Native Americans in the Revolutionary War

At the commencement of the American struggle for independence, the Native Americans in the Revolutionary War stood in a peculiar position. Their friendship became a matter of importance to both parties. To secure this, the English took particular care, and had many advantages, of which the colonists were deprived. The expulsion of the French from Canada had given the Indians a high opinion of the valor and power of British forces. They also had the means of supplying the wants of the Indians by presents of articles, which could only be obtained from Europe, and which the American Congress had prohibited the colonists from importing. They had still another and a more important advantage. Since the peace of 1763 nearly all the transactions of the English with the Indians had been conducted by agents who were attached to the home government, and who, of course, secured the Indians as far as possible, to the interest of that government, when the colonies rebelled.

Cherokee Indians and the Revolutionary War

In the meantime, the Americans were not unmindful of their interests in this quarter. They appointed commissioners to explain the nature of the struggle, and to gain their good will by treaties and presents. Congress, also resolved to distribute goods to the amount of two thousand dollars among them; but the wise resolution was never executed. In almost every period of the war, the Indians took part with the English. South Carolina was one of the first states that felt the force of British influence. All intercourse with the Creeks and Cherokees, the tribes nearest the frontier settlements of that state, had, for some years previous to the beginning of the war, been conducted by John Stuart, an officer very zealous in the British cause. He formed a plan to land a British force in Florida and in conjunction with the Indians, to attack the western settlements of South Carolina, while a fleet should appear upon the coast. This plan was discovered by the capture of Moses Kirkland, bearer of dispatches to General Gage, and the Americans immediately took measures to frustrate it.

Yet so nearly had the scheme succeeded, that the Cherokees began their attacks on the settlements at the same time the British fleet attacked the fort on Sullivan’s Island. But the defeat of the fleet enabled the Americans to carry the war into the Indian country. An effective force was sent by Virginia, North Carolina, and the other states, at the same time, which traversed the Indian ground, burnt their villages, and destroyed their crops, and forced about five hundred Cherokees to enter Florida, and seek protection from the British. Soon after, they sued for peace, and by the treaty which was then made, ceded a considerable quantity of land to South Carolina. This expedition so far humbled the Cherokees that they did not attempt hostilities for several years after.

Six Nations and the Revolutionary War

The Six Nations had been secured to the British cause in July, 1775, by Colonel Guy Johnson, Intendant-General of the king for Indian affairs. This was unfortunate for the American frontier settlements in the northern and middle states. A great number of Tories had taken refuge among the Indians, and by their knowledge of the state of things in the settlements, greatly aided the Indians in their constant attacks. So embittered were these men against those who had driven them from the abodes of civilization, that they outdid the Indians in displaying their cruelty. The principal leaders of these expeditions were Colonel John Butler, a Connecticut Tory, and Brant, a half-blood Indian, principal chief of the Six Nations.

When Burgoyne started upon his expedition of invading the northern states, he deemed it important that Fort Schuyler should be taken otherwise, he would leave a favorable post in his rear. Accordingly, he detached Colonel St. Leger with a large force of British and Indians to affect its capture. The fort was invested on the 3d of August, 1777. It was in so poor a state of defense, that an immediate attempt to drive off the enemy and relieve it was absolutely necessary. General Herkimer, a leading person in Tryon County, marched with more than eight hundred militia on this service. St. Leger had with him about seven hundred Indian warriors, who with their wives, children, other men and women made up near fourteen hundred. He detached Sir John Johnson, with some troops and the Indians, to lie in ambush in the woods, and intercept the militia. (August 6.) Herkimer fell into the snare, and was surprised: but several of the chief Indians fell by the first fire he gave them; soon after which, the battle was a scene of confusion beyond anything the Indians had ever seen. The white people, consisting of the militia and Sir John Johnson’s Tory troops, as his own corps was called, got together in parties of twenty or thirty, so that they could not fire; but pulled and hauled, drew their knives and stabbed each other. The Indians, who consisted of Shawanese, Delawares, Senecas, and others, after a while conjectured, from their own loss and the confusion which prevailed, that both Sir John’s people, and Herkimer’s intended to destroy them; at length some of their chiefs told the young warriors, at it was a plot of the white people to draw them into a scraped cut them off; and then ordered them to kill all white people whatever. It is thought that near as many of Sir John’s Tory party were killed by the Indians as by the militia. A number of Herkimer’s ran off; about a hundred were so surrounded that they could not get away; but they possessed themselves of advantageous post behind logs, &c., where they continued fighting the Indians with great bravery, till Sir John drew off his men, fearing that the garrison would sally out and fall upon him: near upon seventy of the hundred by this means escaped. Two hundred and fifty men, under Lieutenant-colonel Willet, sallied out about that time, and routed two of the Indian and Tory encampments, destroying their provisions, and carrying off kettles, blankets, muskets, tomahawks, spears, clothing, deer skins, a variety of Indian trophies, and five standards; which, on their return to the fort were displayed under the continental flag.

Both parties suffered terribly in this close struggle. The Senecas alone lost thirty men, and the Tories one hundred. The loss of the Americans in killed, wounded, and prisoners was about four hundred men. Many of the most active political characters in that part of the country were among the slain. St. Leger now summoned the fort to surrender, but again met with a steady refusal.

General Schuyler
General Schuyler

Deeming it a matter of importance to prevent the junction of Burgoyne and St. Leger, General Schuyler sent Arnold, with a considerable force to relieve Fort Schuyler. Arnold made use of stratagem to affect this. He captured an American of wealth and influence, whom he believed had been acting the part of a traitor, and promised his life and fortune on condition that he would go to Fort Schuyler and alarm the Indians and British by magnifying the force which was marching against them. This was done; and the Indians, who had already become discontented on account of their losses in the battle with Herkimer, and the disappointment of their hopes of plunder, left St. Leger to prosecute the siege with the British troops alone. But he concluded to raise the siege, and retreated with his whole force two days before Arnold arrived. The firm and successful defense of Fort Schuyler, added to the victory at Bennington, contributed greatly to inspirit the Americans, and may be considered as the commencement of that which ended in glory at Saratoga.

The horrid cruelties of the Indians in the service of the British roused the indignation of the Americans to a fearful height. One barbarous act, although it was a case of individual suffering, made a deep impression on the Americans, and was alluded to in a letter from General Gates to General Burgoyne, dated 2d of September. It deserves particular mention, because of the excitement it created at the time it was first made known.

Mr. Jones, an officer of the British army, had engaged the affections of Miss Macrea, a young lady of amiable character and spotless reputation, daughter of a gentleman attached to the royal cause, living near Fort Edward; and they had agreed to be married. In the course of his duties, the officer was removed to some distance from his bride, and became anxious for her safety. He engaged two Indians of different tribes, to bring her to camp, and promised a keg of rum to the person who should deliver her safe to him. She dressed to meet her intended husband, and accompanied her Indian conductors. By the way, the two Indians quarreled in regard to who should deliver her to her lover; and to settle the matter according to Indian usage, one of them cleft her skull with a tomahawk. This simple, but affecting story was exaggerated and dwelt upon by the American newspapers in a style that fired the people with hatred and a determined spirit that would not be satisfied with anything short of an extermination of the Indians wherever found, and which aided materially in securing the triumph of the American arms.

The next exploit of Brandt and the Indian Butler, was at Wyoming, a new and flourishing settlement on the eastern branch of the Susquehanna. The territory, in which the town was situated, was claimed by two states Pennsylvania and Connecticut. From the collision of contradictory claims, the laws of neither state were enforced, and the security of the inhabitants was destroyed. The Tories were numerous, and were under less control than in the larger towns. But twenty-seven of them were taken and sent to Hartford for trial; these were afterwards set at liberty. Burning with desire of revenge for loss of property and banishment, these Tories and their friends joined the Indians, and prepared to attack the settlement. A little before the main attack, some small parties made sudden irruptions, and committed several robberies and murders; and from ignorance, or a contempt of all ties whatever, massacred the wife and five children of one of the persons sent for trial to Connecticut in their own cause.

Colonel Zebulon Butler
Colonel Zebulon Butler

At length, in the beginning of July, the enemy suddenly appeared in full force on the Susquehanna, headed by Colonel John Butler, a Connecticut Tory, and cousin to Colonel Zebulon Butler, the second in command in the settlement. He was assisted by most of those leaders, who had rendered themselves terrible in the present frontier war. Their force was about sixteen hundred men, near a fourth Indians, led by their own chiefs: the others were so disguised and painted as not to be distinguished from the Indians, excepting their officers, who, being dressed in regimentals, carried the appearance of regulars. One of the smaller forts, garrisoned chiefly by Tories, was given up or rather betrayed. Another was taken by storm, and all but the women and children massacred in the most inhuman manner.

(July 3.) Colonel Zebulon Butler, leaving a small number to guard Fort Wilkesbarre, crossed the river with about four hundred men, and marched into Kingston Fort, whither the women, children, and defenseless of all sorts crowded for protection. He suffered himself to be enticed by his cousin to abandon the fortress. He agreed to march out, and hold a conference with the enemy in the open field (at so great a distance from the fort, as to shut out all possibility of protection from it) upon their withdrawing according to their own proposal, in order to the holding of a parley for the conclusion of a treaty. He at the same time marched out about four hundred men well armed, being nearly the whole strength of the garrison, to guard his person to the place of parley, such was his distrust of the enemy’s designs. On his arrival, he found no body to treat with him, and yet advanced toward the foot of the mountain, where at a distance he saw a flag, the holders of which, seemingly afraid of treachery on his side, retired as he advanced; whilst he, endeavoring to remove this pretended ill impression, pursued the flag, till his party was thoroughly enclosed, when he was suddenly freed from his delusion by finding it attacked at once on every side. He and his men, notwithstanding the surprise and danger, fought with resolution and bravery, and kept up so continual and heavy a fire for three quarters of an hour, that they concluded a gain a marked superiority. In this critical moment, a soldier, through a sudden impulse of fear, or premeditated treachery cried out aloud, “the colonel has ordered a retreat!” The fate of the party was now at once determined. In the state of confusion that ensued, an unresisting slaughter commenced, while the enemy broke in on all sides without obstruction. Colonel Zebulon Butler, and about seventy of his men escaped; the latter got across the river to Fort Wilkesbarre, the colonel made his way to Fort Kingston, which was invested the next day, (July 4,) on the land side. The enemy, to sadden the drooping spirits of the weak remaining garrison, sent in for their contemplation the bloody scalps of one hundred and ninety-six of their late friends and comrades. They kept up a continual fire upon the fort the whole day. In the evening, the colonel quit the fort and went down the river with his family. He is thought to be the only officer that escaped.

(July 5.) Colonel Nathan Dennison, who succeeded to the command, seeing the impossibility of an effectual defense, went with a flag to Colonel John Butler, to know what terms he would grant on surrender; to which application Butler answered with more than Indian phlegm in two short words the hatchet. Dennison having defended the fort, till most of the garrison were killed or disabled, was compelled to surrender at discretion. Some of the unhappy persons in the fort were carried away alive; but the barbarous conquerors, to save the trouble of murder in detail, shut up the rest promiscuously in the houses and barracks, which having set on fire, they enjoyed the Indian pleasure of beholding the whole consumed in one general blaze.

They then crossed the river to the only remaining fort, Wilkesbarre, which, in hopes of mercy, surrendered without demanding any conditions. They found about seventy continental soldiers, who had been engaged merely for the defense of the frontiers whom they butchered with every circumstance of horrid cruelty The remainder of the men, with the women and children, were shut up as before in the houses, which being set on fire, they perished altogether in the flames.

A general scene of devastation was now spread through all the townships. Fire, sword, and the other different circumstances of destruction alternately triumphed. The settlements of the Tories alone generally escaped, and appeared as islands in the midst of the surrounding ruin. The merciless ravagers having destroyed the main objects of their cruelty, directed their animosity to every part of living nature belonging to them; shot and destroyed some of their cattle, and cut out the tongues of others, leaving them still alive to prolong their agonies.

In the following November, the inhabitants of Cherry Valley were attacked by a large body of Tories and Indians, under Butler and Brandt. An attempt was made upon Fort Alden; but it failed. The enemy, however, killed and scalped thirty-two of the settlers, mostly women and children, and also Colonel Alden and ten soldiers.

But retribution overtook the merciless Butler. In October, 1781, Colonel Willet with four hundred soldiers and sixty Oneidas, surprised a party of Tories and Indians, in the country of the Mohawks, and killed and took the most of them. Walter Butler was among the party, and being wounded by an Oneida Indian, he called out for quarter, upon which the Indian screamed out “Sherry Valley,” and instantly dispatched him.

A short time previous to this affair, Colonel William Butler, with a party of Pennsylvania troops, proceeded on an expedition into the Indian country. On the 1st of October, he reached the head of the Delaware, marched down that river for two days, and then struck across to the Susquehanna. Great difficulties were surmounted in this expedition. The men carried their provisions on their backs, and thus loaded, waded through rivers and creeks, and endured damp nights and heavy rains. Yet they were successful. They burned the Indian villages and the Tory settlements on both sides of the Susquehanna; but the inhabitants escaped. Butler returned to Schoharie, within sixteen days after leaving that place, and was received with a salute and a feu de joie.

Colonel Pickens
Colonel Pickens

Other expeditions were conducted against the Indians in the course of the year. In April, Colonel Van Schaiek with fifty-five men marched from Fort Schuyler, and burned the whole Onondaga settlements, consisting of about fifty houses, with a large quantity of provisions, killed twelve Indians, and made thirty-four prisoners, without the loss of a single man. In August, General Williamson and Colonel Pickens, of South Carolina, entered the Indian country adjacent to the frontier of their state; burned and destroyed the corn of eight towns; and required the Indians to remove into more remote settlements. In the same month, Colonel Broadhead made a successful expedition against the Mingo, Munsey, and Seneca Indians. Leaving Pittsburg with six hundred and five men, he in about five weeks penetrated about two hundred miles from the fort, destroyed a number of Indian huts, and about five hundred acres of corn.

Detached parties of Indians distressed different portions of tho United States. In July, a party of sixty Indians and twenty-seven white men under Brandt, attacked the Minisink settlement, in the state of New York, and burned ten houses, twelve barns, a fort, and two mills, and carried off much plunder, with several prisoners. In August, the Indians with their Tory associates burned fifty houses and forty-seven barns at Canijohary, a fine settlement about fifty-six miles from Albany; and destroyed twenty-seven houses at Schoharie, and two at Norman’s Creek.

But Washington determined to send a force into the country of the Six Nations which should affect something decisive. A body of twenty-five hundred men, under General Sullivan, was ordered upon this service. The forces were not concentrated at Wyoming until July, 1779. On the 22d of July, a party of militia, who had marched from this place to Lackawaxen to protect the settlers there, was attacked by a body of Tories and Indians, and out of one hundred and forty men, only thirty escaped unhurt.

General Sullivan
General Sullivan

The Indians, on hearing of the expedition projected against them, acted with firmness. They collected their strength, took possession of proper ground, and fortified it with judgment. General Sullivan on the 29th of August attacked them in their works. They stood a cannonade for more than two hours; but then gave way. This engagement proved decisive. After the trenches were forced, the Indians fled without making any attempt to rally. The consternation occasioned among them by this defeat was so great, that they gave up all ideas of further resistance. As the Americans advanced into their settlements, the Indians retreated before them, without throwing any obstructions in their way. General Sullivan penetrated into the heart of the country inhabited by the Mohawks, and spread desolation everywhere. Many settlements in the form of towns were destroyed. All their fields of corn, and whatever was in a state of cultivation underwent the same fate. Scarcely any thing in the form of a house was left standing, nor was an Indian to be seen. To the surprise of the Americans, they found the lands about the Indian towns well cultivated, and their houses both large and commodious. The quantity of corn destroyed was immense. Orchards, in which were several hundred fruit trees, were cut down; and of them many appeared to have been planted for a long series of years. Their gardens, replenished with a variety of useful vegetables, were laid waste. The Americans were so full of resentment against the Indians, for the many outrages they had suffered from them, and so bent on making the expedition decisive, that the officers and soldiers cheerfully agreed to remain, till they had fully completed the destruction of the settlement. The supplies obtained in the country lessened the inconvenience of short rations. The ears of corn were so remarkably large, that many of them measured twenty-two inches in length. Necessity suggested a novel expedient for pulverizing the grains thereof. The soldiers perforated a few of their camp kettles with bayonets. The protrusions occasioned thereby formed a rough surface, and, by rubbing the ears of corn thereon, a coarse meal was produced, which was easily convertible into agreeable nourishment.

Having thus completed the work of devastation, Sullivan and his army returned. The work accomplished was fully justified on the ground of retaliation. There was no other way of making the foe feel the consequences of their bloody and desolating deeds. The Indians were greatly cowed in spirit by the expedition, and the frontiers were relieved from their attacks for a long time afterwards.

Moravian Indians and the Revolutionary War

In the latter part of the war, in 1782, a party of civilized Indians who had settled near the Muskingum, at the Moravian towns, were barbarously murdered by a party of one hundred and sixty white men, who crossed the Ohio and attacked them without the slightest provocation. Ninety of them were put to death without resistance on their part. These Kentuckians earned a name by this horrible deed worthy to be ranked with those of Butler and Brandt. Retribution soon overtook them. A party set out to destroy the Indian towns near Sandusky; but the Delawares opposed, and a battle ensued. The Indians conquered, and several Americans were killed and others taken prisoners. Among the latter was Colonel Crawford, who was sacrificed to the manes of those who were murdered at the Moravian towns; the rest were unmercifully tomahawked.

Creek Indians and the Revolutionary War

General Wayne
General Wayne

On the 24th of June, 1782, General Wayne was furiously attacked at a plantation about five miles from Savannah, by a large body of Creeks, who at first drove his troops and took two pieces of artillery; but Wayne soon rallied his force, and charged the Indians with such spirit, that they were completely routed. The action was contested hand to hand with tomahawk, sword, and bayonet. Fourteen Indians, including Emistessigo, a famous chief, were slain. Wayne lost but two men. The royalists, who came from Savannah to assist the Indians, were driven back by the victorious Americans, who took a British standard and one hundred and twenty-seven horses with packs. Of the continentals, five were killed and eight wounded.

This was the last Indian battle during the war. The whole course of the contest maintained between the Indiana and the Americans had been marked by an excess of cruelty almost unparalleled in the annals of war. Women and children were put to death as mercilessly as those in arms. In the political dissensions, families were divided among themselves, and, as at Wyoming, all ties were forgotten in a fiendish desire for blood and revenge. Such struggle is scarcely to be found elsewhere in history.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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