The Battle of Oriskany, the Iroquois, and Anglo-American Imperialism

It was once said that the sun never sets on the British empire. And that was certainly the case back in 1776, prior to the American Revolution.

The first one, anyway…

Empires typically, and the British one certainly, treated their colonies poorly at best. These American colonies were no different, aside from the fact that most other conquered lands were inhabited solely by less advanced indigenous people, or the British conquered another country and took over their enemy’s colony of less advanced indigenous people. These people essentially became slaves to the empire, their lands and resources plundered.

The New World was full of less advanced indigenous people as well, mistakenly termed Indians when Christopher Columbus thought he landed in the West Indies. For the most part the American colonists and the American Indians got along fairly well, although I wouldn’t be naive enough to suggest that their fate would have been any different had the British won and western expansion occured under their banner.

We all know the basic history of the American Revolution and the birth of our republic, the famous generals and the battles they fought, the names, faces, and places that make up our short history.

What many people may not know is that our republic wasn’t the first representative form of government in North America. The savages that our forefathers later saw fit to try and eradicate had us beat by a few hundred years.

Although some scholars believe the Iroqouis Confederacy was formed as early as 1100 CE, the historical consensus has its beginnings in the 1400’s or 1500’s. The confederacy consisted of five Indian nations of similar language and ancestry, occupying what is now most of upstate New York – the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Senca nations. Just prior to the Revolution, the Tuscaroras came up from what is now North Carolina to form the Six Nations.

The Iroquois Confederacy was quite advanced in thinking for the time, especially considering they had absolutely no knowledge of the history of the rest of the world that our own Founders relied so heavily upon in crafting our own Constitution and Bill of Rights. No classic literature or historical perspective whatsoever, but there were many similarities between their Constitution and our own. In fact, there seems to be much debate in the academic world as to how much – if any – influence the Iroquois had on our founding principles. Interestingly enough, it was the Iroquois women that elected their tribal representatives, of which each tribe had equal say at the council but were allocated representatives based on tribal population.

Important matters were discussed and decided at these councils, and if consensus was not reached on some particular matter, the individual tribes were free to do as they will, provided their action – or inaction – wasn’t detrimental to another tribe or the confederacy itself. As war broke out in America and the tribes unable to reach consensus on which side to support, the individual nations were free to follow their own course. This led to the breakup of the confederacy when the Oneidas and Tuscaroras siding with the patriots while the others took up arms for the British.

Here is an excellent paper breaking down both sides of the Iroquois Influence thesis, as well as providing some great history of the Iroquois themselves.

Aside from a 10 month stint in Florida in 1994, I’ve lived all of my 41 years in the middle of what was once the heart of the Six Nations – the Mohawk Valley, gateway to the Adirondack Mountains and what many had called the bread basket of the American Revolution. I grew up just a mile from the Mohawk River and spent my childhood playing in the very forests that were once home to the Iroquois.

Although my family came from Europe in the 1800’s, I still feel a sense of pride in my community and their contribution to the Revolution. Human nature is a funny thing.

In colonial times one could travel from the Great Lakes to Albany and New York almost entirely by water – an important trade route. The only exception was a twelve mile stretch of forest between Wood Creek to the north and the Mohawk River to the south that came to be known as the Oneida Carrying Place. The British understood this, and built fortifications at both ends to protect the valuable route.

On the southern end of the Oneida Carry, as others have called it, not far from the meandering Mohawk River, Fort Stanwix was built in what today is the city of Rome, and would later be known as the “fort that never surrenders.”

In August 1777 Fort Stanwix came under siege lasting 21 days as part of the Saratoga Campaign, led by British General Barry St. Leger. In an attempt to lay the siege, General Nicholas Herkimer was sent with a contingent of the Tryon County Militia and Oneida Indians totalling 800 men.

Since the Revolution pitted neighbor against neighbor and even family against family, spying on each other became commonplace, so it wasn’t long before General St. Leger got word of General Herkimer’s march from the east, and sent out a force of 450 men to intercept the patriots. The two forces met about 6 miles south of Fort Stanwix along a narrow stream in the town of Oriskany, and so commenced the Battle of Oriskany.

What is unique about the Battle of Oriskany is that no British troops participated in the battle; it was fought strictly between patriots and loyalists, along with contingents of allied Indians on both sides.

Despite being a clash of relatively small forces, the Battle of Oriskany is regarded as on of the most brutal and bloody battles of the Revolution, with the loyalists losing 150 men and the patriots losing 450. General Herkimer was wounded in the fight and died days later, but the Battle of Oriskany and the lifting of the siege on Fort Stanwix proved to be pivotal in the later defeat of the British at Saratoga.

So what does any of this have to do with modern America?

First we should consider that prior to the American Revolution, no one considered or called themselves Americans. They considered themselves loyal British subjects. In fact, the famous cry of Paul Revere and others was not, “the British are coming!” but rather, “the regulars are coming!” – meaning the regular army.

We should also bear in mind that the war ultimately started when the British army was sent to Lexington and Concord not to levy more taxes but to confiscate arms. To disarm the people – always a necessary step when attempting to steal another’s land or maintain control of it. We seem to forget that minor detail in all the talk about taxation without representation. That’s why the Second Amendment is the second amendment.

During the Revolution there were basically two choices to be considered- either remain under British rule or strike out on our own; forge a new frontier with history and experience as our guide. The people were bitterly divided. The Battle of Oriskany illustrates just how bitter this divide was, with brother fighting brother in savage close-quarter fighting. The Mohawk Valley was devestated after the battle, with many families losing all of their males.

Although we are no longer at war with the British Empire, our country has become the very thing that our forefathers fought so bravely and selflessly to free ourselves from – a marauding, sadistic empire.

In the 18th century those that fought the British empire were called patriots and rebels, today we call them terrorists.

Today we are still a country deeply divided, only this time it isn’t between loyalists and rebels but Democrat versus Republican, Liberal versus Conservative, Right versus Left. Each side claims to have all the answers while the other side has none, all the while conveniently ignorant of the fact that neither side has any interest other than maintaining the empire and carving off their very own pound of flesh.

We have forgotten our history and what it truly means to be American.

We have squandered this precious gift and allowed ourselves to be used as the engine of empire.