Learning local history anew through historical markers

Article by the Rev. Becky Drebert, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bainbridge, New York and a member of the diocesan Antiracism team. Photo above by the Rev. Deacon Kay Drebert. 

Perhaps you have noticed those blue and yellow historical markers as you drive around the state. My wife Kay and I used to miss a lot of them because they are right beside the road, and sometimes it would be dangerous to stop to read them. That’s too bad because there is much to learn about the history of our region from those signs, especially if we can make connections between them. It has become an interest of ours to drive around to find them, backed up by reading some of the history of our area. They tell a story that can open up our imaginations and remind us that we have come to our homes and our places of worship at the sacrifice of many. But it is not always a pretty picture.

In Caroline, New York, there is a sign which designates the burial ground of several Black people who were enslaved. You cannot actually go to the burial ground because you would have to traverse private property. But at least the sign memorializes their lives and their deaths. It was a bit of a surprise to us that there were enslaved people in New York. We have since learned that there were more than a hundred enslaved people in Broome County. Some were brought north by their owners who left their lands in the South. Some worked the farms, some worked in the houses of wealthy residents.

How to find historical markers

The Dreberts have created a guide to help you find your local historical markers.

The most extensive set of markers describes the Sullivan-Clinton campaign of 1778-1779. Kay and I have traveled most of the route that they took. George Washington ordered Generals Sullivan and Clinton to push out the British troops and eliminate any Indigenous people along the way. Part of the purpose was to open up lands  populated by Indigenous people for settlement by white people. Fully one-third of the Continental Army was involved in the campaign, which culminated at the Battle of Newtown near Elmira. Along the way the troops burned the longhouses and the crops and girdled the trees in the orchards.

Clinton began by damming the Susquehanna River at its source at Otsego Lake in Cooperstown. Breaking the dam, he was able to float his men and his equipment down river. Many of the markers along Route 7 mark the places where Indigenous villages were wiped out. The modern General Clinton Canoe Race which ends in Bainbridge celebrates that event. General Sullivan began in Pennsylvania and met up with Clinton in Tioga, continuing the campaign of terror and eviction. The campaign left only a remnant of the people of the Haudenosaunee Nation, and vast land holdings were confiscated.

There are plaques commemorating the campaign in most of the towns along the route. The older plaques seem to celebrate the victory of the Continental Army;  indeed, if the American army had not won in New York, the ability to win the Revolutionary War would have been in question. The newer markers acknowledge the suffering and pain of Indigenous peoples.

A historical marker in Otsiningo Park in Binghamton. Photo by the Rev. Deacon Kay Drebert.

Kay and I began our historical journey as part of our commitment to researching history for the Diocesan Racial Reconciliation team. It has been fascinating so far, and we still have very much to learn. Besides the markers, much can be learned in some of our local museums, like the Fenimore in Cooperstown, the Roberson in Binghamton, and the Rockwell in Corning.

We were also curious to know whose land our churches were built on, which meant researching through our historical society and other sources. It turns out that St. Peter’s Church in Bainbridge is built on land once occupied by the Oneida. We intend to place a sign in the church to acknowledge that fact with gratitude. It is one small way to recognize the dignity and presence of the people who were there before us. Other churches in our Diocese may find themselves on lands of the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, or Seneca people.

We wish to encourage others to discover the history of your own region. The Haudenosaunee Nation was admirable in agricultural industry, in government, and in the people’s resilience. We have much we can learn from them. The story of Indigenous peoples is a part of our story, part of our heritage and privilege. Unless we know our story, we do not really know ourselves.

We are continuing our research on the Haudenosaunee with how they were connected to Christian missionary outreach, and especially their connections to the Episcopal Church. Stay tuned.

Showing 6 comments
  • richard h lewis

    Why is this a surprise ? Native/First World people have been abused and pushed off their lands ever since the Europeans got here in the 1600’s. Hundreds of First World folks were sold into slavery by the Puritans and their New England legal systems. R H Lewis

    • Becky Drebert

      All too true.

  • Gwen Stone

    Nice post. Thank you.

    A quick way to find whose land your on is by inputing your zip code at https://land.codeforanchorage.org/

    Also, for a fascinating educational review of the Haudenosaunee +++ try “THE IROQUOIS HISTORY AND LEGENDS PODCAST”

    The episodes are chronological so start at one.


    • Meredith Sanderson

      Gwen: Thank you for sharing these great resources! –Meredith

      • Gwen

        Thanks, Meredith. I included a your/you’re error just to keep myself humble 😉 -Gwen

  • richard h lewis

    1619 was the 400th anniversary of the first Africans in Virginia. There was an observance of that event here in Lowell, MA. at st Anne’s Episcopal Church. Some 100 folks gathered in the church yard, we had the bell tolled for 4 minutes and the a member of the staff of the National Park Service spoke followed by some remarks by one of the clergy of the parish.
    Not many knew that St A’s was built by the local corporation who made all their products
    from slave-produced cotton. The building was later sold to the parish corp. It may be the only church built by a corporation and, likely, the only corporation whose profit depended (almost entirely) on slave labor. The 1824 building has been extended and renovated over the years but is still an active place of worship. R H Lewis

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