August 6 marked the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany, a seldom recalled, but key, battle of the Revolutionary War. On that hot summer day of 1777, Oneidas and colonists fought side-by-side for the cause of liberty and freedom in what is known as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Each year, the Oneida Nation joins the community to honor their respective ancestors and commemorate their sacrifice and bravery during a commemoration ceremony held at the site of the historic battle. Because of this mutual commitment to colonial independence, the United States of America was forged.
Several events were hosted throughout the weekend of Aug. 5 and 6 culminating in the solemn commemoration held Sunday evening at the Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site attended by approximately 200 visitors. Oneida Nation Members participated in the events to honor the friendship formed nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago.
Council Member Brian Patterson (Bear Clan) spoke about the historic battle and what it meant to the Oneida People as well as their relationship with the fledgling United States.
“This commemoration is a testament to the lasting legacy of our people, and the relationships forged on that fateful day in 1777 remain paramount to the Nation,” said Brian. He also shared the story of a young Oneida named Paulus who, during an encounter with Joseph Brant (a pro-British Mohawk) near Fort Stanwix a few days before the battle, turned down an offer to join the British replying “the Oneidas would persevere, if need be, till all were annihilated.” That steadfast resolution has lived on in generations of Oneidas till this day.
“I look forward to the continued participation in this event by the Oneida Nation and our future generations who will come here to remember and honor their past,” added Brian. “Our heritage is further strengthened and preserved through events like this and new ventures such as our partnership with the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.”
Kathy Patterson and grandson Benny Welch (both Bear Clan) placed the Oneida offering – a plate of food from the feast that took place before the ceremony to honor the deceased – at the base of the Oriskany monument along with the many wreathes presented by descendents of those who fought the battle. Kathy has been coming to the commemoration for several years, teaching the tradition of honoring her ancestors to her grandchildren.
“A lot of our ancestors died on that field,” said Dale Rood (Turtle Clan), Oneida Nation Council Member, who helped raise the Oneida Nation flag at the Oriskany site. “The decision to fight with the colonists over the British had to be difficult to make. In the end, we chose to fight for the people we knew, that lived here. If it weren’t for the Oneidas involvement in the American Revolution, the outcome might’ve been different.”
Ron Patterson (Wolf Clan) and Alex Dickerman (Turtle Clan) took part in re-enactments throughout the weekend and Ron assisted Dale with raising the Oneida Nation flag. “It recognizes the Nation as a political entity; that we are a sovereign nation,” said Dale on the significance of the Nation flag being flown alongside the American flag at the site. “It says that we exist and we are here.
The battle was a key turning point in the Revolutionary War, which eventually led to the American victory over the British at the Battle of Saratoga.
Learning of British invasion plans, American volunteers of the Mohawk Valley (Tryon County Militia) and their Oneida allies rushed to relieve their besieged comrades at Fort Stanwix. On August 6 they blundered into an ambush set by the British around a small ravine two miles from the Oneida Bear Clan village of Oriska. A tremendous slaughter of American forces occurred during the opening minutes of the engagement. The survivors gathered around their commander, Gen. Nicholas Herkimer, on a plateau west of the ambush ravine. They and their Oneida allies fought the British and Tory Indians to a standstill in the ensuing battle.
The Oneidas and the colonial militia were able to stop the advance of a British expeditionary force marching from the Great Lakes under Gen. St. Leger, who was attempting to move east and join Gen. Burgoyne and his forces marching south from Canada. If the two forces had united, they could have succeeded in dividing the colonies in half.
Although hundreds died during the opening volley of the battle, and Gen. Herkimer sustained mortal wounds, Oriskany is considered a military victory for the colonists. The Americans and their Oneida allies prevented the British forces from uniting, which in turn contributed to Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga.
“The sacrifices made by the Oneida on that day were many, but the battle was monumental, not only in deterring the British advance, but in securing ultimate victory and freedom for the new country,” said Brian. “The Oneida Nation and the United States shall remain forever as allies in war and partners in peace.”
A Lasting Legacy
The friendship that was cemented on that bloody field of battle long ago remains alive today. And while the role the Oneidas played in the American fight for freedom may not be prominent in most history books, efforts by the Nation to protect their legacy as the first allies to the Americans are taking shape on a national scale.
Earlier this year, the Oneida Indian Nation participated in the grand opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA., where the second-floor atrium is named for the Oneida Nation. A prominent gallery, complete with recreated settings, also pays homage to the historical account of the Oneida Nation’s legacy as the first allies of America. This new museum helps preserve the Nation’s culture, tell the story of its historic bonds with the founding fathers and ensure that generations to come can learn about the Nation’s important contributions in establishing the foundation of the United States, as well as the country’s multicultural roots and history.