The bus tour was in its final hour. Over 100 men and women had climbed back up the steps of the two buses for the last time that day. And it had been a long day. Beginning in the parking lot of Fulton-Montgomery Community College, on a plain just above Amsterdam, New York, the assemblage of Revolutionary War buffs had been treated to a beautiful view of the rolling hills rising from both sides of the Mohawk River, hidden from their view in the valley below. But everyone knew it was there. And everyone knew that river was the reason for their bus trip today. Now as the day was coming to a close, our guide nailed it. As we traveled eastward on the south side of the river, two large escarpments loomed over both sides of the River. In the gap between those imposing hills the Mohawk River flows eastward. Our guide reminded us that this gap—the only easy passage across the Appalachians for a thousand miles—was the geographic feature that allowed early settlers to move westward. German Palatines had joined Dutch and English settlers in moving into this fertile valley—and into the lands of the Iroquois Confederacy—decades before the American Revolution. It was descendants of these settlers who suffered during the dark days of that Revolution. It was these settlers who saw their homes burned, their cattle and goods confiscated, their loved ones killed, in several small settlements that the tourists had visited or passed by that day—Cobleskill, Cherry Valley, Canajoharie (Fort Plain), Springfield.
This was the first of four days in early June where attendees of the American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference were transported back in time 240 years to immerse themselves in the seminal events of the founding of our nation. In its fourth year, this conference continues to not only satisfy, but also surprise attendees with the variety of the programs, the quality of the presentations and, most rewarding, the insights and depth of knowledge of the attendees. This conference has grown each of it’s four years to the point where this year’s 200-plus attendees from seventeen states, Canada, and France, maxed out the space available at the Community College. Yet it remains small enough, intimate enough, so that each year it retains the aura of a family reunion. People recognize their friends from prior years, recall their specific interests, and even their opinions of a Revolutionary War leader or war-time event.
The conference is the brainchild of the Fort Plain Museum, a small local institution with outsized energy, dedication, and affiliations. Sponsors such as Journal of the American Revolution and Westholme Publishing were complemented by support from Montgomery County, Fulton-Montgomery Community College, William G. Pomeroy Foundation, Alpin Haus Kinderhook Bank, and Battlemaps.us. The efforts of Brian Mack and Norm Bollen have made this event equal to any similar conference in the nation.
In past years the second day of the conference was highlighted by a second bus trip to Revolutionary War sites in the Mohawk Valley. In keeping with the desire to vary the program, this year local historic sites opened their doors to attendees researching their family history. Genealogy Day included presentations by local historians focusing on families living in the valley during the Revolution and the archives available to do such research.
New to the conference this year was a Thursday evening talk by renowned Alexander Hamilton historian Michael E. Newton. Newton, who authored the book Alexander Hamilton: the Formative Years, presented on Hamilton’s wartime service including the several positions and tasks Hamilton performed during the Revolution. Newton went on to discuss the relationship between Hamilton and George Washington throughout the war. The evening also included a presentation about the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society and a newly formed Central New York Chapter. Society president Rand Scholet discussed the organization’s mission while Central New York Chapter president Kayla Empey discussed the formation of the chapter and Hamilton’s connection to the Mohawk Valley.
In another change from prior years, the conference held a kick-off event on Friday evening in which Russell Shorto, renowned author of The Island at the Center of the World, described the six protagonists in his new book Revolution Song. Shorto “interviewed” over 100 candidates before selecting six who viewed American freedom through different lenses. The story of these six lives—Seneca War Chief “Cornplanter;” Lord George Germain, leader of the British war effort as the American Secretary; Abraham Yates of Albany, who resisted aristocratic tendencies in both British and American forms; Margaret Coghlan, who sought freedom from male domination; Venture Smith, a black slave who persevered to become a free black man of property in Connecticut; and of course George Washington, whose desire for personal freedom from the setbacks of his early military life were wrapped up in his concepts of honor and virtue, and his growing vision for a unified nation.
It may be that all such conferences on the American Revolution offer perspectives on the Father of our Country and the Mohawk Valley Conference was no exception. In the leadoff presentation on Saturday was by Edward Lengel, whose works on George Washington include First Entrepreneur, which documented how Washington translated his own business acumen into a realization that commerce was the key to a prosperous nation. In his earlier work, General George Washington, A Military Life, Lengel touched on Washington’s involvement in the burning of New York City in August 1776, as the American Army retreated from the city. In his presentation he expanded on this incident, concluding that Washington’s desire to bring an early end to the war due to the economic devastation of a protracted conflict may have caused him to sympathize with the conflagration, even if he did not order it.
The Battle of Saratoga has drawn its rightful share of attention at these conferences, given the proximity of the conference to the battle site. This year Eric Schnitzer, whose twenty-year career at the Saratoga National Historical Park has enhanced his deep understanding of the 1777 Burgoyne Campaign and the soldiers who fought there, focused on “Hessians” at the Battle of Bennington. His nuanced approach to the various units originating in the German states gave all listeners new insight into the difficulty of leading a multi-national army into the backwoods of a defiant enemy country.
One of the more subtle sub-texts of this conference that seems to carry over from year to year is the perception of Benedict Arnold. Was he, at heart, a rebel or a Tory? James Nelson began this year’s debate with a lively defense of Arnold, describing the dramatic British victory at Valcour Island in October, 1776 as a successful effort by Arnold to delay the British advance up Lake Champlain until the following year. The title of Nelson’s book Benedict Arnold’s Navy: The Ragtag Fleet that Lost the Battle of Lake Champlain but Won the American Revolution perfectly expresses his opinion on the subject.
Bruce Venter—whose Conference of the American Revolution at Williamsburg will celebrate its 8th year in 2019—lost no time in jumping on Nelson’s sympathetic view of Arnold, as he has at past conferences. Venter’s less-than-complementary assessment was supported by the presenter’s biography of John Brown, a compatriot of Arnold whose wartime exploits are known to few outside the Mohawk Valley. Venter recounted the disputes between the two that began in 1775 with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Historians have long come to the defense of Arnold in that incident, even though Ethan Allen received the credit at the time. Venter pointed out that the real strategist behind the plan to take Ticonderoga was John Brown. Disputes between Brown and Arnold escalated when the latter accused Brown of stealing the baggage of captured Gen. Richard Prescott after the fall of Montreal in November 1775. Never given satisfaction for his request for a trial on these charges, Brown nevertheless continued to lead American forces from his home base in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The high-point of Venter’s argument against Arnold was Brown’s pre-1780 indictment of the future traitor: “Money is this man’s God.” Mr. Venter closed his argument in support of Brown with the events of October 1780. In the same month that Arnold was unmasked as a traitor, John Brown died the death of a true patriot at the Battle of Stone Arabia in the Mohawk Valley. Case closed for Mr. Venter!
Sandwiched in between the Johnson-Venter exchange, Don N. Hagist, author and editor of Journal of the American Revolution, presented his research on the British soldiers in Western New York from 1777 to 1783 from his book British Soldiers, American War. Focusing on the 34th Regiment, Don established that these “British” Regiments were often composed of a crazy-quilt pattern of nationalities. Dominated by Englishmen in the early stages of the conflict, as the war dragged on, some regiments became increasingly manned by Irish and German soldiers. Hagist also provided the audience with several little-known facts regarding these units, including the fact that each regiment was responsible for their own recruitment, and that the British Army at the time was an all-volunteer force, not dominated by conscripts as it came to be during the Napoleonic Wars.
Saturday’s talks were followed by an interesting discussion among the presenters and with the audience regarding the decisions made by the populace to remain loyal to the King, or take the risk of joining the rebels. Each presented their personal justification for siding with the Patriots or the Loyalists. Many cited their own heritage, others focused on their respect for, or disillusionment with, authority as the basis for their decision. It was interesting that a majority of the presenters admitted that they would have most likely joined the Loyalist supporters of the King. The day ended with cocktail reception and dinner at a the Perthshire Banquet Facility catered by Black Tie Catering, where attendees were treated to a conversation with George Washington and James Madison (ably portrayed by professional first-person interpreters), who reflected on their interpretation of the compromises behind the decisions made in Philadelphia in 1787 that forged the United States Constitution.
On Sunday, the crowd of attendees thinned out a little from early departures for the long journeys back home. The absentees missed some great treats! First, experienced Canadian genealogist (with ancestral roots in the Valley) Jennifer DeBruin spoke about Traitors, Spies and Heroes: Loyalist Espionage in the American Revolution. She demonstrated clearly that the British had succeeded in infiltrating the rebel side. The war’s espionage story is much richer than just Washington’s Culper Ring on Long Island or television’s recent dramatic series, Turn.
Next up was Glenn F. Williams who reminded us that the Revolution had an early first chapter in 1774, Lord Dunmore’s War. What does the Royal Governor of Virginia have to do with the Revolution coming to the Mohawk Valley? A lot, it turns out! Dunmore was eager to “correct” the errors of the post-Seven Years’ War British settlement with the Iroquois, who claimed dominion over the Ohio Valley. As negotiated by Sir William Johnson (who lived just down the road from the conference location), the 1763 “Ministerial Line” and the subsequent Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 would protect Native interests in the Ohio Valley from white settlement. That was anathema to Dunmore and his constituency of investors in the Ohio Company. Worth fighting a punishing war over!
We enjoyed another winner in John Buchanan, perhaps best known for his series of magisterial books on aspects of the Revolutionary campaigns: The Road to Guilford Courthouse, The Road to Valley Forge, and others. Buchanan gave a stemwinder of a presentation comparing the social backgrounds, training, careers, and command performances of the two principal opposing Revolutionary War commanders, George Washington and Sir William Howe.
The final speaker of the Conference, Wayne Lenig, a native of the Mohawk Valley, an archeologist, and currently vice president of the conference organizers, the Fort Plain Museum. Lenig spoke about the region’s “extralegal local government” operating from 1774 thru 1778, the Tryon County Committee of Safety. Just when you imagined that all relevant documents had long ago been gathered and published by nineteenth century antiquarians, Lenig reported on the remarkable recent discovery of four manuscripts, all dating to summer and fall of 1774, all “hiding in plain sight,” but unknown to previous historians. He laid out the political vacuum created by the sudden death of the “Lord of the Mohawks,” Sir William Johnson, in July 1774. Then he walked us through the intricate August-October politicking to sort out the consequences of the absence of the larger-than-life figure of Sir William in “his” county after thirty years, and the struggle of rebels and Tories across the colonies and here in the Valley as they attempted to find a concerted response to the four Intolerable Acts passed by Parliament in spring of 1774.
On that final, poignant, reminder that the Revolution had no certain, inevitable outcome, the multitude rose, stretched, and slowly departed, eagerly anticipating the FIFTH Mohawk Valley Conference, already scheduled for June 6-9, 2019. In these past four years, the conferences have gotten better and better, with the inevitable consequence that the audience gets larger and larger! Organizers Brian Mack and Norm Bollen had succeeded once again.