Searching for the
Although Grandma could probably have told me more about the American Revolution, the topic was one I resisted. When it came up, I listened and took notes. But I didn't pursue it the way I pursued other topics.
In part, my resistance arose from my earliest impressions of the DAR. While in junior high, I had attended a meeting of the Children of the American Revolution, held at the home of a DAR member. I don't recall the program. But I do remember having to dress up beforehand and then sit politely until it was over—stuffy formalities that felt more like going to church than anything else. Years later, I felt similarly uncomfortable when Grandma talked about her DAR meetings.
My resistance to the American Revolution arose from another source as well. In school the topic was a regular feature of our American history studies. Although some of these experiences were positive, my overall feelings about classroom history were mixed.
In the fifth grade, for example, I enjoyed the puzzle-solving character of our history homework: we were given lists of names, events, etc., and were asked to look them up and then write short identifications. But committing that information to memory didn't appeal to me.
Later, in my seventh-grade history class I enjoyed making a poster that illustrated why the colonists broke with the mother country, and my good grades that year won me a DAR history award. But taking the exams was a stressful, unpleasant experience.
By the time I got to high school, my ambivalence toward the formal study of history was well-established. There was no avoiding the required American history course. But in order to have time during the regular school year for the courses I really wanted to take, I arranged to study American history in summer school.
Not until my college years did I begin considering a career in history. By then, however, I realized that my interest had arisen from a different set of experiences entirely.
As a younster I had responded strongly to old objects. While living in Oklahoma, I had assembled my own museum—a collection of various items, with labels I had typed, all neatly displayed on a set of metal utility shelves.
Also important to my later interest in history was my family's move to Mississippi in 1961. Although I wasn't quite ten at the time, I sensed that Oklahoma was historically barren terrain when compared to our new surroundings.
Without being told, I discovered for myself the special relationship the South has with the past. In the words of William Faulkner—as spoken by a character in his novel Intruder in the Dust: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
I was especially impressed with how the Civil War remained a powerful presence. Banks still closed on Jefferson Davis's birthday, for example, and there were no public celebrations on the Fourth of July—because on that day in 1863 Vicksburg had fallen to Union seige.
During the 1960s my interest in old objects and historic sites did come together—but not as a result of classroom history studies or meetings sponsored by the DAR. Instead, what excited me were visits to Civil War battlefields.
Over the years I went to Vicksburg and Chickamauga, Antietam and Gettysburg, and others. But my favorite was Shiloh. My first visit there came in 1962, at the time of the centennial, and in later years I came with the scouts, to hike various trails throughout the park.
Some aspects of our hikes resembled school work: to prove that we had indeed "gone the distance," we had to record answers to questions about the markers and monuments we passed. Other aspects resembled scout awards—because the successful completion of each hike entitled us to order special patches or medals. What set the hikes apart, however, was the experience of the land itself. In hike after hike we got to know the terrain.
At the heart of the park—about a quarter mile from Pittsburg Landing (on the Tennessee River)—was the visitors' center, with its museum displays and movie theater inside and a picnic area and a gift shop outside. From there, a network of roads stretches across the park's vast acreage. But none of these developments upstaged the land: deep ravines leading down to the river, fields and orchards still maintained by the Park Service, and thick stands of trees wherever we looked.
Most important of all—from my point of view—were the hundreds of metal plaques, stone markers, and cannons, for these were the talismans that tied together the terrain and the events of 1862.
A blue plaque at the edge of a field recorded where the first shots had been fired, after an early-morning reconnoitering party of Union soldiers stumbled across the advanced units of Albert Sidney Johnston's Army of the Mississippi. Elsewhere, a long row of cannons were trained on a distant road, which the Confederates had transformed into a "hornets' nest" for the Union defenders. In the woods not far away, a fenced-in oak tree—now dead and decaying—marked the spot where General Johnston had been mortally wounded. Further on, the earthworks and cannons of "Grant's Last Line" had protected his access to the river. And in yet another part of the park, the burial trenches for the Confederate dead were outlined in cannonballs.
I left home for college knowing that Shiloh was for me a special place. But I was slow to link my experiences there with my professional training as an historian. Nothing in my graduate studies suggested that historical research had anything to do with hikes on Civil War battlefields. Instead, the connection between land and scholarship came to me in the course of my visits with Grandma.
As my trip notes accumulated, I realized I didn't know how to drive to many of the places that she had mentioned in her stories—even to places that I had visited as a youngster—so one Saturday afternoon, after leaving Grandma for my return trip to Rochester, I decided to do some exploring.
I followed a promising road up the hill and succeeded in finding the farmhouse where she had grown up and the one-room schoolhouse where she had attended grades 1-8. On a later trip, I followed a different route up the hill—via Oak Hill Road out of Savona. And on still other days I took other roads, gradually creating for myself an overall sense of the terrain.
Then in the fall of 1987 Lillian—Grandma's niece, the daughter of her sister Maude—died, and the farm was put up for sale. It stayed on the market for about a year, thereby providing me an opportunity to explore at will.
On my visits with Grandma, I'd arrange to arrive late or leave early—to give me time to go to the farm. Once there, I'd park near the farmhouse and then follow the tractor trail up the hill. On either side were fields that a neighboring farmer still cut for hay. The hillcrest itself was mostly tree covered. But a small field on the far side offered a fine view of the valley below.
Best of all were the stone fences I came across wherever I went. Although short sections had been removed in a few places, the system remained basically intact. Long stretches still served to define field edges. But others cut through deep woods, where once the whole area had been cleared. Just as the markers and monuments at Shiloh helped tie to the land the events of 1862, so the stone fences helped tie to the land Grandma's stories about growing up on her parents' farm.
Until then, my research activities had been confined to working in libraries and archives or conducting oral interviews. But the experience of exploring the hill country by car and hiking around the farm showed me that research could also include direct contact with the land.
Because geology was an essential component of what I began calling "land research," one of my earliest projects after Grandma's death was to learn more about the geology of the region. Especially useful was Bradford B. Van Diver's Roadside Geology of New York (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1985), and rather unexpectedly the book led me to the American Revolution.
Among the roads Van Diver described was Route 21, and in the section on Naples I was surprised to read (p. 237):
This is also the place where General George Washington first took command of the American Army on July 3, 1775. A plaque in the village park marks the spot where he stood on this momentous occasion…
Until coming across that passage, the American Revolution had seemed impossibly distant to me. But now I was offered an opportunity to hop in my car and drive to the site of one of its events—to the very spot where Washington had assumed the leadership role for which he became world famous.
I made the trip in September, 1991, on the day of the annual Harvest Festival—so I had to conduct my search through crowds of people. In one park I located the marker for the Seneca leader Canesque (also mentioned in Van Diver's book) and in another park I found a marker with the text of Lincoln's famous speech at Gettysburg. But nothing I came across said anything about Washington.
Puzzled by my lack of success—and wondering if I had somehow missed the plaque—I stopped at the bookstore on Main Street and located the book on the shelves. Then I turned toward the proprietress to make my inquiry. At that moment she told me from across the room (without my having said a word): "It isn't true."
The book, then, was just plain wrong. But more than that, the whole experience showed me how little I knew about the American Revolution—for no internal voice had warned me that the passage couldn't possibly have been correct, that it made no sense for Washington to have been in the Naples area in 1775.
Nevertheless, the challenge had been raised: were there ways in which the American Revolution could be successfully linked to the Southern Tier? Could I discover the presence of the American Revolution on the terrain to which Grandma had introduced me?
The name of the county suggested one possibility. But I quickly learned that Steuben County could boast about as much direct contact with Baron von Steuben as Starkville—the Mississippi town where I had grown up—could with General John Stark.
More promising were cemeteries in the area. Although the ancestor on whom Grandma had based her DAR membership was buried in New England, I knew that my grandfather's ancestor, John Dean, was buried in the Town of Pulteney. From my cousin I learned the general location of the cemetery, and on one of my day trips I located it. But the gravestone was a recent replacement, giving me little sense of the past.
On another trip—this time to the big cemetery in Corning—I located the tombstone for Alice Dean, a descendant of John Dean. She had been active in the Corning DAR at the time that Grandma joined, and alongside her tombstone was a bronze DAR marker. But again the ties to the 18th century were weak.
I even tried visiting the monument southeast of Elmira that commemorated the Battle of Newtown—in which the army of General John Sullivan fought a combined force of Iroquois warriors and Tory soldiers in 1779.
The Sullivan Expedition had been Washington's idea. Wanting to put an end to raids on frontier settlements, he had placed Sullivan in command of one of that year's major campaigns. Sullivan's orders were to destroy the towns of the hostile Iroquois—and the success of the expedition won for Washington the Seneca nickname "Town Destroyer."
The Battle of Newtown was the sole occasion when the two sides had fully and directly engaged each other. Years before, I had picnicked at the site with Grandma and other family members. Coming again during the spring of 1992, I found that the park wasn't yet open for traffic—so I left my car at the gate and walked up. By the time I reached the hilltop monument, however, I was all turned around. In which direction was I looking? Where was the battle itself actually fought? Like my other efforts, this one too failed to give me a strong sense of historical place.
In September, 1992, I tried yet again to locate the American Revolution. I drove to Geneseo and then west on US-20A. The highway quickly dropped into the broad, level valley of the Genesee River, and just before reaching Cuylerville, I came to a small park on the left.
From the stone and metal markers I learned that two members of the Sullivan Expedition—Lieutenant Thomas Boyd and Sergeant Michael Parker—had been tortured and killed here. When Sullivan and his army arrived a short while later, they had destroyed the nearby Seneca town. Here also they had halted their westward advance and begun their return trip.
In a new edition of Mary Jemison's autobiography (Syracuse University Press, 1990), I had read her firsthand account of the town's destruction. Jemison was a white captive whom the Senecas had adopted, and in 1823 she had told her life story to James E. Seaver. "In one or two days after the skirmish at Connissius lake," she recalled (page 58):
Sullivan and his army arrived at Genesee river, where they destroyed every article of the food kind that they could lay their hands on. A part of our corn they burnt, and threw the remainder into the river. They burnt our houses, killed what few cattle and horses they could find, destroyed our fruit trees, and left nothing but the bare soil and timber.
As the last leg of my trip that day, I drove to the head of "Connissius"—now Conesus—Lake. Following the directions in Sol Stember's Bicentennial Guide to the American Revolution (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1974), I turned off Route 256 onto a narrow, unpaved, road (Gray Road) up the steep hill.
The first time by, I missed the final turnoff— which came just as the woods gave way to open fields. But a woman on horseback set me straight. Sure enough, at the end of the lane—near a lone, small house—was a weathered plywood sign reading "Groveland Ambuscade."
After crossing the tall grass of the little picnic area, I came to a path that took me across a shallow, tree-filled ravine and then into a field. Toward the upper end of the field was a stone monument surrounded by a chain-link fence. Here Boyd's scouting party had unexpectedly encountered a party of Senecas, who were probably preparing to ambush the main body of Sullivan's army. In effect, what Boyd and his men did was to trigger the surprise attack prematurely.
The monument, an obelisk, was much smaller than the one on the hilltop near Elmira—which, in turn, was much smaller than the Washington monument in the nation's capital. I decided that I could see in the size of these different obelisks the chain of command: from Boyd to Sullivan to Washington. But having visited all three, I felt that the smallest was the most convincingly tied to the land.
Although this was my first visit, the general topography was familiar to me from my walks around the farm where Grandma was born. I could see where the gentle curves of the hilltop terrain gave way to precipitous decline. I could also see how the shallow ravine I had crossed earlier began to widen and deepen—offering the Senecas ample cover from which to harass the passing army.
Accustomed as I was to Civil War battlefields, the scale of the groups in 1779 was ridiculously small: two dozen men in Boyd's party, a couple hundred in the Seneca war party, and several thousand in Sullivan's army—far less than the total deaths on a single day at Shiloh.
Also markedly different was the transportation system. In 1779 people usually followed paths or streams. The only road in the area was the one that Sullivan's engineers were cutting in the valley below.
Yet the overall territory covered by the American Revolution had been nearly as vast as the territory covered by the Civil War. Now I finally understood why the American Revolution had been so hard for me to pin down. Despite its massive impact on American history, its physical traces—in contrast to those of the Civil War—were highly diffuse.
That afternoon, the textbook accounts of Sullivan's Expedition became real to me in a way they had never been before. As I strolled around the isolated hillside monument, I experienced the same personal contact with the past that I had enjoyed at Shiloh. "Here—right here," I marveled to myself, "within thirty miles of where I live, occurred one of the events in America's war for independence."
© 1996, Thomas D. Cornell