Finding the American Revolution in New York State

New York State was the location of many violent battles and skirmishes during the American Revolution.  Campaigns, such as the British invasion of New York City and Long Island (1776), the Burgoyne Campaign (1777), and the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign (1779) scorched New York’s landscape.  Raids and skirmishes also divided communities pitting Loyalists against American friends and families.  The British and American’s call for Native American groups, such as the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee), to choose a side led to a civil war within the Iroquois Confederacy.  The impact of the conflict was felt immediately in the loss of homes and lives; these impacts lasted well beyond the end of the war.

The Public Archaeology Facility has conducted studies of Revolutionary War battles associated with both the Burgoyne and Sullivan-Clinton Campaigns.  These studies have helped to remap these battlefields by determining the boundaries’ of battlefields and identify landscape features associated with the battles.  The ultimate goal of this research is to better comprehend the experience of those involved in the American Revolution in New York State.  We hope that our research can be used to preserve these battlefields and provide the public with an understanding of the conflict.

Our studies begin with extensive research of historic documents.  To identify the location of the battlefield and its landscape features we review the writings or oral histories of a battle’s combatants.  Journals, official reports, letters, and veteran pension applications can all provide valuable information for us.  Although sometimes mentioned incidentally in these documents, references to landscape features, such as roads, villages, mountains, and rivers, provide us with valuable information on where battle related actions took place.  In a way, combatants tell us where they were during the battle and how they used the battlefield’s landscape.

Loyalist John Butler

Letter by Loyalist John Butler

We map this historic data using a Geographic Information System or GIS allowing us to perform various analyses and comparisons of data.  We overlay historic maps and accounts of the battle onto present day maps to determine where the battle occurred and what remains of the battlefield.  We refine the locations of battlefield features using viewshed and range of fire analyses.  This information is used to conduct a military terrain analysis of the battlefield.  We can identify how combatants used a portion of the battlefield- a path to advance or retreat, a place to seek cover or concealment, an observation post, an obstacle that restricted advance, or a post to defend or take.  Taken together, these pieces of the landscape provide us with the battlefield’s boundaries and multi-scale view of how the battle unfolded.

Range of Fire

Range of Fire Analysis

With a GIS map to guide us, we perform a systematic inventory or survey of battlefield features.  The identification of musket and rifle balls and personal belongings of soldiers tells us that the battlefield’s landscape and the material remains of the battle are still intact.  We can also use the locations of these material remains to better determine troop positions and movements.

 

Survey

Archaeologist Conducting Systematic Survey

Rifle balls

Fired and Unfired Rifle Balls and Buckshot

The historical background and the results of archaeological investigation provide a basis for preserving the battlefield.  Working with local groups and descendent communities, we can present the history of the battle to the public with presentations, signage, or digital media.  This information can also help to advise agencies and developers on how best to avoid impacts to the battlefield so that the history of the American Revolution can be seen by future generations.