Francis, sometimes Franz Josef, Pfister (ca. 1740-1777) was a German-born military engineer. Pfister came to America some time prior to September 1758 with the newly formed Sixtieth Foot Regiment, or the Royal American Regiment. The regiment housed many of the British Army’s European cartographers. Pfister was only 16 or 17 at the time and had apparently trained in mathematics and engineering. He did not have a military rank and therefore would likely have come over as a gentleman-volunteer. This would have positioned him to socialize and dine with the commissioned officers, but without an officer's rank. He would have been under the command of General Abercromby.
Pfister was gifted and soon gained recognition for his work. He received a commission as an ensign in September 1758, after the attack on Fort Ticonderoga. It was during this time that he gathered the source material for a series of New York regional maps, of which there are at least six (three in the British Library, one in the State Library of New York, one in the National Archives, Kew, and one in private hands).
In 1759, Pfister was reassigned to the British force tasked with taking Fort Niagara. General Amherst ordered Pfister to investigate how to penetrate the Mohawk-Oneida trading route without coming through Oswego. Pfister and his rodman apparently walked up a brook for two days, carefully surveying all the way, and recorded everything they found. Later, he took part in the siege and taking of Fort Niagara. His work continued to gain approval and, on September 18, 1760, Pfister was commissioned as a lieutenant.
From 1760 to 1763, Pfister was involved in improvements to Fort Niagara and then in the design and construction of Fort Ontario at Oswego. In April 1762, Pfister was at Fort Stanwix and began informing his American patron, Sir William Johnson, of a number of business and military topics. He also acted as a conduit for Richard Cartwright and other Albany-based traders. With the treaty of Paris in 1763, Pfister was put on half-pay status, a form of retirement in peacetime.
Pfister was quickly pulled back into military service with the outbreak of the Pontiac Conspiracy, when he accompanied Bradstreet's expedition on Lake Erie and was part the relief of Fort Detroit. Then, Pfister returned to Fort Niagara in the spring of 1764 where he served as Assistant Engineer to Captain John Montresor during the period when the Niagara Portage (the land route around Niagara Falls on the Niagara River, between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario) was a key link in the movement of British troops and supplies. At this time, he may have helped to design the remarkable wooden track commonly called "Montresor's railway" that facilitated the movement of batteaux and cargo around the falls.
On half-pay status again, Pfister continued on in the post of engineer, as well as received the contract to operate the Niagara Portage with his partner John Stedman. He obtained major contracts for the repair of Fort Niagara, and built and operated a sawmill, the first to operated above Niagara Falls. Pfister's house there served as an inn for the first early sightseers at the falls.
Beginning in 1766, Pfister petitioned for substantial tracts of unimproved acreage in the Mohawk Valley, in what became Vermont, and in the area of Hoosick where he would ultimately settle. In March 1767, Pfister was present at a meeting with the Six Nations at Johnson Hall. Also in that year, he was among those who founded the second Masonic lodge in Albany. About 1770, he married Anne Macomb, daughter of a Scots Irish trader living in Albany.
In March 1772, he became a naturalized citizen of Great Britain. At that time, the Albany newspaper noted that he was a tenant in an Albany house located between that of Lydius and Ten Eyck. By 1773, Pfister had acquired military bounty land in the Hoosick Valley in 1773, although he may have remained Garrison Engineer at Fort Niagara until 1774.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, as a half pay British officer, Pfister came under the scrutiny of the eastern Albany revolutionaries. He was thought to have been raising a Tory militia in the area and it was known that Pfister had some persuasive influence on the German-speaking settlers in the region. By mid-1776, he had been apprehended by the Albany Safety Committee and was required to guarantee his "good behavior" by posting a bond.
In 1777, Pfister joined General Burgoyne's British expedition from Canada as it moved south though the region. Pfister raised Loyalists in the Hoosick area and marched on August 14, 1777 to join Burgoyne's Army. He came under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum, who was tasked with raiding a supply depot in Bennington, Vermont in order to help supply Burgoyne's forces.
On August 15, 1777, Pfister and 318 Hoosick Loyalists joined Baum's column near Bennington and fortified the Tory Redoubt to repel gathering Patriot forces. The next day, the 16th, Pfister was mortally wounded in the attack on the Redoubt. Pfister was carried by American soldier Jonathan Armstrong to a house 1.5 miles away, where he died within 48 hours.
Pfister is credited with the following maps:
- Plan of Fort Wm Henry and the English Camps & Retranchment, with the French different Camps & Attack there upon (ca. 1757). [British Library]
- Plan of Fort New-Port . . . (dated 1760, in a different hand). [British Library]
- Plan of Fort Stanwix Build at Oneida Stations 1758 (not signed). [British Library]
- Plan of Fort Stanwix at the Onnida Station. Done by a Scale of 150 Feet to one Inch (ca. 1760, in a different hand). [British Library]
- Plan of the Bastion at Fort George (ca. 1759, not signed). [British Library]
- The course of the creek taken by order of His Excellency Governor Amherst (1760). [Clements Library]
- Plan of Fort Erie Built under the direction of John Montresor Engineer 1764 (1764). [British Library and a similar copy at the Clements Library]
- Perspective view of Fort Ontario (1761). [British Library]
- Plan of Niagara (1771 ca). [Clements Library]
- Plan of Niagara with an Explanation of its's present State (Sep. 28, 1773). [British Library]
Pfister also completed a series of New York regional maps. As previously stated, these are held at the British Library, the National Archives, the State Library of New York, with one example in private hands.