The Cycle the Erie bike tour, 400 miles from Buffalo to Albany organized through Parks & Trails NY, takes us back to the very beginning of the United States, to its colonial days and its emergence as an independent nation.
At Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome (where we actually camp out outside the fort, making it look like an army bivouac), we are put squarely into the drama of the American Revolution. Interpreters in period dress take on the roles of Patriots and Loyalists in period dress – creating such realism that you appreciate so much more the context and the conditions. Most surprising, is that it also tells the story of the Native Peoples, almost entirely forgotten as having an equal stake in the Revolution. (It didn’t go well.)
It’s humbling to realize how little you actually know about Colonial America and the American Revolution.
The Fort puts the competing interests of the Patriots, Loyalists and Indian peoples into balance. You have empathy for each. (Especially the Native Americans, who were dragged into the fight, upsetting a long-standing peace among the different Indian nations, found their whole society upended, and were literally screwed by every European and American they dealt with. George Washington, shockingly, even betrayed the Indians who were allied with the Patriots). But you also understand better the Loyalists, whose property was being seized by the Patriots, and the Patriots, who were not necessarily British subjects, but German and Dutch colonists – whose property was being burned by the Loyalists.
It’s about 5 pm when I get to Fort Stanwix after a 50-mile ride on this fifth day of our eight-day, journey following the Erie Canalway Trail. I bike into where the Parks & Trails NY people have set up their information desks, set up my tent, take advantage of the shower truck that follows us from campground to campground, and rush over to the Fort, which by special arrangement, is staying open until 9 pm for visits to accommodate our group of more than 600 riders (and where the Visitor Center will remain open all night for us to use the facilities and charge our phones).
As I get close, I hear music and come upon National Park Service Ranger Bill Sawyer, dressed in the uniform of the 3rd New York Regiment, playing a fife.
The location of this fort is significant. It sits along “Six Miles that Changed the Course of America,” reads the National Park Service brochure. “For thousands of years, the ancient trail that connects the Mohawk River and Wood Creek served as a vital link for people traveling between the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Ontario. Travelers used this well-worn route through Oneida Indian territory to carry trade goods and news, as well as diseases, to others far away. When Europeans arrived, they called this trail the Oneida Carrying Place and inaugurated a significant period in American history – a period when nations fought for control of not only the Oneida Carrying Place, but the Mohawk Valley, the homelands of the Six Nations Confederacy and the rich resources of North America as well. In this struggle Fort Stanwix would play a vital role.”
The British built the fort in 1758 with Oneida Indian permission to protect their commerce, but abandoned it to cut back on spending after the French & Indian War (taxes imposed by Britain to recoup their expenditures is what incited the Revolution).
The fort was never put to the test, because the French were defeated elsewhere. But though Fort Stanwix fell into decay, the site was still important for trade and relations with the Six Nations.
“As nothing can more effectually rivet or attach the Indians of the Six Nations to his Majesty’s Interest than a fair trade (which) I understand they have not at the German Flatts, You will…. see that Justice be done to what Indians may trade there, Weighing their Skins & be present while they are trading & suffer no Injustice…” (Sir William Johnson, to assistant George Croghan, Jan. 30, 1758)
It is here at Fort Stanwix, in 1768, after the Europeans had spread into “empty” spaces and fought with the Indians, that Sir William Johnson, Indian Supervisor, negotiated a treaty with the Six Nations of the Confederacy, , basically laying out the terms that everything east of the fort would be for Europeans, and everything west would be for Indians.
“Sir William defiantly grabbed hundreds of thousands of acres for land speculators by asserting Six Nation claims of custody of land south and west of New York.
“Over 3,000 American Indians from the Six Nations, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo and other dependent tribes attended the treaty negotiations,” the notes read. “Ignoring British Crown instructions, Sir William Johnson encouraged the Six Nations to draw a new boundary line favorable to their mutual interests. Rather than settling tensions, frontier strife between colonists and American Indians increased.”
“I can never look upon that (Proclamation of 1763) in any other light… than as .. temporary expedient to quiet the mind of the Indians. Any person… who neglects the opportunity of hunting out good lands…for his own, in order to keep others from settling them, will never regain it.– (Land speculator George Washington to surveyor William Crawford, 1767).
“Johnson was happy because he has land interests,” Sawyer says.
Meanwhile, British attempts to govern the growing colonies from afar and the associated costs led to strained relations. Hoping to defray the cost of colonial administration, the British parliament taxed many goods arriving in North America. But growing independence and identification as Americans caused many colonists to question British rule. Tensions steadily increased until American “Patriots” declared their freedom in 1776.
“For colonists living on the frontier, the issues included British imposed restrictions on trade, limits on settlement, and continuing violence with American Indians. As war approached, many colonists had to choose between remaining loyal to the King or joining the movement to American independence.” Each side considered themselves “patriots”. But those who stayed loyal to the Crown became known as “Loyalists,” while those who sought independence called themselves “Patriots.”
In 1775, Patriots and Loyalists began struggling for control of the New York frontier. The British invaded the Mohawk Valley in 1777.Critical to their plan was to capture an important east-west supply route and deprive American soldiers of food grown in the valley, and strengthen Six Nation and Loyalist Alliances.
British General John Burgoyne led an invasion of New York from the north and west. His army advanced from Montreal towards Albany. A second force commanded by General Barry St. Leger invaded the Mohawk Valley. Strategically, St. Leger aimed to control the Oneida Carrying Place, create a diversion to split Patriot forces, and reinforce Burgoyne. Politically, he wanted to rally support among American Indian allies and Loyalists.
Patriots, who had taken over Fort Stanwix in 1777 and renamed it for General Schuyler, was under the command of Col. Peter Gansvoort when it came under siege by the British. Some 2,000 troops set up a blockade, helped by Indians allied with the British, which went on for months.
General Nicholas Herkimer assembled an 800-man militia to come to the fort’s aid, but was betrayed (by Molly Brant, a Mohawk allied with the British) and ambushed along the way at Oriskany. This became one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, in which 600 were killed in a matter of hours. General Herkimer, himself, was fatally wounded, dying 10 days later.
But the Indians allied with the British, hearing that the Americans have plundered their encampments, left the fort to go to their aid. The British, fearing that more reenforcements were on the way, retreated, handing the Patriots the first victory (of sorts) of the War, boosting morale, and helping set the stage for the Patriots’ victory at Saratoga (under General Benedict Arnold).
The ramifications are enormous: with their victory at Saratoga, Americans won the critical support of France (long time enemy of Britain), forcing Britain to fight a world war.
In 1778, the British again attempted a formal invasion of New York State, planning to burn the Mohawk Valley fields of grain, that supplied the Continental Army.
The last battle here took place in 1780, when a work party outside the fort was ambushed by British allied Indians and Loyalists.
“It is frustrating for the troops to be here, the backwater of the Revolution,” Sawyer says. The men were upset because they were far from the fighting. But “Washington was vindicated in his decision to keep it fortified because the British refortified Fort Ontario. Washington wanted to block the British.”
Fort Stanwix: Living History
After this introduction in the Visitors Center, Park Ranger Bill Sawyer walks us into the Fort, where we are greeted by costumed interpreters dressed as American soldiers and a Loyalist prisoner.
(I’m not a military strategist, but just looking on the map in the Visitors Center, it seems like the British made fateful error in not attacking and taking over New York State from the North. They would have won the war, and Benedict Arnold, once he betrayed the Americans in his pique over not being promoted after his victory at Saratoga, could have told them how vulnerable the Americans would have been.)
This fort is a nearly complete reconstruction on the original foundation – the only thing original is a fireplace (that can be seen in one of the rooms). Over the decades, Rome was built up on top of the fort. Archeological excavations conducted in 1970-73 uncovered the site, but all the artifacts were removed, the site completely cleared, and the fort rebuilt with new materials. Melody Milewski, who I met at Gems Along the Mohawk in Herkimer, worked on the excavations and said “people cried as they took dump trunks full of original brick away.)
The fort held 800 soldiers (an extraordinary number considering the small space); families (of soldiers who couldn’t afford to maintain them in their homes) camped in the ditch outside the wall; women would try to get jobs within the fort. The men died of disease and winter cold.
By February 1778, their clothing was reduced to rags, they hardly had any bedding left or blankets. They would have been stationed here for anywhere from 4 months to 2 years. Morale was terrible.
We see the harsh living conditions. Artillery men, though, had somewhat better accommodations, because they were specialists. “They had to have knowledge of math and the use of measuring tools to calculate the trajectory of cannon and mortar. They had better pay and living conditions.
We visit the different rooms for the Junior officers, a family quarters, the officers’ lodging, the orderly room, the surgeon’s day room. The Commandant’s HQ had a fine room befitting his wealth and high station and had a private assigned.
Much of the information about the conditions come from a letter from Peter Gansevoort’s fiancé, Caty Van Schack, of July 1777.
Within the fort, there is an outstanding film by Northern Light Productions, Boston, that depicts life in the fort and how the soldiers suffered:
“In 1777, there was a three-month siege with 2000 British troops. Then, on Aug 22, the British fled. They expected the British to return. The enemy was invisible.”
“Victory at Saratoga lifted spirits. But by February, during the harsh winter cold, there wasn’t proper bedding. Their discomfort was punctuated by terror; 24 men were ambushed outside the fort.
There were 500 soldiers in the fort. The walls imprisoned them, supplies cut off. they were overcome by boredom and hunger. They wanted to go fight.
“Five men deserted, headed to Canada. Gansvoort sent out a band of Indians to recapture them. They were executed as an example to the rest.
“It was a forsaken place. Finally, they were sent to war.”
In the fort, a man portraying a captured Loyalist prisoner (he says he is allowed to roam freely around the fort), talks with one of our cyclists, Peter Reeve who is British but has been living in Maryland since 1981. Reeve doesn’t show any real kinship or partisanship with the Loyalist.
“The British people didn’t care to keep America,” Reeve tells me. “They didn’t want to spend the money fighting the Revolution. Most British generals were against the tax acts. General Howell supported the Americans’ grievance.”
(The interpreters used to respond only from that character’s time, like at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, but now they don’t.)
After the 1777 siege, life at Fort Stanwix was a mixture of boredom and fear. The monotony of drilling and guard duty filled a soldier’s day. yet, there was the ever-present threat of attacks on those who ventured from the security of the fort.
While major battles took place in the South, minor battles and guerrilla-style warfare characterized the fighting in New York. General Washington lamented that the crops destroyed were needed to feed his army surrounding New York City. these raids and counter-raids were waged by Patriots, Loyalists, American Indians, British and British-allied Germans, often against civilians, were among the most brutal of the war.
The fort served as an isolated outpost for another four years after the siege. The inaction drained morale and the constant shortage of food and munitions made the soldier’s life insufferable. Regular petitions for transfer and increasing desertions reflected the wretched conditions.
By 1779, British strategy changed and they invaded the other colonies. Though Britain won most of the battles, they failed to destroy the Patriot army. Outmaneuvered, the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, bringing an unofficial end to the war.
Following their 1781 defeat at Yorktown, the English saw little value in continuing large scale war in America (apparently, the British people did not think the colonies worth the expense). Two years later, war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris by the US, France and Britain. As the British Army withdrew, Loyalists migrated to Canada and elsewhere.
American Independence Voids Treaty with Indians
The 1783 Treaty of Paris officially ended the war – at least between the British and the colonists. However, no terms of peace were negotiated for the American Indians. In later years, American Indians negotiated their own treaties with the Patriots (who tossed out the Treaty of 1768.)
The focus at Fort Stanwix on Indian history is very clear from the first display that greets you as you enter the Visitors Center – of trappers trading with Indians.
American Indians’ history, NPS Ranger Sawyer says, “was long ignored. Now we interpret to include it.”
Indeed, Fort Stanwix offers one of the most interesting and informative presentations about American Indians outside of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.
The Revolutionary War split the Iroquois Confederacy (“Iroquois” was the French name for the Haudenosaunee, “People of the Longhouse”). Mohawks led by Joseph Brant adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British, and eventually most Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas joined them. But Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans, owing in large measure to the efforts of their Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland. The Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, as Oneidas clashed with Senecas at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. Iroquois suffering was compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan led an American army through their country, burning forty towns and destroying crops.
Both sides practiced a scorched earth strategy. “Raids by Loyalists and British-allied American Indians in 1778 destroyed Patriot settlements in Pennsylvanian and New York. In 1779, General Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to retaliate and destroy Six Nation towns, homes and food. Soldiers from Fort Stanwix tricked Patriot-allied Oneida warriors into raiding the British supply depot at Oswegatchie before leaving to destroy Onondaga towns. These raids and counter-raids continued until 1783.” Afterwards, General George Washington was given the name “Town Destroyer” by the Seneca people.
The Americans nullified the treaty of 1768 as soon as they won independence in 1783, claiming it was negotiated with the British and no longer applies to the new nation. The Americans voided the treaty with the Cayuga, Canandagua and Mohicans claiming that these nations sided with the British, and pushed them further west.
Governor George Clinton, who was not a supporter of the federal Constitution, decided to make his own treaty, in 1784. The new treaty, negotiated at Fort Stanwix with the Oneida who allied with the Patriots, effectively relegating three Oneida Indian nations to a measly 32 acres, in which they were surrounded on all sides by settlers. (The Oneida tribe had already split, with half moving to Wisconsin).
“Now, for first time in history, the Indian nation is relegated to a reservation, surrounded by Europeans (whites),” Sawyer tells us.
Fort Stanwix Exhibit Highlights Indian Life
This is one of two evenings on the eight-day Cycle the Erie bike tour where we are on our own for dinner, and I find a delightful trendy bistro a short walk away (they have provided us with a wonderful list of restaurants).
PTNY has also arranged for the National Park Service to keep the Visitors Center lobby and exhibit building open all night for us to use the facilities and we have access to the exhibit, so I return late in the evening to really spend time with the exhibit.
The exhibit, using superb videos, two excellent films, and interactive displays, tells the story if the Revolutionary War period through 3 characters – composites of real people – a Loyalist, a Patriot, and Bear Clan Mother, Wali. Their characters are supplemented with quotes from actual people.
In this part of New York State, the American Revolution was a civil war, and like the Civil War decades later, also pitted brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Loyalists burned crops of the Patriots, and Patriots confiscated property of Loyalists.
I also realize that, here, that the colonists were not necessarily British, but were also German and Dutch, who “owe the king no allegiance” but who were more likely to consider themselves Americans.
Meanwhile, the Indians saw their land being taken away, and the Six Indian Nations which had forged a peaceful confederacy, were forced to take sides and fight each other.
For centuries Haudenosaunee (“People of the Longhouse”) were farmers living in the Mohawk valley in well-established towns. By 1700s, Haudenosaunee diplomats, warriors and traders, ranged as far west as the Mississippi and south to the Carolinas.
The Indian nations were governed by a “Great Law of Peace” which produced the Haudenosaunee Confederacy – 5 nations to start (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and later Tuscarora).
“The people of the Haudenosaunee lived comfortably. Traditionally, towns consisted of longhouses, some over 150 feet long, but by the 1770s, most people lived in single family homes. Through trade, they acquired wealth- enough to have glass in their windows, a rarity in frontier homes. the people also adopted new European manufactured goods while maintaining traditional ways.”
“The Haudenosaunee learned about European colonists (calling the English “Axe Makers”) from other American Indians. When European traders and settlers came to this area, they brought hteir goods, beliefs and diseases. The English called the Haudenosaunee the “Five,” and later “Six Nations” to describe the distinct nations that inhabited the region, while the French referred to them as the “Iroquois.”
The cultural clash between Six Nations and Europeans was largely over a different world view over land: American Indians had a system of land custody quite different from the European system of land possession and ownership. Also, the Europeans had a sense of superiority, paternalism over the Indians.
“You say that you are our Father and I am your son… We say, We will not be like Father and Son, but like Brothers,” (Six Nations to the Dutch, 1692).
By 1770, the Haudenosaunee were living in single family homes in a town setting. They were wealthy. They had English names (along with their Indian names), like Joseph Brant who led the Mohawks, and his sister Molly (who married the British head of Indian affairs, Sir William Johnson), and some held commissions in the army.
One display case compares household items of Indian and colonist and they are the same.
The women did the farming and planting; clanship was inherited through mother; the clan mother set the tone for the clan meeting and provided direction for family life, and nominated the chiefs.
“Unlike European women in the 18th century, Haudenosaunee women had responsibility for holding property in common for the clan, and retaining custody of children even after families divided.” (Later, interactions with Oneida Indians inspired the early Women’s Rights activists, like Matilda Joslyn Gage).
The Six Nations had had a longstanding peace, which was upended by the Revolutionary War.
“The War divided our 6 nations – Oneida fought Mohawk and Seneca,” says “Wali” who is a character created from a composite of Native American women who would have lived at that time, to better convey their point of view. “White people say land belongs to them. We only wish to exist in peace and friendship and preserve our way of life.”
The Indians initially wanted to remain neutral. “This is a family quarrel between white people.”
“We are unwilling to join on either side of such contest, for we love you both – old England and new. Should the great King of England apply to us for our aid – we shall deny him- and should the Colonies apply – we shall refuse,” Oneida Nation to Governor Trumbull, 1775.
But the Indian nations were forced to take sides. An Indian voice says, “cousins against cousin, clans against clan, in a blink of an eye, our tree of life uprooted.”
While some of the nations sided with the British, “the Oneida were losing sovereignty under the British so joined with the Americans.”
It came to a head at the Battle of Oriskany, which for the first time, pitted one Indian nation against another. “The White Man’s quarrel was now our quarrel.”
“Centuries of Peace Upended in One Day: In the French and Indian War, the people of the Six Nations had joined different sides but never fought against each other – not since the Great Peace was established. Now while some continued to remain neutral, many Oneida and Tuscarora joined the Patriots, and many Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk sided with Britain. The Great Peace of the Six Nations was upended on August 6, 1777, when the people of the Six Nations fought one another at the Battle of Oriskany (the battle in which General Herkimer was fatally wounded).”
What strikes you about the exhibit is how personal it is – I loved the crisp biographies of the key players in this historic drama , with portraits.
Joseph Brant (Thayendanega) at Unadilla, NY, on June 27, 1777, refused General Nicholas Herkimer’s attempts to have the Mohawk stay neutral or join the Patriots and instead, allied with the British. He recruited warriors by accusing them of being cowards.
Molly Brant (Tekonwatonti) was Joseph’s sister and second wife of Sir William Johnson. she sent the intelligence report to alert Loyalist forces surrounding Fort Stanwix that the Tryon County Militia (General Herkimer’s group) was advancing to relieve the siege. This set the stage for the brutal Battle of Oriskany. Forced from her Canajoharie home, Molly became important during the Canadian settlement period.
Sir William Johnson was superintendent of the Northern Department of Indian Affairs and the King’s representative among American Indians. “His capable leadership maintained peace between American Indians and settlers in the Mohawk Valley until his death in 1774.”
Nicolas Herkimer, General of Tryon County Militia was an influential person in the Mohawk Valley. On August 6, 1777, “he was provoked by junior officers to lead his troops into an ambush at the Battle of Oriskany.” Herkimer died 10 days later of wounds he received at the battle.
War Chief Skenendon (Oskanondonha) was a member of the Wolf clan. His influence with the Oneida nation was a factor in the clan joining the Patriots. He lived to be 110 years old, dying in 1816.
Hanyerry (Tehawengaragwen) was a warrior of the Wolf Clan in the village of Oriska. Even though shot through the right wrist at the Battle of Oriskany, he continued to fight while his wife, Tyonajanegen, loaded his gun. He was awarded a commission in June 1779 as captain in the Continental Army.
Major General Benedict Arnold led Continental troops and Tryon County Militia who ended the siege of Fort Stanwix. He played a significant role in the Patriots’ victory at Saratoga in 1777. Arnold turned traitor and joined the British Army in 1780.
Native New Yorker Colonel Peter Gansevoort, Jr. commanded at Fort Stanwix during the siege. He returned to Fort Stanwix for the 1788 treaty negotiations as a state representative.
Major General John Sullivan led a campaign with Brigadier General James Clinton in 1779 against British-allied American Indians and Loyalists, as well as people who were neutral, in Pennsylvania and New York. People fled to British held Fort Niagara, away from the scorched-earth tactics that destroyed towns, homes and food. This resulted in people freezing and starving to death during the winter of 1779-1780.
Fire destroyed Fort Stanwix in May, 1781. Arson was suspected but never proven. After the fire, soldiers removed all the reusable iron they could find and then abandoned the site. Ten years later, the future town of Rome grew around, then over, the remnant of the fort.
The reconstruction of Fort Stanwix comes alive through the personal stories recounted inside the fort. You get to experience the American Revolution and the Siege of Fort Stanwix through the eyes of soldiers and their families, American Indians and traders. This is accomplished through the realistic recreations (especially of the fort), the costumed interpreters, outstanding markers, artifacts, the art, portraits and graphics, and superb videos. They create characters who are composites of actual people, and you hear their voices in a context.
(Fort Stanwix National Monument, 102 East Park Street, Rome, NY 13440, 315-338-7730, www.nps.gov/fost )
The 18th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 10-17, 2016. In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info is at the ptny.org site, including suggested lodgings. For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.
Next:Visit to Remington Arms Plant
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