Declaration of Independence

The American Revolution resulted from the collapse of the British Empire in the wake of the Seven Years’ War and Pontiac’s Rebellion. Colonists, who played an important role in the British victory over France, expected to participate fully in the new empire and to enjoy the benefits of British liberty. After the war, however, they felt that the imperial government treated them as second-class citizens, as something less than fully English, when it began to tax them without the consent of their elected colonial assemblies. When Parliament proclaimed a frontier line in 1763, they began to fear limitations on their movement and their economic aspirations enforced by native peoples allied with the crown. The British government, overseeing what historian Edward Countryman has labeled a “composite empire,” treated its American colonists as just one more group of subjects within a diverse transatlantic polity. When those colonists declared their independence in 1776 after a decade’s worth of growing protest, they worked to create their own empire, one resting at least in part upon the right of citizens to dispossess native peoples and own private property, including human property, without governmental interference.

The American Revolution is commonly understood as the story of a constitutional struggle between a financially-stressed empire determined to bring some balance to its books through a program of taxation. American colonists resisted those taxes, asserting that they were not represented in the Parliament of Great Britain. The colonists protested in the streets, in the halls of provincial assemblies, and extra-legal self-declared governments. Yet in today’s Livingston County, it was an altogether different story.

Native peoples, upon learning of the Revolution, hoped to stay out of the conflict. Guyashuta, a Seneca sachem, told British officials at Fort Pitt in 1776 that “we will not suffer either the English or Americans to march an army through our country.” A few months later, he told officials of the American Continental Congress that they “must not come into our country to fight, lest you may stumble and fall on us so as to wrest the Chain of friendship out of our hands.” He knew well what was at stake, and what the Senecas had to lose. Attempting to follow the strategy the Six Nations had employed for many decades, Guyashuta attempted to play the competitors off against each other, and to assert the Senecas’ independence from what he viewed as “an unnecessary war.”

British agents pressed upon Indigenous peoples to take up arms or to resist the calls of the Americans for assistance. French and Spanish agents, meanwhile, looking out for their own empire’s sagging interests in America, also courted native peoples. While one British agent told the Senecas that the “Bigknife” should be ignored because “he had a very smooth Oily tongue” and “his heart was not good,” an American officer told the Shawnees that British claims to assist them were the empty promises of Redcoats who crossed the Atlantic only “to rob and steal and fill their pockets.” Native peoples had to sort out this conflicting information as they sought to make sense of a looming war that they understood would dramatically affect their lives. Native peoples would have to live with the winner.

As the colonial protests against British imperial policy grew, Sir William Johnson worked to persuade the Six Nations of the Iroquois to continue to hold the Covenant Chain. The Senecas, who retained many allies in the west and felt little affection for the British, raised special concerns for Johnson. Should the Senecas choose to go their own way, or should they choose to avenge the insults and murders their people had suffered from frontier settlers in northwestern Pennsylvania, the entire western frontier of the empire might be set ablaze. Iroquois allegiance was important to the British and the allegiance of the Senecas, the largest of the Six Nations and the most firmly connected to anti-English Indians in the west, was critical.

The American rebels, gathered at the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia, recognized the strategic importance of the Six Nations as well. Members of Congress wanted to ensure that the Six Nations did not join with the British. The Americans did not ask for the Iroquois to join them as allies, for they could not afford the expenses of an Indian department on the British model, but they did want to limit the influence of imperial officials among them. The war, the American commissioners told representatives of the Six Nations at a council held at German Flats in the summer of 1775, “is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it.” The Commissioners told the Iroquois that “we don’t wish you to take up the hatchet against the King’s troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join on either side.”

Thus was posed the question that divided Iroquois communities as the colonists and their mother country started fighting. Should they uphold the Covenant Chain alliance and maintain their long relationship with the English imperial government? Or should they side with the colonists. The Flying Crow, a spokesman for the Senecas, reminded a British officer of the difficulties posed by his continual requests for assistance. The Flying Crow told John Butler at Fort Niagara that the British asked the Senecas “to break the peace we live in with our American brethren.” The Americans had encroached on Seneca lands to be sure, but he asked Butler, “if you are so strong, Brother, and they but as a weak boy, why ask our assistance. . . If you have so great plenty of warriors, powder, lead and goods, and they are so few and little of either, be strong and make good use of them.” Most Haudenosaunee hoped to stay out of the conflict, for they recognized that they could lose much should they choose the wrong side.

Portrait of Joseph Thayendanegea (Brant), chef Agnier. 
Joseph Thayendanegea (Brant), chef Agnier.
Source:Library and Archives Canada/MIKAN 2897036

Most of the Six Nations, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras excepted, viewed Anglo-American settlers as more of a threat to their way of life than the crown, and after listening to the arguments of the great Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, Butler, and Sir William’s successor Guy Johnson, they recognized the benefits of taking up arms against the Americans. They made this decision in an atmosphere of profound crisis. Smallpox ravaged the Onondagas over the winter of 1776 and 1777. Three Onondaga sachems, and nearly ninety others, died as a result. No political decisions could be made by the Iroquois league, nor could the League sachems condole the dead chiefs, something that they could not do easily in winter or in times of war. The Council Fire at Onondaga, the ceremonial and ritual center of the league, was extinguished in January of 1777, freeing the individual nations of the league to go their own way, to follow their own paths. Decision-making in these years of crisis was left to groups of warriors and the leaders of Iroquois villages and towns.

The fighting began in earnest in 1777. Senecas traveled east to Fort Stanwix, in present-day Rome, New York, at the invitation of British officers to “come and see them whip the rebels.” They traveled from their towns in the Genesee Valley. At Oriskany Creek, however, they found themselves involved in an intense battle with a rebel force escorted by Oneida guides. The Seneca chief Blacksnake, originally from Canawaugus. He witnessed the battle. Late in life, he recalled that “there I have seen the most dead bodies of all . . . that I never did see, and never will again. I thought at the time the Blood shed a stream running down on the descending ground during the afternoon.” Colonel Butler told his superiors that the behavior of the Senecas during the battle “exceeded anything I could have expected from them.” They fought bravely and lost much. Mary Jemison, a white woman adopted into the Seneca community, and a figure well-known in Livingston County’s history, recalled the wailing and the suffering that accompanied the loss of so many warriors and leaders. “Our town,” she recalled, “exhibited a scene of real sorrow and distress, when our warriors returned, recounted their misfortunes, and stated the real loss they had sustained in the engagement.” The grief, she continued, “was excessive, and was expressed by the most doleful yells, shrieks, and howlings, and by inimitable gesticulations.”

A photograph of a block of granite which commemorates the site of Onondaga Castle. Now a marker in a part in Syracuse, NY.
The site of Onondaga Castle. Now a marker in a park in Syracuse, NY.

Iroquois raiders sought vengeance. Sometimes led by Joseph Brant, and sometimes accompanied by loyalist Rangers, they attacked frontier settlements throughout New York. At Cherry Valley in November 1778, for example, Seneca warriors killed 32 civilians and 16 American soldiers. Seneca raiders destroyed settlements along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Events like the “Cherry Valley Massacre” fueled the determination of the Continental Congress to eliminate the Six Nations as a threat to the United States. The Onondagas first felt the wrath of the American patriots. Militia forces led by Goose Van Schaick destroyed the Onondaga castle in the spring of 1779. According to Onondaga refugees who fled their town, Van Schaick and his men raped women and killed their children. The Onondagas retaliated a short time later, when nearly all of their surviving warriors descended upon Cobleskill, wiping out the small settlement.

George Washington, who commanded the Continental Army, ordered invasions of the Iroquois that resulted, if we choose to believe Haudenosaunee voices, in the rape and murder of Onondaga non-combatants by New York militiamen following Colonel Goose Van Schaick. It resulted in what can justly be called war crimes against Senecas and Cayugas as well the destruction of their crops and orchards, and dozens of towns in 1779 as part of the infamous Sullivan campaign. Washington hoped that Sullivan’s men would “distract and terrify” the Indians and, in Washington’s own words, “extirpate them from the Country.” Sullivan’s soldiers drank a toast promising, among other things, “civilization or death to all American savages.” He hoped to eliminate the Chenussio Senecas as the rulers of the Niagara Frontier and, by burning their fields, force them to become paupers draining British supplies. The campaign was designed to cause the Chenussio Senecas to starve.

These facts force us to reconsider the American Revolution. The “Founding Fathers,” the patriots, and white settlers who encroached on native peoples’ lands, Indians saw not as freedom fighters but as “perfidious cruel rebels” and, tellingly, as “white savages.” They referred to them not as champions of liberty but as “Butchers,” and “Killers,” and “Madmen.” They called them “Big Knives” or “Long Knives,” names that chillingly reflected the violence with which they were associated. Native Americans in this part of the country in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries feared that Americans acted with genocidal intent, and they said it again and again and again. One solution to the Indian question, for some white settlers, you see, was extermination, and groups of white Americans expressed that desire and acted on it in ways that confirmed the nightmares of native peoples.

Major-General John Sullivan led four brigades of Continental soldiers into the Finger Lakes region of western New York in the summer of 1779. The Senecas offered minimal resistance. Most fled as Sullivan’s army advanced. When the Senecas did stand and fight, Sullivan’s superior numbers and firepower overwhelmed them. The Senecas suffered few casualties, but the destruction was immense, a war of terror. Sullivan’s forces destroyed nearly forty Seneca and Cayuga villages. They burned over 160,000 bushels of corn, the Senecas’ extensive orchards, and laid waste to their towns. It was savage warfare, an invasion designed to drive the inhabitants out of a region by destroying their ability to feed and shelter themselves. A quarter-century later, travelers through the region near Geneva, New York, saw evidence of “the Indian orchards which were cut down by General Sullivan in his famous expedition, scarce less barbarous than those of the savages themselves.”

Five thousand Senecas and Cayugas fled towards Fort Niagara after the invasion, where they joined the large numbers of refugee native peoples already drawing rations at the fort. Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Tuscaroras and Senecas were there, but so too were Nanticokes, Conoys, Delawares, Shawnees and many others. They settled in camps on the flatlands around the fort. With their crops destroyed so late in the planting season, they had no food, and the winter of 1779-80 was brutally cold. Many refugees died of starvation and exposure. They certainly became dependent upon the British for provisions.

And convinced that the soldiers of the American republic sought their destruction. The Seneca Sayengeraghta told other native peoples gathered at Fort Niagara that a British defeat would mean that the Six Nations “must be miserable people . . . left exposed to the Resentment of the Rebels, who, notwithstanding their fair speeches, wish for nothing more than to extirpate us from the Earth, that they may possess our Lands, the Desire of attaining which we are convinced is the Cause of the present War.” Senecas equated the Americans fight for freedom with genocide.

That is why they fought on. Sullivan had destroyed villages, not warriors. In 1780 they began to take their vengeance. Some were returning already to the Genesee Valley. Joseph Brant led renewed raids on Cherry Valley and Seneca warriors struck both to the east and south. According to British records from Fort Niagara, between February and July of 1780 four hundred warriors at a time were out against American settlements. Combined Iroquois and Loyalist raiding parties destroyed hundreds of bushels of corn, killed over three hundred colonists, burned over seven hundred houses, and sacked half a dozen forts. They also made off with over seven hundred head of cattle. Settlers fled from the most fertile land in New York state. Sullivan’s campaign had not brought security to the white settlers of the New York and Pennsylvania frontier.

The Continental Army defeated the British at Yorktown in October of 1781, ending major fighting in the revolutionary war and securing the independence of the American colonies. The British government, in the midst of negotiating its peace treaty with the newly independent United States, sought to restrain Iroquois warriors from launching further raids. Though the warriors remained capable of striking American settlements, the wars of the Revolution devastated Seneca communities and produced a massive diaspora of Iroquois peoples. Refugees rekindled a new council fire at Buffalo Creek, and another across the Niagara at Grand River in the modern province of Ontario. Though a handful of Senecas stayed at the site of their ruined villages in the Genesee Valley, many had moved to Cattaraugus Creek near Lake Erie, and to sites farther south along the Allegany. Many other Iroquois peoples settled at Buffalo Creek, over 2000 by 1783, attempting to rebuild their lives in this refugee center. They had been battered in war, but they did not view themselves as conquered people.

Further Reading:

Abler, Thomas S. Cornplanter: Chief Warrior of the Allegany Senecas, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007).

________, ed. Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams. Rev. ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005).

Billharz, Joy. Oriskany: A Place of Great Sadness: A Mohawk Valley Battlefield Ethnography, Fort Stanwix National Monument Special Ethnographic Report, (Boston: Northeast Region Ethnography Program, National Park Service, 2009).

Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Doty, Lockwood R. “The Massacre at Groveland,” Quarterly Journal of the New York State Historical Association, 11 (April 1930), 132-140.

Fischer, Joseph R. A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign Against the Iroquois, July-September 1779, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

Glatthaar, Joseph and James Kirby Martin, Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).

Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois and the American Revolution, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972).

Kelsay, Isabel Thompson. Joseph Brant, 1743-1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

Koehler, Rhiannon. “Hostile Nations: Quanitifying the Destruction of the Sullivan-Clinton Genocide of 1779,” American Indian Quarterly, 42 (Fall 2018), 427-453.

Preston, David L. The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

Taylor, Alan. The Divided Ground: Indians, Setters and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution. (New York: Knopf, 2005).

Tiro, Karim M. The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolutionthrough the Era of Removal, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).

________. “A `Civil’ War? Rethinking Iroquois Participation in the American Revolution.” Perspectives In Early American Culture, 4 (2000), 148-165.