Sullivan Expedition

Sullivan Expedition

The Sullivan Expedition, also known as the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition, was a campaign led by Major General John Sullivan and General James Clinton against Loyalists ("Tories") and the four nations of the Iroquois who had sided with the British in the American Revolutionary War. The expedition occurred during the summer of 1779 and only had one major battle, at Newtown along the Chemung River in western New York, in which about 700 (mostly) Iroquois and Tories were decisively defeated by an army of nearly 4000 Continental soldiers. Sullivan's army then carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages throughout what is now upstate New York, in retaliation for Iroquois and Tory attacks against American settlements earlier in the war. The devastation created great hardships for the thousands of Iroquois refugees outside Fort Niagara that winter, and many starved or froze to death. The survivors fled to British regions in Canada and the Niagara Falls and Buffalo areas. [cite web |url= |title=The American Revolution |accessdate=2007-11-18 |work=1759-1796 Guardhouse of the Great Lakes |publisher=Old Fort Niagara]


When the American Revolutionary War began, British officials as well as the colonial Continental Congress sought the allegiance (or at least the neutrality) of the influential Iroquois Confederacy. The Six Nations divided over what course to pursue. Most Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas chose to ally themselves with the British. But the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, thanks in part to the influence of Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland, joined the American revolutionaries. For the Iroquois, the American Revolution became a civil war.

The Iroquois homeland lay on the frontier between British Canada and the American colonies. After a British army surrendered at Saratoga in upstate New York in 1777, Loyalists and their Iroquois allies raided American Patriot settlements in the region, as well as the villages of American-allied Iroquois. Working out of Fort Niagara, men such as Tory commander Colonel John Butler, Sayenqueraghta, Mohawk Captain Joseph Brant, and Seneca Chief Cornplanter led the Tory-Indian raids. Commander-in-chief General George Washington never provided any substantial regular army troops for the defense of the frontier and he told the frontier settlements to use local militia for their own defense.

On June 10, 1778, the Board of War of the Continental Congress concluded that a major Indian war was in the offing. Since a defensive war would prove to be inadequate the board called for a major expedition of three thousand men against Fort Detroit and a similar thrust into Seneca country to punish the Iroquois. Congress designated Major General Horatio Gates to lead the campaign and appropriated funds for the campaign. [Graymont, pg. 167] In spite of these plans, the expedition did not occur until the following year.

On July 3, 1778, Colonel Butler led his Rangers with a force of Senecas and Cayugas (led by Sayenqueraghta) in an attack on Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley (a rebel granary and settlement along the Susquehanna River near present Wilkes-Barre), practically annihilating 360 armed Patriot defenders at Forty Fort.

In September, 1778, revenge for the Wyoming defeat was taken by American Colonel Thomas Hartley who, with 200 soldiers, burned 9-12 Seneca, Delaware and Mingo villages along the Susquehanna River in northeast Pennsylvania.

In September, 1778 Butler's Rangers attacked German Flatts destroying all the houses and fields in the area. (see Attack on German Flatts (1778))

Further American retaliation was soon taken by rebel army units under William Butler and John Cantine, burning the substantial Indian villages at Unadilla and Onoquaga on the Mohawk River.

On November 11, 1778, Loyalist Captain Walter Butler (the son of John Butler) led two companies of Butler's Rangers along with about 320 Iroquois led by Cornplanter, including 30 Mohawks led by Joseph Brant, on an assault at Cherry Valley in New York. While the fort was surrounded, Indians began to massacre civilians in the village, killing and scalping about 33 people, including women and children. In vain, Brant, who was blamed for the attack, actually tried to stop the rampage. The town was plundered and destroyed.

The Cherry Valley Massacre made it clear to the American revolutionaries that something needed to be done on the New York frontier. When the British began to concentrate their military efforts on the southern colonies in 1779, Washington used the opportunity to launch the planned offensive towards Fort Niagara. Washington first offered command of the expedition to Horatio Gates, the "Hero of Saratoga," but Gates turned down the offer. Major General John Sullivan, who had Washington's confidence despite a mixed war record, was then given command. Washington's orders to Sullivan made it clear that he wanted the Iroquois threat completely eliminated:

:"Orders of George Washington to General John Sullivan, at Head-Quarters May 31, 1779"

:"The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more."

:"I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed."

:"But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.cite web |url=


The British Commander for North America, Frederick Haldimand, while kept informed of Sullivan's invasion by Butler and Ft. Niagara, did not supply sufficient troops for his Iroquois allies' defense. Late in September, he dispatched a force of about 600 Loyalists and Canadian Iroquois, but this was too little, too late.

Onondaga Village

In April, 1779, Colonel Goose Van Schaik (son of a former Albany mayor), commanding 558 soldiers, led the first attack on the Iroquois. He headed west from Fort Stanwix where they surprised and destroyed the main Onondaga village killing 12 and taking 33 prisoner. Since the pro British warriors had already left, the village consisted mostly of neutrals and women and children. The Onondaga accused the soldiers of raping and killing the women. The Continental Congress congratulated him on his success.

Main expedition

Washington instructed Gen. Sullivan and his men to march from Easton, Pennsylvania to the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania and to follow the river upstream to Tioga Point, now known as Athens, Pennsylvania. He ordered Gen. Clinton and his men to travel from Albany, westward up the Mohawk River to Canajoharie, New York, to cross overland to Otsego Lake, and then travel down the Susquehanna to meet Sullivan at Tioga Point (near today's Athens, Pa).

By Sullivan's account, forty of the Iroquois villages were destroyed, including Catherine's Town, Goiogouen, Chonodote, and Kanadaseaga, along with all the crops and orchards of the Iroquois. Prior to the main battle at Newtown, there were several skirmishes: on August 13, 1779 General Edward Hand pursing the enemy near Chemung was ambushed with casualties commonly reported as being 21 killed or wounded; [Cruinshank pg. 81] small parties under Generals William Maxwell and Enoch Poor sent to cut down corn were also ambushed – although one journal reports total casualties as 4 killed and 8 wounded; ambushes also occurred on August 15, 1779 and August 17, 1779cite web |url= |title=Journal of Thomas Grant |accessdate=2007-11-14 |last=Cook |first=Frederick |year=1887 |work=Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan Against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 | |publisher=Knapp, Peck & Thompson] with combined casualties of 2 killed and 2 wounded. These totals are based on figures from a contemporary Journal Account. On August 23, 1779 the accidental discharge of a rifle in camp resulted in one Captain killed and one man wounded. The campaign had only one major battle, the Battle of Newtown, fought on August 29, 1779. It was a complete victory for the Continental Army.

Later a small detachment of the Continental Army was captured and killed at the Boyd and Parker ambush. On September 1, 1779 Captain John Combs died of an illness. [cite web |url= |title=Capt. (John?) Combs |accessdate=2007-11-19 |publisher=USGenNet]

Brodhead's expedition

Further west, a concurrent expedition was undertaken by Colonel Daniel Brodhead. Brodhead left Fort Pitt on August 14, 1779, with a contingent of 600 regulars and militia, marching up the Allegheny River into the Seneca and Munsee country of northwestern Pennsylvania and South Western New York. Since most native warriors were away to confront Sullivan's army, Brodhead met little resistance and destroyed about 10 villages, including Conewango. The plan was to eventually link up with Sullivan at the Seneca village of Geneseo for an attack on Fort Niagara, but Brodhead turned back after destroying villages near modern day Salamanca, New York, never linking up with the main force.


To end the campaign, Clinton's soldiers dispossessed the remaining Mohawks at Tiononderoge who had hoped to remain neutral. Peter Gansevoort wrote "It is remarked that the Indians live much better than most of the Mohawk River farmers, their houses [being] very well furnished with all [the] necessary household utensils, great plenty of grain, several horses, cows, and wagons".


Historians disagree as to whether an Iroquois nickname for Washington, "Town Destroyer", originates from this expedition.

The devastation created great hardships for the more than 5,000 Iroquois refugees that winter, and many starved or froze to death. But, this was not entirely because of the expedition since in May, 1778, John Butler wrote: "The Indians in this part of the Country are so ill off for Provisions that may have nothing to subsist upon but the roots and greens they gather in the woods." [Cruikshank pg. 63]

Fearing attack, large number of Tuscarora and Oneida defected to the British cause.

In February, 1780, General Schuyler sent a party of pro-rebel Indians to Fort Niagara to appeal for peace with the British-allied Iroquois. Suspecting a trick by Schuyler, those Iroquois rejected the proposal. The four messengers were imprisoned where one of them died.

Although the Sullivan Expedition devastated the Iroquois crops and towns and left them at the mercy of the British for the harsh winter of 1779-80, one officer noted "The nests are destroyed, but the birds are still on the wing." Washington was underwhelmed by the lack of a decisive battle and the failure to capture Fort Niagara. However, the homelands and infrastructure of Iroquois life was devastated by the Campaign. Sullivan soon resigned his commission. The Iroquois warriors continued their devastating raids throughout the war (Burning of the Valleys campaign of 1780), rolling back white settlement to Albany for a time.

But in the long term, it became clear that the expedition forever broke the Iroquois Confederacy's power to maintain former crops and utilize some town locations. The Iroquois would never again obtain their standard of living they had before the attack. The expedition amounted to little more than famine and dispersion. Following the war, much of the Iroquois lands would be secured in the peace Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784), later to be absorbed by controversial treaties with the State of New York. Some of its native population would move to Canada, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, but mostFact|date=July 2008 resumed life at Buffalo Creek (today's Buffalo). In the wake of the Treaty of Paris (1783), European-Americans began settling the newly vacant areas in relative safety, eventually isolating , by land controversial land treaties with New York State, the remaining pockets of demoralized native peoples into villages and towns.



*Boatner, Mark Mayo. "Encyclopedia of the American Revolution." New York: McKay, 1966; revised 1974. ISBN 0-8117-0578-1.
*Calloway, Colin G. "The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities". Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-47149-4 (hardback).
* Cruikshank, Ernest, "Butler's Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara", 1893
*Graymont, Barbara. "The Iroquois in the American Revolution". Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8156-0083-6; ISBN 0-8156-0116-6 (paperback).
*Mintz, Max M. "Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois." New York: New York University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8147-5622-0 (hardcover).
*Taylor, Alan. "The Divided Ground." New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006. ISBN 0-679-45471-3 (hardcover)
*Williams, Glenn F. "Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois." Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-59416-013-9.

External links

* [ "The 1779 Sullivan Campaign" by Stanley J. Adamiak]
* [ Sullivan/Clinton Campaign by Robert Spiegelman]
* [ Retracing the Route of the Sullivan Expedition through Pennsylvania]

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