Today in Sullivan County history, 1779, one of the most deadly battles of the American Revolution, in terms of ratio of participants to numbers killed, took place on a hill overlooking the Delaware River just north of Barryville, NY.
(Last week, I briefly summarized the battle, but a more comprehensive account can be found in the 2010 work “So Many Brave Men: A History of the Battle at Minisink Ford” by Mark Hendrickson, John Inners and Peter Osborne.)
Over the weekend, The Delaware Company, in conjunction with the Sullivan County Historical Society, commemorated the supreme sacrifices made right here on Sullivan County soil in our nation’s fight for Independence, sacrifices no less honorable nor heroic than those made at the more noted battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord.
Reenactors, clergy, veterans’ groups, scout troops, historians, representatives from several chapters of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, noted officials and many others climbed the hill to remember and pay special tribute to the fallen.
Among them was Kristina M. Heister, Superintendent of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, who delivered the keynote address: “Preservation of the Minisink Battleground in a Landscape of History Lost.”
Ms. Heister, whose previous assignment with the National Park Service was at Valley Forge Historical Park, paid tribute to the hallowed grounds themselves, pointing out the importance – even urgency – of continued preservation efforts for the Sullivan County-owned Minisink Battleground Park as well as other endangered battlefields.
Sullivan County (NY) Historian John Conway and living historian 9-year-old Elektra Kehagias listen as Kristina M. Heister, Superintendent, Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, delivers the keynote address at the 236th anniversary commemoration of The Battle of Minisink. (Photo by: Laurie Ramie, Executive Director, Upper Delaware Council)
Here are her words:
“The nation’s historic and cultural resources are the spiritual and physical reminders of the decisive times, people, and places in American history. Few events loom larger in American history than the Revolutionary War — the conflict that established our independence from Great Britain. Although many eras can be said to have shaped the nation we live in today, this uncertain time gave it birth.
Battlefields, such the Minisink Battleground, whether large or small, are iconic and indelible chapters in the American story. These battlefields are monuments to American valor, sacrifice and determination. They are truly hallowed ground, home to patriot graves both memorialized and long forgotten – and nowhere is that possibly more true than at Minisink where up to 50 men lost their lives, many of whose bones are still scattered on the landscape around us.
The National Park Service is one of the many partners dedicated to the protection of historic sites such as the Minisink Battleground. Our mission is to help preserve these places—both within the parks and in communities across the nation—as tangible, living contacts with previous and future generations. Of the 410 national park units, nearly two-thirds are historical parks, sites, monuments, or memorials.
However, we protect through ownership only a small fraction of the historic sites and resources in our nation. The State of New York protects and manages 173 state parks which include many historic properties as well as 35 state historic sites and 6 state historic parks. In Sullivan County, 5 of the 6 parks owned and maintained by the County are historical in nature including the Minisink Battleground Park.
2016 is not only the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service but also the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 is the fundamental charter of our national historic preservation policy. It is premised on an explicit choice by Congress that that the aim of the federal government should be to encourage the private preservation of “the Nation’s historic built environment”.
This program is implemented through partnerships with States, Indian tribes, local governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector. It is organizations such as the Minisink Valley Historical Society, the Sullivan and Pike County Historical Societies, and the Sullivan County Parks and Recreation Department that Congress envisioned as the “private” leaders of the effort to save our history.
The memorial monument, indicating the site of the militia's "last stand," was erected by the Minisink Historical Society on the centennial of the Battle of Minisink, 1879.
The National Park Service administers the federal component of many of these partnerships through programs such as the National Register of Historic Places. Through these partnerships, many historic and archeological sites have been provided recognition and some level of protection through a notice, review and consultation process.
Today there are more than 90,000 listings on the National Register of Historic Places across the country. 6000 sites are in New York and 71 are in Sullivan County. Although being on the National Register provides few protections on private land – it is an important protection for the future of the Minisink Battleground Park and other historic sites on public land.
Unfortunately, this and other protections for historic sites, don’t appear to have come in time or be enough to protect and tell the full story of the American Revolution.
As Jack Warren, executive director of the American Revolution Institute said in 2014, “Many of our Revolutionary War battlefields were lost long ago — buried beneath the concrete and asphalt of Brooklyn and Trenton and consumed by the sprawl of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. This statement was based in part on the findings of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Historic Preservation Study (2007).
This report indicated that of 243 potentially nationally significant battlefields associated with the American Revolutionary, 141 – almost 60% – were lost or extremely fragmented. Although 100 battlefields retained important features and lands from the time of battle, on average, only 37% of the original historic scene remained.
Even when the battlefield itself is saved – much of its history and what that history can tell us remains underground. In 2013, the New York Times published an Op Ed called “Open Season On History” describing the fact that people with metal detectors who collect artifacts for profit or fun are erasing those stories that remain only in the soil. Removal of artifacts from their historical context causes serious and permanent loss of information and our historical data.
In 2012 at Richmond National Battlefield, for example, a relic hunter with a metal detector was finally caught after removing over 9,000 artifacts from the park. His finds included things like 5 buttons in one place – an important piece of historical data which suggests that a previously undiscovered body of a soldier had been buried there. If 4 of 5 buttons are removed our interpretation of that location may be much different. How many buttons in one place could be discovered at Minisink Battleground to identify the locations of lost patriots? How could the distribution of artifacts across the site contribute to our understanding of the battle itself? How many of these artifacts have already been removed? Sometimes protecting just the land itself may not be enough.
Perhaps less tangible than the threat of being paved over or the removal of artifacts by relic hunters, but I believe of equal magnitude, is what we call the “corrosion of neglect” as support for historical expertise itself has withered. Since 1997 there has been a loss of almost 30 percent of cultural resource management positions in our national parks. The result of not having enough well educated historians and other cultural resource staff combined with reduced funding to support cultural resource programs is that many of our cultural resources are in “poor” or “fair” condition.
A similar scenario exists within the New York State Park System which was described in the 2015 New York State Historic Preservation Plan as having “been gradually eroded by decades of neglect and decay.” This is likely the biggest threat to the Minisink Battleground Park as well. In 2015, the Sullivan County budget is over 201 million dollars. Of that less than 0.25% (< $500,000) goes to the Parks and Rec Department and of that amount <1% – a total budget of $4,160 – is dedicated to the Minisink Battleground Park. Additionally, very little funding goes to support County and Town historians in New York and throughout the country. How far can the existing funding and expertise go toward maintaining the Minisink Battleground in “good condition” and have we defined what “good condition” is – an often undefined state in many parks but a critical element of obtaining sufficient resources and achieving successful long-term management.
Jack Warren also said that, “Those unspoiled landscapes that remain are precious reminders of the struggle to achieve independence and create a republic dedicated to the liberty of ordinary people,” Minisink Battleground is one of these unspoiled landscapes. One of the primary reasons this site is on the National Register is that the wooded and rock-strewn battleground retains a high degree of integrity and remains largely undisturbed. What does high degree of integrity mean? It means that today, over 230 years later, visitors can still stand at Hospital Rock and feel the agony of American militiamen as Brant’s forces overran and killed them. You can smell the smoke from muskets and hear the whinny of horses on the stone covered terrain in-between Hospital Rock and Sentinel Rock where the heaviest fighting took place. You still have an opportunity to experience an environment that is very similar to what the men who fought and died here would have experienced. It is this “sense of place” that helps visitors and future generations to understand and appreciate what happened here and to continue to want to protect it.
The need for protection of historic sites and commemoration of the valor and sacrifice of local patriots was recognized by the residents of Sullivan County long before passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. In this case it was the efforts of County residents that led to Minisink Battleground being placed on the National Register rather than the National Register leading to its protection. It was never concrete and asphalt that threatened this site. At Minisink it was the extensive bluestone quarrying operations that threatened the Battleground and it was the Minisink Valley Historical Society that initially established the park in the 1890’s and then turned over its care to the Sullivan County Parks and Recreation Commission in 1955.
Today, our population is aging, our local youth are moving away, understanding of the sacrifices made during the American Revolution is fading into textbooks, visitation to many of our historical sites is declining or is now for the purposes of walking the dog instead of remembering history, and funding and staffing may be insufficient to keep the relic hunters away, keep acid rain from degrading the 1879 monument, and non-native, invasive plants from taking over and obscuring the rock strewn battlefield – changing the ability of visitors to experience that “sense of place” that makes Minisink so special.
The best way to honor the men who sacrificed their lives at the Minisink Battleground and keep their memory alive is to make sure we care for and protect this site and to continue to educate this and future generations about what happened here and how it relates to the birth of our nation.
In the future we must continue to ask ourselves whether preserving the actual land associated with the Battle of Minisink, commemorating the sacrifices of the men here each year, mowing the trails and other activities are enough over the long term to ensure that this important piece of history is not lost or diminished. What are the threats to this site today and what does success look like? Only when we understand these things can we really understand what additional actions may be needed.
Members of the Navasing Long Rifles (Kai Moessele, left, Dan Hogue Jr. and Anthony Domingo) are among the living historians who pay annual tribute at the commemoration of the Battle of Minisink. On Saturday, they accompanied representatives of area chapters of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution who placed memorial wreaths at the monument , then read the names of the fallen patriots. (Photo by: Laurie Ramie)
With limited funding and staff available from the County, this effort must focus on maintaining and strengthening the partnerships between organizations such as the Sullivan County Historical Society, Pike County Historical Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, veterans organizations, the National Park Service, and others who coordinate and participate in this event each year on both sides of the river and provide interpretive programs and other services.
This effort must also include the residents of Sullivan and Pike Counties that both love history and that visit this site – folks who can let people with metal detectors know that activity isn’t allowed here, people who can volunteer to clear invasive plants from the battleground, historians and archeologists who are interested in discovering more about the stories in the soil, and people who remember and pass on the story of Col. Benjamin Tusten and the brave men who fought here.
Ultimately, in the same way the Minisink Battleground was initially saved we will be successful in making sure it’s history is not lost as so many battlegrounds of the American Revolution have already been.”