John Sullivan led one of the most successful, least acknowledged campaigns of the American Revolution: the Sullivan Indian Expedition in the summer of 1779.
The New Hampshire native laid waste to 40 Iroquois towns in northern New York. The expedition broke the power of the Six Nations from central New York to the Great Lakes, diminished the threat of British offensives from the west and opened the land for settlement by white people after the war.
Sullivan figured he’d get a promotion for his efforts. He did get a lot of monuments.
Prelude to the Sullivan Indian Expedition
In 1778, the American Revolution was at a stalemate, centered on British-controlled New York City. The British had lost the Battle of Saratoga, which convinced the French to join the war on the American side. But the French had yet to arrive.
Meanwhile, British Loyalists waged a guerilla war against frontier settlements in northern New York and Pennsylvania with their allies from the Six Nations. Those included Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida and Tuscarora, along with some Lenape.
Mohawk leader Joseph Brant led a force of Loyalists and Iroquois, primarily Mohawk, in raids on Cobleskill and German Flatts. Then Seneca warriors, led by Cornplanter and Sayenqueraghta, along with a Loyalist militia, attacked a settlement in the Wyoming Valley. They lost only two men but killed about 300, all armed.
Loyalist leader John Butler reported they left women and children alone. But word spread that the Seneca warriors had butchered noncombatants. That angered the Seneca, and during their next battle they did attack women and children.
The Seneca and Loyalist militia then attacked Cherry Valley in November 1978. They killed 30 settlers, mostly women and children, and took 80 more prisoner.
A patriot, Capt. Benjamin Warren, described the Cherry Valley massacre as, “a shocking sight my eyes never beheld before of savage and brutal barbarity.”
Launching the Sullivan Indian Expedition
Commander-in-Chief George Washington had enough. He decided to launch an expedition. In his orders, he wrote,
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.
The Sullivan Indian Expedition would include 4,500 soldiers, militia and Oneida, with supplies moved by bateaux and pack horses. It took place from June 1779 to October 1779 against Loyalists and the Iroquois nations, also known as the Haudenosaunee. Washington put Maj. Gen. John Sullivan in charge of the expedition and Gen. James Clinton second in command.
Washington trusted Sullivan, but he annoyed him with his constant complaining. Sullivan had been a lawyer before the Revolution, and was both arrogant and obsequious. John Adams couldn’t stand him, once saying he wished a bullet fired at the Battle of Long Island had gone through Sullivan’s head. After the war, Sullivan served as New Hampshire governor.
Sullivan assembled three brigades in Easton, Pa., and marched west along the Susquehanna River to meet another brigade commanded by Clinton. They were to converge in Tioga, now Athens, Pa.
Clinton marched his brigade from what is now Cooperstown, and eventually began marching 154 miles south to Tioga. He torched cornfields and villages along the way. Clinton and Sullivan finally met at Fort Sullivan and marched out into Six Nation Territory on August 26.
The Battle of Newtown
Three days later they fought the Battle of Newtown, near present-day Elmira. The Iroquois and Loyalists made a stand, but the superior patriot forces defeated them easily.
Afterward, an old Cayuga woman was discovered in the woods. She told the Americans,
…on the night after the battle of Newtown, the enemy, having fled the whole time, arrived there in great confusion early the next day; that she heard the warriors tell their women that they were conquered and must fly; that they had a great many killed and vast numbers wounded.
For the next three weeks, Sullivan’s army continued to march, burning cornfields, orchards and villages in its path. They found the villages abandoned, sometimes with stew still boiling over a fire.
A Soldier’s Journal
A number of soldiers kept journals during the expedition, including Lt. Thomas Blake of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment. Blake described a typical two days of marching and burning and trying to stay alive:
Sept 13–after marching 2 miles we came to a town called Keneghses where the army halted to build a bridge over a large sunken place for the troops to cross. In the meantime, part of the riflemen went forward to the next town. On their return within about a mile of the army, they were fired upon by the enemy who had posted themselves on a hill ready to give us a shot as soon as we came out of the swamp. They killed 3 of the riflemen and took two prisoners. Our men being alarmed by the fire, the light troops marched to their relief, on the appearance of which the enemy quit the ground leaving 70 of their packs. After this we marched to Gaghaheywarahera; the whole of our march to day being 9 miles.
Sept. 14–We marched 2 miles and forded the chinesee river, then 3 miles down the river to a large town called chinesee castle, and here found the two men that had been taken the day before cut to pieces in the most barbarous and inhuman manner possible to be conceived. In this town were 180 houses and an exceeding large field of corn, which took the army until the middle of the afternoon next day to destroy, after which we marched about 4 miles.
As Sullivan and Clinton laid waste to the Iroquois villages, Col. Daniel Brodhead left Fort Pitt on August 14. With a small force he destroyed 10 more villages in Seneca and Lenape territory in northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York.
A detachment led by Peter Gansevoort went to a town called Teantontalago, the “Lower Mohawk Castle,” and arrested every Mohawk man. Gansevoort wrote, “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”.
The patriots incarcerated all the Mohawk men at Albany until 1780 and then released them. White settlers, dispossessed by the war, were allowed to move into the Mohawk houses. At least one of Washington’s generals objected because the local Mohawk had agreed not to fight with the British, and many sided with the patriots.
When Sullivan ended the expedition, he sent a report to Washington. In it, he said his army burned 40 Iroquois villages and lost only 40 men. They had also destroyed 160,000 bushels of corn as well as other provisions. By October more than 5,000 Indian refugees had fled to Fort Niagara, held by the British. Half of them died of hunger and exposure in the harsh winter of 1779-80.
Sullivan’s victory broke the back of the Iroquois League and it broke the hearts of the Six Nations people, wrote historian Allan W. Eckart.
But Sullivan didn’t bring back prisoners, and he didn’t bring back a peace treaty.
After his return, he expected Congress to promote him. It didn’t happen. He retired at the end of 1779 and went home to New Hampshire.
He had only done what Washington ordered him to do. The commander in chief had told him to “not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment.”
During the middle of the expedition, Washington had also written to Sullivan:
The advantages we have already gained over the Indians, in the destruction of so many of their settlements is very flattering to the expedition. But to make as conclusive as the state of your provisions and the safety of your army will countenance I would mention two points which I may not have sufficiently expressed in my general instructions, or if I have, which I wish to repeat.
The one is the necessity of pushing the Indians to the greatest practicable distance from their own settlements and our frontiers; to the throwing them wholly on the British enemy. The other is the making the destruction of their settlements so final and complete as to put it out of their power to derive the smallest succor from them in case they should attempt to return this season.
Cornplanter, years later, placed the blame elsewhere. He gave a speech to President George Washington.
“When your army entered the country of the Six Nations, we called you Town Destroyer,” he said. “And to this day when that name is heard our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.”
If Sullivan didn’t get a promotion, he at least got plenty of historical markers.
For example, in Neahwa Park in Oneonta, N.Y., the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1912 erected a historic marker that commemorates the Sullivan Indian Expedition,
…which destroyed Indian Savagery and opened the westward pathway of civilization…
In 1929, the State of New York erected 35 highway markers marking the route Sullivan took 150 years earlier. They were a little more neutral. For example,
Routes of the armies of
General John Sullivan
General James Clinton
An expedition against the hostile Indian nations which checked the aggression of the English and Indians on the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania, extending westward the dominion of the United States.
Local people now want those markers replaced, or they want “counter markers” with the Indian perspective erected.
Images: Newtown Battlefield State Park: By Lvklock – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4749454. Historical marker in Warrior Run Church, Pennsylvania, By FJThomas1945 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113982495.