Cudmore: Unraveling confusion over Mohawk Valley forts

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Wayne Lenig, who now lives in Fort Johnson, has been studying the Revolutionary War history of the Mohawk Valley since his youth. 

He did archaeological work at the site of Fort Plain in 1961 when he was fifteen under supervision of his father Donald Lenig, a man he calls a “serious amateur” archaeologist from St. Johnsville.

In his new book, “Fort Plain, Fort Plank and Fort Rensselaer: The Revolutionary War Forts at Canajohary,” Wayne Lenig, unravels confusion over the historical identities of forts built in the middle part of the valley. The book is dedicated to his father.

To find out when and how misconceptions developed, Lenig reviews published secondary sources with sometimes conflicting information. These accounts were written by authors including Jeptha Simms, Frederick Beers and Nelson Greene in the 1800s and 1900s. Lenig calls these writers “antiquarians” who relied in large part on an oral tradition.

Then Lenig considers archaeological research. He earned an archaeology degree at the University at Buffalo. He also cites documents from primary sources such as the papers of General George Washington and Governor George Clinton. 

And Lenig places the final four years of the Revolutionary War on the New York frontier into the broader context of late eighteenth century history.

Lenig concludes that the names “Fort Plain” and “Fort Rensselaer refer to the same fortified installation built in 1779. It was located off today’s Route 5 on Fort Hill west of the current village. The land is now occupied by the Fort Plain Cemetery Association and the Fort Plain Museum.

The facility was called Fort Rensselaer in 1780 when troops there were commanded by American General Robert Van Rensselaer from a prominent family in the Hudson Valley.

Van Rensselaer became unpopular in the Mohawk Valley because of errors made in pursuing Loyalist and Indian raiding parties. He had moved his troops west of Fort Rensselaer in 1780 thinking an expected Loyalist-Indian raid would take place to the west. Instead the raiders led by Mohawk chief Joseph Brant attacked the vicinity of Fort Rensselaer itself. 

Later that year Van Rensselaer’s troops fought in the battles of Stone Arabia and Klocks Field but allowed Sir John Johnson and other Loyalist leaders to escape.

Lenig wrote, “Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willett made Fort Plain/Rensselaer his headquarters and in 1781-82 expanded the fortifications.” Locals began calling the facility Fort Plain as opposed to calling it Fort Rensselaer. General Washington visited the fort in late July of 1783.

Lenig concludes that Fort Plank was the fortified home of Joseph House about three miles northwest of the site of Fort Plain.

What were the British Loyalists and Native Americans trying to accomplish with attacks in the Mohawk Valley in the final years of the war?

There was no established border yet for what would become the United States. Lenig said Loyalists and Native Americans who had been evicted from the area thought “if they could force the Americans to leave the Mohawk Valley” the British could possibly claim the Mohawk Valley, not the St. Lawrence Valley to the north, as the border between the U.S and Canada.

The buildings at Fort Plain and Fort Plank were gone by 1811. Archaeological work has been done on the Fort Plain site since the 1950s.

Lenig wrote, “We have learned that the entire 17-acre hilltop was cordoned off by defensive works. Three major ‘forts’ protected the site from any potential enemy assault.”

He added, “Altogether, this fortress was capable of sheltering and protecting more than a thousand citizens and soldiers.”

Lenig’s book is available from the Fort Plain Museum. Proceeds benefit the museum.

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