Finding the story of Capt. Vanderberg

By David Lindeman

Contributing Columnist

This is a little embarrassing, but I have lived in Miami County most of my life, and until last week, I had never heard the story of Capt. Roger Vanderberg.

Wait … you haven’t heard it, either? At one time, Capt. Vanderberg made Miami County famous.

It all started in 1791, when Gen. Arthur St. Clair and his army marched into Ohio to teach the Native Americans a lesson. Unfortunately for St. Clair, he ran into Little Turtle and a confederation of Indians who routed St. Clair’s army. This happened up around what is now Defiance and was the biggest defeat an American army ever suffered at the hands of Native Americans … yes, even worse than that Custer guy at the Little Big Horn.

Now turn the clock ahead to July 4, 1873. On that day, a big storm ripped through Miami County, uprooting trees and generally causing havoc. A farmer named Mr. Rogers (no, not that Mr. Rogers) was inspecting his property when he came upon an ancient oak tree that had been blown over. He looked closely and … whoa! What’s that? A human skeleton!

Mr. Rogers put the skeleton together and found a diary that apparently went with it. In the diary, he found the story of Capt. Vanderberg, who served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War and then marched off with St. Clair in 1791. He was captured at the big battle and was being taken to Upper Piqua when he escaped. When he saw the oak tree, he apparently scaled a nearby tree and dropped into the hollow oak to hide.

Unfortunately, the hollow space went down much farther than Capt. Vanderberg had anticipated. He had a broken arm and other injuries and couldn’t get out. He couldn’t cry out for help, because the only people around to help were the Indians and they weren’t in a helpful mood. So he kept quiet and wrote in his diary as he slowly starved to death. He stayed in his oak tree for 82 years until the big storm scattered him around Mr. Rogers’ farm.

Mr. Rogers told his story to the Miami County Democrat, a newspaper which was printed in Piqua. It caused a sensation, not only here but also in other papers across the country that picked up the story. It was the 19th century version of going viral on the internet. If it happened today, you would have seen the headlines on all the newspapers at the grocery store checkout counters.

The diary, in which Vanderberg wrote about dreaming of luscious fruits and flowing streams and about the stars laughing at his misery, hit the romantics of the Victorian age like a lightning bolt. Oh, the misery! Oh, the tragedy!

As things turned out, there were some problems. There is no record of a Capt. Vanderberg serving with Washington or being with St. Clair, nor are there any records of any Vanderbergs living near Lancaster. Pa., where the captain was said to be from, at the time.

Plus, some of the stories at the time included pleas for donations to help erect a monument in Vanderberg’s honor. Apparently money was collected, but there is no monument honoring the unfortunate captain in Miami County or anywhere else. It all could have been like the modern letters from Nigerian bankers that show up in your email.

But even if it’s not true, it’s still a great story. Written history around here doesn’t go back that far, so we have to claim our legends where we can find them. If you add Capt. Vanderberg to Cry Baby Bridge and the Dilbone Massacre, you almost have enough to start your own little Miami County ghost tour. We just need to erect our own monument to Capt. Vanderberg (why not? We have statues going up on every corner of town as it is) and maybe engineer a few sightings and we’re in business.

If you happen to see a ghost with a broken arm in a colonial uniform wandering around, let me know. In the meantime, I’m going to check out the old locust tree in my back yard that is kind of hollow on one side. There’s no telling what I might find in there.