- 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
On August 31, the army pressed forward to its task of destruction. At an Indian village on the site of Elmira the men cut down the finest corn they had ever seen; some stalks measured sixteen and eighteen feet, the ears a foot and a half. The army left the southward-draining Chemung River and turned north, crossing the low watershed to the system flowing north toward, eventually, the St. Lawrence River. Along Catherine Creek they entered “a dark, gloomy, and almost impenetrable hemlock swamp,” eight miles long. They had to build a road for the .artillery and pack train. Some part of their precious flour was dislodged by the scraping of branches or wetted by beasts stumbling in the swamps. The army emerged by midnight at French Catherine’s Town, named for its ruler, Queen Catherine, a sister of Queen Esther. The Queen and her subjects, including, strangely, a Dutch family, had fled only minutes before the army’s arrival, leaving behind an ancient Indian woman. Her “silver locks, wrinkled face, dim eyes and curvature of body denoted her to be a full-blooded antediluvian hag,” reported Major Fogg, a racy writer. The General gave her a month’s provisions, but burned her village.
The army then advanced to the head of Seneca Lake, the present Watkins Glen. The men were impressed by the beauty of the scene and by the richness of the soil. The “Land was the Best that Ever I see,” wrote one. Some of them, farmers’ boys, formed the project of returning to this bountiful country.
The course now led north along the east shore of Seneca Lake. The soldiers girdled and chopped down the abundant apple and peach trees and burned the deserted villages. Dr. Jabez Campfield, surgeon, admired the fine prospects, the beautiful groves of walnut, hickory, oak, pine, ash, basswood, maple, elm, and chestnut, but he found the Indian houses “nasty beyond description. … The rubage of one of their houses, is enough to stink a whole country.”
The Indians hovered in the woods, only occasionally venturing a shot at stragglers. At Kanadesaga they had a great opportunity. Seneca Lake drains to the north through a wide, deep outlet, then bordered by marsh with plenty of cover for ambush. The Butlers lay in the village with about two hundred of their white rangers—half of them, however, sick with malaria. The Indians, in terror at the advancing horde, could not be induced to make a stand. When Sullivan came to the river crossing, he acted with his usual prudence, sending out scouts to probe the underwood before venturing to cross the river. We are not told how the three-pounders and the ammunition were ferried; probably on improvised rafts.
The “castle” of Kanadesaga, seventy or eighty houses standing on a hill just northwest of present-day Geneva, was the capital of the Seneca Nation. The soldiers rejoiced to find there, as one reported, “Corn, Beans, Peas, Squashes, Potatoes, Inions, turnips, Cabage, Cowcumbers, watermilions, Carrots, and pasnips &c.” On this rich land stands today, by one of the pleasant coincidences of history, the New York Agricultural Experiment Station.
The only human being found in Kanadesaga was a white boy, three or four years old, emaciated almost to a skeleton. He was sitting on the grass, playing with a chicken. He could only say in English that “his mamy was gone.” He was fed and clothed, “which seems to please the little fellow much.” Captain Machin of the artillery carried him home to Kingston, New York. But he died two years later of smallpox. His parentage was never discovered. What a sad, lonely little life!
Since none of the expedition’s guides knew the road beyond Kanadesaga, Sullivan called a council of war and put the question whether the army should proceed farther. Some counselled a prudent return. But Sullivan, for once venturesome, ruled that the destruction should continue at least to the Genesee River, some fifty miles on. There, he hoped, he might meet Colonel Brodhead’s force out of Pittsburgh.
Thus the army trudged on to Canandaigua, a fine village of well-built houses, mostly of hewn planks, with stone chimneys. The course now turned southwest and became more difficult, crossing the north-and-south ridges where the Allegheny Plateau runs down to the plain. At Honeoye, at the foot of its pretty lake, the commander left most of the baggage and horses and one of the three-pounders in the care of a small garrison. The main body continued to the village of Conesus. The ousted inhabitants were said to be commanded by a Negro, “who was titled Capt. Sunfish, a very bold enterprising fellow.”
Now the way led west across a quaking bog and stream at the head of Conesus Lake. It was necessary to halt and construct a causeway and bridge for the passage of the three remaining three-pounders. During the delay General Sullivan ordered Lieutenant Thomas Boyd to lead a scouting party of an Oneida Indian and four or five white men to reconnoiter the country between Conesus Lake and the Genesee River. As Sullivan later reported to Congress, Boyd took with him twenty-six men, “a much larger number than I had thought of sending, and by no means so likely to answer the purpose as that which had been directed.” He went on: