(The following is an excerpt from the chapter “We’re Baaack”
in my 2012 book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York.)
The muddy road seemed to hardly merit the official route number New York State had assigned it. A “repaving” project had caused the traffic jam, and presumably most of the mud. The rain had stopped when we begin to climb the small slope that would lead us to Union Cemetery. Union Cemetery is closed to new burials now, but the grave I’m looking for is from 1825.
We pull into the gravel road that circles through the interior of the cemetery. I’m not sure where the grave is. My research indicates there’s a marker. I’m thinking it marks the actual grave. I see a marker by the roadside at the edge of the cemetery. Turning into the graveyard, I assume that’s where the grave is, but as I drive up the moist lane, I notice yet another sign – not a marker, but a real sign – indicating the grave I seek lies well within the burial grounds. I exit the car, with camera, and walk in the direction the sign designates.
I see the well-marked grave and position myself to the west of the headstone to snap a picture. The tombstone reads “Capt. Daniel Shay (sic) – Revolutionary War – 1747-1825.” The heavy granite stone doesn’t look vintage, at least compared to the contemporary gravestones that surround it. Planted next to it is an easily seen metal sign with “Captain Daniel Shays” printed in gold on a blue background.
Before I take a picture, I can’t help but stand in awe of the scenic view before me. Union Cemetery sits at the crest of one of the many rolling hills that surround the swampy valley to the south of Conesus Lake. It’s a perfect resting place for an American hero, the kind of storybook ending one might expect to find to cap the celebration of a character that, whether he knew it or not, has come to exemplify the persona of all that is Greater Western New York…
* * * * *
Daniel Ogden Shays was a Revolutionary War hero. The Massachusetts native worked as a lower class farm laborer when the War broke. He joined the militia and saw action at Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Stony Point. When Shays retired from service in 1780, the Marquis de Lafayette recognized his exemplary record by presenting him with a ceremonial sword.1
But that’s not why he’s famous.
Following his retirement, Shays led the quiet farm life in the western Massachusetts town of Pelham (now called Prescott). Things didn’t stay quiet. Most Revolutionary War veterans found themselves paid in Continental Script. The economic recession that followed the Revolutionary War made this paper currency worthless. The government of Massachusetts, consisting mainly of the wealthy class, decided it would only accept hard money (gold and silver) to pay taxes. Making matters worse, the State’s huge war debt led to an aggressive tax policy. The farmers of western Massachusetts couldn’t get paid in hard currency and couldn’t afford the higher taxes.
After the government rebuffed the farmers’ pleas, tax assessors started obtaining foreclosures from the courts. Looking for a leader, the abused citizens turned to their local War hero Daniel Shays for leadership. Shays, at first reluctant, stepped into the role after Governor James Bowdoin publicly denounced the farmers’ initial action to shut the courts. Shays then led a peaceful demonstration that again closed the courts. A second confrontation would prove disastrous for Shays’ “Regulators.”
By now, Massachusetts found itself in a virtual civil war, with the government’s army manned mainly by elites from the eastern half of the state and Shays’ men mostly poor farmers from the western half. In late January of 1787 (why does that year mean something?), Shays’ army met the state forces at the Springfield armory, but did not fire. The government men-at-arms proved less accommodating and fired their canons into the crowd of protestors, killing four. From there, “Shays’ Rebellion” ended and Governor Bowdoin charged Shays and his leadership with treason. Two were executed, but by then Shays had escaped. He would eventually settle in Scottsburg in what was then the Town of Sparta in Livingston County. Bowdoin lost the next election and the new governor – John Hancock – pardoned all the men.
Shays’ contemporaries had mixed feeling about his actions. Some felt he was a traitor, fighting against the very democracy he fought for in the recent Revolutionary War. Others thought he was a true patriot, responding with consistency against one tyranny as he did against another. George Washington did not tolerate mutinous insubordination during the Revolutionary War (Pennsylvania Continentals Mutiny2) or during his Presidency (Whisky Rebellion3). Originally, General Washington, inspired by the Roman Cincinnatus, wished to stay retired on his Virginia farm. He repeatedly insisted we would not go to the proposed Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. But Shays’ Rebellion changed his mind, and may ultimately be the reason why George Washington became our first President. We know this because, in a letter to George Knox, Washington cites Shays’ Rebellion as the reason he changed his mind about attending the Philadelphia Convention.4 Both Abigail Adams and Samuel Adams sided with the eastern Massachusetts elites. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, in a January 30, 1787 letter to James Madison, wrote “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”5
Daniel Shays died in obscurity. A few months before Shays’ death, Lafayette returned to America to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Revolutionary War. All surviving heroes were invited to see the elder French statesman. All except Daniel Shays.
Two centuries after the event, the positive impact of Shays’ Rebellion in forging a new America is undisputed. To mark its 200th anniversary, President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation declaring, among other things, “Shays’ Rebellion did give impetus to the Federalists’ call for the establishment of what George Washington termed ‘a more efficient general government’” and “Shays’ Rebellion was to have a profound and lasting effect on the framing of our Constitution and on our subsequent history.”6
Like the fictional Colonel Effingham, Captain Daniel Shays took an unpopular stand to save a legacy he had a part in fighting for. Unlike the movie, though, Shays did not survive long enough to see a new generation take the reins from a sickly man to carry on the good fight. Colonel Effingham saw a community that did not surrender to an overbearing government made up of the self-serving rich. It was a storybook ending. For Shays, there would be no such conclusion to his life. Shays took the same risk, and died poor and unknown…
* * * * *
At his grave, a lump forms in my throat. Remembering the disregard his contemporaries held for him, a tombstone with his misspelled name seems tragically ironic. But if the history of mankind tells us anything, it assures us Shays’ fight continues and, given the nature of man, always will. Shays must see this from somewhere up wherever he is, and when he does, it’s not hard to believe he’s smiling and saying, “We’re baaack!”
Perhaps some reader will have the mind to give a gift to the Scottsburg Union Cemetery. And speaking of gifts…
1 “Daniel Ogden Shays,” Find a Grave website, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=946 |
2 “The American Revolution,” The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/1781.html |
3 Hoover, Michael, “The Whiskey Rebellion,” Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, U.S. Department of Treasury, http://www.ttb.gov/public_info/whisky_rebellion.shtml |
4 “George Washington discusses Shays’ Rebellion and the upcoming Consitutional Convention, 1787, The Gilder Lehrman Institution of American History, http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/creating-new-government/resources/george-washington-discusses-shays%E2%80%99-rebellion-and-up |
5 “Thomas Jefferson,” Springfield Technical Community College website, http://shaysrebellion.stcc.edu/shaysapp/person.do?shortName=thomas_jefferson |
6 Reagan, Ronald, “Proclamation 5598 – Shays’ Rebellion Week and Day, 1987,” Office of the Federal Register, January 14, 1987, http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1987/011387b.htm |
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to check out the book trailer on 50HiddenGems.com and sign up for theGreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out about the next exciting way to help promote your favorite region in America!