It's the winners who write history, Gavin Watt likes to remind people, and when they do they rarely treat the losers fairly.
That's one of the first things Watt, a Canadian, likes to tell people when he talks about the American Revolution. This Saturday, when the Fort Plain Museum's third annual American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference begins at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, the Toronto native and author of more than a dozen history books will offer his take on loyalists and Tories and patriots and rebels, and his perspective might raise a few eyebrows and ruffle a few feathers.
"I'm a foreigner and I'm coming to the conference to talk about your first Civil War," said Watt earlier this week. "The war raged all over the world, but in a narrow sense right here it was Americans vs. Americans. That's what I'm out to illustrate with my talk."
Watt's presentation is entitled, "Neighbours Against Neighbours - Fort Schuyler and Oriskany," focusing on the important events from the summer of 1777 in central New York. He is one of 10 speakers offering lectures over two days at the conference, while others include author and Penn State professor Dean R. Snow, and Saratoga National Historical Park ranger Eric Schnitzer. Snow will discuss the role of Oneida and Mohawk indians in the Saratoga Campaign, and Schnitzer will talk about battle tactics at Saratoga during the late summer and early fall of 1777.
A retired sales and marketing executive who got an engineering and business degree at the University of Toronto, Watt has been closely researching Canada's role in the American Revolution since 1975.
"I've spent a lot of time in the states, and it seemed like a lot of people, at least the average Joe, never really knew what happened to the Tories after the war," said Watt, who will deliver his lecture at 9:45 a.m. Saturday morning. "Well, most of them went to Canada during the war. They were usually called Tories, while the Americans were called patriots. Well, I have to tell you I don't really like that term, patriots. At the time they weren't patriots, they were rebels because they were in rebellion."
Watt also reminds his listeners - in a very engaging and affable manner - that it was those same rebels who invaded Canada more than 240 years ago in one of the first major confrontations in the Revolutionary War.
"The rebels had a majority of Americans on their side, but there was also many Americans at that time who were under arms for King George," he said. "And there were nasty and ugly people on both sides. Unfortunately, the images that have lasted of the losers are of those of nasty people. The Americans were winners, but they also had their share of nasty people. But since they won, we forget those American riflemen and Continentals that were just as bad as some of the Tories."
One of those Tories was John Butler, a man with plenty of ties to Schenectady. While he is mostly reviled from the American perspective, Watt claims he was just another good neighbor who may have had a little trouble controlling his Native American allies during the war. John Johnson, meanwhile, was also a Tory and just another neighbor in the Mohawk Valley before the war, although he was the son of William Johnson, one of the most powerful men in the colonies. John Johnson was a loyalist who left the homeland he loved and fled to Canada according to Watt. As for William Johnson, who has two historic homes in the Mohawk Valley open to the public (Fort Johnson and Johnstown) where his life and deeds are mostly praised, would have sided with the British had he not died on the eve of the Revolution.
"He was clearly a king's man, and anyone thinking differently is smoking something," said Watt, laughing. "But he is thought of highly in the Mohawk Valley, and there's no reason not to revere him as an American. He died before the war started, so he's not treated like his son or John Butler."
The Fort Plain Museum's event was held at the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie back in 2015 and was moved to F-MCC last year to handle a bigger crowd. The crowd continues to grow according to Brian Mack, one of the event's organizers.
"We had 137 people that first year at the Arkell, and then we moved it to the college the second year to accommodate more people," said Mack. "We got up to around 160 people last year and we're already up to 175 this year. We have a great group of speakers so we're excited about the level of interest."
Admission to the event - 10 speakers spread out over two days - is $60.
"We're a small volunteer group, so we had to have pre-registration," said Mack. "Unfortunately, we can't have people coming in for one speaker. That would create too much work."
Along with the distinguished list of Revolutionary War experts making up the program, the event will also show a sneak preview of a locally-made documentary, "Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed." The film, not due out until later this year, is being made by Amsterdam's Anthony Vertucci and Niskayuna's Tom Mercer.
'Fort Plain Museum's third annual American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference
WHEN: 4 p.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Sunday, the Fulton-Montgomery Community College Visual Arts & Communications Building, 2805 Route 67, Johnstown
HOW MUCH: $60
MORE INFO: 774-5669, www.fortplainmuseum.com