Today, we celebrate the date Congress approved the Declaration of Independence which, in part, declares “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Last year, the Fort Hunter Free Library assisted me in procuring a grant for a historical marker honoring Revolutionary War veteran, Derick Van Vechten. Derick is buried in the Van Vechten Cemetery located in the Town of Florida on McDougall Road.
A grant for the historical marker was submitted by FHFL to the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. The Foundation assumed oversight of this program in New York State after it was discovered that many historical markers were not factual in their representation of the events they were celebrating. The process, therefore, was rigorous in providing only original source documents to support what the marker was commemorating. I started with the book, History of Montgomery County (Washington Frothingham), which stated that Derick fought throughout the Revolutionary War “receiving not even a scratch.” This, I learned, was not primary source documentation and so my quest to support the grant began.
My first stop was the Saratoga Battlefield as the book stated Derick had fought there. One of the people working at the Battlefield was very helpful and told me that, no, in fact Derick had not fought there. (This is why primary sources are so important!). He was in the Tryon Militia and, based on another source, I was told to check the Battle of Oriskany. So, off I went to the site of the Battle of Oriskany. I had already looked on line but didn’t find Derick’s name listed as one who fought there. His name was inscribed on the monument at the park, however. During the course of my research, I learned quite a bit. The Battle of Oriskany was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Almost half of the men who fought under General Herkimer were killed as they were ambushed in a ravine while they marched. Walking the grounds of where it all happened brought goosebumps. Herkimer himself was struck in the leg but continued to direct the battle as he lay next to a tree. In the following days, his leg was amputated and he finally died from his injuries. Derick was not injured during this battle and went on to fight in the battle of Klock’s Field, again, coming out of it unharmed. One of the unconfirmed documents I found indicated that he was commissioned Ensign on the battlefield.
While this research was all very interesting, my challenge of locating primary sources for the marker, however, was still very real. The picture of the monument at Oriskany did not meet those requirements. Even Derick’s date of death was in question because his headstone was so old, it was almost impossible to read. I was finally able to secure the original cemetery records to support this. But, Derick’s service during the Revolutionary War still eluded me. I finally got on a website called Fold3.com which has digital images of records for thousands of soldiers serving in every US war. This site was a life saver! Unfortunately, I found it almost impossible to read the cursive writing they used. There were many documents relating to Derick so I downloaded them all and shipped them off to the William G. Pomeroy Foundation’s consultant in charge of our grant application. Fortunately, he could read them and this was his response:
“These really make great reading, as he has plenty of critique of the officers. He swears that he was born in 1753 in Catskill, NY and in 1776 he enlisted in "a company of militia" at Florida (where he lived at the time) as an Ensign and he served as an Ensign until the close of the war in 1783. This company served under Col. Frederick Fisher, and served at different times at most of the major Mohawk Valley strong points. He was at the Battle of Oriskany in August 1777 in which Gen. Herikimer was killed, and another battle at a place called Nellis Flatts [the Battle of Klock's Field], above Canajoharie against a party of British Indians & Tories under the command of Sir John Johnston, after the burning of Schoharie County. They were then ordered to Johnstown with the Tryon County Militia, but arrived just after the battle had ended. He was called out numerous times to defend the Mohawk Valley until the end of the war.”
Finally! With the help of the consultant, we were approved for our marker! It took me almost a year to find everything I needed to support the marker but I learned so much in the process. The Saratoga Battlefield and the parks at the Battle of Oriskany and Klock’s Field are amazing places to visit. If you decide to make the trip, I suggest reading about the battles ahead of time so you can almost feel what happened there while you walk through the now serene surroundings.
Finally, enjoy this holiday but also think of what we are celebrating. It was people like my great-great-great-great grandfather, Derick Van Vechten, who fought for our country’s independence and every one of those who fought has a story they could tell. Derick was fortunate as he survived, came home, started a family and lived to the ripe old age of 94. So many others, however, were not so lucky. So let’s take a moment to remember those who lost their lives bravely fighting for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”