New York: Fort Stanwix and Erie Canal Village Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fort Stanwix National Monument is a replica of an eighteenth century post that supervised military affairs and Indian relations in this region between 1758 and 1784. British soldiers built and manned the post during the French and Indian War, and American soldiers occupied it during the War for Independence. It is managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. The Erie Canal Village is a living museum that recreates life along the Erie Canal during the early nineteenth century. It includes historic buildings moved to that site from within a fifty-mile radius of Rome. It is owned by the city of Rome and managed by the Rome Historical Society.

Site Offices:

Fort Stanwix National Monument

112 East Park Street

Rome, NY 13440

ph.: (315) 336-2090

Web site: www.nps.gov/fost/

Erie Canal Village

5789 New London Road

Rome, NY 13440

ph.: (315) 337-3999

fax: (315) 339-7755

Web site: www.eriecanalvillage.com

Rome, New York, is the site of one of the most important cultural and commercial crossroads in the northeastern United States. Long before Rome was founded in 1786, the terrain it occupies connected the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes. To the east of Rome, the waters of the Mohawk River flow toward Albany, where they meet the Hudson River and continue southward until they empty into the Atlantic Ocean at New York City. To the west of Rome, Wood Creek, Oneida Lake, and the Oswego River open a path to Lake Ontario and the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Since pre-Columbian times, the inhabitants of North America have met, traded, and fought over this important passage to the continent’s interior. Its strategic location accounts for two of Rome’s historic sites, Fort Stanwix National Monument and the Erie Canal Village.

Early History

During the colonial era, the Mohawk Valley’s inhabitants called the site of Rome the Oneida Carrying Place. “Oneida” referred to the Iroquois nation of the same name whose homelands included this important junction; “Carrying Place” described this location’s role as a portage in the trade route between the Hudson River and Lake Ontario. European fur traders from Albany and Schenectady sailed on the Mohawk River in broad flat-bottomed boats, or bateaux, loaded with clothing, tools, arms, liquor, and food. Near the headwaters of the Mohawk they carried their boats and goods across a stretch of level ground, the site of present-day Rome, until they reached Wood Creek. Their journey ended at Oswego, a British trading post on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario. There they engaged in annual summer markets, trading goods with Indians from the Great Lakes region for animal pelts to be exported back to Europe.

In the colonial era, everyone wishing to move quickly between the Great Lakes and the eastern seaboard had to pass through this important portage. As its name implies, local Indians controlled the Oneida Carrying Place for most of the colonial period. The Oneidas, one of the six Indian nations in the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, allowed their colonial neighbors to use this portage, but they resisted European domination. Tensions between fur traders and their Indian customers often resulted from this arrangement. At a meeting to discuss Indian affairs in 1754, Albany traders complained to the New York governor about Indians at the Carrying Place who forcibly stopped the traders and threatened harm if not paid exorbitant wages for assistance in transporting their goods. Such a strategic location certainly encouraged competition as well as cooperation among peoples who relied on this portage for their livelihood.

The intensity of that competition resulted in outright hostilities during the French and Indian War of the 1750’s. In this climactic struggle between the British and French empires in North America, the Oneida Carrying Place played an important role. For the British, it was a vital link in preserving communication and supply lines between Albany and Oswego, and at the war’s outset they built several posts to defend the Carrying Place. A combined French and Indian force destroyed one of these posts, Fort Bull, in March, 1756. A few months later, Oswego also fell to a French assault. British commander Daniel Webb retreated from the Carrying Place, burning the remaining British posts there so they would not fall into French hands.

Fort Stanwix

Except for a devastating attack on the colonial settlement at German Flats in November, 1757, the French never acted on their opportunity to invade the Mohawk valley. Thus, in 1758 British commander in chief James Abercromby ordered one of his officers, John Stanwix, to occupy and refortify the Oneida Carrying Place. The Oneidas agreed to the army’s presence on the conditions that the British restore trade with the Indians and destroy the post at the war’s end. British and American soldiers built Fort Stanwix quickly between August and November, 1758. Ironically, its importance to the war effort declined almost immediately with British victories on the Ohio and Great Lakes frontiers in 1759 and 1760. As the war moved elsewhere, British commanders reduced the size of Fort Stanwix’s garrison until it included only fifty men in 1761.

Fort Stanwix remained a center of controversy even after British victory in the French and Indian War. With the arrival of peace, British military officers discovered they had two other problems: resentful Indians and restless colonists. The Indians, while they welcomed and often depended upon British trade, did not relish British claims to possession of the Carrying Place. When the British failed to destroy Fort Stanwix as promised, they irritated the local Oneidas. The mounting expenses of maintaining the North American army, however, finally convinced British administrators to abandon the fort along with many other frontier posts in 1767.

Fort Stanwix’s last important role in British colonial policy came a year later, when the crown’s Indian Superintendent, Sir William Johnson, convened a treaty there with the Iroquois and several other Indian nations. One of the British army’s tasks in North America was mediating disputes between Indians and western settlers. In the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Johnson negotiated a new boundary line between the Indians and colonists. The Iroquois also surrendered lands in the Ohio River valley highly coveted by colonial land speculators, including Johnson. This treaty angered many of the Indians inhabiting the ceded territory and led to renewed hostilities in 1774.

The Revolutionary War

After falling into neglect and disrepair, Fort Stanwix returned to prominence in the American Revolution. When war broke out in 1775, the Mohawk valley’s inhabitants were sharply divided. Loyalists gravitated toward the Johnson family. Sir William Johnson had died in 1774, but representation of the crown’s interests passed to his son John Johnson and nephew Guy Johnson. In May, 1776, John Johnson led a group of loyal New Yorkers into Canada to avoid arrest. With the Johnsons out of the way, the patriots wasted no time in occupying the crumbling remains of Fort Stanwix. They rebuilt the old post with the assistance of a French engineer in the winter of 1776-1777 and negotiated an alliance with the local Oneidas. In March, 1777, Colonel Peter Gansevoort took over command of the fort. Some patriots now called it Fort Schuyler, in honor of Philip Schuyler, a prominent New Yorker.

These measures to occupy and defend the Oneida Carrying Place paid off for the patriot cause during the pivotal campaign of 1777. In that year, the British planned to subdue New York by marching one army south from Canada and another east along the Mohawk River. The two armies would converge at Albany, quelling the rebellion in the Upper Hudson and Mohawk valleys along their way. Once in Albany, they would be poised to cooperate with the forces of Sir William Howe, the British commander in chief who had already occupied New York City. The British expected this campaign to secure New York, isolate New England from the rest of the colonies, and deliver a fatal blow to the American rebellion.

While General John Burgoyne led his army south from Canada, Colonel Barry St. Leger assembled a force that marched east from Oswego. St. Leger’s army was made up of about one thousand British-allied Indians and eight hundred European soldiers, including British regulars, German infantrymen, French-Canadian militiamen, and New York Loyalists. The only major obstacle in their path to Albany was Fort Stanwix.

The Siege of Fort Stanwix

St. Leger’s army initiated its siege of Fort Stanwix on Sunday, August 3, 1777. Colonel Peter Gansevoort commanded about seven hundred men inside the fort, which also protected local families and laborers. According to legend, Gansevoort greeted the enemy by raising an improvised version of the Stars and Stripes over the fort. The Continental Congress had approved the design for the flag a few weeks earlier, and if the legend is correct, then the siege of Fort Stanwix would mark the first time the Stars and Stripes flew over U.S. troops in battle. Subsequent scholarship, however, has debunked this claim, noting that it would have been impossible for news of the congressional flag resolution to reach the isolated fort by the time the siege began. The flag legend apparently dates to a local nineteenth century retelling of the story, and has no contemporary evidence to support it. St. Leger offered the outnumbered Americans an opportunity to surrender with his protection, but Gansevoort declined.

St. Leger tried to coax the Americans out of the fort. Gansevoort refused to budge, since he expected reinforcements to turn the British back. Those reinforcements were supposed to arrive in a militia force from Tryon County under the command of General Nicholas Herkimer. Tryon County had been split by divided loyalties, and some patriots suspected Herkimer himself of British sympathies. Not wanting to fuel such rumors, Herkimer led eight hundred militiamen and sixty Oneida Indians toward Fort Stanwix shortly after the siege began. St. Leger learned of Herkimer’s advance and sent a force of Indians and New York Loyalists under John Johnson’s command to intercept him.

The Loyalists and Indians waited in ambush for Herkimer’s troops about five miles east of Fort Stanwix, where the road to the fort passed through a deep ravine. On the morning of August 6, some of the fiercest fighting in the War for Independence occurred at this site in the Battle of Oriskany. Herkimer’s leg was shattered in the action and he later died, following amputation of the limb. Although the patriots sustained heavier casualties, the Loyalists and their Indian allies abandoned the field first. Herkimer’s force, however, was too decimated to press on to Fort Stanwix.

The Battle of Oriskany

The fort, however, did benefit unexpectedly from the Battle of Oriskany. A sortie of 250 men that went out to assist Herkimer came upon the encampments of the Loyalists and Indians then doing battle at Oriskany. With the enemy gone, these soldiers from the fort ransacked the camps and took a few stragglers prisoner. This surprising twist in the day’s events strengthened Gansevoort’s resolve and disheartened the Loyalists and Indians returning from battle. Many of the Indians assisting St. Leger abandoned the siege after suffering such heavy losses and finding their provisions destroyed.

Making the best of a rapidly deteriorating situation, St. Leger offered surrender terms to the fort again on August 9. Gansevoort declined, stating “it is my determined resolution, with the forces under my command, to defend this fort and garrison to the last extremity, in behalf of the United American States, who have placed me here to defend it against all their enemies.” St. Leger bombarded the fort with his artillery to no avail. Within two weeks he received word from his informants that a much larger patriot reinforcement was marching from the east under the command of Benedict Arnold. Realizing that his dwindling forces could not maintain the siege and engage Arnold’s troops at the same time, St. Leger opted for retreat. Abandoning much of his equipment, the British commander headed back to Oswego on August 22, just one day ahead of Arnold, who arrived at Fort Stanwix with one thousand additional troops.

The importance of the Americans’ stand at Fort Stanwix became evident the following October, when General John Burgoyne surrendered his army to American forces at Saratoga. Without the assistance of St. Leger, Burgoyne had been unable to sustain his invasion from the north. The Mohawk and Upper Hudson valleys remained under patriot control, and the British campaign for 1777 fell apart. In Paris, Benjamin Franklin carried news of Saratoga to the French court, cementing the alliance that turned the war in American favor.

After the Revolution

After playing such a prominent role in 1777, Fort Stanwix slipped once again into the background. Patriot forces continued to garrison it, but hostilies moved out of the northern states. In 1784, the fort hosted another Indian treaty, this time between the Iroquois nations and the United States. The Iroquois, like many of the region’s inhabitants, had suffered severely during the war; some of the confederacy’s nations had supported the patriots, while others had assisted the British. As a result, the diplomatic power of the Iroquois had been undermined, and the victorious Americans treated them as a conquered people. At the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Iroquois ceded much of their native homelands to the United States and New York. For the Indians, Fort Stanwix became a symbol of the commercial and military intrusions that made them strangers in their own land. The fort was gradually abandoned until it was demolished in 1830.

In 1935, Congress recognized the site of Fort Stanwix as a National Monument. Thirty years later, the city of Rome began to excavate the site in preparation for reconstructing the fort. Today the reconstructed fort matches as closely as possible its features and dimensions in 1777, including buildings, fortifications, and grounds. It contains historic furnishings, and its exhibits include artifacts recovered from the site. Programs and demonstrations sponsored by the National Park Service re-create life at the fort during the Revolutionary era.

The Erie Canal

The Erie Canal Village, like Fort Stanwix, re-creates life in Rome at a time when it made important contributions to the nation’s development. In 1817, ground was broken in Rome to begin construction of the Erie Canal, ushering in a transportation revolution in nineteenth century America. The Erie Canal was started in Rome for the same reason that Fort Stanwix was built there in 1758: to take advantage of the region’s natural link in the nation’s waterways. In Rome, the canal eliminated the need for a “Carrying Place,” thereby reducing the cost and time of shipping goods between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean.

When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, it cut across 363 miles of western New York, from Buffalo to Albany. The engineering marvel of its time, it was forty feet wide and four feet deep, with eighty-three locks and eighteen aqueducts to handle the 565-foot difference in elevation between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. A system of tributary canals developed around it, connecting Lake Ontario to the north with the Susquehanna River valley of Pennsylvania. This expansion in interior waterways sparked dramatic population and economic growth in western New York, as farmers could now sell their produce to larger and more distant markets at a much cheaper rate.

The Erie Canal Village was established in 1973 at the site of the Erie Canal’s groundbreaking on July 4, 1817, to re-create life and work along this famous waterway. The village began with horse-drawn packet boat rides along a restored section of the old canal. It has since expanded to include several historic buildings moved from the surrounding area, including a tavern, school house, blacksmith shop, church, and canal store. The site also includes the New York State Museum of Cheese, which features exhibits on the dairy industry that sprang up in rural New York alongside the Erie Canal. Fort Bull Park, the site of a British post during the French and Indian War, is also located within the village, as is the Clarence C. Harden Museum, featuring canal-era carriages and farm equipment. Visitors to the Village may take a ride on the Chief Engineer, a replica of an original Erie Canal packet boat, as well as a steam locomotive, which gradually replaced the canal as the nation’s most important form of commercial transportation. The Erie Canal Village also hosts a variety of craft programs and seasonal activities.

For Further Information
  • Clark, Andrew L. The Wabash and Erie Canal: The Lower Divisions. Mount Vernon, Ind.: Windmill, 1999. A history of the Wabash and Erie Canals.
  • Luzader, John, Louis Torres, and Orville W. Carroll. Fort Stanwix: History, Historic Furnishing, and Historic Structure Reports. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976. A comprehensive study of Fort Stanwix.
  • Manley, Henry S. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1784. Rome, N.Y.: Rome Sentinel, 1932. For readers interested in Fort Stanwix’s role in Indian relations.
  • Scott, John Albert. Fort Stanwix (Fort Schuyler) and Oriskany. Rome, N.Y.: Rome Sentinel, 1927. A detailed account of the siege of Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany.
  • Shaw, Ronald E. Erie Water West: A History of the Erie Canal, 1797-1854. Reprint. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990. Covers the Erie Canal and its role in western New York’s development.
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