Small fort, big fights

A few nights ago, reading David Bornstein’s “How to Change the World” (about social entrepreneurs), this line popped out at me, referring to breakthroughs in the last 50 years that have redefined our lives. “The biggest change is simply that people live longer and have far more freedom to think about things other than staying alive.”

Fort Stanwix National Monument

Fort Stanwix National Monument, Rome, NY

And for that I’m so thankful; after 40 years of being a responsible adult, I have the freedom to do nothing more than be curious for a year. I have the freedom to think about things that interest me. I have the freedom to stop on the spur of the moment at Fort Stanwix in Rome, NY, instead of just driving on by.

I love reading Revolutionary War history, so driving by a fort around here without stopping is hard for me to do. This area is rich with stories that go back well before our war for freedom and independence. The region was peopled by the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), whose tradition tells of a time when violence between the region’s nations ended with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cauyga, Seneca, and Tuscarora formed what the British later called the Six Nations. By the 1700s their Great Law of Peace was well established and Haudenosaunee were farmers and roaming traders, diplomats and warriors.

From the time of the onslaught of the settlers, the “Axe Makers” some Native Americans called them, relations were uneasy; like all conflicts, communications were fraught with misunderstanding, intentional or not. “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,” the Six Nations wrote to the Dutch in 1692.

Fort Stanwix National Monument

The 6 pound field guns at Fort Stanwix

Fort Stanwix, built by the Brits in 1758 with the Oneida’s blessing, interested me for the role it played in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. The British built it here to control a strategic trade route, the Oneida Carrying Place, to counteract the French presence on Lake Ontario.

Fort Stanwix National Monument

King George III’s 1763 colonial borders

The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian war. But it didn’t resolve tensions with Native Americans. In that year, King George III tried to reorganize the colonies by proclaiming a boundary that set aside all land from the Allegheny Ridge to the Mississippi as an ‘Indian Reserve’. (The king’s Proclamation of 1863 did set an important precedent—it recognized the rights of indigenous people to the lands they occupied. It’s been called the Native Americans’ ‘Bill of Rights’.) But this boundary, which gave land already speculated by colonists back to the Indians, just created more tension on the frontier. In 1768, Sir William Johnson and leaders of American Indian nations met at Fort Stanwix to relocate the boundary again. Sir William thought that settled it, but frontier friction only increased.

Of course, by forbidding colonists to trespass on native lands, the Brits were hoping to avoid later conflicts like the vicious Pontiac’s Rebellion (a war by a loose confederacy of Indian tribes, mostly from Great Lakes and midwest regions, who fought to win freedom to continue their way of life.)

But one of the great unintended consequences of the King’s Proclamation of 1863 is that it pissed off colony land speculators like George Washington, because it denied them the western lands that were ‘won’ in the French and Indian War. In 1767, Washington wrote, “I can never look upon that [Proclamation of 1763] in any other light… than as a 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.”

This resentment smoldered and contributed to the looming American Revolution, which as we all know—because we learned from history books that were written by the victors—gave us our freedom from tyranny.

Fort Stanwix National Monument

The Six Nations territories

In that conflict, the Six Nations were caught in the middle; both sides tried to get the Indians to fight with them. Since the Great Peace was established the people of the Six Nations had never fought each other. Now some chose to remain neutral, some Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the patriots, while some Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk allied with Britain. The Great Peace of the Six Nations ended in August, 1777, when they fought each other at the Battle of Oriskany, just up the road from Fort Stanwix.

But regardless of whether they fought with us or with the British, the Six Nations all lost their freedom and much more when American Revolution was over. The 1783 agreement between us and the British, the (second) Treaty of Paris, never mentioned American Indians; the US and the Six Nations had to negotiate peace separately. In 1784, assuming the ‘rights of conquest,’ the US forced harsh terms on the Indians in a treaty negotiated at Fort Stanwix. One reserve was established for the Six Nations, and white settlers quickly moved onto ceded lands.

Fort Stanwix National Monument

Oneida Chief Good Pater (Agorondajats)

You know the continuing story: there was no government force (and little will) to keep settlers out of lands set aside for Indians, even as several more lopsided treaties supposedly settled borders. About a 1788 treaty negotiated with the state of New York at Fort Stanwix, Oneida Chief Good Pater (Agorondajats) later said, “The Governor of New York said to us: ‘you have now leased to me all your territory, exclusive of the reservation, as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers run.’ He did not say ‘I buy your country,’ Nor did we say ‘we sell it to you.’ ”

The US government, recognizing that the Oneida, Tuscarora, and Stockbridge Nations were allies during the Revolutionary War, did award them compensation for personal property destroyed during the war in the Veterans Treaty of 1794. But the treaty didn’t restore Indian land, which the US had already sold to pay war debts.

I know, it’s an embarrassing litany. So what’s new? One small thing is that we’re at last trying to honestly tell both sides of the story. I can share this with you because of the hard work by the National Park Service at the Fort Stanwix National Monument, and many other parks, to do just that. It was here that I read of a conversation between descendants of two Revolutionary War fighters of the same side but different colors. Marilyn John, an Oneida Bear Clan Mother, related talking with a woman in the Daughters of the American Revolution. “[She] told me an Oneida had hidden one of her ancestors behind a fallen tree during the battle, saving his life. ‘I want to thank you for that,’ she said. That living bond is the legacy of what happened here so many generations ago.”

All images were shot at Fort Stanwix National Monument and the Fort Stanwix Visitors Center, Rome, NY.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *