On the morning of August 6, 1777, on the road leading west from the Oneida Indian village of Oriskany through the wooded ravine toward Fort Stanwix, more than eight hundred men and boys of the Tryon County Militia and their Oneida allies were ambushed as they marched to aid the fort besieged by British forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger. The surprise attack by loyalists and pro-British Iroquois warriors took a dreadful toll of the travelers for as many as half of the militia may have been killed that day in one of the bloodiest and most brutal events of the Revolution. Despite a serious leg wound received early in the five-hour battle, Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer refused to leave the battleground. In the days following the battle, the British forces besieging Fort Stanwix wavered as they assessed their losses at Oriskany, viewed with dismay the departure of their Iroquois allies, and felt rising anxiety upon learning that Major General Benedict Arnold was approaching from the east with troops to relieve the fort. Daunted by these difficulties, St. Leger abandoned his twenty-one day siege of Fort Stanwix, and his subsequent withdrawal westward to Canada contributed to the collapse of the British plan to divide New York.
When the Oriskany Monument was dedicated on August 6, 1884, 107 years had elapsed since the battle. The Mohawk Valley early frontier settlements that had been devastated by British and loyalist attacks during the Revolutionary War had reestablished themselves over the intervening century, and the region had become an active center of industry, agriculture and commerce traversed by canal, rail and highway networks. Yet the centennial of the Revolution struck a chord in this area that was once the frontier of the nation, and communities reflected on their 18th century heritage and how the battle at Oriskany had contributed importantly to the colonists' major victory at Saratoga and the success of the Revolution. The making of this grand monument at Oriskany to commemorate the heroism and horrible loss was accomplished by a coalition of civic and political leaders, descendants of Revolutionary soldiers, historians and artisans who were responding to a national enthusiasm for building public monuments to mark historical places and remember national heroes. In bringing a focus to the region's heritage, fostering pride among the residents of the Mohawk Valley and helping inspire a national identity evolving from the American Revolution, the Oriskany Monument builders honored the past, celebrated the present and heralded the future.
In 1876, patriotic enthusiasm in Oneida County for the nation's centennial propelled the founding of the Oneida Historical Society led by Horatio Seymour, who had become a national Democratic party leader after serving as mayor of Utica, speaker of the New York State Assembly and twice governor of New York State.
In the spring of 1877 when the community began planning to celebrate the August 6, 1877 centennial of the Battle of Oriskany, Oneida Historical Society leaders stepped forward to organize the event as their first project. The huge crowd that gathered at the Oriskany Batttlefield that day included Mrs. Abraham Lansing, granddaughter of General Peter Gansevoort who commanded Fort Stanwix in 1777, who brought with her the treasured New York State flag carried by Gansevoort's Third New York regiment. On that day Horatio Seymour launched the idea for a battlefield monument when he addressed the crowd saying: "Let us see that the graves of dead patriots are marked by monuments. Let suitable structures tell the citizens of other states and countries, when they pass along our thoroughfares, where its great events were enacted..." Seymour recognized that the natural height and visibility of the battlefield site had value as a location from which a monument could signal the region's history to travelers along the Mohawk Valley corridor.
Taking up Seymour's challenge, the monument committee, which formed within the Oneida Historical Society, included civic leaders from Oneida County whose commitment to the project reflected their deep interest in the region's Revolutionary heritage as well as awareness of how knowledge and promotion of local history could advance community pride. John Forman Seymour, an attorney and the younger brother of Horatio, was the guiding spirit throughout the monument project.
Inspired by centennial enthusiasm to pursue the goal of a battlefield monument at Oriskany, the Oneida Historical Society negotiated to acquire almost five acres through purchase and gift from William Ringrose, whose farm encompassed large sections of the battlefield, and the transaction was finalized in the autumn of 1880 for $387.
Fund-raising proved disappointing until early 1881 when Congress, with nudging from Senator Francis Kernan of Utica, paid $4,100. That gift injected new spirit into the project and immediately the monument committee requested from New York State a cash grant and building stone that might be available from canal locks. In 1882 New York State awarded a matching grant of $3,000 and a quantity of limestone which could be dismantled from the Erie Canal weigh lock in Utica.
The gifts of stone and funding provided the Oneida Historical Society monument committee members the assurance to commit to construction and they soon hired three professionals. William Jones, Maurice J. Power and Alexander Pirnie, who complemented the efforts of the volunteer civic leaders of the society. These experts brought broad and diverse talents including artistic vision, expertise in cutting and handling stone, experience constructing large public outdoor monuments and the ability to design and manufacture bronze sculpture. In turn, at various periods from 1882 to 1884, each expert applied his specialized knowledge, experience, and creativity to turn the project from vision to reality.
The original concept of the Oriskany Monument as a tall column supporting a bronze statue of Herkimer was reconsidered, and by the time plans were finalized, the monument committee envisioned a different type of structure. The new design, which was revealed in the agreement with contractors signed on July 4, 1882, was a monumental obelisk which would incorporate the donated Erie Canal weigh lock limestone blocks along with purchased Maine granite and bronze bas-relief sculpture. By selecting this design, which eliminated the need for an expensive heroic-scale bronze sculpture of Herkimer, and reusing donated limestone, the society followed a sensible course of action which allowed local masons and artisans to construct and assemble the monument at a cost proportionate to the available funds. An obelisk was a timely design choice charged with tradition and meaning in the late nineteenth century.
Monument dedication day on August 6, 1884, was a warm and sunny day of festivities. To facilitate access to the event, trains from the west and the east made a special stop in the valley below the monument where travelers walked to the north bank of the canal where a canal scow was anchored broadside to form a bridge across the canal to the south bank. From there, it was a short walk up to the monument where church groups sold refreshments to the many visitors who mingled with friends and dignitaries. The official program, which began at 2:00 p.m. on the east side of the monument, was comprised of lengthy historical accounts and congratulatory speeches. While Maurice Power's telegram from New York acknowledged how Horatio Seymour inspired the monument, Seymour's declining health prevented him from attending, but his letter, which eloquently stated the function of the monument in the minds of its builders, was read to the crowd.
A fence was erected around the monument after the dedication, and over the years, additional battlefield property has been purchased. New York State acquired ownership of the site in 1927 and the battlefield and monument have been honored with the National Historic Landmark designation to signify the importance of the place in the nation's history. The monument, which has withstood lightning strikes and more than a century of harsh freeze-thaw cycles, stands as an enduring memorial to the participants in the historic Revolutionary War frontier battle and a testament to the capabilities of its builders and the vision and perseverance of the Oneida Historical Society.
This article is based on excerpts taken from "Building the Oriskany Monument: Marking a Sacred Place" by Virginia B. Kelly