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Monday, October 28, 2019

Sarah Kast McGinnis ~ Loyalist Spy

Johann Georg Kast, and his wife Anna Margaretha Feg, Palatine Germans desperate to escape religious strife in their homeland, arrived in New York in 1710. They were brought to the American colonies by England’s Queen Anne to work in the British tar camps, where the production of tar and pitch was necessary for the building of British ships. But Johann, unable to support his growing family on his meager wages, traveled west and settled in German Flatts on New York’s Mohawk Valley frontier, where he opened a trading post. Their sixth child, Sarah, was born in 1713, and as the family lived near a neighboring tribe of Iroquois Confederacy Mohawk, Sarah grew up closely allied with them and familiar with their culture and language. 

Johnson saving life of wounded French officer
during Battle of Lake George by Benjamin West
When an Irishman by the name of Teady Magin, (Timothy McGinnis) who’d worked for a family south of Albany had completed his indenture, he set out to be a fur trapper and acquired a strong knowledge of native language and way of life along the way. Through his travels up and down the river, he frequently stopped at Kast’s trading post where he met and fell in love with Sarah.  

McGinnis proposed, and Sarah married Timothy in 1734. They raised a family of eight children on a farm built close to the Mohawk Castle (principal village) of the natives they’d befriended. Sarah remained at home and continued to run the thriving trading post when Timothy, now a captain in the British forces, joined his friend Sir William Johnson in the war against the French in North America. 

After the death of her husband at the Battle of Lake George in 1755, Sarah, with the help of her children, ran their farm, the trading post, and took up her husband’s fur trading business to help support her family. As a widow, a woman in the eighteenth century could retain ownership of property and wealth. However, if she remarried, all her property would go to her new husband. Sarah would remain a widow for the rest of her life.

Sarah and the American Revolution 

It was rare to see a woman take up arms in combat, though most knew how to handle a rifle for hunting and protection if necessary. Others contributed to the war effort by covert observation, collecting important information and carrying messages. Even more unlikely was seeing those of German descent like Sarah, as an important liaison who used her trading ties to keep the Mohawk loyal to the British cause. 

Loyalists, or Tories—those devoted to the British cause—comprised about one-third of American colonists, including officeholders who served the British crown, large landholders, wealthy merchants, Anglican clergy and their parishioners, and Quakers.  

Like many Tories, however, Sarah’s loyalty cost her dearly. In retaliation, members of her family were killed by their rebel neighbors, their property and trading post seized, and Sarah’s house burned to the ground, with the tragic loss of her son, William, who’d been trapped inside. Alienated from friends and extended family members, her personal property was taken and sold at auction to Patriot buyers. Sarah’s spying for the British had been discovered, and along with her daughter and granddaughter, was imprisoned at Fort Dayton, (now Herkimer, New York), where her granddaughter died. Her son-in-law, Symon DeForest was jailed and died in captivity.  

Barry St. Leger
Sarah and her daughter were released when General Barry St. Leger and his troops attacked the area. St. Leger’s force, composed mostly of Native Americans and Tories, intended to come down the Mohawk Valley to meet General Burgoyne at Albany. But Continental troops barred his way, and he lay siege to Fort Dayton. When St. Leger’s native allies heard that a Continental force under Benedict Arnold was moving to relieve Fort Stanwix, they deserted the British, and St. Leger was forced to make a retreat to Canada. 

General St. Leger retreated to Oswego and then to Canada, with Sarah and her family following close behind. In August 1777, they arrived in Canada at a British fort on Carleton Island, southeast of Kingston on the St. Lawrence River. She was 64 years old. 

In the winter of 1777, at the request of British authorities, Sarah returned to New York to live with the Iroquois. Loyalist officials had learned the Americans were trying to influence the Mohawk into joining the Patriot side and wanted Sarah to persuade them to remain loyal to King George. 

French Castle at Fort Niagara, copyright Ad Meskens
Sarah, traveling with her youngest son, George, reached Fort Niagara and wintered in a Cayuga village. They managed to travel through forests, cross rivers and streams and camp along the 245 mile stretch of wilderness from Lake Ontario to the Mohawk Castle in central New York. Upon their arrival, they were greeted warmly by many native friends.

When the Mohawk showed Sarah a wampum belt they had received from American General Philip Schuyler, she told the Indians it was an evil message and to bury it. She and her son lived with the Iroquois through another winter near Genesee, New York, the trip deemed a success because Sarah had convinced the Mohawk to remain loyal to the British. They returned to Canada in the spring of 1778. 

In the fall of 1779, Sarah, once again accompanied by her son, now a lieutenant in the Indian Department, was asked to return to visit the Mohawk Nation. They left the safety of Canada to arrive in New York where the war still raged. During this visit, George was wounded in the Battle of Stone Arabia in 1780. But as a result of her visits, many of the Mohawk people had survived and fled to Canada, where their descendants still live.  

At the end of the Revolution, Sarah moved to Upper Canada with other Loyalists. She petitioned the British government for land and money to cover her losses during her trips to New York. Though steadfast to the British Crown, Sarah received a mere pittance, was refused a land grant (to which, as a Loyalist, she was entitled) nor any other recognition. 

Sarah Kast McGinnis died September 9, 1791, at the home of her grandson Lieutenant Timothy Thompson in Fredericksburg Township, Ontario. She was buried near Bath, Ontario. She was 78 years old.

A certificate was finally issued in 1998, making Sarah Kast McGinnis an official “United Empire Loyalist”.  


  1. What an interesting pot! You would think that after so many years she would changed sides. I'm familiar with many of the places mentioned above mos are located. (many of my ancestors that fought in the Revolution were from New York. No,
    they weren't loyalists. some of my ancestors came from the Palatine region of Germany.

  2. Hi Beverly! Good to hear from you; we have so much in common. I come from the Mohawk Valley (in fact, two miles from where Sarah Kast McGinnis lived--and I have a close relative named Beverly! :) I would have thought she would have changed sides too (especially being of Palatine German descent) but apparently she and her husband, who'd given his life for a British cause, was something she would cling too for the rest of her life.


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