My Hometown, Part I
As the story goes, Martin Van Buren was pretty pissed-off when they renamed my hometown “Waterloo.”
Since he was from the old days, and was a President, I should not be so vulgar, so let’s say he was “piqued”, “exasperated,” or “apoplectic.”
Or perhaps we should say, verbolgen en kwaad, since he probably thought in Dutch, his first language.
He seems to have been a pretty happy guy, and, for a lifelong politician, a pretty decent one. But when they created “Waterloo, New York,” he was irate.
I’ve always been puzzled about the re-branding of my town.
Who names their town after their enemy’s greatest victory?
I grew up in a small village in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region.
There was a Cayuga Indian village here, destroyed during the Revolution, called “Skoi-Yase.” When the whites moved in, they called their settlement “Skoys,” “Scauyes,” “Scayau,” etc. and later, “New Hudson.”
At that time, this area was “The Military Tract” – over a million acres sold by, or taken from, the Cayuga Nation, one of the Iroquois tribes that fought on the losing side during the Revolution. The tract was parceled out as compensation to war veterans who’d fought on the winning side.
The Continental Congress, short of cash, and not much trusted (some things never change) had promised to reward its soldiers with land. A private got 100 acres, a lieutenant got 200, a colonel 500, etc.
New York, which was also short of cash, sweetened the pot, and gave each private an additional 500 acres, and so on, up to a major general, who got over eight square miles. This is during a time when 100 acres amounted to a good-sized farm.
Some of the veterans chose to sell their “bounty” land. So just after the War of 1812, Elisha Williams bought a square mile of this Military Tract. He was a Yankee lawyer who moved to Hudson, NY, and became a land speculator… and a political enemy of Martin Van Buren, who lived in the same town. Williams sold off building lots for a new village, at first called “New Hudson.”
In 1816, the residents, apparently prompted by Williams, voted to rename the village “Waterloo.”
So in a place specifically set aside for veterans who’d fought the British, and just after fighting the British again in the War of 1812, the village was renamed “Waterloo,” after the British triumph.
Doesn’t that strike you as just a bit weird?
New York saw a lot of bloodshed during the Revolution. This is where George Washington got kicked off Long Island and lost New York City. An entire British army marched into NY’s North Country, and marched out again as prisoners, after the Battle of Saratoga. Mad Anthony Wayne shot and captured hundreds of British at Stony Point, and New York settlers suffered the Cherry Valley Massacre, and countless other frontier fights with the Iroquois and their British and Tory allies. Benedict Arnold tried to hand over West Point, and his handler, Major Andre, was hanged at Tappan.
More Americans died of starvation and disease in the British prison ships in New York Harbor, than in all the battles of the war.
As a little reminder of British consideration for American prisoners, their bones washed up on the shores of Brooklyn for decades.
And during the War of 1812, New Yorkers fought the British again, all along the Canadian frontier, and in Ontario and Quebec. Villages on both sides of the Niagara frontier and the Great Lakes were raided and burned, and ships were captured and sunk in naval battles. The Americans crossed from Buffalo to capture Fort Erie and Fort George, and the British crossed over to storm Fort Niagara.
Everyone remembers the Battle of Baltimore, because of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the “rockets’ red glare, “Star-spangled Banner, etc. The day before, though, a bloodier battle was fought on the border between New York and Quebec. Veterans of Wellington’s battles in Spain participated in the last British invasion of the northern U.S. — which was defeated at Plattsburgh, NY, and on Lake Champlain.
Wellington’s army included the King’s German Legion, drawn mostly from Hanover and Brunswick, sources of many of the much-hated “Hessians” during the Revolution. Other regiments of Redcoats and Highlanders fighting at Waterloo, had fought in New York during the Revolution, in the battles for Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. British units which helped defeat Napoleon, had also participated in the Battle of New Orleans (where Wellington’s brother-in-law was killed), attacks in Maryland, and in the burning of Washington, D.C.
From my kitchen window, I can see the old “Elisha Williams” cemetery, where little flags are always flying on the graves of veterans of all this fighting. General Maltby, the American commander at Boston during the War of 1812, is buried there, as is a Revolutionary War vet who’d survived the infamous British prison hulks.
None of these people could have felt very friendly to the Union Jack – – so how did they accept having their village renamed in honor of Wellington’s victory?
Elisha Williams was a Yankee and a Federalist – – and both groups bitterly opposed the War of 1812. He may well have suggested “Waterloo” as a thumb-in-the-eye to the Democratic-Republicans, like his bitter opponent, Martin Van Buren.
When Van Buren heard of the new “Waterloo” in his state, he immediately insisted on renaming another village “Austerlitz”, in honor of Napoleon’s biggest victory.
“In historical events, great men –so called– are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the last possible connection with the event itself.” Tolstoy
Maybe part of the answer, then and now, is that “New Yorkers” by definition, care more about the present day, than about history or the past.
So the mystery of why my town is called Waterloo is put to rest.
The answer is, that it just doesn’t matter.
Then or now, most New Yorkers don’t care if their town is called Waterloo, Austerlitz, or Calcutta — we have them all.
We have a hamlet called Marengo — one of Napoleon’s early victories, and a delicious chicken recipe. And if any of you actually waded through Tolstoy’s War and Peace, we have a Borodino, too, a Napoleonic bloodbath on the way to Moscow.
NY is famous for classical references (Syracuse, Utica, Greece). My county has little cowpie hamlets grandly named Ovid, Romulus, Junius, and Tyre, complete with a crumbling Roman-style courthouse and decaying “Greek Revival” farmhouses.
This state also has Cadiz, Copenhagen, Dresden, Medina, Stockholm, Zurich, Berlin, New Berlin, Poland, Cuba, Salamanca, and a Stone Arabia (no idea on that last one). And just a few miles down the road from me is Montezuma.
And today, I unconditionally guarantee, my fellow villagers do not know, or care, about ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire, or who fought at Waterloo, or which side won.
If you explained Napoleon’s final defeat to them, they would probably just express relief at not having to learn French in school.
OK, end of rant. Our state motto is “Excelsior“, so onward and upward, moving on, ditching history as we go.
But I still think, before you graduate from school in a town called Waterloo, they should at least make it mandatory to know a bit about Wellington’s Victory. Maybe just watch the 1970 movie, with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. And Orson Welles, too, I don’t remember in what role, perhaps as the Chateau d’Hougoumont?
In Part II, I searched newspapers across the country, to see how all the Waterloo’s around the USA (a clear majority of states have one) commemorated the 200th anniversary of the battle. (Here’s a spoiler — it’s a pretty short list!)
Maybe it was just “Battle Anniversary Overload”? Here’s a few more for 2015, and the movies to watch if you don’t want to read a history book:
600th anniversary of Agincourt – I think they’re supposed to be working on a movie right now. But in the meantime, look up on YouTube, Kenneth Branagh doing the pre-battle speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Seriously, if you don’t feel moved, go to the hospital, have them check you for a pulse.
100th anniversary of Gallipoli – the only time I’ve liked Mel Gibson, in a Peter Weir movie of the same name. And Russell Crowe in The Water Diviner
75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – the movie version is almost fifty years old, but lots of real airplanes, not computer simulations, with Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, again, and pretty much every other British actor alive in 1969