State Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, and Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, D-Marcy, have become allies at another Battle of Oriskany-of-sorts – one that would put the hallowed battleground and the memorial honoring the "Drillmaster of the Revolution" under the federal umbrella with Fort Stanwix in Rome.
It makes sense. Fort Stanwix, the Oriskany Battlefield and the Steuben Memorial all are important local sites that help define America's fight for independence.
In addition, Griffo and Buttenschon say the move also would save the state money and ensure that the battlefield remains open for generations of visitors.
The three sites attract visitors from around the world and are symbols of the important role that the Mohawk Valley played in the Revolutionary War. The siege of Fort Stanwix and Battle of Oriskany in August 1777 kept the British from passing through the Mohawk Valley, foiling a plan to strengthen British forces at Saratoga, where John Burgoyne lost decisive battles to American troops.
As for Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, there's a good chance the rag-tag colonial army might not have won the war had they not had the expert training of the Prussian drillmaster at Valley Forge. In gratitude for his service, George Washington granted Steuben 16,000 acres in what is now the Oneida County town of Steuben after the war. Here the baron spent summers in a two-room log cabin until his death in November 1794; he is buried there in what is referred to as the "Sacred Grove." Steuben's wartime services have been described as being second in importance only to those of Washington. The baron's "Blue Book" remains a basic reference for military training and organization to this day.
Clearly, the three sites are part of an American heritage trail through our region, and it's only right they all be under federal care to ensure their place in our history. Currently the National Park Service oversees the Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, but the Oriskany Battlefield and Steuben Memorial are both state historic sites, operated through a five-year, renewable cooperative management agreement between the NPS and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. That plan was initiated in 2008, and was most recently renewed in 2018 - good through 2023.
But it's unfunded, serving only as an administrative tool to maintain the federal/state relationship. While the National Park Service assists the state with functions at both sites, it comes with no guarantees.
Both sites have been threatened before. In 1991, when Mario Cuomo was governor, the state pulled funding for the battlefield and the memorial due to a state budget crunch. Funding wasn't restored until three years later. Fortunately, neither facility closed. Instead, an army of vigilant volunteers banded together to mow lawns, open gates, raise flags and otherwise maintain the operations. Volunteers were later credited for keeping the sites open to visitors until funding could be restored.
This history must not repeat itself. Griffo said the acting superintendent at Fort Stanwix indicated to him that there was interest by the NPS in taking over the sites, but that the state had been reluctant. The senator said there's now a new state commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and while he's not certain what process would be necessary to turn over ownership, he plans to call the new commissioner and discuss it.
Turning over land to the federal government can be complicated. According to the Congressional Research Service, the NPS does not have standing authority to acquire lands for new or existing units of the National Park System, except in limited circumstances. Rather, most units have been created by Congress, and the law creating a park unit typically includes specific authority for the NPS to acquire nonfederal inholdings within the identified boundaries of that park.
Under law, the Secretary of the Interior and the NPS have responsibilities related to the potential acquisition of lands for the National Park System. Among other requirements, the Secretary is directed "to investigate, study, and continually monitor the welfare of" areas that could potentially be added to the system and to report to Congress on possible additions.
This should be pursued with assistance from Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica. These sites are not only a special part of Mohawk Valley history, but American history. Griffo and Buttenschon believe that granting full control of the Oriskany Battlefield and the Steuben Memorial state historic sites to the National Park Service would be in New York state’s best interest. They say doing so will potentially save the state money - they have cost New York State more than $300,000 between May 2008 and July 2018.
But more important is that it would give national recognition to three sites that should not be denied their rightful place in American history.