Initially, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois) claimed neutrality during the conflict between Britain and the colonists, seeing the disagreement as a civil war and valuing loyalty to their families and to their lands above all else. When the political discontent erupted into the American Revolutionary War, the member nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy split their support between the British and newly formed American forces.
The majority of nations and individual members supported the British under the belief that those nations would be more likely to keep their relative independence and land under continued British rule, while the Oneida and Tuscarora backed the American Colonists.
As with many American families, alliance was not clear-cut, and in some cases, allegiance was split on a person-by-person basis, which destabilized the clan-based society. What had started as a European civil war on North American soil soon turned the Confederacy against itself, undermining the social unity and political stability that the Six Nations had enjoyed for centuries.
In 1778, Loyalists and members of the British-backed nations participated in destructive raids that crippled Continental forces and destroyed frontier settlements in New York and Pennsylvania. Fearing that the New York frontier would be pushed east to the Hudson River if divisive action was not taken, General George Washington ordered General John Sullivan to lead four brigades of men — a sizable portion of the Continental Army — on a scorched-earth campaign that would limit the Haudenosaunee’s ability to attack in the future.
Washington tasked Sullivan with launching a terror campaign to destroy the food supply of the Cayuga and Seneca Nations in the heart of the Finger Lakes and to reduce the Cayuga and Seneca’s forces. Smaller expeditions were tasked with destroying Seneca settlements in western Pennsylvania and Onondaga settlements in Central New York.
In August 1779, forces led by General Sullivan and his second-in-command, General James Clinton met in Tioga near the Pennsylvania-New York border and began their campaign by destroying the Munsee Delaware settlement of Chemung in present-day Chemung County. Instead of deploying the guerrilla tactics that long served Haudenosaunee well, Confederacy war chiefs and the meager British forces available to counterattack decided to retaliate with a standing battle.
The Battle of Newtown on August 29, 1779, ended in a British and Indian retreat and destroyed morale for the British-backing Confederacy Nations, who now chose to proactively flee to other nearby settlements. For the next two weeks, Sullivan’s forces moved from Seneca Lake to Canandaigua Lake to Chenussio — a Seneca stronghold near present-day Leicester in Livingston County that included 128 multi-family longhouses.
By the end of the campaign, Sullivan’s men destroyed more than 40 Haudenosaunee villages, at least 160,000 bushels of corn, countless pounds of stored vegetables and fruit, and only suffered 40 casualties.
While the American forces did not take Haudenosaunee prisoners, the Sullivan Campaign destroyed the nations’ capacity to wage war. By the end of September 1779, more than 5,000 nation members had arrived at the British Fort Niagara expecting food, clothing, and shelter in the face of their catastrophic losses at the hands of the Americans.
Instead of lessening the threat to frontier settlements, the Sullivan Campaign increased the animosity of Natives and British alike, laying the ground for fierce fighting within the New York frontier of British-backed Indian raids during the 1780s.
Illustrations, from above: An early illustration of the Iroquois Confederacy, by a European; and a map of Clinton Sullivan Campaign.
This essay is drawn from the National Park Service’s Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study. You can read about the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area, the study, and find footnotes here.