The End Of The Iroquois


In the winter of 1778–79 General George Washington, in Philadelphia, reviewed the military situation. The American army numbered about 15,000 Continentals, enlisted for the duration; the fickle militiamen were uncountable and unaccountable. The British sat secure in New York City and at Newport, Rhode Island; the Americans watched them from equal security at West Point and in the Hudson highlands. Washington wrote to the Congressional Committee of Conference, on January 13, 1779, that an attack on New York would be too costly to be ventured. But hope glimmered afar. France, having come to the aid of the Republic, promised a fleet and an army. Meanwhile an aggressive enemy move was unlikely, for Britain, at war with France, could ill spare reinforcements and supplies for its troops in the American colonies. Hence a deadlock prevailed, but a deadlock that, as Washington foresaw, would eventually be broken to the advantage of the Americans.

However, relations with the Indians on the frontiers, never very good, were exasperated by war, with its opportunities for loot and bloodshed. The Tories of the Mohawk Valley, headed by Sir John Johnson, with Major John Butler and his son Walter, retreated to Fort Niagara and persuaded the Iroquois nations of the Mohawks, the Cayugas, and the Senecas to rally to the cause of their Great Father across the seas, King George III. The Indians, together with white Tory rangers, raided isolated frontier hamlets, pillaging, burning, and scalping. In the first days of July, 1778, an expedition out of Niagara destroyed the settlement of Wyoming, near Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania. John Butler, the raiders’ commander, reported taking 227 scalps and only five prisoners. The Wyoming Massacre gave rise to atrocity stories that shocked and terrified the country. It was said, for instance, that the half-breed Queen Esther arranged fifteen victims in a circle; then, singing their dirge, she did a death dance, tomahawking them one by one. In September a large party of Indians, Tories, and “vagabond Canadians” raided the German Flats, on the Mohawk River below today’s Utica, and set a precedent by destroying the gathered crops and driving oil the cattle over the Indian trail to Niagara. In November came the bloody assault on Cherry Valley, in the hill country fifty miles west of Albany. Public clamor demanded that something be done to protect the outposts of civilization.


The military situation was clear to Washington. He could spare enough regulars from his holding operation around New York to raid and destroy the Iroquois homeland of central and western New York. He envisaged then the seizure of Fort Niagara and the erection of a chain of posts protecting a new frontier, presumably from Niagara to Pittsburgh. Did he look farther into the future? Dr. Alexander C. Flick and other modern historians presume that Washington foresaw that peace was not far off; that in the current state of affairs the Republic could claim effective possession only of the Atlantic seaboard, with no hinterland for expansion; that for the future of the United States it was necessary to establish claims to the western lands. Hence, it is asserted, Washington promoted George Rogers dark’s drive into the Illinois country in 1778, and the New York expedition in 1779. It may well he that Washington planned so wisely and so truly, but unfortunately lie seems never to have uttered or to have written down such long purposes.


His short purpose was simple enough. He wrote to General John Sullivan: “The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their [the Indian] settlements. … [The Indian country] is not to be merely overrun , but destroyed .” Secondarily, lie told Sullivan to capture as many prisoners as possible and to drive the remaining Indians into the hands of the British, where, he realized, they would prove to be more of an embarrassment than an aid.

The Indian homeland marked for destruction was the pleasant country of the Finger Lakes, westward to the Genesee River. It was heavily forested, but with many fertile clearings. It was relatively little known, for white men were not welcome there. Nevertheless, a map of 1771 (see page 32) shows considerable knowledge of the lakes, rivers, trails, and chief villages. Venturesome travellers had traversed it on their way to Niagara; fur traders had brought rum and trade goods, and missionaries the gospel; white prisoners had escaped from Indian captivity to tell their tales.

The Iroquois had created an advanced polity and culture. In their well-built villages they raised horses, oxen, cows, hogs, and chickens. They tended ample orchards of apples, peaches, and plums, raised from white men’s seeds. They cultivated beets, potatoes, cabbage, squash, pumpkins, turnips, beans, onions, and melons. Their mainstay and staple was corn, eaten on the cob in a great four-day Green Corn Festival, and compounded with beans, squash, and dog to make succotash. Corn, pounded into meal, made their hominy and their bread; parched, it was the traveller’s ration. Fish populated the lakes, but they had their whims and were often coy. Large game, deer and bears, were rather scarce and shy. But for all their plenty, the Iroquois were improvident, unwilling and often unable to store surpluses for the long winter and spring.