The History of Fort Stanwix in 10 Objects

Before we launched our March Madness competition on Facebook a couple of months ago, I knew a bit about Fort Stanwix National Monument.  I understood the vital role the fort played in the American Revolution.  I knew that the original wooden fort was gone by the turn of the 19th century, and that what visitors see today is a faithful reconstruction completed in 1977.  I spent a week at the park back in March of 2005 cavity-packing fragile ceramic and glass vessels in preparation for their relocation to the newly constructed Willett Center.  I had fond memories of friendly staff and some very cool artifacts; the Gothic-paneled pickle jars were favorites of mine.

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NMSC’s Jessica Costello (author) at FOST in 2005, creating custom enclosures for 19th-century pickle jars.

I knew about Fort Stanwix, but what I did not yet grasp was how loved this park is by locals and distant visitors alike.  As March Madness progressed, our Facebook page virtually exploded with likes and comments as hundreds of people logged on to vote for their favorite park in the Northeast Region:  Fort Stanwix National Monument.  (I’m sure the enthusiasm with which FOST staff approached the contest had something to do with this!)  It was truly heartening to witness this outpouring of support, and made me more than a little curious, wondering, what is it about Fort Stanwix?

 

Historically speaking, one cannot overestimate the significance of the fort.  “It is sometimes in the world’s history that momentous consequences hang upon minor events,” wrote Henry J. Cookinham in 1912.  “Such was the case with the defense of Fort Stanwix” (p. 29).  Cookinham goes on to suggest (and other historians agree) that an American defeat by the British at Fort Stanwix would have altered the course of history.  He attributes the success of the American Revolution and the birth of our nation to, as we’ve heard it called so many times, “the fort that never surrendered.”

The museum collection at FOST contains about 700,000 objects – most of them artifacts excavated during archeological excavations – that relate to various periods in the site’s rich history.  When we approached the staff at FOST with our idea for this blog post, they took the seemingly impossible task of selecting 10 objects out of 700,000 to tell the park’s story, and graciously provided us with a list.

In preparation for featuring these objects on our blog, I read about the site, its museum collection, and the history of Rome, New York and the Mohawk Valley.  I was fortunate to spend a day on-site at the Willett Center with two of my colleagues, learning from park staff, touring their gorgeous storage facility, and viewing the selected artifacts from the museum collection.

 

And now, several weeks after Fort Stanwix was declared the March Madness winner, I get it.  This place, the stories it holds, and the incredible artifacts that tell them, are AMAZING.  We are honored to share with you, without further ado, the History of Fort Stanwix in 10 Objects.

 

  1.  Brewerton Point

This Brewerton corner-notched projectile point was recovered during the 2003 archeological excavation that preceded the construction of the Willett Center.  Dating to the Archaic period (9,000 – 3,000 BP), the point represents Native Americans’ use of the land around Fort Stanwix prior to contact with Europeans.  The fort was built by the British in 1758 along a six-mile portage connecting the Mohawk River and Wood Creek.  Known by the British as “the Oneida Carrying Place” or “the Great Carry,” the portage was used for centuries by the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora before Europeans arrived in the area and recognized its importance as a trade route.

 

 

2.  Grenadier’s Match Case

This grenadier’s match case was designed to hold a slow match used for igniting incendiaries like grenades.  It is riveted to a brass plate which was sewn to a belt; the painting shown behind the match case in the Willett Center’s exhibit hall illustrates how it was worn.  It is one of only two ever recovered archeologically in North America.  According to Keith Routley, Museum Curator and Chief of Cultural Resources at FOST, it was “originally identified as a hose nozzle and was later determined to be an exceptionally rare item from an archeological context.  This underscores the potential for further discoveries and the untapped research potential of the museum collection at Fort Stanwix National Monument.”

 

3.  Button Manufacturing Objects

These bone buttons, a cow rib bone from which buttons were cut, and the bit used to make them are poignant reminders that Fort Stanwix in the 18th century was, as FOST intern Jessica Bowes stressed to me during our visit, the frontier.  Soldiers’ reports speak of standing guard in freezing temperatures with inadequate clothing and bare feet.  Supplies were hard to come by, and any skills that could be put to use on-site were surely taken advantage of.  FOST Museum Specialist Amy Roache-Fedchenko, Ph.D. calls these buttons and associated materials some of her favorite artifacts in the collection “because they tell us more about what people were doing here at Fort Stanwix.  The process of making buttons usually doesn’t cross our minds, but the soldiers and civilians who lived here relied upon their wits to supplement their material needs.”

 

4.  Exploded Mortar

This exploded mortar was excavated in 2013, and represents the first 18th-century feature to be identified archeologically at the site since the 1970s.   British forces used these 4.5-inch “Royal” mortars against the Continental troops during the 1777 siege at Fort Stanwix. Kelly Roman, Park Ranger at FOST, loves the mortars in the collection, explaining that “they were most likely thrown at the fort during the 1777 siege period.  Which means they are also likely some of the only physical evidence of the actual event…It’s one thing to read a journal account.  It’s another to look at the actual threat that was recorded within it.”  One can just imagine this very mortar leaving the hands of the British and striking its target inside the fort.

 

5.  Orderly Book

This orderly book was kept at Fort Stanwix by Major John Grahm of the 1st New York Regiment from August 9,1779 to July 12, 1780 (the fort was then called Fort Schuyler, having been renamed by the Continental Army in 1776).  A primary use of the orderly book was discipline; Major Grahm recorded any new rules, orders, and duties in the book daily, then read them aloud to the entire garrison, who could not plead ignorance in the case of infractions.  This book offers a rare glimpse into what life was like for the 700 men living at the fort before it was destroyed by fire in 1781.  (Yes, 700!  No wonder Grahm ran a tight ship!)  For FOST Park Ranger William Sawyer, the orderly book is “an interesting glimpse into the past.  Proof that these events really happened.”  By the way, if you’re marveling at the wonderful condition of this 18th-century book, take a look at these photos chronicling the conservation of the orderly book by NPS conservators at Harpers Ferry Center!

orderly-book

1779-1780 orderly book from FOST museum collection.

6.  Captain Basil Hall Chamberpot

The interior of this pearlware chamber pot exhibits a transfer-printed image of British naval officer Captain Basil Hall.  Why the strategic placement of Hall’s likeness?  After touring the United States in the 1820s, Hall wrote “Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828”, which many Americans thought painted a derogatory picture of them and their new nation.  According to “An American” who reviewed Hall’s book in 1830, “the whole of his work…consists of a comparison between the institutions, character, and manners of the Americans, compared to those of Great Britain, always to the disadvantage of the former, and generally conveyed in terms bitterly sarcastic and contemptuous”  (p. 8).  Rome, New York was incorporated as a village in 1819.  Residents were surely proud of and hopeful for their home town, where construction of the Erie Canal had just begun two years earlier.  Clearly, to early 19th-century Romans, the best place for Captain Basil Hall was the bottom of the pot!

Pearlware Chamber Pot, with transfer print of "Captain Basil Hall"

Pearlware Chamber Pot with transfer print of Captain Basil Hall, from museum collection at FOST.

 

7.  Hotel Keys

These brass keys may have once opened guest rooms in the stately 19th-century Stanwix Hall Hotel.  (You can still read the room numbers stamped onto the keys!)  This hotel, built in various stages in the 1840s, was among the structures torn down in the 1970s to accommodate the urban renewal project that included reconstruction of the fort.  The Stanwix Hall Hotel welcomed visitors to Rome as the city flourished in the 19th and early 20th-centuries with the development of new and diverse industries (cheese, copper, and railroads among them).  In 1878, Everts and Fariss wrote in The History of Oneida County, New York that “‘Stanwix Hall’ is announced on the arrival of trains at the depot to be the ‘principal hotel in the city’ and as the intelligent passenger hears its name spoken there are awakened in his mind memories of the days of ‘long ago’…” (p. 381).

 

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Exterior of Stanwix Hall Hotel. Image found in Images of America:  Rome Revisited

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Interior of Stanwix Hall Hotel.  Image found in Images of America:  Rome Revisited

8.  Child’s Train and Toy Gun

These two toys represent the families who lived, worked, and played in 19th-century Rome.  When the site of the fort was cleared before its reconstruction in the 1970s, several homes and commercial buildings from the 1800s were torn down.  The Kingsley House, pictured here, was home to Dr. Willey J.P. Kingsley and his family. Kingsley was a prominent figure in 19th-century Rome and served as the Director of the Rome Locomotive Works.  According to Dr. Amy Roache-Fedchenko, his sons “Willey and George were born in 1865 and 1867 and were likely the owners of this toy train.  The toy gun was found in a privy a couple doors down from the Kingsley House.  The privy was used from 1890 to about 1930 and was associated with a home that was occupied by laborers.  Unfortunately, this is all we know about the people who lived there.  But it is enough for us to wonder, did the children from these two homes know each other and play together?”

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19th-century toys from museum collection at FOST

 

9.  Blueprint

This blueprint, preserved in the archival collection at FOST, illustrates historical architect Orville Carroll’s 1974 plan for the reconstructed Fort Stanwix.  Joan Zenzen writes in her book Fort Stanwix National Monument that “one defining characteristic of Carroll is his attention to detail” (p. 81).  He relied on many different resources while drafting his plans, including archeological finds at the site, visits to other 18th-century forts, letters and journals written during the fort’s use, and drawings sketched onto historic powder horns.  According to FOST Museum Technician Jessica Bowes, “these blueprints symbolize the excitement around the park in the 1970s and the care that went into its conceptualization.”

 

10.  Two Row Wampum Belt

This Two Row Wampum Belt was a gift to Fort Stanwix National Monument from the Oneida Nation upon the opening of the Willett Center in 2005.  This extraordinary object represents the ethnographic significance of a site that is rich in the history and culture of the Oneida people.  As explained by Keith Routley, Museum Curator and Chief of Cultural Resources at FOST, it is a historical document that conveys a mutual respect and an ongoing relationship between the park and the Oneida Nation. Routley explains, “this wampum belt underscores the ongoing significance of the events that transpired at and around Fort Stanwix to contemporary Native Americans.”

 

WAMPUM BELT

Two Row Wampum Belt in the museum collection at FOST.  Gift to the park from the Oneida Nation.

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Ceremony marking the opening of the Willett Center in 2005.

Our March Madness competition on Facebook was a lot of fun.  We got a kick out of watching parks tout themselves via witty memes and historical factoids, and we loved seeing support pile up for parks that we’ve worked with and admire.  But the best part of March Madness was the publicity that it created for so many of our Northeast Region parks.  One of the greatest things I gained through out contest was the opportunity to learn more about, and share with you, a truly remarkable, one-of-a-kind museum collection.  If you’ve never been to Fort Stanwix National Monument, go!  The history of the place will awe you, the artifacts on exhibit will amaze you, and the warmth and hospitality of the FOST staff and the people of Rome will leave you wanting to return.

 

 

We extend our most heartfelt thanks to the curatorial staff at Fort Stanwix National Monument for generously sharing their time and knowledge with us during the development of this blog post. Thank you to Keith Routley, Museum Curator and Chief of Cultural Resources; Amy Roache-Fedchenko, Ph.D., Museum Specialist; Jessica Bowes, Museum Technician; and Hannah Flemming, NCPE intern. We also thank Park Ranger Tom Timmons for an informative and engaging tour of Fort Stanwix and Visitor Use Assistant Tina Cutler for her warm welcome while on site.

References:

A Review of Captain Basil Hall’s Travels in North America in the years 1827 and 1828 by an American.  London:  Kennett, 1830.

Cookinham, Henry J.  History of Oneida County, New York:  From 1700 to Present Time.  S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912.

Everts and Fariss.  History of Oneida County New York.  Philadelphia, 1878.

Hanson, Lee M.  Casemates and Cannonballs:  Archaeological Investigations at Fort Stanwix, Rome, New York.  Washington:  National Park Service, 1975.

Leonard, Peter M. Images of America:  Rome Revisited.  Charleston:  Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

Ryan, Mary P.  Cradle of the Middle Class:  The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981. 

Zenzen, Joan M.  Fort Stanwix National Monument:  Reconstructing the Past and Partnering for the Future.  Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2008.

Images are courtesy of NPS unless otherwise noted. —

 

 

 

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About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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One Response to The History of Fort Stanwix in 10 Objects

  1. Pingback: NMSC: Our Best of 2016! | NMSC Archeology & Museum Blog

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