ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — His words grace New Hampshire's license plates — "Live Free or Die" — yet most people outside New England would be hard-pressed to identify Gen. John Stark, despite his heroics in two 18th century wars, including key roles in some of the American Revolution's most significant battles.
Two brothers hope to enlighten readers with their new book on the Granite State's favorite son, who did most of his soldiering in New York while serving in the forerunner of today's U.S. Army Rangers and, two decades later, leading troops in the nation's fight for independence.
"He was a lot better known in past years than he is now. He deserves for that to change," said retired lawyer Richard Polhemus of Dover, New York, co-author with his brother, John, of "Stark, The Life and Wars of John Stark," recently published by Delmar, New York-based Black Dome Press.
Born in New Hampshire to Scottish immigrant parents in 1728, Stark grew up hunting and trapping in the northern New England woods, where settlers were under constant threat of attack from Abenaki Indians allied to the French in Canada. In 1755, when the French and Indian War began, Stark joined a company of frontier scouts led by his friend, Robert Rogers.
Known as Rogers' Rangers, the unit became famous for its daring forays into the northern New York wilderness to scout enemy movements for the British army. As one of Rogers' lieutenants, Stark proved to be a cool-headed officer in some of the war's fiercest guerrilla-style engagements. That reputation served him well when he recruited scouts for the Rangers and, later, New Hampshire militiamen during the Revolutionary War.
"If he went to sign up some troops, they were eager to sign up with him. They knew him to be quite a man," said John Polhemus, a retired aeronautical engineer living in Mansfield, Connecticut.
The brothers decided on the Stark project because of his Ranger background and the fact few books had been written about him. There's a reason for that, historians say. Unlike his more literate, well-off peers, Stark left behind few personal papers or documents.
Nevertheless, his name showed up in plenty of journals and military dispatches from Canada to New Jersey. He commanded troops during the battles at Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton and Bennington, where his band of New England farmers routed British Gen. John Burgoyne's German allies and Loyalists dispatched to the Vermont town to seize horses and supplies.
In October 1777, two months after the Bennington battle — actually fought just across the New York side of the border — Stark arrived at Saratoga with troops who blocked Burgoyne's northern retreat route, forcing the British to surrender.
Despite his many heroics, Starks was often passed over for promotions. Embittered, he would head home to New Hampshire to his wife, Molly, and their many children, only to return to service when called upon by military leaders desperate for experienced combat officers.
He finally retired from military service after the war and returned to farming and running a saw mill. In 1809, he was invited to join other veterans at a ceremony in Bennington celebrating the victory. Stark, then 81 and suffering from rheumatism, couldn't make the journey. Instead, he sent a letter with a postscript offering a toast to honor the occasion:
"Live free or die — death is not the worst of evils."