Park Service gem at Fort Stanwix, NY

  • Tom Dell
  • November 20, 2017
  • This week Road Trips with Tom visits Fort Stanwix National Monument in upstate New York.

    Fort Stanwix is a reconstruction of an American military post that played a key role in disrupting British Revolutionary War strategy and helped lead to the eventual victory by the good guys. 

    At about 1,300 words, this post is a tad longer than most.  I’ve tried to make the writing interesting and lively to hold your interest.  It’ll take 10-15 minutes to read.

    There are, at last count, 413 units in our national park system.  In addition to the 59 national parks, the system includes national monuments, seashores, lakeshores, battlefields, historic sites, preserves and more.  I’ve visited over half of them and offer these conclusions.  First, all are worthwhile; and second, some provide a better visitor experiences than others.  A few are genuine surprises, where your enjoyment as a visitor exceeds expectations.  

    Fort Stanwix is one of those.  The National Park Service has done an excellent job in making this monument a delight to visit.  If your travels take you anywhere in upstate New York, consider a 2-3 hour visit to Fort Stanwix National Monument.

    Most buildings are open to visitors; rangers are stationed nearby

    Never defeated, never captured

    Consider these attributes:

    • Historical significance, including the distinction of never being defeated or captured — despite a 21-day siege by a British force with a two-to-one manpower advantage
    • A glimpse at the facilities and lifestyle in a Revolutionary War-era military post
    • Both guided and self-guided daily tours of the reconstructed fort
    • Excellent interpretation that includes a staff of rangers on hand to give short presentations and answer questions
    • A well-curated visitor center
    • An excellent, easy-to-navigate web site loaded with details on the fort’s colorful history.  Included are terrific illustrations from the National Archives.  Go to
    • An extensive series of short YouTube videos showing details about the fort
    • Regular living history programs with costumed interpreters and reenactments of various events
    • An active junior ranger program offering hands-on educational experiences for kids
    • Admission is free, as are guided tours.

    I visited Fort Stanwix on a sunny weekday in mid-May.  After a morning visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, I was headed to Saratoga National Historic Park, with an overnight scheduled at Lake George.  A quick glance at my handy AAA map indicated I’d have time for a brief visit to Fort Stanwix, which is located not far off I-90 in the city of Rome.

    Costumed interpreters entertain visitors. PHOTO: NPS

    A fife serenade

    I’m glad I did.  After browsing the displays in the visitor center, I walked about 200 yards on a sidewalk to the fort entrance.  There, a few other visitors and I were greeted by a costumed ranger playing a tune on a fife. 

    Apparently, I’d arrived in time to join the 2 p.m. guided tour.  After the fife serenade, the ranger took us into various rooms and barracks, explaining their functions.  There were interpretive signs outside each area of the fort, which enclosed an open area with a flagpole and a cannon or two.  Other rangers were handy to accommodate visitors.  The emphasis here is on daily life.  Rangers show what it was like to be stationed here in the 1770s as part of the Continental army.

    Fort Stanwix was built by the British between1758-62 to defend a historic portage – a six-mile land link connecting water routes between New York City and Lake Ontario.  The portage, known as the Oneida Carry, had been a major trade route used by the Oneida Six Nation Indians for hundreds of years.  It had also become a key military objective for the French, the British and other native tribes.  The intent was to protect British interests during the French and Indian War and support the inevitable expansion along what was then the western frontier.

    Fort Stanwix.  PHOTO:  NPS

    The British are coming

    Let’s fast forward to the 1770s.  This isn’t a history blog, but it’s important that we establish what Fort Stanwix was, who controlled it, and how it played a key role in the U.S. Revolution.

    The British, for reasons that weren’t clear to me in my research, let the fort wither into disrepair and abandoned it in 1768.  In 1776, with the Revolutionary War having begun, the Oneida urged the Americans to reoccupy Fort Stanwix, which they did.

    The fort’s greatest contribution to the war was its ability to withstand a siege by British and other forces in August 1777.  Under the command of Col. Barry St. Leger, 800 troops and as many as 1,000 British-allied Indians came east from Lake Ontario and demanded the Americans surrender.  The American force was made up of 800 troops from New York and Massachusetts under the command of Col. Peter Gansevoort. 

    Run, Barry, run!

    St. Leger then commenced a 21-day siege using artillery that wasn’t effective on Fort Stanwix’s fortifications.  American troops had toppled large trees into Wood Creek, blocking the heaviest artillery.  The British also diverted the water supply, but the Americans had plenty of water.  The Indians, who had been promised a quick siege, little or no fighting, and lots of plunder, were causing problems.  Through it all, St. Leger kept issuing surrender demands, with the same results:  Gansevoort responded, in effect, “I’ll tell you what you can do with your surrender.”

    After 21 days, St. Leger gave up, turned around, and hightailed it back to Lake Ontario.

    Costumed interpreters demonstrate use of the kitchen

    The St. Leger siege was part of the great Burgoyne campaign of 1777.  We all like to think we won our independence with great thoughts, great strategy, and great military might.  However, the ineptitude of the British also had a lot to do with it.  From the war’s onset, the British thought they could end this revolutionary nonsense by cutting off the New England colonies from those to the south.  Their premise was that the troubles leading up to the war had originated in New England, and if they could put down the rebellion there, the rest of the colonies would give up.

    British strategy backfires

    Under General John Burgoyne, the British initiated a three-pronged action.  The plan was to have three armies converge in Albany.  The British already controlled New York City.  Gen. William Howe was to lead his troops up the Hudson River to Albany.  Howe, however, dallied near Philadelphia, attempting to lure George Washington into a confrontation.  Not only did the attempt fail, but Howe never made it to Albany to join Burgoyne.  The other prong of the British strategy was St. Leger’s force, and we know what happened to him.

    Burgoyne, as planned, led his army south from Quebec along Lake Champlain and the upper Hudson, winning an easy victory at Fort Ticonderoga and arrived at Saratoga.  Unfortunately, nobody bothered to tell him his other two forces wouldn’t be showing up.  Burgoyne received the full attention of the American force there.  He got his fancy breeches kicked and was forced to surrender.

    Junior ranger program. PHOTO: NPS


    That’s enough history for now.  We’ll get back to Saratoga when the blog visits Saratoga National Historic Park in a few weeks.

    Fort Stanwix National Monument is right downtown in Rome, a drab city of 32,000 that’s been losing population since World War II.  It’s west of Albany and east of Syracuse – about a half-day drive from New York City or Boston.

    It’s most easily reached from I-90, the New York Thruway.  If you’re westbound, take Exit 31, then follow SR 49 directly to Fort Stanwix.  From eastbound I-90, take Exit 33, then follow SR 365 to the monument.  Fort Stanwix occupies a 16-acre site in the center of town.  The visitor center is at the southwest corner of the site.  Parking is in a public garage across the street.  (It’s a pay lot, but it’s not much.)

    Depiction of the French and Indian War from National Archives. SOURCE: NPS

    The visitor center and fort are open daily except major holidays.  For the hours (which vary by season), including the schedule of free guided tours, go to the web site’s landing page.  Next, follow this path:  Plan Your Visit >> Basic Information >>  Operating Hours and Seasons.

    Accommodations and all traveler services are available in Rome.  The nearest commercial airports are at Albany and Syracuse.  Lastly, if you’re headed to Fort Stanwix in winter, please check the website for current conditions.  Rome is in the snow belt and gets up to 120 inches of the white stuff .

    Thanks for joining me this week.  On Monday, November 27, we’ll begin a two-post visit to Death Valley National Park.

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