Friday, May 9, 2014

Walking Through History…

"Attack on Fort Oswego, Lake Ontario, North America." May 6, 1814, Noon. By Captain John Hewett, 2nd Battalion Royal Marines. Etched by Robert Havell, London, England, 1 May 1815. From the Collection of the Public Archives of Canada.

This week marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Oswego in the War of 1812. Fort Ontario State Historic Site Superintendent Paul Lear helps us commemorate this historic event with the following passage:

During the War of 1812, Oswego, N.Y. was a crucial forwarding point on the waterborne supply route and for army campaigns along northern frontier. Fort Ontario, crumbling and un-garrisoned since 1804, was situated on a steep bluff on the Oswego River to guard warehouses, shipping and a small village of inhabitants. By 1814, the war had become a shipbuilding race with both sides vying for control of Lake Ontario. In April of that year, the Royal Navy was in command of the lake and Oswego was defenseless.

Lt. Colonel George Mitchell and five companies of the 3rd U.S. and Light Artillery Regiments arrived at the fort on April 30 after spies reported the threat of an imminent attack either on Oswego or Sackets Harbor. They were ordered to guard supplies and stores, send what they could upriver to safety and hide what couldn’t be transported in the woods.

It all started when…
Shortly after sunrise on May 5, lookouts at Fort Ontario spotted seven ships belonging to the Royal Navy. Although Mitchell had completed most of his orders and stood little chance of victory against overwhelming numbers, he and his officers resolved to resist an attack as long as possible. Mitchell would fight with 290 artillerymen armed with muskets, 200 militiamen and 5 light cannon. The British ships carried 1,000 Royal Marines and troops, 1,000 sailors and 222 heavy cannon. Villagers packed up what belongings they could and fled to the countryside as the fort sounded warnings and the militia came in from the sparsely settled countryside.

Around 1:30 p.m., the British reached Oswego. U.S. Navy Captain Melancthon Woolsey organized the militia to dump cannon and munitions in the river to avoid capture. The British moved in to draw American fire and determine the number and location of their cannons. Around 4 p.m., the weather changed and British troops were ordered back on board ship. As the last men returned aboard, a violent storm struck and the ships scrambled to get away from the treacherous shore. The weather cleared during the night and the fleet returned the next morning.

The battle resumes…
On the morning of May 6, three ships returned to the harbor. Despite the disadvantage in numbers, the Americans gave as good as they got. Around 10 a.m., the H.M.S. Prince Regent and Princess Charlotte moved in to cover the troop landings with their massive broadsides. Mitchell gave final orders to his men not to quit their posts until driven away at bayonet point. 

About 11 a.m., 200 seamen, 350 Royal Marines, 58 men of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencible Regiment and 160 Swiss troops of the DeWatteville Regiment approached the shoreline. The naval bombardment that began hours earlier reached a crescendo, with acrid white smoke covering the fort and the sounds of ear-shattering rolling broadsides reaching Kingston, Sackets Harbor, and Syracuse.

As the main landing force grounded east of the fort by Flat Rock, near what is now known as the Fitzgibbons Boilerworks property, men jumped out of boats into cold lake water. When cannon fire from the ships and gunboats slackened as the marines and troops waded ashore, the American militia moved to the edge of the wooded shoreline to pepper them with musketry.

Once on shore, Lt. Colonel Victor Fischer ordered “Forward!” at 11:50 a.m. Outnumbered six to one, Mitchell’s blue line of soldiers and sailors was driven back and slowly retreated up the slope towards the fort, turning and firing as they went. Two British lines with fixed bayonets drove forward, cheering, yelling and firing ragged volleys with many wet and unreliable muskets. Soon, the slope between the fort and present post cemetery was filled with bleeding dead, dying, and wounded men of both sides. 

The Royal Marine column charged into the ditch and up the ramparts, taking withering musket fire from the Americans on top. Other marines swept across the parade grounds, driving Americans before them. When Mitchell received word that the enemy was in the fort, he ordered a retreat and his men reluctantly ran from the ditch with the enemy on their heels, escaping capture by mere seconds. As Mitchell halted south of the fort to re-organize, a bugle sounded and the Union Jack was run up the flagpole; it was 12:06 p.m. In exactly sixteen minutes nearly 40 Americans and 90 British officers and men lost their lives or were wounded.

In the aftermath…
Retreating south, burning bridges to impede the enemy, the Americans fell back to Oswego Falls, now known as Fulton, to join militia gathering there. The British did not follow and busied themselves raising scuttled schooners, salvaging sunken cannon, loading barrels of food, munitions, and other valuable supplies and stores onto their ships. Finally, they left and sailed for Kingston around 4 a.m. on Saturday, May 7.

For the British, the prize was not worth the cost but another victory helped strengthen their position at the bargaining table in treaty negotiations. In the end, neither side won the War of 1812, which was fought for different reasons by both sides, but the young United States earned worldwide respect as a nation; one that would stand up for its rights, even if it meant taking on the most powerful military in the world.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site, located at 1 E. 4th St. in Oswego, is preserved as a memorial to those who served and continue to serve our great nation, in times of war and of peace, from the French and Indian War to the War in Afghanistan. On Saturday, May 10, at 1:30 p.m., Paul Lear will lead a free walking tour of the site of the 1814 Battle of Oswego beginning in the fort’s tunnel entrance. For details, call Lear at (315) 343-4711 or visit

Here are views from the historic site:

For more information about Oswego County’s fascinating heritage and events, visit our Web site at


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Welcome Back, Spring!

Derby Hill Hawk Watching by Derby Hill

As we anticipate the first blossoms of spring, we also welcome back our feathered friends. Visit the Derby Hill Bird Observatory, a sanctuary of the Onondaga Audubon Society, to join this seasonal celebration.

Derby Hill is known as one of the best spring hawk-watch areas in the Northeastern U.S. due to its strategic location on the southeast corner of Great Lake Ontario. At this time of year, it is not unusual to see more than 2,000 raptors in a day. Indeed, the spring of 1995 saw a record number of Red-tailed Hawks sweeping through Derby Hill, (19,531 to be exact), and 4,591 of them were sighted in just one day – April 11.

In the 1950s, Scheider and VanBeurden recognized Derby Hill as a prime vantage point for viewing the spring migration. Then, in May 1997, the National Audubon Society officially designated Derby Hill as an “Important Bird Area.”

Bird movement is largely weather dependent and snow, heavy rain and strong northerly winds can reduce the number of migrating hawks moving through the area. Strong southerly wind-flows create the best conditions; however, some raptor families will fly even in “poor” conditions. Peak flights usually occur during the end of April.

Hawk counting began at Derby Hill in 1954 and daily counts started in 1979. Data are provided to the Hawk Migration Association of North America and used by state and federal agencies. Since then, a number of other significant sightings have been reported as well. They include a Swallow-tailed Kite in April 1976 and again in 2013, a Mississippi Kite in May 1990 and in 2008, and three Gyrfalcons, the latest spotted in February 1994. On October 7, 1979, a record number of mostly Parasitic Jaegers were counted and, in 1993, several spotters witnessed an immature White-tailed Eagle, a very rare sight south of Alaska.

A wide variety of hawks and migrant land birds from the tropics are regularly spotted in substantial numbers at Derby Hill. Other regulars include Bald and Golden Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Eastern Bluebirds, Sandhill Cranes, Common Loons and Ravens, Blue Jays and American Robins. Occasionally, spotters will see arctic species such as the Northern Shrike and Short-eared Owl as they head north to their breeding grounds.

Check out these sightings…

Cooper's Hawk by Steve Kolbe

Red-shouldered Hawk by Steve Kolbe

 …and views from the picturesque birding site:

Derby Hill Bluff Overlook
Sage Creek Marsh at Derby Hill

Derby Hill North Lookout

Derby Hill Counting Board

 Here are some things to remember when visiting Derby Hill:

Ø  Seeing the flights of the birds is very dependent on favorable weather conditions. The largest groups of birds pass over Derby Hill when there is a low-pressure system from the west with a high pressure producing strong southerly winds.

Ø  Don’t expect to see hawks before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

Ø  Expect to have great conversation with out-of-state visitors. Derby Hill regularly receives visitors from out of New York State.

Ø  Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Birders are a very friendly and enthusiastic bunch, and love to share their extensive knowledge of identification with you.

Ø  If you plan to stay a while, bring a folding chair. Derby Hill has extras, but on a busy day, you take the chance of not getting one.

Ø  Bring lunch, binoculars, sunscreen and a hat or visor.

Ø  Dress warmly and in layers. Derby Hill is located on a bluff overlooking Lake Ontario and it can be more windy and chilly than neighboring inland areas.

Additional things to keep in mind when planning your trip to Derby Hill:

Ø  Leashed dogs are the only pets permitted

Ø  No camping, radios, ATVs or bikes are allowed

Ø  Smoking is permitted only when downwind of all other visitors.

Ø  Please remember to carry-in, carry-out your trash.

Come to Derby Hill for the 2014 Bird Festival! From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday May10, enjoy a full day of family fun including live hawk identification, birding and nature walks, kids’ activities, drawings, arts and crafts and a silent auction. Chomppers’ Smokin’ Barbeque will also be at hand with many succulent selections. Admission and parking are free.

The Derby Hill Bird Observatory is located on Sage Creek Road, just off NYS Route 104B in the town of Mexico. The observatory is made of up 90 acres and includes North and South Lookouts as well as Sage Creek Marsh. For more information about Derby Hill or the festival, visit                                                                                                            

For more springtime fun, go to