From Portage to Park
Known as the Oneida Carrying Place (fig. 3), the portage was only a narrow trail across a low ridge in what is now central New York. In the 250 years after white men first used the portage, it became a funnel for fur trade, military activity and, eventually, settlement. Its strategic importance led finally to the construction of Fort Stanwix. The ridge lay between two major watershedsthe Mohawk River flowing eastward to the Hudson River and the Atlantic, and Wood Creek flowing westward to the Great Lakes by way of Oneida Lake and the Oswego River. During the spring thaws, when both watersheds were full, the distance across the portage was only 1 mile, while in the fall, after a drought, a man might have to walk 5 miles to find water deep enough to launch a bateau (O'Callaghan, 1854, p. 726). The importance of this portage can only be realized when one understands how poor the roads and trails were in colonial days. Most were mere ruts worn in the soil by travelers and were extremely difficult to negotiate on horseback, let alone by wagon. Rivers were the principal arteries of transportation and bateaus were developed to hold several tons of cargo. They could be propelled by three men paddling or, if the wind was right, with a sail. The Oneida Carry offered the second shortest route from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. The St. Lawrence River, under French control until 1760, was the shortest.
Indians and Trade
The Iroquois Confederation consisted of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora tribes that dominated the central New York area. French traders and missionaries from the north reached the Great Lakes by way of Canada as early as the 1640's, trading with the Indians for valuable pelts, particularly beaver. To maintain their trade, the Iroquois pushed westward after their own supply of furs was exhausted (Graymont, 1972, p. 24). Thus, the Iroquois, economic competitors of the French, allied themselves first with the Dutch and, after 1664, with the English.
The Dutch attempted to control trade by establishing state sanctioned posts such as Fort Orange at Albany, New York, and waiting for the Indians to come to them rather than sending independent traders among the Indians, as the French did. Although this led to fewer abuses to the Indians, the profit margin was much less. Finally, the Dutch were forced to modify their system to remain in competition, but by the time they became organized the English had taken control of the Dutch colony.
From the Indian point of view, English trade was a definite improvement. The French traders constantly complained that the English were paying higher prices for furs, thus drawing more Indians to them because they could produce and distribute trade goods at less cost than the French (Graymont, 1972, p. 26). For a considerable time, the Iroquois were divided over whether to remain neutral or to support the English or French in their recurring wars. The appointment of Sir William Johnson as New York's commissioner to the Indians in 1746 did much to strengthen Iroquois-English ties (Buffington, 1933, p. 228) particularly among the Mohawks. Johnson counteracted the hostility among the Iroquois caused by English encroachments on their land. In 1756 he was made Superintendent of Indian Affairs by the Crown.
During this time the Carrying Place was a sort of "no man's land," or frontier between the English and French.
French and Indian War
In 1755, during the French and Indian War, Major General William Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts, led an expedition to the Great Lakes, pausing at the Oneida Carry. Here he took command of the English forces in North America after learning of the death of General Braddock (Luzader, 1969, pp. 4-5). He established a permanent post at Oswego, on Lake Ontario, and fortified the Carry with Fort Williams at the eastern end, built to hold 150 men and a stockade on Wood Creek to house 30 men and a storehouse.
This weaker post was named Fort Bull and became the target of a French and Indian raid in March, 1756. The garrison was overwhelmed when the stockade was broken through. In the midst of the battle, the explosion of the powder magazine hurled bodies, supplies and palisade logs over the countryside (Hagerty, 1971, pp. 57-60). The French completed the destruction of supplies waiting to be loaded into bateaus on the bank of Wood Creek and retired to Canada before the garrison at Fort Williams could pursue them.
Almost immediately the English began refortifying the Carry. Fort Bull was replaced by Fort Wood Creek, Fort Newport was added to store supplies and to protect a dam, and the pentagonal Fort Cravens was begun to replace Fort Williams (Luzader, 1969, p. 10). In the midst of this effort the English made a rapid succession of changes in the military leadership, all but paralyzing the war effort. General Daniel Webb took command at the Carry in August where he learned the garrison at Oswego had surrendered to the French. He ordered all the forts on the Oneida Carry destroyed and withdrew his troops back down the Mohawk Valley (Luzader, 1969, p. 14).
Except for a raid in the upper Mohawk Valley, the French failed to follow up their advantage and establish a permanent post at the Carry. In 1758, the British decided to reoccupy the Carry and build a larger fort which would be capable of withstanding the type of raid made on Fort Bull. Permission to rebuild was given by the Oneida Indians on the condition that the fort be razed at the end of the war and that trade would be plentiful (Luzader, 1969, p. 19).
An adjunct to the building of the fort was Lt. Col. John Bradstreet's expedition against Fort Frontenac that destroyed that post and cut the French supply lines to the western Great Lakes. Work on Fort Stanwix began in the fall of that year (fig. 4). It was named for Brigadier General John Stanwix, who commanded the troops on the Carry. Up to 2,750 troops worked on the fort, digging the ditch and hewing the logs for the walls, but scurvy and exposure took a heavy toll of the work force and the number of available troops was often far less. While Bradstreet was gone, Stanwix had approximately 400 men fit for duty (Luzader, 1969, p. 30). By winter, the fort was sufficiently complete to house 400 men of Fraser's Highlanders (the 71st Regt. of Foot). A company of rangers, men hardened to frontier warfare and capable of fighting Indian-fashion, occupied huts outside the fort (Luzader, 1969, p. 42). The fort contained five casemates, a cluster of officers' huts on the parade ground and a powder magazine in the southeast bastion. Entrance to the fort was over a causeway. A row of pickets was placed in the ditch. The fort was essentially completed the following summer, but taking into account the haste with which it was constructed, the green wood used, and the skill (or lack thereof) of the colonial troops who erected it, it was in constant need of repairs. This was accelerated by the diminishing size of the garrison as the war zone moved further west. By 1761, there were only 50 men stationed at the fort (Luzader, 1969, p. 47).
In 1763, the Pontiac conspiracy inflamed the frontier, resulting in the destruction of settlements and forts (Peckham, 1961). Pontiac, an Ottawa Indian, persuaded the tribes in the area of the Great Lakes to the Ohio River to revolt and drive the British from their forts. Although several forts fell, Indian losses were heavy and expected French aid never materialized. Fort Stanwix was hastily rebuilt as a defensive measure when it was feared that the Iroquois confederacy would join Pontiac (fig. 5). The cluster of officers' huts was replaced by three barracks around the parade ground and a bridge replaced the causeway. A redout was raised before the sally port and connected with a covered communication. The movement collapsed in September of 1763 and within two years Fort Stanwix had again become inactive and fallen into disrepair.
Missionaries and Settlers
Next to traders and military men, missionaries probably had the greatest influence on the Indians. Their first contacts were with French Jesuits and later with English and Colonial protestants. In 1764, Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian missionary from Connecticut, settled among the Senecas and two years later moved to the Oneidas (Graymont, 1972, p. 34). He exerted a strong influence on the Indians and may be credited with causing the Oneidas and Tuscaroras to side with the Americans in the American Revolution. By contrast, the Anglican missionary, John Stuart, exerted his energies to keep the Mohawks loyal to the Crown.
In 1763, King George III had proclaimed the ridgeline of the Alleghenies as a boundary between Indians and Europeans to permit the development of an imperial policy to deal with frontier problems, i.e., land speculation, Indian relations, and the fur trade. But the colonists continued to push westward despite English efforts to enforce the proclamation. In October 1768, Sir William Johnson called all the leaders of the Iroquois to a grand council at Fort Stanwix to establish the line between the colonies and the Indians. The Treaty of 1768, or the Boundary Line Treaty, was an effort to stem the tide. The boundary set at the treaty ran from Fort Stanwix in a southwesterly direction to the mouth of the Tennessee River in what is now western Kentucky (fig. 6).
A garrison was stationed at Fort Stanwix at least until 1767. After that date a few men remained to forward mail and supplies to the western forts, but the fort ceased its military function. In 1774, the barracks burned to the ground and nothing remained but a room occupied by a trader (Duncan, 1969).
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, five families resided in the vicinity of Fort Stanwix (Duncan, 1969). John Roof had settled ca. 1760 under the protection of the fort. His home served as a stopping place for travelers. The beginning of hostilities forced these settlers to move down the Mohawk Valley to the relative security of the permanent settlements.
In the summer of 1776, the Americans occupied the Carry and began rebuilding Fort Stanwix with troops from New Jersey and New York. These were relieved by Connecticut troops over the winter. The Third New York Regiment arrived in the spring and continued the rebuilding. Hampering their efforts were a lack of skilled craftsmen and an incompetent French engineer. (W. Willett, 1831, p. 45).
The residents of the Mohawk Valley reflected the general attitude of the colonies in the break with Great Britain: some favored a break, others maintained loyalty to the Crown, but most just wanted to be left alone. Pressures from the rebels, who were not above using the present hostilities to settle old scores, drove many of the loyalists (Tories) to Canada. A few professed support for the rebellion and kept their sympathies secret. These secret Tories were one of the great British illusions until the end of the Revolution. Several campaigns were begun under the misapprehension that Tories would flock to the Crown's colors. The Burgoyne Campaign of 1777 was no exception. How this illusion was maintained remains a mystery; the British constantly suffered reverses from too much reliance on this support. It must be noted that those Tories who did unite with the British troops generally gave a good account of themselves in battle when they had good leadership. Furthermore, their leaders were constantly promoting the idea that the hinterlands were filled with men waiting to join the Crown. Perhaps the British generals, in an unfamiliar land, were too willing to believe their allies.
The Burgoyne plan (Luzader, 1969, Appendix XI), while bold in concept, was not really new. General Carleton had attempted a similar move the previous year but it was aborted by lateness of the season and Benedict Arnold's naval actions on Lake Champlain. The French had used the same route in the French and Indian War.
Burgoyne's plan for 1777 provided for the bringing of an army from Canada to Albany, where it would come upon Gen. Sir William Howe's command, open communications between New York City and Montreal, and permit Howe to "act to the southward." Howe was expected to cooperate by taking unspecified action on the Hudson, but he was not expected to effect a personal junction with Burgoyne at Albany. Howe was authorized to proceed against Philadelphia in such a manner as to permit "cooperation." He fulfilled the letter of that requirement by ordering the commander at New York, Sir Henry Clinton, to act on the lower Hudson. Clinton sent Vaughan and Wallace upstream, whereupon they burned Esopus (Kingston) and got as far as Livingston Manor, but were too late to help take the pressure off Burgoyne in time to save him (Luzader, personal communication). A third army would come from Canada by way of the Mohawk Valley to create a diversion, and thereby weaken the American forces opposing the main army and gather Tory sympathizers for the King's forces.
The western army, under the command of Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger (a brevet general for the campaign), consisted of 100 men each from the 8th and 34th Regiments of Foot, a company of Hanau Chasseurs (German light infantry), Sir John Johnson's Regiment (Royal Yorkers, or Johnson's Greens), a company of Butler's Rangers, 40 artillerymen, Canadian militia and Indians (Luzader, 1969, p. 96). St. Leger had an effective force of about 700-800 whites and 800-1,000 Indians. By the end of July, Fort Stanwix was garrisoned with 450 men from the 3rd New York Regiment and 150 men of the 9th Massachusetts Regiment (Luzader, 1969, p. 106).
On July 3, a work detail cutting sod for the fort walls was ambushed by a raiding party that killed four men and took five prisoners (Graymont, 1972, p. 118. From these prisoners St. Leger learned that Fort Stanwix was stronger than he anticipated but he decided to continue forward.
The siege of Fort Stanwix officially began on Sunday, August 3, when Lt. Bird invested the fort with a small party of English troops and Indians (Luzader, 1969, p. 110). He was too late to prevent 100 more men from the 9th Massachusetts Regiment and four bateaus of supplies from entering the fort at the last minute, but did cut off the guard left behind at the river with the boats. This stroke of good fortune greatly aided the American defense of the fort and brought the numbers of the defenders nearly to a par with the British troops, excluding their Indian allies.
At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, St. Leger sent a captain under a flag of truce to demand the fort's surrender (Luzader, 1969, p. 118). The Americans refused. On this date, the garrison first raised their flag before the enemy. The officers had made the flag themselves because Congress had never supplied one for the fort. Two written references to the flag call it a "Continental Flagg" (Reid, 1905, pp. 95-96), (W. Willett, 1831, p. 54) and note that it was made from red, white and blue material, the latter a blue cloak owned by Captain Swartwout (Gansevoort-Lansing Papers). The material was cut into stripes but there was no mention of stars. This fact is important because a local tradition, traceable back to 1851, states that this flag was "the first stars and stripes to fly in the face of the enemy." The evidence, unfortunately, is not conclusive. There are four purportedly contemporary sketches of the flag of Fort Stanwix engraved on powder horns. Three of these show a Grand Union flag, which was first introduced at Boston in 1775, and the other appears to have stars and stripes, although the pattern of the stars is not discernable. On June 14, 1777, Congress passed a resolution adopting the stars and stripes but did not specify how the stars were to be arranged. The news did not reach Albany, New York, until early August (Thatcher, 1862, p. 87) which would have been too late for the news to have reached Fort Stanwix. So far as is known, none of the garrison claimed to have flown a stars and stripes flag, although several later went into politics.
During the night of August 4th, the Americans sent out parties to bring in hay for cattle penned in the ditch and to burn a house and barn in their field of fire (Luzader, 1969, pp. 121-22).
It took St. Leger until August 7th to clear the obstructions from Wood Creek, build a road, and bring up his artillery and stores (Luzader, 1969, p. 132). During this time, events were shaping up for one of the major engagements of the Revolution. Even before the beginning of the siege, word of the British advance raced down the Mohawk Valley. By August 4th, General Nicholas Herkimer mustered about 800 militiamen at Fort Dayton, 50 miles to the east, and set out for Fort Stanwix (Luzader, 1969, p. 122). The night of August 5th he camped at the Indian Village of Oriska and sent scouts ahead to alert the fort that he was coming. The next morning his army set out for Fort Stanwix without waiting for word that the garrison had received the message. In a ravine 6 miles from the fort, the American column was ambushed by 400 British and Indian troops. The American rear guard of 200 men managed to escape while the remainder took any available cover they could find, firing at point-blank range. After 45 minutes, a cloudburst enabled the wounded Herkimer to regroup his forces to more defensible positions. The battle was at times a hand-to-hand combat, and lasted for 8 hours. Finally, the British, having lost 72 of their men, left the field (Graymont, 1972, pp. 131-138). The Americans, with at least 150 casualties, were in no condition to follow and fell back to Fort Dayton (Luzader, 1969, p. 125).
Meanwhile, the three messengers from Herkimer reached Fort Stanwix. Guns were fired by the fort's garrison to let General Herkimer know that the messengers arrived safely. A detachment of 250 Massachusetts and New York troops, with a 3-pound cannon, were dispatched to meet him. They did not know of the battle raging only a few miles away when they came upon two deserted British camps. Instead of proceeding to Oriskany they began to loot the camps, carrying off approximately 50 brass kettles, 100 blankets, muskets, tomahawks, spears, ammunition, clothing, deer skins, other Indian goods and papers of St. Leger (M. Willett, 1777). They also recovered an intercepted bundle of letters for the garrison.
During their return to the fort, the party was ambushed by a British detachment, but were able to return to the fort without losing a man. While at the camps, Willett learned of the battle at Oriskany from prisoners and did not continue on to meet Herkimer (Luzader, 1969, p. 129). The prisoners may have led him to believe that Herkimer had been defeated and he was under orders to meet Herkimer, not to go hunting for him. In any event, the raiding party was organized too late to influence the outcome of the battle at Oriskany since it did not leave the fort until after the heavy rain (Luzader, 1969, p. 130).
About 5 p.m. on August 8th, Colonel Butler and two other officers came into the fort under a flag of truce (Luzader, 1969, p. 132). They were blindfolded and led into a closed room at headquarters so they could not see the fort's defenses. They threatened that their Indian allies would devastate the Mohawk Valley and its inhabitants if the garrison did not surrender Lt. Col. Willett noted that the British would be held responsible for the actions of their allies, and that the garrison had no intention of surrendering (W. Willett, 1831, pp. 57-58). If Willett's account was accurate, it indicated that the Indians were already discouraged with the way the campaign was going and their recent losses of men and equipment. That night, Marinus Willett and Lt. Levi Stockwell slipped out of the fort and made their way down the Mohawk Valley to organize another relief expedition.
The next day St. Leger repeated his demands in writing. Colonel Gansevoort's reply was a classic for clarity and brevity:
During the next two weeks the combatants engaged in intermittent shelling and sniping. Finding cannon ineffective against the fort, the British began a siege trench toward the northwest bastion, either to bring their cannon closer, or to dig a mine under the bastion.
Unaware of Herkimer's actions, General Schuyler ordered Brig. General Ebenezer Learned's brigade of Massachusetts troops up the Mohawk Valley to relieve Fort Stanwix on August 6th. On August 13th, Major General Benedict Arnold was sent to take command of the brigade and any militia that could be raised for the relief expedition. By August 20th, the troops began assembling at Fort Dayton (Luzader, 1969, pp. 146-151).
By a stroke of fortune, a group of Tories was apprehended at German Flatts. Among those captured was a mentally retarded man, Hon Yoost Schuyler, his brother and mother (Luzader, 1969, p. 156). The Indians believed that Hon Yoost could commune with the spirits. Holding the brother and mother as hostages, Arnold sent him and a friendly Oneida Indian to St. Leger's camps to spread the rumor that Arnold was coming with an army larger than he actually had. The plan was to scare the Indians into deserting St. Leger thereby giving Arnold's army superiority. The plan worked too well; before Arnold's army could reach Fort Stanwix, the Indians had deserted, forcing St. Leger to lift the siege and retreat to Canada. The retreat was nearly a rout. Much equipment, including artillery, was abandoned.
This ended the military actions against Fort Stanwix. Two months later, surrounded and cut off, General Burgoyne surrendered his forces at Saratoga. General Clinton had been left at New York City by General Howe. After being reinforced, he attempted to aid Burgoyne but was too late to extricate him. The surrender at Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolution inasmuch as it led to the formal French alliance.
During this period, Fort Stanwix was essentially rebuilt along the lines of the British occupation (fig. 7). There were five casemates, three barracks around the parade ground (one used as headquarters) and a guard house and storehouse flanking the gate on the parade ground. The major difference was the moving of the line of pickets from the ditch to the covered way (W. Willett, 1831, p. 44). The northwest and southwest bombproofs were also erected in 1777 (Reid, 1905, p. 99), (W. Willett, 1831, p. 49).
Arnold's troops and the 9th Massachusetts returned to take part in the battles at Saratoga while the 3rd New York remained at Fort Stanwix until 1779 when they were relieved by the 1st New York which, in turn, was replaced by the 4th New York (later the 2d New York after a reorganization of the New York line) in 1780.
Fort Stanwix played a minor role in the Sullivan expedition in 1779. This campaign destroyed Indian settlements in western New York, but failed to stop Indian raids which by this time originated primarily in Canada.
Although Fort Stanwix was garrisoned until 1781, the Revolution swirled about it without much effect. The Tories and Indians bypassed it, and attacked the settlements of the Mohawk Valley. The garrison was isolated and constantly short of supplies. On May 13, 1781, the barracks caught fire and Fort Stanwix burned to the ground. The circumstances of the fire were very unusual; arson was suspected but never proven. Within a few days, the garrison was ordered to evacuate the fort and take everything, even scrap iron, with them (Lauber, 1932, p. 581).
In the fall of 1783, a blockhouse was erected near the site of Fort Stanwix, but there is no evidence that it was ever garrisoned.
Although the Treaty of Paris (1783) ostensibly ended the American Revolution, the British abandoned their Indian allies and so a separate peace had to be made. Accordingly, commissioners of the Congress, with representatives from Pennsylvania, met with the Iroquois in October 1784, to set the terms for peace (Graymont, 1972, p. 273). The State of New York tried to negotiate a separate treaty to prevent the Congressional delegation from taking land in Congress' name. Important visitors to the meetings included the Marquis de LaFayette and James Madison.
Not only were the Iroquois divided among themselves as a result of the war, but they were shocked to learn that the British had made no provision for them in the Treaty of Paris. In the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1784, the Iroquois Confederacy (with the exception of the Oneidas and Tuscaroras who had generally supported the Americans) was forced to cede a large part of its territory to the Congress, and another parcel was bought by Pennsylvania for $5,000 (Graymont, 1972, p. 283). Much of the land obtained from the Indians was subdivided for sale to pay Revolutionary War debts or granted to soldiers in lieu of back pay. The site of Fort Stanwix, included in the Expense Grant to pay for the costs of this program, was purchased by Dominick Lynch, a wealthy land speculator from Long Island (Waite, 1972, p. 38).
By 1796, there were already several settlers in the area, including soldiers who had served at Fort Stanwix. In that year, the Western Inland Lock and Navigation Company began a canal across Oneida Carry to replace the portage. In 1817 the Erie Canal was begun at Rome.
About 1800, Lynch built a house over the ditch just off the southeast bastion. His son occupied it until it burned in 1825. After a period of unsuccessful attempts to lease the land, Lynch began to sell off lots. Buildings were constructed over the site from 1828 to 1850. Remaining portions of the earthen walls were scraped into the ditch to level the area, and the remains of a 1794 blockhouse were razed. The houses were large and surrounded by big yards. The expense of maintaining these dwellings was great and by 1925 most had been sold to organizations such as the American Legion and Rome Club (Waite, 1972, p. 40).
In 1927, a small plot of land was bought by the State of New York to commemorate the Fort, and in 1935 Congress declared the site a National Monument subject to the land becoming Federal property (49 Stat. 665). This was made possible by the inclusion of the site in the Urban Renewal District of the City of Rome which purchased the land and donated it in 1973 to the Federal Government for the reconstruction of the fort.
Last Updated: 02-Dec-2008