At the beginning of September, The City of Ithaca announced their intention to remove the “White Settlers” plaque in DeWitt Park. The monument, consisting of a bronze plaque bolted to a boulder, identifies two Revolutionary soldiers, Jonathan Woodworth and Robert McDowell, who are described as the “First White Settlers” in Ithaca. The plaque has become the frequent focus of protests that decry its exclusionary message and the people the plaque ignores. The City of Ithaca will donate the plaque to The History Center’s collections, if approved for removal at the October Common Council meeting.
I don’t profess to be an expert local historian, so I feel uncomfortable speaking to the veracity of the plaque’s historical claims. Others much more knowledgeable than I highlight the complex realities at the end of the 18th century and how our understanding of that history has changed over time. The plaque’s simplistic and definitive statement flattens these complexities, and we are left with an incomplete understanding of our community. I am also a white male-identified person, which carries an obligation to listen when others state that the plaque’s language creates an environment of exclusion and oppression.
I can attest to the learning opportunity the plaque has afforded me. The removal process offered me a gateway to better understand multiple periods of Tompkins County’s past. It took active engagement to move beyond Woodworth or McDowell. Only through purposeful exploration does the engaged audience discover the histories of the many peoples who called this land home before them, like the Tutelo or the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ'. Nor does it mention Yaple and Dumond, another pair of “first settlers” identified on a New York Historic Marker on nearby Buffalo Street. The plaque’s inherently reductive representation of local history erases the powerful complexity of the moment it commemorates.
As an engaged audience, we should also aspire to understand the moment in time that produced the memorialization. The Cayuga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the plaque as part of an effort to honor the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. Again, our responsibility as an engaged audience is to pursue the diversity of stories and people. The narrative surrounding the D.A.R.’s early monument work focuses on their commemoration of largely male, white colonizers. The narrative is justified, but also ignores some efforts of the Cayuga Chapter of the D.A.R. For example, they did attempt to honor indigenous communities by collaborating on programs and historical markers. As always, the depth of our local past requires us to be active participants in the exploration of our past.
That leaves the lessons of the plaque for the current moment and the discussion today. Future generations will understand us, in part, by our decision to remove the plaque. Our challenge in this third moment is to capture the multifaceted voices of our time for future generations. I’m thankful for the public discourse the plaque’s removal inspired and to live in a community where such a debate is possible. Once the plaque is accessioned into The History Center’s collections, we will strive to represent the diverse voices involved in its history through exhibits, programs, and other learning opportunities. This allows us to continue recording the diversity of our current moment for future generations – a vital aspect of recording and memorializing the people and places of Tompkins County.
Executive Director of The History Center in Tompkins County
Originally published in the October 2020 History Happenings Monthly Newsletter.