Ed Spaeth was researching his family tree when he discovered an 18th-century ancestor likely was buried in the woods just down the hill from his Hudson Valley home.
Although he can't pinpoint Francois Martin-Pelland's grave, historical evidence has led Spaeth to the nearby grove believed to be the final resting place of hundreds of other Revolutionary War soldiers posted here when Fishkill was the main supply source for Gen. George Washington's northern army.
Today, commercial development has whittled the wooded parcel down to about 12 acres hemmed in by roads, a shopping mall, a gas station and a Mexican restaurant. A group of preservationists, history buffs and civic leaders has mustered in this Dutchess County town to try to save what could be the nation's single largest-known burial site of Revolutionary War soldiers.
"They didn't fight and die for this cause just to have a mall built on top of them," said Spaeth, a 64-year-old retired school librarian.
From 1776 until 1783, the Fishkill Encampment and Supply Depot was a bustling military post. Several thousand Continental Army regulars and militiamen toiled year-round, carrying out the logistical tasks that allowed America's first army to fight. Many, perhaps more than 1,000, died and were buried in the depot's cemetery, 60 miles north of New York City.
The Fishkill depot's complex of huts, barracks, storehouses and workshops was known to have included a cemetery during the war. But its exact location wasn't confirmed until the fall of 2007, when an
archaeological survey conducted for the property's owner found
several old graves in a wooded area across from the Dutchess Mall,
built in the 1970s.
At the recommendation of state archaeologists, another study was done last year. Ground-penetrating radar indicated several hundred
grave sites in the southern tip of the property.
"We really don't know how many are there," said Douglas Mackey, an archaeologist for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites.
Backed by the latest findings, town officials and preservationists are seeking government funding to buy the land and protect it from development. One idea is to turn the site into the first national Revolutionary War cemetery. Some have taken to calling the Fishkill site "New York's Valley Forge."
"This is the founding of our country," said Mara Farrell of Fishkill Historical Focus. "There's so much about this site that needs to be revealed."
Retired Army Col. James Johnson , a 1969 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a former military history professor there, notes that the closest the Fishkill depot came to fighting was when a British force ventured up the Hudson River from Manhattan and burned a nearby village. Nevertheless, the food, clothing and armaments the depot provided to Washington's soldiers helped them keep the redcoats from gaining control of the strategic Hudson Highlands.
Historians say disease and starvation claimed most of the soldiers who died here, although some died from wounds suffered in battles fought elsewhere.
Few major battlegrounds from the war, including Yorktown and Saratoga, have sizable marked cemeteries. After Yorktown in 1781, the 156 Americans who died were buried in a mass grave in nearby
Williamsburg, Va. Americans killed during two battles at Saratoga, N.Y., in 1777 were buried in unmarked mass graves or simply covered with thin layers of dirt, leaving the remains susceptible to scavengers.
"These burials were done pretty darn quick," said Joe Craig, a ranger at Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater. "In garrison areas, they'd have a little more time."
Even at Valley Forge, Pa., there's no single marked cemetery for the estimated 1,700 soldiers Washington lost to disease and illness while his army was encamped outside Philadelphia during the winter and spring of 1777-1778. Ranger Bill Troppman at Valley Forge National Historical Park said stricken soldiers were transported to field hospitals in nearby communities, where the dead were buried singly or in small groups.
"It surprises people that the death rate was so high here and that there's no mass burial area," he said.
The only other remnant from Fishkill's supply depot days is the old Dutch homestead American officers used as a headquarters. Washington was a frequent visitor when his army encamped at nearby
In June, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed legislation to make the Fishkill cemetery site eligible for federal preservation funds currently used only for Civil War battlefields.
Fishkill Town Supervisor Joan Pagones, whose Army captain son has served in Iraq, said officials hope funds will be made available to buy the site from the developers.
"I certainly, as the mother of a soldier, realize that this is sacred ground and something has to be done to preserve it," she said. "There's also the side of the people who own it and they've been paying taxes on it."
Property co-owner Scott Jerutis said his company will sell the whole parcel for at least $6 million and would sell just the section where the graves are located.
The Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit organization, is also working with all the parties to help reach an agreement.
"We've done it in a lot of Southern states with Civil War sites and this would be a great addition,"said Matthew Shurtleff, project manager for the trust's New York office.
Other Revolutionary War sites also face development pressures.
Land adjacent to the Princeton, N.J., battlefield where Washington's army won a key victory on Jan. 3, 1777, was recently named one of New Jersey's most endangered sites.
At Valley Forge, a conservation group successfully battled a proposed American Revolution museum planned for 78 acres of private land nearly surrounded by the national park. Museum officials announced last week they would locate instead in downtown Philadelphia, about 25 miles away. In 2003, Congress earmarked $2.5 million to buy private land in the park from a developer who was planning a neighborhood of luxury homes.
For Spaeth, a Yonkers native who moved upstate more than 30 years ago, settling just uphill from his ancestor was pure happenstance. A genealogy buff since his teens, he found out in the 1980s that Martin-Pelland, a Quebecois who fought for the Americans, had died of smallpox while at Fishkill in October 1778.
When Spaeth moved into a house built near a natural spring where soldiers from the Depot fetched their water, he had no idea his ancestor was buried in an unmarked grave nearby.
"The stars must have been aligned just right," said Spaeth, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. "One truly feels that one is walking on the hallowed grounds of one's ancestors."