By Nancy and Edward Spannaus

FORT PLAIN, NEW YORK, June 12, 2022—Before there could be an American System of Economics, there had to be an American Revolution, right? So, we decided to avail ourselves of an opportunity to explore the part of the Revolutionary War that occurred June 10-12 in upstate New York, specifically the Mohawk Valley. The occasion was an American Revolution conference held annually by the Fort Plain Museum, a great bookstore and history education hub in this area.

At the site of the Oriskany battlefield. (Nancy Spannaus)

The day before the conference itself, the Museum sponsored a guided bus tour through the Valley, which centered around the famous Battle of Oriskany in 1777. The backdrop was the popular 1939 movie Drums Along the Mohawk, which cannot often be relied upon for historical accuracy but provides a flavor of the several-year-long civil war in the area. The movie was adapted from the well-researched 1936 historical novel of the same name.[1] The tour visited the Palatine Church, Fort Herkimer and the Herkimer house, Oriskany, the Fort Dayton site, and Fort Stanwix. Overall, the tour proved to be a highly educational experience, some highlights of which we want to share with you.

The Strategic Significance

Most important is the strategic significance of the 1777 resistance to the British onslaught in the Mohawk Valley.

British strategy against the American revolutionaries in 1777 was aimed at splitting New England off from the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies by taking over upstate New York. Three British prongs were supposed to converge near the Albany area: one from the South led by General Howe; one from the North led by General Burgoyne; and the third from the West (originating in Canada) led by General Barry St. Leger. With the aid of British loyalists and allied Indian tribes, the invaders were confident of victory.

Today’s replica of Fort Stanwix (later Fort Schuyler)

The first prong to break off was General Howe, who decided to go South toward Philadelphia instead of north toward Albany. And St. Leger was running into problems, specifically the garrison at Fort Stanwix, also known as Fort Schuyler after Gen. Philip Schuyler (the future father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton). Fort Stanwix was under the command of General Peter Gansevoort and manned by Continental troops from Massachusetts and New York. Whereas St. Leger had expected a virtually abandoned outpost, he faced a substantial force.

So, on August 2 he laid siege, confident that he would starve the rebels out. To hasten the process along, the British Indian Department, and its agent the Mohawk warrior Joseph Brant, decided to raise an additional force of Indians and Loyalists to push through to victory. Fortunately, the Tryon County militia, led by General Nicolas Herkimer, got the message, and moved to muster a force of approximately 800 men to march 40 miles to lift the siege.

It was this force, augmented by 60 Oneida warriors, which was ambushed by Brant’s party of Mohawks, Senecas, and Loyalists (virtually no British regulars) on August 6. What ensued was not so much a fight as a slaughter, as the British-allied Indians proceeded to kill, wound, or capture more than half of the American and Oneida fighters. This event is often characterized as the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War.

Two Oneida warriors, allied with the Revolutionaries at the Battle of Oriskany.

The mortally wounded Gen. Herkimer, who continued to organize and direct his troops throughout the event, did succeed in sending off a scout to Fort Stanwix to seek reinforcements. While they did not arrive to aid his forces, troops from the Fort launched a sortie to destroy the Indian camp (with the loot the British had plied them with). When the Indians discovered this fact, and rumors spread of reinforcements led by Gen. Benedict Arnold being on their way to the Fort, Brant’s forces began to melt away. Those same considerations also influenced St. Leger to decide on August 22 to lift his siege and repair back to Canada.

Thus came to an end another prong of Burgoyne’s plan to converge around Albany to cut off New England from the colonies to the south. Operating on his own, the British General met defeat at the second Battle of Saratoga on October 17—a defeat which served as the final push to get the French government to formally commit its support for the American insurgents.

Thus, as tour guide Glenn Williams concluded, while the Battle of Oriskany represented a tactical defeat, it resulted in a major strategic gain for the American cause. French support was vital for eventual American success.

The Character of the War

What was also striking throughout this tour was the clear evidence that in this part of the colonies, the Revolutionary War was actually a civil war, both within the white population and between various Indian tribes.

A painting of the British-allied Mohawk Joseph Brant, done by George Romney in 1776.

The Battle of Oriskany epitomized this reality. There, we see not only Loyalist colonial troops (however few) arrayed against Patriot militia forces, but also for the first time, bloody conflict between members of the legendary Six Nations or Iroquois Confederation. On the Indian side, Seneca and Mohawk warriors, recruited by the British, were arrayed against a contingent primarily of Oneida fighters who had volunteered to join with the Americans. This intra-Indian conflict was to have fateful consequences for the future far beyond New York state.

A panel at the subsequent Conference on the American Revolution in the Mohawk Valley, held June 10-12 at Johnstown, elaborated on the further implications of the warfare in the Valley over the summer and fall of 1777 and into 1778. A follow-up post will summarize the course of that conference.

[1] An interesting sidelight concerning the Henry Fonda, who co-starred in the film with Claudette Colbert. Henry Fonda traces his ancestry back to his 3rd great-grandfather, Captain Adam Fonda, who fought at Oriskany, and his 4th great-grandfather, Douw Fonda, who at age 80 was scalped and died in the Mohawk Valley raids of 1780.  Near Johnstown (the site of our conference), one encounters the Village of Fonda and a number of Fonda historic markers.


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