Fort Plain: Beginning
The village of Fort Plain was originally named for an important military outpost in the Revolutionary War. It began, like literally dozens of other forts on the New York frontier, as a refuge for local inhabitants in times of danger. After the 1777 Battle of Oriskany had decimated the Tryon County Militia the Mohawk Valley was unable to defend itself. Raids occurred on frontier settlements throughout 1778 forcing the abandonment of homes and farms in the region. The Cherry Valley Massacre in November was considered the worst of the year’s attacks forcing Congress to act against the Loyalist Indian tribes of western New York. During the fall and spring of 1779, Fort Plain was built as a refuge for local residents and evacuees from the Cherry Valley area. By 1780 General Van Rensselaer had decided to make the tiny fort his headquarters and the fort was thus renamed Fort Rensselaer. The summer of 1780 brought the “Burning of the Valleys”, a devastating series of raids led by Sir John Johnson. Johnson and his chief lieutenants, Walter Butler and Joseph Brant moved through the valley burning homes, farms and fields. In August of that year a raiding party surprised the Canajoharie District surrounding Fort Plain but failing to take the fort. They burned the Canajoharie Reformed Church, then located on the adjacent Sand Hill. Almost the entire garrison was away escorting supplies to Fort Stanwix. Women and children in the area had fled into the fort and donned men’s uniforms to walk the walls and give the impression of a strong defense. The ruse worked and the fort was saved.
After the Battles of Stone Arabia and Klock’s field, Marinus Willett, the hero of Fort Stanwix, had been chosen to replace General Van Rensselaer. It was Willett who led the attack against the British camps outside of Fort Stanwix and later slipped through the enemy’s lines to come down the valley for help. Willett also made Fort Plain his headquarters and began improving the fortifications there. He added an exterior Blockhouse about 400 yards northwest of the main fort effectively transforming the entire hilltop into a much larger fortified position. The space between the fort and the blockhouse filled with additional soldiers, displaced families and supportive services such as a cookhouse and blacksmith shop. While Willett had clearly preferred the name “Fort Plain” out of respect for the local citizens he was under orders to use the name Fort Rensselaer in all official correspondence.
In July of 1781 scouting parties from Fort Rensselaer had discovered the camp of a Loyalist raiding party at present day Sharon Springs. Willett immediately assembled 140 men to march all night to surprise the enemy. Under the Colonel’s daring leadership, they attacked and defeated an enemy force twice their size. Again in October of that year Colonel Willett attacked and defeated a much larger British force at the Battle of Johnstown.
In February 1783 Willett was entrusted with what must be the final mission of the American Revolution. General Washington asked Willett to lead an assault team to capture Fort Ontario in Oswego. The mission was kept secret and no one knew the destination until the last minute. The mission only failed when the guides became confused in the dark and the element of surprise was lost. The fort remained in British hands for another 13 years.
In July of that year General Washington decided to visit the upstate area before he returned home to Virginia. On July 28th Washington reviewed the troops at Fort Rensselaer and received a welcome worthy of the new Commander in Chief. Using Fort Rensselaer as his base the Commander-in-Chief visited forts up river as far as Rome, NY and south as far as Cherry Valley and Otsego Lake. On August 2nd Washington returned again to Fort Rensselaer to commemorate the Aug 2nd Canajoharie Raid with the officials of Tryon County in a great celebratory banquet at the fort.
Fort Plain: Strategy
Prior to 1781 a number of outposts both north and south of the valley were constructed to monitor the approach of enemy raiding parties. Fort Plank, located several miles south of the river and west of Fort Plain/Rensselaer was originally constructed on the property of Frederick Plank almost a year before the construction of Fort Plain. Its high ground location afforded a perfect view of the Cherry Valley hills and southerly approaches. The fort was an important supply outpost from 1778-1780 when most of its inventory was moved to Fort Plain/Rensselaer, a safer location much closer to the river. In 1781, with the Continental Army leaving the frontier to join Washington at Yorktown, Fort Schuyler was closed and positions were consolidated with Fort Rensselaer as the new headquarters and supply depot for the western Mohawk Frontier. Fort Plank continued as one of many valuable satellite outposts that would comprise the valley’s defensive strategy for the remainder of the war.
The site of Fort Plain was chosen both for its defendable hilltop and strategic location in the valley. From the hilltop one could observe the Mohawk River in both directions and also the Otsquago Creek, which runs south to meet the headwaters of the Susquehanna River System. It was at this point on the river that General James Clinton brought his 2000-man army to head south to Otsego Lake and down the Susquehanna River to join General Sullivan in their march to attack the Loyalist Indians of western New York. The fort hilltop itself was an almost impregnable position. Three sides of the hill are very steep and at the time were covered with sharpened brambles and thorn bushes called “abates”. The fourth side of the hill formed an isthmus, which was cut across by trenches and a defensive Redoubt designed by French Engineer Jean de Villefranche.
Fort Plain: Today
The Fort Plain Museum began operation in 1961 as the Fort Plain Restoration with an emphasis on rebuilding Revolutionary War Fort Plain. At that time the museum began archaeological field work on the Fort Plain hilltop, unearthing 18th century period artifacts relating to the fort's history. On April 26, 1963 the museum received a "Provisional Charter" from the State of New York and a designation as a 501C3 not-for-profit educational institution. Archaeology continued in 1964 as additional sites relating to colonial Fort Plain/Fort Rensselaer were unearthed. In 1968 the organization received an "Absolute Charter" from the University of the State of New York Making the institution a permanent member of the museum community. Archaeological investigation and research continued in 1975 under the auspices of Wayne Lenig who excavated the site of the original fort's stockade. The exploration uncovered barracks buildings, a dining hall, officer’s quarters, a small blockhouse and sentry posts.
During the 1980's and 90's the museum has developed exhibits on the different eras of history of the village of Fort Plain. Currently the museum's exhibits span the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries covering such topics as the Mohawk and Oneida Indians, German Palatines of the Mohawk, Victorian Era in the valley and the Erie Canal. Recently the Board of Directors decided the museum should refocus its efforts on the original colonial Fort Plain/Fort Rensselaer story. Research is again underway focusing on the fort's role in American history as the defender of the Mohawk Valley.