Submitted by Oswego County
OSWEGO — More than 200 British, Continental, Native, and civilian re-enactors from around the United States and Canada will converge at Fort Ontario State Historic Site Aug. 14 and 15 for the National Encampment of the Brigade of the American Revolution (BAR). The event commemorates the important role Fort Ontario played in the nationâ€™s War for Independence (1775-1783), said Paul Lear, Historic Site Manager.
Children’s games, a colonial tavern, period music and other activities are scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tactical weapons demonstrations with an assault on the fort will be held at 2 p.m. both days. For details visit the Friends of Fort Ontario Web site at www.fortontario.com. Regular admission will be charged. Children age 12 and under will be admitted free.
According to Lear, shortly after the War for Independence began in April 1775, Fort Ontario served as a refuge for citizens loyal to the King of Great Britain fleeing persecution from rebels in the Colony of New York. On June 17, 1775, British Indian Superintendent Colonel Guy Johnson held a conference at Fort Ontario with 1,400 Iroquois in an attempt to get them to join the British against the rebelling colonies. Only the Mohawk Nation, led by Joseph Brant, pledged loyalty to King George III and followed Johnson to Canada when the conference broke up on July 8.
In 1777, Fort Ontario served as the launching point for the westernmost wing of the famous British three-pronged attack on Albany, planned to split the colonies in two. Brigadier General Barry St. Leger left Fort Ontario with 1,500 British Regulars, Native Forces, and Loyalist troops on July 26, 1777. St. Leger encountered stiff resistance from Continental troops garrisoning Fort Stanwix, now Rome, NY, and three weeks of siege and bombardment failed to force a surrender from the recently rebuilt fort. A hard fought battle at Oriskany on Aug. 6 prevented rebel militia from relieving the siege of the fort, but the loss of many warriors and news of the approaching Continental reinforcements caused most of St. Legerâ€™s Indians to desert. Without Indian support and lacking heavy artillery, St. Leger withdrew the remains of his force from around Fort Stanwix and returned to Fort Ontario on Aug. 26. Gathering Fort Ontarioâ€™s garrison and cannon, St. Leger retreated to Canada.
Soon after St. Leger abandoned Fort Ontario, British General John Burgoyneâ€™s 8,000 man army met with an even worse disaster. Burgoyne moved up the Champlain Valley and down the Hudson Valley towards Albany but found he was facing a growing number of Continental regulars and militia around Schuylerville, NY. Isolated and vastly outnumbered north of Albany, Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga in October. Not only did the disastrous British campaign of 1777 give encouragement to the American cause, it helped to persuade the French to declare war on Great Britain and openly side with the rebels the following year.
Despite repeated Iroquois requests for the return of a British garrison, Fort Ontario remained largely unoccupied for several years. Fearsome raids took place from 1777 â€“ 1783 as green-coated Loyalist troops and painted Indians ransacked the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania. Launched from Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island and Fort Niagara, these parties often encamped at the mouth of the Oswego River. Those American men, women, and children fortunate to survive the barbarities this sort of warfare produced often passed through Oswego as captives on their way to Canada or an Indian village.
By late 1778 and early 1779, counter offensives against Britainâ€™s Native allies began to take place. Onondaga (near Syracuse), the capital of the Six Nations, was attacked and destroyed in April, 1779, while the post at Oswegatchie (Ogdensburg) was raided. During the Summer of 1779 a large force of Continental soldiers under the command of Generals Sullivan and Clinton began assembling for an all-out invasion of the Iroquois territory of central and western New York. In July, a party of 30 Continental troops of the Third New York Regiment and four Oneida Indians left Fort Stanwix to raid Oswego. Finding Fort Ontario abandoned except for a family who were quickly removed, the raiders set fire to all of the fortâ€™s buildings and walls. On the return to Fort Stanwix, several Indians harassed them, killing and scalping an American. According to one report, the massive logs and woodwork of the 20-year-old fort burned and smoldered for two weeks.
In the fall of 1780, Joseph Brant and Sir John Johnson led a 1,000 man Loyalist-Indian force from the ruins of Fort Ontario to lay waste to the Schoharie settlements, Coughnawaga, and the Stone Arabia region of the Mohawk Valley. In 1781 Major John Ross and Captain Walter Butler moved from Fort Ontario to strike Warrensbush and Johnstown. This force was met by Colonel Marinus Willettâ€™s Continental troops who fought a stand-off action at Johnstown but afterwards pursued and scattered the enemy at West Canada Creek. Butler was killed and Ross fled through the wilderness to Carleton Island.
Hoping to protect his base in Canada, the Governor-General of Canada, Major General Frederick Haldimand, ordered Major Ross to garrison Oswego permanently and rebuild Fort Ontario in 1782. The earthen ramparts of the fort were revetted half-way up with timbers, horizontal pickets called frieze poked out from the walls, five blockhouses (one atop each bastion) were built, and the entire outer works were palisaded. Joseph Brantâ€™s Mohawks worked hard on the reconstruction, anxious to see the British reclaim the area.
General George Washington, concerned that the reconstruction of Fort Ontario might be a prelude to another invasion of the Mohawk Valley, ordered Willet to undertake a surprise attack in February 1783. With only 500 troops on snowshoes, barely more than Fort Ontarioâ€™s defending force, Willettâ€™s plan involved throwing planks across the fortâ€™s ditch and palisade, mounting scaling ladders on the planks and then scrambling over the walls â€“ a desperate gamble even under ideal circumstances.
Under severe conditions of wind-driven snow and extreme cold, Willetâ€™s Oneida guide became confused within a few miles of the fort and the attacking party emerged along the lakeshore, totally lost. Exposed to a party of British woodchoppers, and under orders from Washington not to risk an assault if the element of surprise was lost, Willet abandoned the effort and his frozen troops dragged themselves back to the Mohawk Valley. At least two men died from exposure and 125 were hospitalized with frostbite. This unsuccessful trek was the last campaign of the war ordered by Washington.
Although the War for Independence ended in April 1783, Fort Ontario and other Great Lakes posts remained in British hands another 13 years. Captain James Bruff and a small party of U.S. troops relieved the last British garrison at Fort Ontario on July 14, 1796.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site is one of six historic sites and 18 parks in the Central Region administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Carol Ash, Commissioner. For more information about NYS Parks visit the website at www.nysparks.com or Fort Ontario at www.fortontario.com . For more information on the fort or event call Paul Lear at (315) 343-4711. The fort is located at the north end of East Fourth Street in the City of Oswego.