More than five years after the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, a raiding party of Red Coats and Loyalists crossed the Schoharie Creek in an early October snowstorm.
They started their rampage in the early hours of the morning and by 10 a.m. had left a swath of burning farms through what is now the town of Florida before crossing the Mohawk River near Fort Johnson.
With the help of an old map of the area, a historical researcher is offering a more vivid account of the destruction. She’s been able to pinpoint the precise path the British took during their rampage through the town once called “Warrensbush.”
Gayle Livecchia’s presentation at the 2011 conference of the New York State Historical Association highlighted the tumultuous times that followed the Declaration of Independence.
And Livecchia’s clash with the Montgomery County Clerk’s Office over photographing documents highlights the difficult situation Montgomery County is facing when it comes to finding enough staffing and money to preserve a collection of historic treasures unequalled in most other municipal offices.
For years following the Declaration of Independence, the British and their allies tore through the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys on a regular basis, burning crops that fed the rebellious Colonials and their soldiers.
“Virtually everything that existed in this valley before the revolution was burned to the ground,” said Old Fort Johnson caretaker Scott Haefner. “It was a vicious war.”
The October raiding party was led by British Regular Maj. John Ross and Capt. Walter Butler. The raid that started in Warrensbush ended in the well-known Battle of Johnstown, where Butler was killed in one of the last large confrontations of the Revolutionary War. That much historians have always known.
“They burned the houses, the barns full of grain, they slaughtered the cattle,” Livecchia said. “They did it in October so the rebels would have nothing to survive the winter.”
In the basement of the County Clerk’s Office in Fonda, Livecchia snapped pictures of a brittle map originally drawn by architect John Bleecker to settle a land dispute in 1766. The map in Fonda is a 1799 copy, one of only two in existence.
By comparing the lot holdings detailed in the Bleecker map to tenant ledgers and the daybook of British Capt. Gilbert Tice, who was part of the 1781 raid, Livecchia found exactly which farms were burned. She also discovered what was lost, in some cases down to the ton of hay and bushel of wheat that went up in flames — people with losses were able to make a request for compensation from the new government of the United States.
It’s research that gives historians and the public a better glimpse of the bloody days that followed the colonists’ decision to break free of the British crown.
“It becomes more real when you can attach historical events to people who actually lived and the exact places they lived.” Haefner said after reading Livecchia’s article. “If you had looked out the window here at the fort the morning of Oct. 25, you would have seen the raiders come past.”
Livecchia lives in New Jersey and made the three-hour drive to the Mohawk Valley dozens of times over the last few years. She says it’s not the most practical place to research, given her home, but said she couldn’t stay away from the wealth of history.
“It’s a fascinating area,” she said. “Most of the Revolutionary War was fought in New York, and that history is totally ignored.”
Livecchia last left Fonda in mid-May after an argument with officials at the County Clerk’s Office — she’d been using a camera the year before, without a flash, to photograph things like the historic map and learned this year that’s against the rules.
With new cellphones and other devices giving citizens the ability to capture images of public documents came the loss of revenue counties relied on by charging a per-page fee for copies.
County Clerk Helen Bartone said she’s enforcing the rule so she can collect the revenue — despite opinions of the state’s Committee on Open Government suggesting “there is no valid basis” for people to be precluded from copying records using their own cameras. The law specifies “accessible records must be made available for inspecting and copying,” according to a 2005 opinion from committee Executive Director Robert J. Freeman.
Regardless of the argument over fees, Bartone said the basement of the office is probably not the best place for sensitive historic documents.
“It’s a dilemma,” she said.
Livecchia contends the records don’t belong in a damp basement and suggested these records aren’t being cared for properly. But with hundreds of new documents being filed each week, there’s little time for staff to direct their attention to the centuries-old maps and property records stored in the cellar.
Assistant County Clerk Lori Semkiw said discussions have been ongoing with the county’s History and Archives Department toward a goal of eventually putting documents and records that need protection in a safer place.
Ultimately, Bartone said it’s likely there are some real gems in storage which, like the map Livecchia made use of, could help further people’s understanding of the difficult times that followed the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“There probably are treasures,” Bartone said.