On Saturday, July 22, 2017, I had the honor of being asked to give the keynote address at the 238th Anniversary of the Battle of Minisink Commemoration. I was asked to attend and speak at the event by Sullivan County Historian John Conway who, along with his wife Debra, planned and coordinated both the Commemoration and the erection of a new monument at the Battle of Minisink park that, for the first time, lists the names of the Patriot militia men who lost their lives during the battle. The Commemoration was well attended by local residents, local and county government representatives, historical reenactors. Boy Scouts, and a VFW color guard and was an impressive example of the partnerships that can exist when resident, organizations and local governments come together to preserve their local history. I congratulate John and Debra Conway for their hard work and leadership in successfully raising the funds and facilitating the partnerships necessary to achieve the erection of this new monument.
Telling the Big Story with Local History
Remarks Given at the 238th Anniversary of the Battle of Minisink Commemoration
Devin R. Lander, New York State Historian
I would like to start by saying that it is a fantastic honor to be here with you all in commemoration of this event that happened 238 years ago today and to celebrate those brave patriots who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of American Independence. I would like to personally thank John and Debra Conway for their gracious invitation to be here.
Certainly, those of us gathered here today know the history of what happened during the raid of July 20th, 1779 and the battle that followed on July 22nd. We know that a group of Native American warriors allied with Great Britain and their Loyalist Confederates—all under the leadership of Joseph Brant—stealthily made their way into the Upper Delaware region in a “quest for provisions” and to distract the gathering forces of the Sullivan Campaign who they realized were poised to invade the Iroquois homelands of Central and Western NYS. We know that Brant’s force raided the settlement of Minisink, burned several houses and barns as well as the Dutch Reformed Church, and killed, according to Brant’s estimate, four men while taking three prisoners.
We also know that the raid on July 20th could have been much worse. According to dispatches written by Brant, at Minisink his men did not target women and children as they had done less than a year earlier at Cherry Valley, where at least 30 civilians, including women and children, had been killed by a mixture of British and Iroquois forces under the command of Walter Butler and Brant. Regardless, Brant’s actions on July 20th caused the raising of a Patriot militia force of men under the command of Lt. Colonel Benjamin Tusten and Colonel John Hathorn intent on tracking down the raiders. Unfortunately for the militiamen, Brant was able to outmaneuver them during the battle on July 22nd and take the lives of 47 brave souls, including Colonel Tusten. These are the Patriots that we honor today.
This is the history, as we know it, of the Raid and Battle of Minisink; the local story of what happened here. And, this is an important and vital story. Why? Because it is through remembering, protecting, and sharing local stories like this that we are able to create a fabric of knowledge about our shared pasts. Understanding the complexities of our shared pasts helps to inform our present and shape our future. History provides the context and setting for the full comprehension of the very path we are travelling on as a nation. Without historical context, we as a society would be left blindly flailing in the darkness, unsure of where we have been and ignorant of where we are going.
The History Relevance Campaign, which is a consortium of historical organizations and professionals that lobby nationally for the relevance of history in schools, universities, and communities, has outlined 7 Ways History is Essential in our daily lives today:
1. IDENTITY: History nurtures personal identity in an intercultural world. History enables people to discover their own place in the stories of their families, communities, and nation. They learn the stories of the many individuals and groups that have come before them and shaped the world in which they live.
2. CRITICAL SKILLS: History teaches critical 21st century skills and independent thinking. The practice of history teaches research, judgment of the accuracy and reliability of sources, validation of facts, awareness of multiple perspectives and biases, analysis of conflicting evidence, sequencing to discern causes, synthesis to present a coherent interpretation, clear and persuasive written and oral communication, and other skills that have been identified as critical to a successful and productive life in the 21st century. The rigorous practice of history is the antithesis of Fake News.
3. VITAL PLACES TO LIVE AND WORK: History lays the groundwork for strong, resilient communities. No place really becomes a community until it is wrapped in human memory: family stories, tribal traditions, civic commemorations. No place is a community until it has awareness of its history. Our connections and commitment to one another are strengthened when we share stories and experiences.
4. ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: History is a catalyst for economic growth. People are drawn to communities that have preserved a strong sense of historical identity and character. Cultural heritage is a demonstrated economic asset and an essential component of any vibrant local economy, providing an infrastructure that attracts talent and enhances business development.
5. ENGAGED CITIZENS: History helps people craft better solutions. At the heart of democracy is the practice of individuals coming together to express views and take action. By bringing history into discussions about contemporary issues, we can better understand the origins of and multiple perspectives on the challenges facing our communities and nation. This can clarify misperceptions, reveal complexities, temper volatile viewpoints, open people to new possibilities, and lead to more effective solutions for today’s challenges.
6. LEADERSHIP: History inspires local and global leaders. History provides leaders with inspiration and role models for meeting the complex challenges that face our communities, nation, and the world.
7. LEGACY: History, saved and preserved, is the foundation for future generations. History is crucial to preserving democracy for the future by explaining our shared past. Through the preservation of authentic, meaningful places, documents, artifacts, images, and stories, we leave a foundation upon which future Americans can build. Without the preservation of our histories, future citizens will have no grounding in what it means to be an American.
And while I would argue perhaps that there are more than 7 ways history is essential in our daily lives, the local stories, like the one we are celebrating today, can easily fit into all of the History Relevance Campaign’s categories. So, that is the REALLY Big Picture as to why local history is important. Of course, the events that took place in this area 238 years ago were part of another, more concise, Big Picture. As I noted before, Brant’s raid into the Upper Delaware Region was an attempt by the British and their Native allies to distract the gathering forces of the Sullivan Campaign, which was itself retribution on the part of the Continental Army and George Washington for the atrocities, real and imagined, that took place at the Battle of Wyoming in Pennsylvania and Cherry Valley in 1778, and dozens of other smaller raids across the vital breadbasket of the northeast frontier since 1775. Nor was the conflict simply a result of the American Revolution; the skirmishes, raids, and battles across the frontier constituted a series of borderland wars that were a result of the European empire’s struggle for control of lucrative North America and the Native American struggle for autonomy, going back in New York at least to Kiefts War in the 1640s and the Beaver Wars of the mid-1600s, and even earlier in other parts of the original colonies. This ongoing struggle included the series of violent outbreaks known as the French and Indian Wars of 1688-1763 and certainly intensified during the Revolution when much of the blood shed on the frontier was that of former neighbors, friends, and, sometimes, family.
That is the other Big Picture of the conflict in which the Raid and Battle of Minisink played a part. A struggle over lands, power, riches, autonomy; a struggle in which people of all kinds fought and died to bring forth a new country and a new world at the expense of the old.