Monday, February 20, 2012

Presidents' Day

Today is Presidents' Day, which commemorates the birthdays of two of the most famous and beloved American Presidents: George Washington, born February 22, 1732, and Abraham Lincoln, born February 12, 1809.

Last week's post told a bit about one of Minnie's forebears who was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln. Reaching back another century (and five generations) into the family archives, we come across a father and son who were contemporaries of our first President, George Washington.

Gerrit Van Slyke, born in 1729, and his son Nicholas, born in 1764, both fought in the Battle of Oriskany, one of the decisive battles of the American revolution. Nicholas, a young teenager at the time, is listed as a fifer (i.e., he played a high-pitched flute which was used to signal changes in formation during battles) in the Tryon County militia.

The regiment was to head west through the Mohawk Valley to Fort Stanwix, at what is now Rome, New York, which was under siege by the British. But the militia, composed mostly of farmers turned soldier, was ambushed by a force of British soldiers and their Mohawk and Seneca allies in a deep ravine about six miles from the fort. The militia was assisted by a group of Oneida warriors from the nearby village of Oriska.

In the fierce fighting that followed, there were great casualties on the American side. But the British and their Mohawk and Seneca allies eventually retreated, leaving the American survivors to gather up their dead and wounded.

A listing of the roster of militiamen present at the battle incorrectly lists Nicholas as killed during the battle. Although casualties were indeed heavy on the American side, Nicholas and his father both survived the battle. Nicholas lived to see the United States established as an independent country; he went on to marry at the young age of 19, but died before the age of 30 in 1792, the year that George Washington was elected to his second term as President.

We don't have any photographs of Nicholas and Gerrit of course, but in the family archives is a daguerreotype of Nicholas's son David and his wife Elizabeth.

David Van Slyke (1787-1868) and Elizabeth Hellegas (1790-1872)

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American schoolchildren may know of the legend about George Washington and the cherry tree: According to this anecdote, as a young child, George was given a hatchet, and proceeded to try it out in the garden. He chopped down a small cherry tree that was a favorite of his mother's, and when questioned about what happened to the tree, he confessed that he was indeed the culprit. Because of this legend, we often associate cherries and cherry trees with our first President.

Here then, is a recipe for cherry cake from Minnie's cookbook, in honor of Washington's birthday:

Minnie's Cherry Cake Recipe

In trying this one out, I didn't have to do much adapting, other than figuring out the steps in preparing the cake:

- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup cold water
- 1 cup cherries (I used frozen pitted cherries, thawed)

Pitted cherries
Pre-heat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Grease and flour cake pan; pre-sift flour.
Sift together dry ingredients, except sugar.
Cream together butter and sugar; beat in eggs.
Add flour mixture and water alternately; beat until smooth.
Fold in cherries.
Bake for 20 -25 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean.

Grandma's Cherry Cake

With all the natural ingredients, it's a tasty snack for Presidents' Day, or any day for that matter!

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