The Iroquois or Six Nations
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Continuation of Revolutionary Incidents
The year 1778 opened unfavorably for American influence over the border savages. Johnson and Butler, aided by Joseph Brant, in behalf of the crown, had been unwearied in their efforts to win over the Indians of the west to their master s cause. In vain was a council called by the provincial congress for the purpose of making one more effort to induce the Six Nations to adopt a neutral policy. An incomplete deputation, from all the tribes except the Senecas, did indeed assemble at Johnstown, in Tryon County, during the month of March, the result of which meeting only strengthened the conviction that nothing but enmity was to be looked for on the part of the great body of the nation. There was too great reason to fear that the Indians of the far west were successfully dealt with by emissaries on the part of the loyalists.
Brant returned to his old quarters at Oghkwaga, and its vicinity, and lent himself heart and soul to the work of harassing and plundering the colonists. Although, as the chief of his nation, no small portion of the enormities committed by the Indian predatory bands, was attributed to his direct influence, it is due to Brant to say, that few among his companions-in-arms showed an equal regard for the laws of humanity. Many an instance is recorded of his interference, even in the heat of conflict, to stay the hand uplifted against the feeble and helpless. He was, it is true, a fierce partisan warrior, and, in one of his letters, avowed his intent to fight the cruel rebels,” as well as he could; but he seldom, if ever, evinced that savage cruelty towards a conquered foe which disgraced his Indian and white associates.
While the war lasted, there was no rest or safety for the inhabitants of that extensive district bordering on the enemies country from Saratoga, south-westward to the Susquehanna. Brant commenced operations in person, by an attack on Springfield, a small place at the head of Otsego Lake. He drove off or took prisoners all the men, and assembling the women and children for safety, burned all the town except the house where they were collected. He then retired, offering them no injury.
In the latter part of June, a descent was planned upon the settlements in the valley of Wyoming, upon the Susquehanna, in the north-eastern part of Pennsylvania. Some three hundred British regulars and Tory volunteers, accompanied by about five hundred of their Indian allies, marched from Niagara. They were led by Colonel John Butler. It has been a commonly received opinion that Brant was the chief under whom the Indian portion of the army was mustered, but it is now believed that he had as little share in this campaign as in many other scenes of blood long coupled with his name. There is no proof that he was present at any of the scenes that we are about to relate.
No portion of the whole history of the revolution has been so distorted in the narration as that connected with the laying waste of the valley of Wyoming. No two ac counts seem to agree, and historians have striven to outdo each other in the violence of their expressions of indignation at cruelties and horrors which existed only in their own imaginations, or which came to them embellished with all the exaggeration incident to reports arising amid scenes of excitement and bloodshed.
Wyoming had, for many years, been the scene of the bitterest hostility between the settlers under the Connecticut grant and those from Pennsylvania. Although these warlike operations were upon a small scale, they were con ducted with great vindictiveness and treachery. Blood was frequently shed; and, as either party obtained the ascendency, small favor was shown to their opponents, who were generally driven from their homes in hopeless destitution. We cannot go into a history of these early trans actions, and only mention them as explanatory of the feelings of savage animosity, which were exhibited between neighbors, and even members of the same families, who had espoused opposite interests in the revolutionary contest.
As John Butler and his forces entered the north-western portion of the valley, having descended the Susquehanna upon rafts, the inhabitants of the several towns made the best preparations in their power to resist the invasion. Colonel Zebulon Butler was in command of a company of regular continental troops, and with about three hundred of the militia, collected in the valley, he marched on the 3d of July, to check, and, if possible, disperse the invaders. It was intended to take the enemy by surprise at their encampment, (at Fort Wintermoot,) but the vigilance of the Indian sentinels betrayed the advancing forces. They found the royalists drawn up, and ready to give them battle. Their line was extended from the river, on their left, to a marsh, beyond, which rose the mountain range which bounded the valley. The Indian warriors were stationed at the right by the borders of the swamp.
The whole line was simultaneously attacked by the provincials, as they came up. Colonel Dennison, who commanded the left wing of the American army, perceiving that a strong body of the Indians had forced their way through the marsh, and were about to attack him in the rear, gave an order to fall back, that his troops might not be surrounded. This command was mistaken for an order to retreat, and the result was a complete rout and a disorderly flight. The Indians, now completely in their element, fell upon the helpless stragglers with tomahawk and knife. About fifty of the Americans are said to have escaped by swimming the river, or by clambering the mountains, and concealing themselves in the forest: the rest all perished upon the field.
Most of the inhabitants of the valley sought safety from the victorious army in flight. Those who remained betook themselves to Fort Wyoming. On the next day, July 4th, the British colonel approached the fort, and demanded an unconditional surrender. A capitulation was finally agreed upon, by the terms of which the occupiers of lands in the valley were to be protected in the peaceable enjoyment of their property. Colonel Zebulon Butler and the remnant of his regulars had made their escape, and it was agreed, by the officer remaining in command, that the fort should be demolished. The result, however, was the almost en tire destruction of the settlement. The rapacity of the undisciplined Indian forces, tempted by the opportunity for plunder, could not be restrained; and the long-cherished rancor of partisan enmity between fellow-countrymen had full opportunity to satiate itself.
The rich and highly-cultivated farms were laid waste, and their unfortunate proprietors, flying from their burning homes, were reduced to the greatest extremities. Many are said to have perished in the wilderness, whither they had fled for safety. From the tales of the wretched out casts who were dispersed over the country, as published at the time, many incidents have been copied into modern histories, which we know to be false or grossly exaggerated. War is every way an enormous evil, and when carried on by an ignorant and barbarous people, to whom the refinements of so-called civilized warfare are unknown, must necessarily involve scenes of terror and desolation; but at the time of which we are now speaking, the greatest atrocities appear to have been committed by whites. We will give a single incident as illustrative of the spirit of the times. Several of the loyalists had pursued some fugitives of the provincial militia to an island in the river. One of these being ferreted out from his place of concealment, recognized his own brother among the enemy, and, falling upon his knees, begged humbly for his life. The greeting and response of the unnatural brother are thus re corded: “So it is you, is it?” “All this is mighty fine, but you are a damned rebel.” Saying which, he deliberately levelled his rifle, and shot him dead upon the spot.
At the north, Brant and his Indians continued to be a source of terror and annoyance. Besides many minor depredations, they burned and plundered the rich and thriving settlement of the German Flatts, upon the upper waters of the Mohawk. The inhabitants had sufficient notice of the attack to be able to secure themselves in the neighboring forts, but they could do nothing to preserve their homes, or to save the fruits of a summer s toil from plunder or destruction. This injury was retaliated by the invasion of the noted establishments of the Indian chief at Oghkwaga and Unadilla. A party of friendly Oneidas lent themselves to this service, and succeeded in bringing off some booty and prisoners. A more important inroad was made by Colonel William Butler, with a Pennsylvania regiment. He entered the towns of Unadilla and Oghkwaga, and, finding them deserted by the Indians, burned and destroyed the buildings, together with large stores of provision intended for winter use.
The Indians were greatly exasperated at this heavy loss, and it was not difficult for the English to excite them to prompt exertions for revenge. The Senecas were discovered to be in arms, and assuming a hostile attitude very shortly after these events; and one of their chiefs, “The Great Tree,” who had been spending the summer with the Americans, and had associated during that time upon friendly terms with General Washington, had now re turned to his people with altered demeanor and purposes. Reports had been circulated among the Indians of this and other tribes that the Americans were planning an invasion of their country.
Early in November, (1778,) the younger Butler, Walter, led a force of seven hundred men from Niagara to attack the settlement at Cherry- Valley. The majority of the party consisted of Indians under the command of Thayendanegea. The place of their destination, a beautiful and prosperous village, not far from Otsego Lake, was defended by a fortification garrisoned by troops under Colonel Ichabod Alden. The commander received intimation, from an Oneida messenger, of the dangerous position of the place, but, being incredulous, or supposing that there was abundance of time for preparation, he was in no condition for resistance when the blow fell. The inhabitants, instead of seeking the protection of the fort, were scattered among their several habitations.
The Indian savages made the first onslaught, and throwing aside all restraint, massacred men, women and children indiscriminately. Many of the Tories belonging to the party are said to have shown a spirit of ferocity equal to that of the worst of barbarians. The officer in command, Walter N. Butler, repeatedly asserted, in after communications, that he used his best endeavors to stay the destruction of the helpless children and females, and there is no doubt but that Brant s inclinations turned in the same direction. Specific instances are reported in which the Mohawk chief interfered, and successfully, to arrest the murderous tomahawk. According to their account, the Indians were exasperated at their losses at Oghkwaga and Unadilla, and, becoming heated with the excitement of the attack, were in complete disorder, and in no degree amenable to discipline. Wherever the blame lay, the result was terrible: about fifty soldiers and inhabitants fell by the tomahawk, among the latter of whom the larger portion consisted of women and children. The whole village was burned to the ground, and the rich stores of provisions were destroyed. Thirty or forty prisoners were taken, but of these, the women and children, with a few exceptions, were shortly after set at liberty, as unable to endure the march.
Mrs. Campbell, one of those who was retained as a hostage, because of the prominent part taken by her husband in the American cause, has given very interesting descriptions of Indian ceremonies and manner of life.
The Onondagas, throughout these campaigns, while, as a tribe, they did not openly profess themselves inimical to the Americans, were individually concerned in no small number of the forays and scalping expeditions whereby the border country was harassed. In April, of 1779, it was determined to destroy their settlements, and Colonel Van Schaick, with a “sufficient force, was dispatched for the purpose. He was ordered utterly to lay waste the whole of their towns; to destroy all their cattle and property; and to take as many prisoners as possible. He did not succeed in surprising the Indians, as he had purposed; their scouts carried intelligence of his advance in season for most of them to escape to the woods; but their improvements and dwellings were left undefended, at the mercy of the assailants. The colonel obeyed his orders to the letter, and left nothing but blackened ruins behind him in his progress through the Indian villages. The dwellings, the horses, cattle, and stored provisions of the unfortunate tribe were all destroyed, and the Americans returned to their quarters, without the loss of a man, taking with them thirty-three prisoners. About twelve of the Onondagas were killed during the expedition.
The friendly Oneidas were closely connected with this tribe, and they felt and expressed a natural sympathy with their misfortunes. The Onondagas were greatly exasperated, and their war parties continued to hover around the border settlements, ever ready to take advantage of any unwariness on the part of the whites.
In the months of July and August, of this year, (1779,) Brant signalized himself by various successful expeditions. He plundered and destroyed the little town of Minisink, near the Delaware river, in Orange county, New York, and defeated a body of the militia who undertook to follow his trail, in hopes of recovering the booty he had secured, and of avenging the ruin he had caused. Some interesting incidents are recorded as connected with this battle. So skillfully did the Mohawk chief anticipate and oppose the movements of his pursuers, that he secured an advantage in position, which gave him a signal victory. A large proportion of the whites were slain. We are told that, after the battle, Brant saw a wounded officer lying upon the field, in a hopeless condition, but retaining sufficient strength to converse. Unwilling to leave the unfortunate man to be torn in pieces by wolves, who would be sure to collect as night came on, he determined, from motives of humanity, to dispatch him. He therefore commenced a conversation with him, and, watching his opportunity, put an end to his sufferings unawares, by a blow of the tomahawk.
On this, as on most other occasions in which the Mohawk chief was engaged in active hostilities, the most contradictory reports have been recorded concerning his conduct and demeanor. The leader is generally compelled to bear the blame of all the excesses committed by his followers, and it is no easy task, at this distance of time, to decide upon the truth of many tales reported under circumstances of confusion and excitement.