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Cudmore: George Washington and the Mohawk Frontier

Cudmore: George Washington and the Mohawk Frontier

Focus on History
Cudmore: George Washington and the Mohawk Frontier
The Fort Plain Museum in 2014
Photographer: Gazette file photo

Norm Bollen, who has organized conferences with his Fort Plain Museum colleague Brian Mack to bring the Mohawk Valley to the attention of historians, has written a book called “George Washington and the Mohawk Frontier.”

Washington never led troops in the Mohawk Valley, but in a series of letters that Bollen has researched, Washington tried to stay on top of what was happening here as the American Revolution ground on.

As late as 1782 Washington wrote, “For my own part, I am more apprehensive for the safety of the country on the Mowhak [sic] River than for any other part of the frontier.”

Bollen, a Fort Plain native and Amsterdam resident, has worked on his book for 10 years. Bollen said the American republic’s leaders, seeing the importance of the Mohawk Valley’s almost sea level access to the interior of the continent, decided to try to place the northern border of the new nation where it is today, along the St. Lawrence River, well to the north of the valley.

Bollen said, “It became of paramount importance to keep the Mohawk Valley open and in American hands.” Access to the Great Lakes and the interior of America aside, valley farmers grew wheat and other crops to feed Washington’s troops.

Historians do pay tribute to the 1777 battles of Saratoga that ended with an American victory impressive enough to lead to a game-changing alliance with France.

In the same year there was a less clear cut outcome to the battle of Oriskany in the western Mohawk Valley. Many militiamen from the region died, leaving the valley vulnerable to numerous further attacks. The area became known as the Bloody Mohawk.
Loyalists who had already left the valley, British soldiers and Indians frequently came down from Canada and conducted violent and destructive raids in the Mohawk, Cherry and Schoharie valleys. Loyalist John Johnson and Mohawk nation chief Joseph Brant often led these attacks.

Bollen said the British strategy was to cut off Washington’s food supplies, depopulate the Mohawk frontier and move the border with Canada farther south.

Washington approved a brutal counterattack led by Gen. John Sullivan that destroyed Indian villages in the Finger Lakes and Western New York, forcing more Native Americans to Canada.

Washington went to Schenectady in 1782 to check on the progress of the war in the area. He did not travel farther west as it was deemed to be dangerous.

By the summer of 1783 the situation had improved. Gen. Washington, then based in Newburgh, decided to tour the Mohawk Valley.

Washington wrote to his friend Gen. Phillip Schuyler in Albany, “We propose to pass across the Mohawk River, in order to have a view of that tract of Country which is so much celebrated for the fertility of its Soil and the beauty of its Situation.”
On July 28, 1783 Washington reviewed troops at Fort Rensselaer, known locally as Fort Plain.

According to a journal kept by an Italian nobleman traveling with Washington, there was a 13-gun salute, “The troops presented arms. After maneuvers we dined with the officer corps.”

Bollen said a new fife major was appointed to provide music for the occasion. Soldiers were not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages for 10 days. Washington also stopped at Fort Johnson, Stone Arabia, Fort Herkimer and Fort Stanwix.
Fort Rensselaer/Fort Plain did not survive for long after the war. Timbers from the building were used to rebuild structures destroyed in the conflict.

The Fort Plain Museum began in 1961. In 2008 there was a re-enactment of Washington’s visit on the 225th anniversary of the event.

Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]

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