Honoring the Sacrifices Made at the Bloody Battle of Oriskany
“I have three ancestors who died here,” Mary Ellen Smith said as she waited for the commencement of the annual ceremony observing the Battle of Oriskany. “A man named John Bellenger and two of his sons. All three died here. A widow lost her husband and two of her sons on August 6, 1777.”
On that day. 246 years ago, a militia of patriots and Oneidas was on their way to relieve Fort Stanwix, which was under siege. They were ambushed as they drank from the creek that runs through the ravine dividing the two sections of the Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site.
Every year on August 6th, there is a ceremony observing the anniversary of the battle, which was as brutal as it was pivotal.
In 1851, Westmoreland’s Pomeroy Jones published Annals and Recollections of Oneida County; it is both an exhaustively thorough foundational text and remarkably readable. Jones’s descriptions give readers a sense of how consuming the terror of war must have been.
“The attack was general, and from every quarter,” he writes. “…it now became a contest of individual feats of noble courage and daring.”
In the confusion, General Nicholas Herkimer was shot. Jones writes, “[he] received a ball about six inches below the knee, which shattered the bone, and also killed the horse on which he rode. His saddle was taken from the prostate steed, and placed by the side of the trunk of a fallen tree, where the brave old General, reclining against the tree, continued to issue his orders.”
Within a fortnight, Gen. Herkimer would die of his wound and complications from a subsequent botched amputation of his leg.
“For a considerable time there was much confusion and disorder, but this was followed by the discovery that concern of action was necessary for an effective defence [sic], and soon tolerable order was restored, and the men formed in circles, the better to repel the attacks of the enemy, who were now closing in on all sides.”
Kevin Richard Marr of Albany was a participant in this year’s ceremony. He fired off an antique cannon as part of the “Salute to the Fallen”.
“This was citizens who were part of this battle,” Marr pointed out. “It was not a ‘military action’ in the sense that it involved ‘the army,’ this was all-at least on the side of the Americans- all local militias. This was very much a local ‘civil war’ among locals who were trying to support the fort and support liberty…or support the King, or what they saw as supporting ‘order.’”
Those locals found themselves amid a horror that Pomeroy Jones describes vividly.
“…the work of death was progressing with the tomahawk, the bayonet, the knife, and clubbed musket…”
Then there was the storm. Rain so heavy the battle temporarily halted. In that providential hour, the patriots reorganized and fought on, reenergized for the bloodshed ahead.
“…hope began to animate
the Americans,” Jones wrote. “Revenge and hate doubly nerved the arms of Herkimer’s men, and them springing from their covers, attached them [the Tories] with bayonets, and when those were wanting, with the butts of their muskets; or throttling each other, and drawing their knives, stabbing and frequently dying in each other’s embrace.”
The brutality continued for at least half an hour longer.
“We stand here in somber reflection, remembering so many sacrifices on this ground,” Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon addressed the gathered crowd. “I think that it is so important that so many families are here and that we remember that the future is within our children so that we can continue remembering all those who sacrificed their lives so that we would have the freedom to live in the best country in the world.”
The sacrifices were immense.
“In the heat of the battle,” Jones wrote in Annals and Recollections of Oneida County, “William Merckley of Stone Arabia, was shot by an Indian and mortally wounded. Valentine Fralick, a neighbor, seeing him fall, came to him, and kindly offered to assist him. ‘Take care of yourself, and leave me to my fate,’ was the wounded man’s reply. Several Indians approaching at this moment, Fralick concealed himself under a fallen tree, and shortly after, going to the spot, he found that his friend had been tomahawked and scalped.”
Theresa McFadden of Westmoreland is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and a former president and lifetime trustee of the Westmoreland Historical Society. She has an ancestor named Henry Ritter, whose Revolutionary War Pension Application recounts how he had to leave his service at Fort Stanwix because his father was killed at Oriskany and his mother died, leaving his seven siblings and grandfather in a “destitute and helpless condition.” Before being allowed to return home to “maintain and protect” what was left of his family in those “turbulent times,” he unmasked a Tory spy at Fort Stanwix.
The documents McFadden provided me paint a picture of Ritter’s tempest-tossed life in the Continental Army and various militias, all the while keeping his younger brothers and sisters alive while “Indians were making incursions into the neighborhood and often killing his neighbors & plundering them.”
The Revolutionary War opened a schism between the Oneidas and the other tribes that formed the Iroquois, who sided with the British.
Han Yerry Tehawengaragwen was a Oneida man who led the members of his tribe and assisted the Patriots. The Oneida Nation website tells his heroic story.
“Shot in the wrist during the battle, Han Yerry was unable to use his gun. Instead, he fought gallantly with his tomahawk. By his side during the battle, brandishing pistols, was his wife, Sara Tyonajaneger. One of his sons
and his half-brother, Tonyentagoyon, also fought valiantly. Han Yerry died as a result of the fight, but his wife escaped and spread the word of the terrible slaughter.”
The slaughter was indeed terrible. According to Pomeroy Jones, “the stench was almost insupportable.”
“Near the mouth of the Oriskany Creek, a gun was found standing against a tree, upon which were hanging a pair of boots, while in the creek nearby lay the remains of their supposed owner, far advanced in decomposition. In the grass near the shore lay the body of a well-dressed man, without hat or coat, who they supposed had expended his energies in crawling to the water to quench his thirst.”
The water in the ravine drew so many men to their deaths that historians call it “the bloody creek.”
A document on the National Park Service website entitled “The Battle of Oriskany: ‘Blood Shed a Stream Running Down’” simply says, “neighbor fighting neighbor transformed a quiet ravine into a bloody slaughterhouse.”
Pomeroy Jones noted that “there was scarcely a family in the Mohawk Valley but what had lost some relative, a father, brother, or cousin.”
“We have a lot of people around here who are descendants from members of Herkimer’s militia,” said Alexis Albright, Curator of the Oriskany Museum. “The names on the obelisk are incomplete, but the Revolutionary War Pension records have now been digitized, so we can sometimes read the written testimony of people there. We think there were over 800 militia and 60 Oneida in the battle, so you’re looking at over 900 stories of people on the battlefield plus the Loyalist or British side of things.”
Every person in the battle has a story about how their efforts changed the course of history.
Michael Roets, Historic Site Regional Supervisor for the Central Region of New York State Parks, began the ceremony on August 6, 2023, reminding attendees how Oriskany was a “very important battle, a major battle that led to victory at Saratoga and end the siege at Fort Stanwix. 1777 was ultimately a victorious year for the Americans, and this battle was a major part of that.”
“This is without question the most historic piece of land within Oneida County, and it has been for 246 years,” added Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente. “What happened here changed the course of the Revolution on August 6, 1776, and here we are August 6th, 2023, and so many generations have come through here, so many generations have seen this sight and, more importantly, have learned about the history.”
It’s been almost 250 years since the Battle of Oriskany. In his preface to Annals and Recollections of Oneida County, Pomeroy Jones writes, “Death has closed many lips.” It is up to the descendants and the historians to keep the stories of sacrifice alive. The beautifully maintained Oriskany Battlefield and the annual ceremony on August 6th keep it alive, but just as important are the respect and appreciation for history handed down from generation to generation.
“My father was a history teacher,” Assemblywoman Buttenschon recalled. “We spent every summer traveling to different historical sites. It is in my blood, so when I talk to my grandchildren about how my family would pack a lunch and just sit and enjoy the view, I also explain how people in the past faced severe challenges and overcame them.”
“Remember this history,” County Executive Picente said. “ Tell your children, your grandchildren about this and make them come and see where the Revolution was won.”
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