated life and a sad end. But I think a good man, who did many good things and the best he could with the war.
Not sure what you’re pointing out as a typo: that “He was” should be added before “Released from jail in 1971, he lived out…”? That actually works as is (as an introductory phrase in the sentence). Unless you meant something else?