Old Mill in Ira, New York

Old Mill in Ira, New York
This old building contains the first grist mill in Ira, New York, built by John Hooker in 1818. The Cato Milling Company added to the mill, using its original portion as a store room. Ira is known as Cato today, and is on NY State Route 34 and 370.
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Stillman’s Run Battle Site

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A majestic monument marks the scene of the opening salvo in the Black Hawk War.

The Battle of Stillman’s Run (or Battle of Old Man’s Creek) was fought on May 14, 1832 between 275 Illinois militia and Sauk leader Black Hawk and approximately 40-50 warriors from his mixed-nation group of American Indians called the “British Band”. The engagement was a humiliating loss for the militia. It was the first battle in the Black Hawk War, which would ultimately end in Black Hawk’s defeat.

In April 1832, Black Hawk moved his British Band to Illinois, believing he would find friendly tribal allies. The Illinois militia was organized to confront him, and 275 militia under the command of Majors Isaiah Stillman and David Bailey camped near Old Man’s Creek, about three miles east of the Rock River. Black Hawk’s pleas for assistance were rebuked at every turn, so he sent emissaries and scouts to negotiate a truce.

Seeing the Indian scouts, Stillman and his militia thought they were under attack and opened fire (there are allegations some of his men were drunk). They pursued the retreating scouts back to Black Hawk’s camp, where they were ambushed and fled in terror. A dozen militiamen under Captain John Giles Adams fought a nighttime rearguard action on a hill south of their camp, while the others escaped to Dixon’s Ferry. All twelve were killed. Black Hawk estimated he lost three to five men.

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An American Crime

A talented cast delivers a boilerplate recitation of horrific events in this movie of the week focusing on the 1965 Sylvia Likens case.

Written and directed by Tommy O’Haver, An American Crime (2007) was based on a case of horrific abuse inflicted on a teenage girl at the hands of Gertrude Baniszewski in her Indiana home during the 1960s. Though released on Showtime and given an R rating by the MPAA, and despite a talented cast, An American Crime never rose above the level of a made-for-TV drama.

Sylvia (Ellen Page) and Jenny (Hayley McFarland) Likens are daughters of carney folk who must go on the road. They leave Sylvia and Jenny in the care of Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a single mother with six children of her own. Baniszewski agrees to care for the girls for $20 a week. She becomes abusive when the payment arrives late, but by then the girls have nowhere to turn. Their attempt to contact their parents backfires when Gertrude finds out and punishes them further.

The abuse escalates when Gertrude’s eldest daughter, Paula (Ari Graynor), becomes pregnant and Sylvia tells the man with whom Paula’s been having an affair, to shield her from his abuse. Paula complains that Sylvia is spreading rumors about her, and Gertrude beats and locks Sylvia in the basement as punishment. In the basement, Gertrude invites her own children to participate in Sylvia’s torture. Can Sylvia and Jenny escape before it’s too late?

When faced with a crime of this magnitude, it’s natural to ask why it happened. What kind of person would do such a thing, and why? Why were the children complicit in the abuse, and what does this say about the nature of evil? Like many true crime dramas, An American Crime takes viewers through a succession of events without getting inside the minds of its characters to address these deeper questions.

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How Violent was the American Frontier?

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs portrays a world of shocking violence, brutality, and indifference to human life, but does that mirror reality?

I’m a big fan of both Westerns and the Cohen Brothers, so I was eager to see their latest offering on Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), an anthology of six short films set in the Wild West. The stories were filled with interesting characters and scenarios, beautiful cinematography, and of course all the Cohen Brothers’ hallmarks, but something didn’t sit right with me.

Movies about the “Wild West” are almost always violent, focusing on battles with Plains Indians and Comanches, gunfights, bank robberies, and outlaws. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs focuses on a wide variety of Western life. We see traveling showmen, a prospector, a wagon train, and a coach ride. Sudden, brutal violence and indifference to human life ties them all together. At the end, I came away feeling sad, particularly after the wagon train short.

There’s no denying life could be brutally harsh on the nineteenth century American frontier. Disease, high infant mortality, the Indian Wars, lack of advanced medical care, and an austere environment all combined to make survival challenging at best. But hundreds of thousands of people did survive, thrive, and lived out their lives on the frontier, just like any other time.

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For All I Am

For All I Am
Monument to Major John S. Koster (1841-1921) in Port Leyden Cemetery on River Road and Main Street in Port Leyden, Lewis County, New York. Maj. Koster served in Company H, 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry during the American Civil War. The 21st Massachusetts was part of Ferrero’s Brigade in the Union Army of the Potomac, which captured Burnside’s Bridge during the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. It sustained 35 percent casualties at the Battle of Chantilly, which occurred during Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s pursuit of Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s army after the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Troupville Battlefield at Sodus Point, New York

This unassuming strip of Lake Ontario shore was once the scene of a destructive British raid during the War of 1812.

The Battle of Troupville was fought on the evening of June 19, 1813 between a British raiding party and American militia commanded by Captain Elias Hull at Sodus Point, New York during the War of 1812. It was initially a victory for the Americans, but the next day British troops returned and successfully raided and burned the village.

Lake Ontario was a strategic conduit for ships and supplies during the war, and both sides sought to control it. The American government kept military store houses at various points along the lake. On June 15, 1813, the British destroyed one storehouse in the village of Charlotte (today a neighborhood of Rochester), at the mouth of the Genesee River.

Two militia units were called out, and residents of Troupville buried anything they thought the British might steal or destroy. On the morning of June 19, however, since no British ships had appeared, the militia disbursed. As fate would have it, that night under cover of darkness approximately 125 British soldiers came ashore and around 60 men from the village grabbed their rifles to meet them. They initially chose Elder Seba Norton, a preacher and veteran of the Revolutionary War, as their leader, but Captain Elias Hull of the militia soon arrived to take command.

The battle was short. The American militia, hiding in the woods, exchanged fire with the British, but neither side could see how many men they were facing, and both sides retreated after firing a few rounds. Two British soldiers were killed, and two Americans were mortally wounded and three captured. An unknown number were wounded. The next day, British ships fired cannon into the town and landed unopposed. They burned every building but the tavern (where they had left a wounded militiaman the night before) and sailed away.

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