JUBILEE, THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE,
AND SELECTIVE HISTORICAL MEMORY
Not yet twenty years old, the Marquis de Lafayette, a starry-eyed member of the French nobility who had volunteered his services for the rebel cause, sailed to North America for the first time in 1777. For this young idealist, the American Revolution represented an opportunity to strike a blow for human liberty, fulfill his desire for personal glory, and secure a measure of revenge against his nation’s archrival, Great Britain. The Continental Congress, after much wrangling, had commissioned him a major general, hoping this appointment would further strengthen ties with France and become another reason for that nation to join the rebellious American patriots in a formal military alliance.
George Washington took an instant liking to Lafayette, whose full name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. Despite Lafayette’s youth and inexperience, Washington came to respect his abilities and soon entrusted him with important command responsibilities. Some of these assignments brought Lafayette into contact with members of the Oneida Indian nation, who were also informally allied with and fighting on the side of the American rebels.
In January 1824, nearly forty-one years after the American Revolution officially ended, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to return to his second home, the nation he had helped forge. As part of a number of fiftieth anniversary–related activities, the president, an aging Revolutionary War veteran himself, believed that Lafayette and the peoples of the United States should have one last opportunity to see each other before the ever-relentless sands of time completely swept away the hallowed Revolutionary generation.1
Always garrulous and charming in his persona but with a tincture of vanity thrown in, Lafayette gladly accepted Monroe’s invitation. With a small coterie of traveling companions, including his son, George Washington Motier de Lafayette, the marquis arrived in New York City in mid-August 1824 and began a tour that took him through all twenty-four states before he sailed home to France in September 1825.
Everywhere Lafayette went, large, enthusiastic crowds welcomed him. On his first day in New York City, some thirty thousand people turned out to see the aging hero. So it was at all his appearances. Crowds cheered him, politicians coddled him, old friends hugged and cried with him. Three former presidents whom he had known long ago—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—hosted him. Congress voted him the lavish sum of two hundred thousand dollars to recognize his personal sacrifices in fighting to secure America’s liberty and independence.2
Once more, it seemed, Lafayette had arrived when the American people needed him. Divisive politics, especially over slavery, were pulling the young American nation apart. As the last living Continental Army major general, Lafayette allowed citizens north and south to put their differences aside, even if only for a few moments, and harken back to what some viewed as more purposeful times. In that spirit of selective nostalgia, the marquis’s tour became a celebration of what the young republic had managed to accomplish, of the sacrifices of Lafayette and his comrades in arms.3
For the people of Utica, New York, and other towns in the western Mohawk Valley, Lafayette’s visit to their region was a great honor. Even though the citizens of Utica would have only a few hours with him, they were anxious to show off their vibrant young community. They appointed a blue-ribbon committee to plan a celebration, particularly to ensure wide exposure to civic leaders, veterans, and private citizens.4
On the morning of June 10, 1825, a large contingent from Utica greeted the French hero at the small hamlet of Oriskany, a short distance to the northwest and the site of an Oneida village destroyed during the Revolutionary War. Stepping into an open carriage, the smiling Lafayette took his seat next to committee chairman Judge Nathan Williams. Following them in a lengthy procession in carriages and on horseback were prominent guests, blue-ribbon committee members, militiamen, and private citizens. People lined the route to offer welcoming cheers and then joined the convoy. When the marquis reached Utica’s boundary, the reverberating sounds of a twenty-four-gun salute echoed through the community. The cavalcade turned onto Lafayette Street, where an assemblage of soldiers, including Revolutionary War veterans, grandly saluted the marquis. On a bridge over the Erie Canal, the local populace had constructed an arch with a flag that read, lafayette, the apostle of liberty, we hail thee—welcome!5
The column halted in front of the Shepard Hotel, where the mayor of Utica delivered some effusive remarks. Lafayette responded with his usual grace. Then he greeted “an immense number of gentlemen of the county of Oneida and the vicinity,” and “in one of the most solemn and affecting scenes,” some Revolutionary War veterans stepped forward to speak with him. A few the old general recognized. The men eventually yielded so that the women would have a chance to meet this legendary hero.6
While Lafayette mingled with the citizens of Utica, a thought kept bothering him. Some persons were missing. He had visited Rome, then Oriskany, and now Utica, but he had not seen any of his Oneida Indian comrades from the days of the conflict, even though these towns were in the locale of what had once been the Oneida homeland. Finally, Lafayette wondered aloud to his hosts. He wanted to know if any Oneidas still resided in the area and if he might have the opportunity to visit with them.
Lafayette’s request caught his hosts by surprise. Many of them were too young to know the Revolution intimately, even if they had heard stories about the Oneidas fighting in conjunction with the rebels during the war. The aging veterans, however, knew better, but by virtue of their selective memories about events long since past, they had more or less divested their minds of Oneida involvement, let alone contributions. The marquis had not.7
Lafayette asked if someone among his large throng of Utica admirers could take action so that he might spend at least a few moments conversing with these forgotten allies . . .
Excerpted from Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution by Joseph T. Glatthaar, James Kirby Martin. Copyright © 2006 by Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin. Published in October 2006 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.