By Jeff Gressler
The Little Falls Historical Society will partner with the Yellow Church Cemetery Association to host a Patriots Day observance at their historic site beginning at 11:00 AM on Saturday May 20. The rain date is Sunday May 21 at the same time. The event is free and open to the public.
This program will feature a number of short addresses on various local history topics and the laying of a Daughters of the American Revolution wreath. The playing of TAPS will conclude the approximately hour-long event. This will be the eleventh local Patriots Day observance.
As many as fifty Revolutionary War veterans are buried in Yellow Church Cemetery, many having fought at the pivotal August 6, 1777 Battle of Oriskany which was crucial to the eventual defeat of British forces at the Battle of Saratoga later that fall.
LOCAL PATRIOTS DAY
At the urging of the Historical Society, the City of Little Falls established a local Patriots Day in 2010 to be observed each year on the third Saturday in May. Then Mayor Robert Peters issued a proclamation recognizing this annual observance.
Seeking to expand this observance to other communities and organizations, the Historical Society has in past years co-hosted annual Patriots Day events at: General Nicholas Herkimer Home, Fort Herkimer Church, Snell’s Bush Church, the former Masonic Temple in Little Falls, the Reformed Church at Historic Four Corners in Herkimer, Paines Hollow Baptist Church, Historic Trinity in Fairfield, Emanuel Episcopal Church in Little Falls, and, last year, at Norway Rural Cemetery. The first local Patriots Day event was held at Yellow Church Cemetery in 2010. Full circle in 2023.
Patriots Day began in 1894 as a New England regional observance, and, in 1934, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts established the third Monday in April as a state holiday commemorating the April 19, 1775 beginning of the Revolutionary War when American Minute Men and British troops skirmished at Lexington and Concord. The epic Battle of Bunker Hill followed on June 17, 1775.
Anyone who has attended Patriots Day activities in Boston can attest to the patriotic emotions that are raised. The viewing of the somber bagpipe-led procession as it snakes its way through the streets of Boston on route to pay proper tribute at the graves of Revolutionary War heroes with rifle salutes is indeed a moving experience. Patriots Day also includes reenactments at key Boston Revolutionary War landmark sites along its historic red line. The running of the Boston Marathon and the Red Sox home opener add to the celebratory mood.
LOCAL PATRIOTS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
We here in the Mohawk Valley have equally compelling reasons to recognize our ancestors’ critical contributions to the outcome of the American Revolution. Local Revolutionary War Patriots may have lacked the formal education and national stage that produced the oratorical eloquence of New England’s Samuel Adams and James Otis, or Pennsylvania’s Thomas Paine or Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, but, heroes and Patriots they were, our heroes and Patriots. Certainly, we can safely liken the courage of the Palatine Committee of Safety in drafting its May 21, 1775 Declaration of Independence-like document at Snell’s Tavern in Stone Arabia to the July 4, 1776 decision by our national Founding Fathers in issuing our more famous Declaration of Independence. These were our local founding fathers, and they acted more than a year earlier than our national Founding Fathers!
After signing his name to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin stated: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The same fate would have awaited the Palatine Committee of Safety signers if America had not succeeded in gaining independence from England. They were all traitors alike in the eyes of English authorities. July 4th is one of America’s most treasured holidays.
Additional parallels between local and national Revolutionary War era events and people can also be drawn upon for greater regional recognition.
Once the British military evacuated Boston in March,1776, and soon after began the occupation of New York City, the physical threat to New England colonists generally lessened. The physical safety of Mohawk Valley residents was threatened for a far greater length of time than other regions of Colonial America, except perhaps for New York City itself.
The Walter Butler and Joseph Brant led Tory and Indian raids in our area went on almost as long as the Revolutionary War itself. Perhaps the most notorious of these actions were the Andrustown Massacre on July 18, 1778, the September 17, 1778 German Flatts Raid, the November 11, 1778 Cherry Valley Massacre, and the Remensnyder’s Bush Raid on April 3, 1780. Death and destruction were a constant presence in Patriot life.
Our ancestors lived on the western frontier of the Revolutionary War. The threat to local safety really did not lessen until the October 30, 1781 death of Walter Butler on the banks of the West Canada Creek. Some historians refer to this encounter as the last battle of the Revolutionary War. The June 1782 Tory and Indian raid that destroyed the Little Falls gristmill occurred some eight months after Lieutenant General George Cornwallis surrendered British forces to George Washington at Yorktown. Indeed, death and destruction were pervasive in the Mohawk Valley for a long period during our quest for independence.
With assistance from the City Little Falls in 2021, the Historical Society installed a New York State historic marker near where this gristmill once stood.
NO LOCAL “SUNSHINE PATRIOTS”
During this extended period, no Mohawk Valley Patriot felt safe from Tory reprisal. The “Sunshine Patriot” that Thomas Paine condemned in his “The American Crisis,” read to George Washington’s beleaguered and deserting troops at Valley Forge, would seem an appropriate reference. There were few “Sunshine Patriots” remaining in the Mohawk Valley during this time. Incredible courage was exhibited by the individuals and families who took refuge at Fort Herkimer, Fort Dayton, and Fort Klock as the war dragged on. Our ancestors were brutalized and killed for a longer period of time than any other Americans during the Revolution. Perhaps we need to better recognize and celebrate this courage and these contributions. How better to educate ourselves about our collective heritage and pass this appreciation along to our children than by paying respectful annual recognition to these frontier Patriots at a local historic site?
It does not require a great leap of imagination to compare Adam Helmer’s heroic 1778 run to warn the residents of German Flatts of the approach of 450 Tories and Indians with Paul Revere’s more famous midnight ride warning the residents of Lexington and Concord of the approach of British forces. Helmer saved dozens of Mohawk Valley residents from brutal deaths.
As we visit historic cemeteries at Fort Herkimer, General Herkimer Home, Yellow Church Road, Norway Rural Cemetery and elsewhere, the emotional grasp of history is powerful. We need to realize that as we stand before the graves of Nicholas Herkimer and Jacob Klock and before the family plots of Bellingers, Petries, and Snells that we are reaching for the legacies of our local founding fathers. Their names were not Washington, Jefferson, or Adams, but appreciation and celebration are certainly in order.
Our area already does a great job of promoting much of our local history. Each autumn Fort Herkimer holds its living history weekend and the General Nicholas Herkimer state historic site continues to be one of the finest Revolutionary War sites in the state. Additionally, the Herkimer County Historical Society does a fine job with its ongoing efforts in celebrating our Revolutionary War era heritage. This writing is suggesting more of a focused effort on the annual celebration of a New England-like Patriots Day.
Perhaps the Herkimer County legislature should more formally recognize a local Patriots Day? Local communities and schools could have greater reason for celebration and appreciation for the crucial role that our ancestors played in the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
Boston in particular, and New England in general, does a wonderful job of promoting their regional significance in our nation’s founding. Saratoga also effectively promotes the critical Battle of Saratoga as part of its vacation destination appeal. Is it now time for us to rival these ranks by taking greater local pride in our own Revolutionary War legacy? Happy Patriots Day! Please join us at Yellow Church Cemetery at 11:00 AM on Saturday May 20.
THE CASE FOR A LOCAL PATRIOTS DAY OBSERVANCE was written by Little Falls Historical Society member Jeffrey Gressler and published on May 10, 2010. This article is an update of that earlier article.