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July 04, 2013

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The Fiddler's Companion has information about "Sackett's Harbor" that might be relevant: http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/SAA_SAIG.htm#SACKETT%27S_HARBOR

Thanks for citing so many references for this classic dance! In particular, I really liked seeing the same figures appearing on the same page under two different names in Schell's Prompting: How to do it. Great find!

> Two battles between British and American forces were fought there during the War of 1812; the battlefield is now a historic site. I expect that the name commemorates the battles.

Although that's certainly possible, I think there's another explanation for the name. Here's an excerpt from my article on that subject from Cracking Chestnuts:

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While doing research into Hull’s Victory, we were looking through books of military history relating to the War of 1812. It became clear that in addition to the naval engagements in the Atlantic, serious fighting took place in the northwest of the new nation. Britain controlled Canada, and an invasion from that direction was a grave threat. Lakes Erie and Ontario were vulnerable, and Lake Champlain reached well into New York state, giving an invading army easy access. Sackett’s Harbor, located at the eastern end of Lake Ontario in northern New York state, was the headquarters of the American fleet on the lake during the war, a fleet intended to neutralize the British threat. But supporting this outpost was no easy feat in these days before railroads and canals and with roads in only primitive conditions. All serious trade was by water, and the British Navy was a strong presence.

There was an important battle at Sackett’s Harbor. A force of 800 British soldiers attacked on the night of May 26, 1813, taking advantage of the absence of the American fleet, which was itself then attacking British positions at the west end of the lake. The British landed and launched three separate assaults before they were repulsed. Could the dance be commemorating this event in much the manner of Hull’s Victory? Possibly, but we believe that there is a more specific reference. The clue comes from Ralph Page’s observation that the Sackett’s Harbor dance at one time had been known as Speed the Cable.

One source that proved particularly helpful was Willis J. Abbot's The Naval History of the United States, first published in 1886. This dusty blue volume had been checked out by only five library patrons in the past forty years; it was a dark book of the sort that can be found in the American history section of any older library, widely shunned in favor of more recent writing. But Abbot describes one event in detail which effectively solves the riddle:

When in May, 1814, the new United States frigate Superior lay at her dock at Sackett’s Harbor, her ordnance, stores, and cordage had to be brought from Oswego Falls, some fifty miles away. A clear water-route by the Oswego River and the lake offered itself; but Sir James Yeo, with his squadron, was blockading the mouth of the harbor, and the chance for blockade-runners was small indeed. To carry the heavy ordnance and cables overland, was out of the question. The dilemma was most perplexing, but Yankee ingenuity finally enabled the Superior to get her outfit. The equipment was loaded upon a small fleet of barges and scows, which a veteran lake captain took to a point sixteen miles from the blockaded harbor. By sailing by night, and skulking up creeks and inland water-ways, the transports reached this point without attracting the attention of the blockading fleet. They had, however, hardly arrived when news of the enterprise came to the ears of the British, and an expedition was sent to intercept the Americans, which expedition the Yankees successfully resisted. The question then arose as to how the stores were to be taken across the sixteen miles of marsh and forest that lay between the boats and the navy-yard at Sackett’s Harbor. The cannon and lighter stores were transported on heavy carts with great difficulty, but there still remained the great cable. How to move this was a serious question. No cart could bear its ponderous weight of ninety-six hundred pounds. Again Yankee ingenuity and pluck came to the rescue. Two hundred men volunteered to carry the great rope on their shoulders, and in this way it actually was transported. Along the shore of the little creek the great cable was stretched out with prodigious labor, and lay there looking like a gigantic serpent. The two hundred men ranged themselves along the line at regular intervals, and at a given signal hoisted the burden to their shoulders. At the word of command, all stepped off briskly together, and the long line wound along the narrow path through the forests. They started out cheerily enough, enlivening the work with songs and jests; but at the end of the first mile all were glad enough to throw down the load, and loiter a while by the roadside. A few minutes’ rest, and up and on again. Now arms began to ache, and shoulders to chafe, under the unusual burden; but the march continued until noon of the next day, when the footsore and weary carriers marched proudly into Sackett's Harbor, to find sailors and soldiers assembled to greet them with bands and cannon-firing. In accordance with the custom of the time, these demonstrations of honor were supplemented by the opening of a barrel of whiskey, in honor of the arrival of the cable.

Abbot doesn’t mention it, but it is easy to imagine a dance in celebration. At some point, probably close in time to these events, a dancing master came up with the figures and selected a contemporary title for his composition. So, Speed the Cable it was, and as time passed and the details of that event faded, only the name of Sackett’s Harbor remained associated with the dance.

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