The Iroquois or Six Nations

General Sullivan’s Campaign against the Iroquois

While the events which we have just described were transpiring, preparations were going on for a more formidable invasion of the Indian Territory than had before been attempted by the Americans. The annoyance of an uncertain border warfare had become so intolerable that it was deemed necessary to put a stop to it by the entire destruction of the Iroquois towns and settlements. In pursuance of a resolution of Congress, the commander-in-chief, General Washington, made arrangements, in the spring of 1779, to send a large force into the heart of the enemies country, with directions to burn and destroy all their towns; to lay waste their fields and orchards; to take as many prisoners as practicable; and, in a word, to do the enemy all the injury possible. The command of the expedition was bestowed upon General Sullivan, who was directed to ascend the Susquehanna, with troops from Pennsylvania, and to form a junction with the northern forces at Tioga, near the mouth of the Chemung. The detachment from the north, under General Clinton, consisting of fifteen hundred men, marched from Canajoharie, on the Mohawk, for Otsego Lake, (from which flows the Susquehanna) about the middle of June. They carried with them, over-land, two hundred bateaux, in which to descend the river to Tioga.

It was intended that Clinton should take with him a body of Oneida warriors, but this purpose was frustrated by the efforts of General Haldimand, on behalf of the king of Great Britain. This officer sent a letter, written in their own tongue, to the Oneidas, upbraiding them with the breach of ancient treaties, and threatening, if they presumed to engage in open warfare against the royalists, to let loose upon them such a horde of his Indian allies as should utterly destroy them. The effect of this epistle was to keep the Oneida warriors, with very few exceptions, at home, that they might be in readiness to guard their families and homesteads from the threatened invasion.

Owing to delays at the south, Clinton did not receive orders to remove from Otsego until August. He had, in the mean time, dammed the outlet of the lake, so that a great body of water had accumulated. When his troops were embarked, the obstruction was removed, and, aided by the unusual flow, the flotilla swept rapidly and smoothly down the stream. On the 2d of August the meeting at Tioga was affected. Five thousand men, well armed and provisioned, were now concentrated, and ready to pour upon the devoted towns of the hostile Iroquois.

The attempt to keep the expedition a secret from the enemy would have been utterly useless, from the length of time required for the preparatory movements. The campaign was anticipated, but no adequate force was pro vided to resist the American army. The only battle which took place was at Newtown on the bank of the Chemung, near the present town of Elmira. Here a force, variously estimated at from eight to fifteen hundred, and consisting of Indians under Thayendanegea, and whites commanded by the two Butlers, and by Sir John and Guy Johnson, was advantageously entrenched.

A brave and obstinate resistance was made to the advance of the Americans, but superior numbers prevailed, and the enemy was driven across the river, after suffering considerable loss. This was the only attempt of any importance that was made to defend the country from ravage and destruction. Pursuing his course westward, General Sullivan obeyed his orders to the letter. Every where the well-built towns and nourishing corn-fields of the con federate nations were reduced to utter ruin. These Indian tribes had made no little advance in the arts of civilization. The Mohawks had mostly fled to Canada in the early times of the revolution, but others of the Iroquois, particularly the Cayugas and Senecas, had continued to cultivate their fields and maintain possession of the homes of their fore fathers. Immense orchards of apple and other fruit-trees were growing luxuriantly around their habitations, but all fell beneath the axe of the destroyers. The movement of so large a body of troops was necessarily slow, and as no precautions were taken to conceal their operations, the Indians were every where enabled to escape to the woods. It must have been with feelings of the bitterest rage and despair that they saw the labor of so many years rendered useless, and thought of the coming winter, which must over take them, a wandering and destitute people, who must perish, or rely for aid upon their Canadian allies.

The whole month of September was spent in the work of destruction. The course of the march, after the battle of Newtown, was first to Catharine s Town, near the head of Seneca Lake; thence to Kanadaseagea, the principal town of the Senecas; to Canandagua; and to Genesee, which was the farthest point reached at the westward. From Sullivan s account: “The town of Genesee contained one hundred and twenty-eight houses, mostly large and very elegant. It was beautifully situated, almost encircled with a clear flat extending a number of miles; over which, extensive fields of corn were waving, together with every kind of vegetable that could be conceived.”

“The entire army,” says Stone, ” was immediately engaged in destroying it, and the axe and the torch soon transformed the whole of that beautiful region from the character of a garden to a scene of drear and sickening desolation. Forty Indian towns were destroyed. Corn, gathered and ungathered, to the amount of one hundred and sixty thousand bushels, shared the same fate; their fruit trees were cut down; and the Indians were hunted like wild beasts, till neither house, nor fruit tree, nor field of corn, nor inhabitant, remained in the whole country.”

In a suffering and destitute condition, the scattered tribes of the Iroquois were driven to seek protection and sup port during the hard winter that succeeded their overthrow from the English at their posts in the vicinity of Niagara. Nothing could now be expected at their hands, by the Americans, but acts of vindictive retaliation. Brant led his warriors, in pursuance of Haldimand s ominous prediction, against the settlements of the Oneidas, and reduced them to a condition as desolate as that of the habitations of his allies. The whole tribe was compelled to fly to the eastward, and seek shelter and support from the provincials.

Subsequent Warlike Operations Of The Nation

Thayendanegea was ever ready and watchful for opportunity to harass and weaken the American posts, or to plunder their unprotected villages. Passing over his minor exploits and adventures, of which many strikingly characteristic anecdotes are preserved, we come to his irruption into the Mohawk valley, in August of 1780. He managed, at this time, to circulate a report among the settlers in the valley, that he was meditating an attack upon Forts Plain and Schuyler, for the purpose of getting pos session of the stores collected at those posts. The militia of the valley hastened to defend the threatened points, leaving their villages a prey to the cunning Mohawk. He carefully avoided the reinforcements on their way to the forts, and fell upon Canajoharie

His course was marked by the entire destruction of houses, provisions, and crops; of every thing indeed that could not be profitably carried away. No barbarities were permitted upon the persons of the defenseless women and children, but a large number of them were borne away into captivity. Brant effected his retreat unmolested; his men laden with plunder, and driving before them the valuable herds of the white settlers. Accounts, published shortly after the transaction, represent that the whole number of houses and barns burnt in this invasion, at Canajoharie, Schoharie, and Norman s Kill, was one hundred and forty; and that twenty-four persons were killed, and seventy-three made captives. The mind is little impressed by such bare enumeration, unless the imagination be excited to fill up the outline. No language could express the amount of misery and terrible anxiety which such an inroad must have caused. To the distracting uncertainty respecting the fate of their wives and children, prisoners in the hands of a barbarous and exasperated enemy, was added the mortification of a consciousness, on the part of the provincial militia, that they had been duped. They had left their defenseless homes to be ravaged by the enemy, while they were busying themselves in the defense of a fortified post, against which no attack had been meditated.

The invasion of the Mohawk valley by Sir John Johnson, in October of this year (1780), was productive of results still more extensively disastrous. The Indians connected with the expedition were led by Brant, and by the great Seneca warrior, Corn-Planter. This chief was a half-breed, being a son of a white trader, named O Bail, and a Seneca squaw. During this campaign, he took old O’Bail prisoner. Making himself known to his father, Corn-Planter enlarged upon his own position and consequence, offering the old man his choice, whether he would live in ease and plenty among his son s followers, or return to the settlements of the whites. O’Bail preferred the latter course, and was escorted accordingly to a place of safety. We shall speak further of this noted warrior, in describing his successful rival, the great orator Red-Jacket.

The usual horrors attendant upon Indian warfare marked this campaign of Johnson s: but we are not without evidence that the principal leader of the savages was inclined to no cruelty further than that necessarily incident to the Indian mode of conducting hostilities. On one occasion, he sent one of his runners to return a young infant that had been carried off with other captives and plunder. The messenger delivered a letter from Brant, directed “to the commanding officer of the rebel army,” in which the Mohawk chief avers that ” whatever others might do,” he made no war upon women and children. He mentioned the two Butlers, and other Tory partisans, as being “more savage than the savages themselves.”

The Indians of the Six Nations, engaged in the royal cause, made Niagara their winter head-quarters. Thence their scouts and war parties continued to molest the border country through the ensuing spring and summer, but no very important engagement took place until October (1781). On the 24th of that month, the inhabitants of the country south of the Mohawk, near the mouth of Schoharie creek, were astonished by the unexpected inroad of an overwhelming force of the enemy. The army, under the command of Major Ross, amounted to nearly a thousand men, including Indians. They had made their way from Buck s Island, in the St. Lawrence, to Oswego, and thence, by Oneida Lake, to the Mohawk valley, so suddenly and secretly; that no news of their approach had pre ceded them.

The invaders commenced the usual course of ravage and destruction, but their success was but of short duration. They were disastrously routed and put to flight by the provincials, under Colonel Willet, aided by a body of Oneida warriors. The notorious Walter N. Butler perished during the last engagement with the Americans. He was shot and scalped by an Oneida Indian.

This was the last important procedure connected with the war of the revolution, in which the Iroquois bore a part. They proved, throughout the contest, most dangerous and efficient allies, rendering an immense extent of the richest and most beautiful portion of the state of New York unsafe for the Americans.

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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