When most Americans are asked to recount a name synonymous with the Battle of Oriskany, the answer that comes most easily is that of Gen. Nicholas Herkimer. But there are other heroes in that bloodiest of Revolutionary War battles, and one whose glory goes unsung except amongst his own people – an Oneida man named Han Yerry Tehawengaragwen.
Han Yerry led a band of Oneidas who had joined ranks with the colonists, on Aug. 6, 1777, at Oriskany. The battle was a key point in the outcome of the war and the eventual American victory over the British at the Battle of Saratoga.
The scene initially was set for disaster. In order to suppress the colonists’ upheaval, the British sent separate forces. One column moved south from Canada, commanded by Gen. Burgoyne. Another force, led by Gen. St. Leger, was to join Burgoyne near Albany after taking Fort Stanwix. The strategy was to divide the colonies in half. The attempt was thwarted, however, at Oriskany.
Although more than 500 people 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.
Han Yerrry was one of the several Oneidas who distinguished himself during the course of that August day at Oriskany more than two hundred years ago. And while his name may be unfamiliar to many, it is exalted in Oneida oral history.
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.
There were other Oneidas who also fought for the colonial cause during this integral battle for independence. Their names have been lost, but oral history tells us of their presence and their collective valor.
Each year, the Oneida Nation joins with its neighbors to commemorate the noble victory of our respective ancestors at Oriskany. Because of their mutual steadfast commitment to colonial independence, the United States of America was forged.
Heroes come in many ages, in many sizes and in many colors. It does not matter the color of a person’s skin when fighting side by side in battle. Nor should those differences matter beyond the battlefield.
We joined forces with the fledgling United States because we believed in its just cause. We believed in the colonists’ rights to be free from their British oppressors.
When we gather with others at the historic site of the Battle of Oriskany, our pride soars and our hearts swell.
The friendship that was cemented on that bloody field of battle more than 200 years ago remains alive today. The Oneida Nation continues its commitment to its neighbors and still contributes to their success.
We offer friendship on many levels and extend a welcoming hand to all those who offer a mutual hand in return. We Oneidas are loyal allies to our friends, just as we were loyal allies to the United States at its inception.
It is our hope that others will come to know the name of our brave ancestor, Han Yerry. Although omitted from most history books, he and other Oneidas played a vital role in the battle known as Oriskany.