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The Historic Markers

The Fort Hendrick historic marker. The Fort Canajoharie historic marker.

These two cast iron markers had their genesis in a unique program begun over 70 years ago. In 1926, as part of the impending celebration of the American Revolution Sesquicentennial, the State of New York initiated a program to provide an unprecedented way to commemorate places of historic significance. Sites would be identified and permanently commemorated with state historic markers. Over seven decades later, these cast iron blue and gold plaques, mounted on roadside posts, have become a ubiquitous feature of the cultural landscape. Intended to educate the traveling public, which was just beginning to become mobilized by the automobile, these signs would act as informative captions on a vast statewide panorama of historic places.

By the very nature of the process these markers often acted as an archeological inventory, documenting invisible subsurface resources that survived only in dimming recollections or oral tradition. As such, markers that have long outlasted the informants who contributed to their content may represent the only surviving record of some sites otherwise unknown. Frequently important contributions to regional research can be made by these markers, in concert with the faded application files at the State Museum, where documentation justifying both the text of each proposed marker and its location can be found. This has certainly been the case in my own research into Mohawk Valley transportation during the Early Republic Period (c.1790-1820).

But sometimes the very erection of an historic marker becomes a component of local history. Relying too heavily on fragmentary or biased verbal tradition for both content and placement, it can distort archeological fact, lending significance to a place that has none, or diverting attention from a place that is even more deserving of it. Such seems to have been the case in this tale of two markers in the Town of Danube, Herkimer County.

The degree to which the mandate to monument our past (Laws of NY 1926, Ch. 786) was reflected in local activity often depended on the interest and efforts of motivated individuals in each locality, with some areas sprouting a veritable forest of historic markers, while in other areas, no less endowed with historic sites, only one or two were erected.

In the Herkimer/Montgomery County area the level of interest was reflected in a series of lengthy articles run by the Fort Plain Standard in the summer of 1927. Among the numerous markers being proposed we find:

INDIAN CASTLE - The Upper or Canajoharie Mohawk Castle stood on site of Greene farm greenhouses. Church was Mohawk Indian Mission built by Sir William Johnson, 1769. Fort Hendrick, British army post, erected near here during the French and Indian war (1754-1760). FORT CANAJOHARIE, 1756-1760 - British fort, built during the French and Indian war to guard river ford. Stood on high ground near here. (Fort Plain Standard, June 23, 1927)

The church referred to above was the Indian Castle Mission Church that still stands, overlooking Route 5S and the Thruway at Indian Castle and sporting the date of "1769." It is this locale that traditionally has been represented as the site of the Upper Mohawk Castle (palisaded village) of the eighteenth century - hence the name of the hamlet.

A week later the Standard proudly announced that the State Historian had approved the list of potential markers, and additional details on the location of the two signs cited above were given:

Indian Castle, 1700-1779. On Lyman Greene's farm at Greene's Corners on north side South Shore road. Fort Canajoharie, 1756. On Dutchtown road. Opposite outlet of East Canada Creek in the Mohawk river. (Fort Plain Standard, June 30, 1927)

At some point soon after, the title line of the "Indian Castle" marker was changed to "Ft. Hendrick," and the text of each was edited to the brevity required by the format of the iron marker. And in 1928 the two markers were erected as they stand today, over three kilometers apart and seemingly establishing for all posterity the locations of these two mid-eighteenth century British outposts.

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