- Historic Sites
The End Of The Iroquois
Sullivan’ s meticulously planned expedition of 1779 aimed to cripple once and for all the redskin allies of King George
October 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 6
The summer was half gone before Sullivan felt justified in advancing up the Susquehanna. He had his 2,500 men, about 1,200 pack horses, perhaps 100 officer’s mounts, and 700 head of cattle. A fleet of flatboats for transport accompanied him. Somewhat surprisingly, a number of women joined the expedition as nurses and laundresses. They were ordered to quit the boats and ride pack horses, relieving army drivers. But they proved to be constant nuisances.
Sullivan found that theory and practice were not easily compatible in this terrain. His sketch for the order of march showed a screen of scouts followed by the light infantry, then the artillery and the pack train, protected on either side by the main body of the army. There would be fifteen columns abreast; the front would apparently extend to at least half a mile. One suspects that the order of march was derived from some military manual for commanders in the broad fields of France. The disposition was immediately defeated by the topography of the Susquehanna Valley. The river cuts through a series of high ridges, running from northeast to southwest. At the cuttings the ridges rise sheer from the water, leaving no room even for a footpath by the stream. The Indian trail, the “Warriors’ Path,” climbed the ridges and sharply descended, as does its successor, Highway 6, today. The army had sometimes to march in a single file six miles long. Nevertheless the scouts kept always on the alert, scouring the woods on both sides of the river. Sullivan was no doubt aware of the maxim that the one unpardonable sin in military operations is to be surprised.
Men, horses, cattle, and boats proceeded cautiously up the valley, past burned frontier farms, past the abandoned Moravian missionary village of Wyalusing. The soldiers fingered the rich soil and measured the gigantic trees, black walnut and buttonwood, one of them twenty-one feet in circumference. At Breakneck Hill, across the river from the present Towanda, the path narrowed to a mere foot’s breadth, 180 feet above the Susquehanna. Here two of the cattle fell to their doom. Farther on stood “Queen Esther’s Palace,” where had dwelt the ferocious victor of Wyoming. Reaching Tioga on August 11, where the Susquehanna is joined by the Chemung, the army forded the main stream, with water to the armpits. The soldiers removed their outer garments, hung their cartouche boxes on their bayonets, and crossed in platoons, each man holding on to his neighbor.
At Tioga, according to the plan of campaign, Sullivan was to meet General Clinton and his New York state contingent. But Clinton had not yet arrived. Sullivan put his men to building a fort with four blockhouses, and again sat down to wait.
Meanwhile the British were informed of the army’s movements by the Butlers’ remarkable intelligence service. The British commander at Quebec refused to believe the reports. He wrote the Niagara commandant on July 23: “It is impossible the Rebels can be in such force, as has been represented by the Deserters to Major Butler.” But the Butlers knew better. With their green-jacketed Tory rangers they prowled about the lake country, rousing the Indians to defend their homeland.
General Clinton, alerted by Washington in the spring, had assembled his 1,500 men at Canajoharie, some forty miles west of Albany on the Mohawk River. He had two hundred light, flat-bottomed bateaus built in Schenectady, with wagons to transport them overland. He cut a road twenty-five miles long from Canajoharie up over the high ridge to the south and down to the north end of Otsego Lake. On June 17 he moved out, put his boats in the lake, and paddled to the southern outlet, where Cooperstown would be founded a decade later. There he encamped to await orders from General Sullivan. The delay was fortunate. The water in the upper reaches of the Susquehanna was too shallow to carry the boats. Clinton found a simple but ingenious solution: he built a temporary dam at Otsego’s outlet. The lake level rose slowly; in six weeks it gained two feet, while the river below dwindled almost to nothing.
On August 4 a woodland runner from Wyoming brought to Clinton General Sullivan’s order to begin his movement. On the evening of the eighth the dam was broken and a gathering flood descended. The next morning the bateaus were put in the water. They floated thirty miles that day. It was a delightful excursion, enlivened by the burning of deserted Indian villages. One of these, Onoquaga, impressed the torchbearers by its modernity, its Christian church, and its log houses with stone chimneys and glass windows. On the twenty-second the army reached Tioga and was handsomely greeted by artillery salvos and by “a Band of Musick which played Beautiful.” It is clear that no great effort was being made to keep the expedition a secret.
Two days later the combined armies made a foray against the important Indian village of Chemung. The occupants fled, contenting themselves with sniping from the woods. Six or seven Americans were killed, “chiefly by the fire of our own men,” said one participant. The village and a large supply of corn were destroyed in a glorious bonfire.
The raid demonstrated the rewards of caution, the benefits of delay. By the end of August the Indians’ vegetables were already gathered; their corn could easily be sickled in the fields. It was ripe for destruction or for the destroyers’ nourishment. One soldier recorded near Chemung that he gorged himself on ten ears of corn, a quart of beans, and seven squashes. Soldiers carried speared pumpkins on their bayonets in a most unmilitary manner.