Bruce Dearstyne: The New York Statehood Trail

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1777 New York State ConstitutionAs discussed in a previous post on this New York History Blog, the state’s historical community might want to consider organizing an effort to commemorate New York State’s Birthday.

We could use April 20, the date the first State Constitution was completed in Kingston in 1777, or April 22, the date it was first read and officially proclaimed, bringing the new state into existence. This would give us an opportunity each year not only to review New York State’s historical origins, but also to call public attention to various aspects of the state’s 240+ years of history.

We might want to consider designating a historical driving trail, a good fit for the I Love New York’s heritage tourism “Path Through History” program, perhaps calling it the New York Statehood Trail. “Path Through History” has its own list of Revolutionary War sites.

Of course, there might be lots of routes and sites that could be included. Here is just one set of possibilities:

*1. Start at Katonah. John Jay Homestead State Historic Site

Jay, a very capable attorney from New York City, was the lead draftsman of the first state constitution in 1777. In the fall of that year, he became the new State’s first Chief Justice, and later served as its second Governor, 1795-1801. Of course, he also served as a leader at the national level, including reprising his role as New York’s Chief Justice by serving as the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. That is another example of New York’s leading role in the new nation. In addition, our state constitution, written in 1777, served as a partial model for the U.S. Constitution, written a decade later. One of Jay’s New York colleagues in the convention that drafted the New York document, Gouverneur Morris, a decade later served as one of the principal writers of the U.S. Constitution. Jay was one of the chief advocates for its approval by voters. Jay’s role in New York history needs greater emphasis.

* 2. Drive 78 miles north to Kingston. Ulster County Courthouse. Senate House State Historic Site

New York’s fourth Provincial Congress convened in White Plains in July 1776, and then retreated northward to keep away from advancing British forces, to Fiskhill, then to Kingston, where its members arrived in February 1777. By then the group had changed its name to the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York. They used the Ulster County Courthouse as their meeting place, and completed their work on the first State Constitution on April 20, 1777. The Secretary of the Convention, Robert Benson, mounted a barrel in front of the Court House and read the document to assembled citizens on April 22. This is a good day to mark as the state’s birthday.

The delegates arranged for the first state elections in June and the fledgling government assembled in Kingston in September. The state’s first governor, General George Clinton, took his oath of office in Kingston but left quickly to return to leading troops into battle. The Supreme Court began work at the courthouse. The state’s first grand jury met there. On the opening day of its work, September 7, 1777, the state’s new Chief Justice, John Jay, gave an eloquent speech explaining the significance of the new Constitution. That courthouse where so much history was made in 1777 is gone but the current courthouse, built on the site in 1789, is a historic landmark. The Assembly met in a local tavern. The Senate took up residence in a stone house offered by local merchant Abraham VanGaasbeck. Years later, it was purchased by the State, expanded, and is now the Senate House State Historic Site.

In October 1777, the new government fled Kingston as a British force sent north from New York City began plundering the Hudson Valley. On October 16, 1777, British forces under General John Vaughan swarmed through the village and set fire to every home as punishment for Kingston’s role in supporting the Revolution.

Kingston is a historic city. There is lots to see just by taking a walking tour there.

*3. Drive 20 miles north to Germantown. Cleremont State Historic Site

As noted on Cleremont’s website, “Robert R. Livingston, Jr. was Clermont’s most notable resident. His accomplishments include: drafting the Declaration of Independence, serving as first U.S. Minister of Foreign Affairs, administering the oath of office to George Washington, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and developing steamboat technology with Robert Fulton.” But more important from the standpoint of New York history, he was one of the principal drafters of the New York State Constitution in 1777. British troops under the command of General John Vaughan burned the Livingston estate on October 19, 1777, a few days after they burned Kingston. From 1777 to 1801, Livingston served as “Chancellor of New York,” then one of the highest judicial offices in the state.

* 4. Drive 42 miles north to Albany. Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, New York State Museum, New York State ArchivesReaders of this New York History Blog are familiar with the Museum and with the Archives (which holds the original copy of the first State Constitution). Less familiar may be Schuyler Mansion, home of Philip Schuyler, the patriot general who built resistance to the British invasion from the north before losing command to General Horatio Gates, who forced the surrender of British forces under general John Burgoyne at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. Schuyler and his wife, Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler, hosted Burgoyne at their home when he was under house arrest after surrendering to Gates, despite the fact that Burgoyne had destroyed their house in what is now Schuylerville. Schuyler was a candidate for the first election of a governor under the new constitution, narrowly losing to General George Clinton. He later served as one of New York’s first U.S. Senator. The Schuylers’ daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton at Schuyler Mansion, and Hamilton occasionally spent time there during his illustrious career.

* 5. Drive 74 miles west to Little Falls, Herkimer Home State Historic Site then 35 miles west to Oriskany, Oriskany Battlefield State Historic SiteAs noted on the Oriskany website, “Considered to be a significant turning point in the War of Independence, the Battle of Oriskany, fought on August 6, 1777, has been described as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. …. .In August 1777, while the British were attacking Fort Stanwix, Brigadier General Nicholas Herkimer assembled 800 militiamen, supported by 60 allied Oneida warriors, and marched from Fort Dayton to aid against the siege. Upon hearing of Herkimer’s advance, British and Loyalist troops under Sir John Johnson and Col. John Butler, and Indian forces led by Mohawk Joseph Brant, set a trap in a boggy ravine west of Oriskany Creek. As the unsuspecting American troops crossed the swampy bottom and marched up the ravine, the British attacked. The patriots fought in brutal hand-to-hand combat, and in spite of heavy losses, caused the Seneca and the Mohawks, followed by the British and Loyalists to retreat. It was in this battle that General Herkimer received the wound to his leg which led to his death ten days later.”

*6. Return to Albany, then drive 23 miles north to Stillwater, Saratoga National Historical Park.

This superb National Park Service facility commemorates the Battles of Saratoga and the surrender of British forces on October 17, 1777. This was arguably the turning point in the Revolution because, among other things, it helped persuade the French to enter the war on the Patriot side.

But its historical significance sometimes overshadows the importance of the other sites and events connected to the birth of New York State which took place further south and might be included in a New York Statehood Trail.

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