Israel Putnam was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on January 7, 1718, into a family which had been among the earliest settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is said that Israel's father, Joseph Putnam, was such an outspoken critic of the witchcraft persecutions which shook Salem in the final years of the seventeenth century that he earned the lasting disapproval of both relatives and neighbors. As a precaution against the time when he might be accused of being a witch (or a warlock), they say Joseph Putnam kept his musket loaded and a fast horse saddled at all times, ready for possible flight. Although Israel Putnam was probably born in Danvers, Massachusetts, this legendary association with Salem and a father who fearlessly spoke up for truth in the face of dark powers which sought to destroy him was entirely appropriate for the hero-to-be.
As a boy, it was reported, Israel hated the classroom but loved the great out-of-doors, where he excelled at hiking, hunting, and fishing, and became intimately familiar with all of Nature's ways. At an early age he showed his fighting spirit and defended his way of life, according to an often-recounted tale about an experience one day in Boston, where his father had taken him for a visit. Here, Israel was taunted unmercifully by a big-city boy because of his rustic clothes and rough country manners. The tough rural lad took it for a while, they say, but finally turned on his tormenter and gave him a sound thrashing.
Israel Putnam first came to Connecticut in 1739 and settled on a farm in the "Mortlake" district of the eastern Connecticut town of Pomfret. Although he was only twenty-one years old, he already had a wife and growing family, as well as several slaves to help him clear the land and operate the farm. Despite his well-managed spread and evident wealth, however, Putnam was not popular with his haughty Pomfret neighbors. Since the "rough Mortlake farmer" owned no pew in the meeting house, he sat on a rude bench near the entrance of the church, while the "peers of the parish" occupied slightly elevated pews looking down on him. Only after the episode with the wolf did his neighbors' attitudes appear to change.
A few years after he began farming in Connecticut -- most agree it was sometime during the winter of 1742-1743 -- young Putnam went to his barnyard one morning only to discover that seventy of his sheep and goats had been slaughtered during the previous night. When he found a number of large wolf tracks, with two toes missing on one paw, he knew that his animals had been the victims of an old she-wolf which had ravaged the area with her whelps each autumn for years. The farmers had usually managed to kill her brood, but the mother wolf had always evaded them. However, she had once left two claws in a trap before making her escape, so her tracks were immediately identifiable.
Angered by the slaughter, Putnam called together five of his neighbors who agreed to pursue the wolf until she was dead. The men took turns hunting in pairs, with two tracking ahead while the other four followed behind. All the first day they followed the wolf west until she doubled back toward the scene of the killing. After tracking her all night, the six hunters had reached an area only three miles from Putnam's farm by 10:00 a.m. the next morning. Then, seventeen-year-old John Sharp, who had run ahead of the other trackers, sent word back that he had followed the wolf to her den, where she was presently hiding. Word quickly spread that the old neighborhood nemesis was cornered at last.
All day long, Putnam and his neighbors tried to get the wolf out of the cave. Efforts to smoke her out proved futile. A hound sent into the den quickly came out howling, with such deep lacerations that no one else would risk a good dog in another try. Putnam attempted to order one of his slaves into the den, but the poor man was so paralyzed with fear that he was useless. Finally, Putnam took off his jacket and waistcoat and prepared to take on the wolf himself. After fashioning a torch from birch bark, he ordered a long rope tied around his ankles so he could be pulled back in case of trouble. Then he lighted the torch, entered the cave, and propelling himself forward with his arms and knees, began snaking along the yard-wide passage that ran some twenty-five feet into the side of a hill.
As he reached the end of the narrow tunnel, Putnam heard the ominous snarling of the cornered wolf and, moments later, his torch revealed the animal, fangs bared and eyes glowing in the torchlight. Deciding at this point to return for his gun, Putnam gave the signal to be pulled out of the cave. Mistaking the signal for a trouble call, his friends yanked him out so rapidly that his shirt was stripped from his body and he was painfully cut and bruised. Nevertheless, once he had caught his breath and loaded his musket, Putnam again entered the cave and began inching his way toward the wolf. Finally, he again came eyeball-to-eyeball with the snarling beast. Just as it prepared to attack, Putnam fired. The blast, they say, was deafening, while the cloud of smoke, dust, and dirt which followed, blotted out everything in sight.
This time his friends answered Putnam's signal for removal much more carefully. After allowing the smoke and dust to settle, he once more returned to the cavern to discover the results of his shot. When he got close enough to touch the wolf's nose with his torch without response from the animal, he knew the old scourge of the farmyards was dead. He grabbed the great head by the ears, kicked the rope and together, Putnam and the wolf were slowly dragged from the den, amid cheers from the crowd at the mouth of the cave. As they watched Putnam emerge grasping the dead animal's ears, a few late-arriving observers concluded that the young farmer had actually wrestled the wolf to her last, fatal fall. Stories to that effect circulated in the area for years.
The whole crowd then carted the carcass up and over the icy hill to Kingsbury Tavern, where it was suspended from a spike driven into an overhead beam for all to admire. They say that by midnight most of the farmers in Windham County had arrived to celebrate the end of the legendary beast and to toast the beginning of a legendary hero. In the years that followed the successful wolf hunt, a whole cycle of folk stories made the rounds which transformed the once-obscure Putnam into a kind of farmer version of Paul Bunyan. As the folk told it, he could plant faster, plow straighter furrows and mow wider swaths than anyone could imagine. He could also break and ride horses so wild that no mere mortal could even get near them, and drive a nail into a tree with a single musket shot, from a distance of a hundred yards or more. When the Connecticut legislature commissioned Putnam a militia lieutenant in 1755, they may have thought they were getting a one man army!
Between 1755 and 1765 Israel Putnam participated in campaigns against the French and Indians as a member of Rogers' Rangers, as well as with regular British forces. Promoted to captain in 1756 and to major in 1758, the farmer-soldier continued to burnish his legendary reputation with several extraordinary exploits during this initial phase of what was to become a long military career. They told, for example, about the time Captain Putnam single-handedly saved Fort Edwards from being blown up, when it was endangered by a burning magazine packed with three hundred barrels of gunpowder. With the fire apparently burning out of control, everyone in the military installation fled in fear. Putnam alone stuck to his post, eventually put out the fire and saved the fort, though he suffered severe burns in the effort.
A year later, on August 8, 1758, Putnam narrowly escaped another fire in a miraculous way. Captured by the Caughnawega Indians during a New York State campaign, the incredible Major Putnam was stripped and lashed to a tree. Then brush was arranged around his feet, as the warriors prepared to burn him at the stake. Just after the Putnam-roast began, however, a sudden cloudburst extinguished the flames before they even singed the soles of his feet. Undaunted, the warriors rekindled the fire with dry twigs. Suddenly, an ally of the Indians, a French officer named Molang, burst through the circle of braves, kicked the burning sticks away from the uncomfortable captive and ordered him released from the tree. Proclaiming his undying admiration for the courage of the American, Molang escorted Putnam to a nearby French encampment the next day, and on August 18, under a flag of truce, took him to Fort Ticonderoga. Two months later, under pretense of his being "an old man," Putnam was given his outright release. When details of this episode filtered back to Connecticut, his fellow citizens merely nodded their heads in appreciation. They knew "Old Wolf" was just too tough to burn.
Still another of Putnam's exploits during the French and Indian War illustrated the value of Yankee ingenuity. It seems that one day while campaigning with British General Amherst, the American officer came upon a large force of British troops whose progress had been halted because a French warship of twelve guns was patrolling a large lake they were supposed to cross. With no naval forces at his command, General Amherst admitted his men were blocked. Up spoke Major Putnam: "I'll take her," he vowed. When the British general asked how the American proposed to do the impossible, Putnam replied, "Just give me some wedges, a beetle [hammer] and a few men of my own choice, and those Frenchmen will be ours by dawn tomorrow." Having agreed to the odd request, General Amherst watched dubiously as Putnam and his men, under cover of darkness, rowed silently out under the stern of the troublesome gunboat, drove a few wooden wedges between the rudder and hull, then rowed back ashore. In the morning, all the British had to do was form a welcoming party on the beach as the French ship, sails flapping and out of control, came drifting aground. When the story of the warship captured with beetle and wedges got back to the Kingsbury Tavern in Pomfret, the knee-slapping could be heard for miles.
Of all the legends about "Old Put" that came out of his campaigns against the French and Indians, the one about his victory over an arrogant English officer in a tense war of nerves was probably the favorite back home in Connecticut. The incident reported in the story happened -- if it happened at all -- because of the mutual hostility, jealousy and suspicion which existed, despite their alliance in arms against a common enemy, between the regular British officers and their colonial American counterparts. One day, during an early campaign, they say, a British major fancied that he had been insulted by Captain Putnam in some matter or other, and sent the American a crisp note, challenging him to a duel. Surprised but undisturbed, Putnam ignored the letter. Next, the major appeared in person at Putnam's tent, demanding a reply. Putnam responded cheerfully, "I'm but a poor, miserable Yankee who never fired a pistol in my life, and you must realize that if we fight with pistols, you would hold an unfair advantage over me." Instead, the colonial militiamen proposed an alternative. "Here are two powder kegs," he said. "I have bored a hole and stuck a slow match [fuse] into each one. If you would be good enough to seat yourself on that one, I will light the matches and then sit on the other. Whoever dares sit the longest without squirming shall be declared the bravest."
The other soldiers hanging around Putnam's tent were so pleased with the idea of this novel "duel," they forced the Englishman to agree. Putnam lighted the slow matches and both officers took their seats on the powder kegs. While the American puffed a cigar and looked cool, the Britisher tried not to watch, as the fuses grew shorter and shorter. The onlookers drew back as the sputtering fire came within inches of the holes in the gunpowder barrels. Finally, the major could stand it no longer. "Putnam," he cried, "this is willful murder; draw out your match. I yield." A smile lit Putnam's face as he took another long drag on his cigar. "Now, now, my dear fellow," said he, "there's no need to hurry. These kegs have nothing in them but onions." Without a word, the British major slid out of the tent, amid the taunts and catcalls of the delighted crowd of soldiers who had just seen the work of one Yankee who "really knew his onions."
With fifteen honorable combat wounds marking his body and memories of a hundred hair-raising adventures, the legend came home to Pomfret in 1765, hoping to find peace in farming the familiar acres, getting to know his eight children and socializing with old friends. While Putnam lost his first wife and a daughter shortly after his return from the wars, he was soon married again -- to a wealthy and socially prominent widow whom he had known for years -- and did manage to spend a relatively quiet ten years, farming in the grand manner and devoting himself to the many local offices with which his fellow townspeople honored him. But for a man like Israel Putnam, it seemed, there could be no permanent retirement from the limelight. So when the figurative powder kegs on which the British and Colonials had been sitting for so long finally blew up in April, 1775, folks might have predicted that "Old Wolf" (or "Old Put" as he came to be called in his later years) would be right in the middle of it.
At 8:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, April 20, 1775, a dispatch rider galloped into Pomfret with news of the attack at Lexington and a call to arms against the British. For years they told the story about what happened when Israel Putnam, then a colonel in the colonial militia, got wind of the "Lexington Alarm." When the word came, they say, he was way down in his back forty, plowing the straightest furrows in Windham County. Without a moment's hesitation, Putnam halted his oxen, mounted his horse standing nearby and blowing a kiss to his wife as he galloped by the house, rode off to summon the patriot militia into active service. The oxen, still yoked to the plow, were left standing in the field. More than two hundred years later, there are people in the Brooklyn-Pomfret area who can point out the very spot where that plow stood rusting in its furrow while the absent plowman made history, battling the "Lobsterbacks" around Boston.
A lot of Connecticut people thought that General Israel Putnam's heroic leadership at Chelsea Creek and Bunker (Breed's) Hill in the opening rounds of the Revolution had earned him, and not George Washington, the honor of supreme command. It was Putnam, they knew, who at Chelsea Creek had exposed his body to draw the fire of the British schooner Diana and coaxed her in close to shore where she could be raked and destroyed by the hidden Continental cannon. They also heard that it had been the wily old Indian fighter whose, "Don't fire 'til you see the whites of their eyes" had cause his men to shoot the British with such deadly accuracy on Breed's Hill. Although he did for a time exercise supreme command after the Continental Army removed from Boston to New York, he was replaced on April 13, 1776, by General Washington, the newly-named commander-in-chief. For the duration of the Revolutionary War, Putnam's duties were divided between active field commands and inspiring the recruitment of men, arms and provisions in his home state of Connecticut. As anyone who heard the tales of his successes could have predicted, "Old Put" performed in every instance above and beyond the call of duty.
Many were the stories told of General Putnam's incredible daring during the difficult Revolutionary War years. While in command of the Hudson Highlands, for example, he pronounced the death sentence on Nathan Palmer, a Tory spy who also held a British Army commission, after Palmer had been caught and brought to Putnam's headquarters at Peekskill, New York. Soon after learning of Palmer's capture, General Tryon, the ruthless British commander at New York, wrote to Putnam demanding the immediate release of his agent and vowing vengeance on the Americans if the spy were harmed. Putnam's reply to Tryon read: "Sir: Nathan Palmer, a lieutenant in your service was taken in my camp as a spy: he was tried as a spy; he was condemned as a spy; and you may rest assured, sir, he shall be hanged as a spy. I have the honor to be, etc. . . . . . . Israel Putnam To His Excellency Governor Tryon. P. S. Afternoon. He is hanged."
Everyone heard, too, about how General Putnam narrowly avoided capture by the British when he was nearly trapped by an enemy raiding party at a house in Greenwich, on February 26, 1779. It seems that Putnam had come from his headquarters at White Plains, New York, to inspect some American positions in the Connecticut town. Early one morning, just as he finished lathering up for his shave, he suddenly caught sight of some Red-coats in his shaving mirror. They were sneaking through the door behind him, ready to pounce on the man who, for them, would have been a VIP (Very Important Prisoner). In an instant, Putnam was out the window, into the saddle of his horse and galloping away down a road leading to the edge of a rock cliff. With the British in close pursuit, Putnam had no choice when he reached the top of the precipice: horse and rider leaped over the edge.
As his pursuers watched in astonishment from the heights, the bold American general plunged toward the valley floor below, his horse slipping and stumbling every step of the way. The British marines took a few half-hearted pistol shots at "Old Put" as he descended, but the charmed Putnam merely laughed at the bullets and waved his sword in defiance. Since not a single Red-coat had the nerve to follow Putnam's plunge down the embankment, the daring American easily made good his escape. (Today, a bronze tablet at the top of the incline known as "Put's Hill" marks the spot on "Horseneck Heights," Greenwich, where Putnam took his legendary plunge.)
General Israel Putnam's last hurrah came at Redding, amid the suffering and dying of troops under his command, during the terrible winter of 1778-1779, in the encampment forever after known as "Putnam's Valley Forge." Here a contingent of Connecticut and New Hampshire volunteers somehow survived the hunger, cold and despair of that bitter bivouac only because their commander, suffering fully as much as his men, served as an inspirational model of courage and attention to duty. When a paralytic stroke struck down the heroic old soldier in December of 1779, forcing his permanent retirement from active duty, his troops wept openly as "Old Put" reviewed them for the last time. Then he went home to Windham County to live out his last ten years in a home that was always so full of veterans, friends, neighbors and notables that Mrs. Putnam suggested only half-facetiously that he "open a tavern so he could charge a little something to pay for the wear and tear on the furniture." The old soldier never faded away, but he died, according to the records, on May 29, 1790.
Having died in Brooklyn -- the Putnam farm was located in a section of Pomfret that became part of the new Town of Brooklyn when it was incorporated in 1786 -- Israel Putnam was buried in an above-ground tomb in the Brooklyn town cemetery. Above the grave, the family erected an impressive marble slab, with an epitaph composed by Timothy Dwight of Yale. Within a few years, however, the site became so overrun with hero-worshipping visitors anxious to go home with an Israel Putnam relic, that the badly mutilated marble marker was removed for safe keeping to the Capitol Building in Hartford. There it has been on display ever since, giving rise to the belief by many who have viewed it for the past two hundred years that Putnam's body lies beneath it, perhaps in a basement crypt.
As a matter of fact, Putnam's remains can no longer be found at the Brooklyn cemetery where they were first interred. In 1888 they were removed and placed in a sarcophagus built into the foundation of a monument newly erected on a plot of ground near the Brooklyn town green. Atop the monument stands a noble equestrian statue of Connecticut's greatest folk hero. There are some who say that the uncomfortable look on the frozen, bronze face of the mounted figure is the result of Israel Putnam's feeling insecure in body and spirit. For one whose body and spirit have been almost as restless in death as in life, the story has a valid ring. In any case, after two centuries the legends about his extraordinary life still keep alive the spirit of Israel Putnam in his beloved Connecticut.