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'Yankee Doodle' turns 250 — maybe

Wish "Yankee Doodle" a happy 250th birthday. Maybe.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wish "Yankee Doodle" a happy 250th birthday. Maybe.

The original lyrics to one of America's best-known songs, one associated with the American Revolution, were actually written a couple decades earlier during the French and Indian War, although an exact date has eluded historians. Some peg the year as 1755, when the war's first major battles were fought, or 1756.

The other year often cited is 1758. Now, a state archaeologist believes he has narrowed down the date to sometime in June of that year, when a large British-led army was mustering at Albany for an expedition against the French.

Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, a British army physician, is credited with penning the "Yankee Doodle" lyrics to mock the ragtag New England militia serving alongside the redcoats. As the story goes, Shuckburgh wrote "Yankee Doodle" while at Fort Crailo, across the Hudson River from Albany, after witnessing the sloppy drill and appearance of Connecticut troops.

Shuckburgh's own correspondence and other contemporary documents support the June 1758 date, according to Paul Huey of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

"The chronology is entirely consistent with the tradition that he was at Crailo in 1758," he said.

Manhattan land deals
Pinning an exact date on the lyrics' origin is difficult, given the passage of time and the fact that none of Shuckburgh's papers mention "Yankee Doodle."

But studying surviving documents from the era helped Huey trace Shuckburgh's whereabouts between 1755 and 1759. Shuckburgh was visiting London in 1755 and returned to New York in early September, after an English army had already marched north to attack the French, Huey said. He then spent most of the next two years pursuing land deals in Manhattan, which likely kept Shuckburgh away from Albany, the archaeologist said.

In the spring of 1758, Shuckburgh returned to Albany, where the largest British army ever assembled in North America up to that point was gathering for an assault on the French fort at Ticonderoga.

Thousands of ill-equipped and ragged New England militiamen were bivouacked around Fort Crailo. They were kept out of Albany lest the Puritan-raised Yankees be tempted by the bustling inland port's many taverns, brothels and Dutch merchants adept at separating country greenhorns from their shillings.

As they awaited orders to march north, the New Englanders were easy targets for the derision of the spit-and-polish redcoats, Shuckburgh among them. He and other British officers were the guests of the Van Rensselaer family, wealthy Dutch landowners whose holdings included Fort Crailo, a fortified manor house in what is now the city of Rensselaer.

According to Van Rensselaer family lore, Shuckburgh wrote the lyrics in 1758 while sitting on the edge of a well at the rear of the brick house, now a state historic site. Huey believes Shuckburgh wrote the ditty sometime before June 28, because the army had marched by then and a journal kept by an English colonel places the physician at a Mohawk Valley outpost on that date.

The lyrics attributed to Shuckburgh, an upper-crust wag known for his conviviality, mocked the Connecticut fools — "Yankee doodles" — who arrived wearing hats decorated with feathers. An old English nursery rhyme provided the tune, which was also used in a musical play popular in the British colonies in the mid-1700s.

While no mention of "Yankee Doodle" has been found in Shuckburgh's own papers, Huey believes he has come as close as possible in determining a birthday for the song.

"I don't have an ironclad case, but it seems more likely," he said, admitting that "it's frustrating because there are big gaps in the chronology."

Author Stuart Murray wrote in his 1999 book "America's Song, The Story of `Yankee Doodle'" that Shuckburgh created the lyrics in 1755. Though he gives Huey credit for making a strong case for 1758, Murray said he's sticking with 1755.

"I think it's still open" to conjecture, he said. "Unless something turns up in history, I can't imagine we'll ever know."

After Shuckburgh died in August 1773 in Schenectady, a New York newspaper called him "a gentleman of a very genteel family, and of infinite jest and humour."

Two years later, the Revolutionary War was under way and the British troops used the song to taunt the rebellious Americans, who would later take "Yankee Doodle" as their own and struck up the tune after beating the redcoats in battle.