Sunday, September 19, 2021

ARP218 Onondaga Creek

In April of 1779, the Americans launched an offensive into the Onondaga villages of western New York.  Before getting into the details of the attack, I thought it might be a good time to take a step back and go over the role of the Iroquois Confederacy in the war.

Iroquois Confederacy

The Confederacy dated back hundreds of years, possibly even before Columbus reached America.  Initially, the Confederation consisted of five tribes, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.  In the early 1700’s a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the Confederacy.

An Onondaga Village
As I’ve explained in earlier episodes, the Iroquois were a relatively small group of native tribes living in what is today upstate New York and southern Canada.  Based on language, they are thought to have migrated to this area from the south, settling amongst much larger groups of Algonquin-speaking native groups within this region. The confederacy particularly found itself threatened after the French in Quebec allied with many of the Algonquin tribes that were the traditional enemies of the Iroquois.

The power and influence of the Iroquois really took off in the late 1600’s after the Iroquois began a trading relationship with the Dutch in the New Netherlands. After the British took control and changed the name to New York, the Iroquois continued the beneficial relationship with the British.  Trade gave the Iroquois access to guns and other western technology that allowed them to extend their reach, as far south as the Carolinas, and as far west as the Mississippi River.  

The Iroquois claimed authority over all the tribes living in those areas, including the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo tribes.  It asserted authority to negotiate on their behalf, and enriched itself by selling large amounts of land belonging to these other tribes to the European colonists.

Although the Iroquois generally worked and traded with the British, the Confederacy made an effort to remain neutral in disputes between Britain and France.  During the French and Indian War, when the Iroquois lands became a main point of contention between the two armies, Iroquois neutrality eventually gave way to backing the British, especially after the war seemed to be going in the favor of the British.

Much of this was due to the efforts of Sir William Johnson, a trader who became very influential among the Iroquois and received an appointment as British Indian agent for the Iroquois.  The British made some efforts to protect Iroquois lands.  The Royal Proclamation of 1763 prevented new settlements west of the Allegheny mountains.  This Proclamation reserved most Iroquois lands for the Iroquois.  In addition, to relieve pressure on its New York lands, the Iroquois sold most of the lands in what is today western Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in order to direct western movement to those lands and away from the Iroquois homes in New York.

Iroquois Map
Despite the efforts of the Iroquois to redirect migration, the removal of the French threat, and the establishment of western New York as British lands encouraged a great western migration by colonists into much of upstate New York in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s.

When the Revolution began, the Confederacy at first tried to remain neutral.  However, the easternmost tribe, the Mohawk ended up supporting the British and fighting with them.  This was largely due to the efforts of Joseph Brant, who was closely aligned with the family of British agent Sir William Johnson.  The western-most tribe, the Seneca, also joined with the Mohawk in backing the British and sending warriors to fight with them.  The other tribes attempted to maintain their neutrality.  But after Mohawk and Seneca warriors began marching through their lands with the British, the Oneida sided with the Americans, and the Tuscarora joined them.  The other two tribes: the Cayuga and Onondaga continued to remain neutral, hoping this whole dispute would just go away.

By 1777 though, the war was raging in upstate New York.  Neutrality was not really an option.  Many Cayuga and Onondaga warriors joined with the British efforts, despite official tribal neutrality.  In early 1779, about 40 Onondaga warriors joined the Oneida to fight on behalf of the Americans, the rest of the tribe threw in their lot with the British-aligned forces under Joseph Brant or simply held out hope that individual neutrality would protect them.

As I’ve covered over several earlier episodes, the Iroquois raised hundreds of warriors who fought with British and loyalist forces in the effort to return upstate New York to British control and to kill or remove anyone of the patriot population in that area.  They fought under General St. Leger at Oriskany.  After the British withdrew, the Iroquois continued to carry out additional raids throughout the region.  These efforts led to many smaller attacks and massacres, as well as the more notable Cherry Valley Massacre in November 1778.

Patriot Response

The attacks had their intended effect. Many Americans fled their homes and farms in the areas subject to attack.  Many others, afraid but with nowhere to go, demanded Continental protection from the Indian and Loyalist threat.  New York leaders lobbied the Continental Congress, which passed a resolution on February 27, 1779, authorizing General Washington to take whatever measures he deemed necessary to remove this threat. 

Phillip Schuyler

Washington reached out to General Philip Schuyler, who was from this area and was one of his most senior generals, to see if Schuyler would command the expedition. Schuyler begged off.  He had just gotten through his court martial a few months earlier and was done with the army.  He had already sent his resignation to Congress, although Congress had not accepted it yet.  Washington hoped this new command could convince Schuyler to remain in the army and defend his home.  Schuyler, however, was not interested.

Next, Washington turned to General Horatio Gates, who was still recovering from his alleged role in the Conway Cabal and not doing much of anything for a military command.  Gates, however, also passed.  He did not want to take on this new command, arguing that the campaign would be too rigorous for the 51 year old general.  Instead, he passed Washington’s instructions to General John Sullivan, who was still in Rhode Island, following his failure to expel the British in late 1778.

Sullivan accepted the assignment, but it would take him several months to assemble the force  that he would need to carry out the expedition.  He would eventually be ready to move by summer, but that will have to be the topic of a future episode.

In March and April of 1779, the people in New York were demanding an immediate answer to this problem.  As winter was turning to spring, everyone feared that the Iroquois warriors and loyalist regiments would resume their attacks on the people of western New York.

Goose Van Schaick

That spring, one of the largest Continental garrisons in the region was the Continental force stationed at Fort Stanwix, although it was called Fort Schuyler by the patriots at this time.  Fort Stanwix was probably the most important fort in the area after the destruction of Fort Ticonderoga. It sat in the heart of Iroquois territory and had been the site of the treaty with the Iroquois many years earlier. The Americans had lost Fort Stanwix to the St. Leger expedition about a year earlier.  General Benedict Arnold was able to retake the fort and reestablish control of the area.

NY Gov George Clinton
In early 1778, the fort had about two regiments of Continental soldiers under the overall command of Colonel Goose Van Schaick.  Colonel Van Schaick was an experienced Continental officer.  He came from an old Dutch family that had been among the first European settlers at Albany.  His father had been mayor of Albany.

During the French and Indian War, the twenty year old Goose received a lieutenant’s commission in the New York militia.  He was wounded in the 1758 assault on Fort Ticonderoga, the same assault that led to the death of General William Howe’s brother George.  Goose received promotion to a captain, leading militia companies at the battles of Fort Frontenac and Fort Niagara.  By the end of the French and Indian War, he had risen to major, and then lieutenant colonel during Pontiac’s Rebellion.

In the years leading up to the revolution, Van Schaick sided with the patriots, signing a protest against the Stamp Act.  He later served on Albany’s Committee of Correspondence.

At the creation of the Continental Army in June 1775, Van Schaick raised the Second New York Regiment for the Continentals from those he commanded in the militia.  He received a commission as colonel.  Less than a year later, he took command of the First New York Regiment after Colonel Alexander McDougall received promotion to general.

Van Schaick served under General Arthur St. Clair for the defense of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777.  He was wounded in the face a second time, nearly twenty years after the assault at Ticonderoga, Van Schaick received a wound during the American retreat from Ticonderoga.

After some recuperation, Van Schaick returned to the main army in time to spend the winter at Valley Forge, then command a brigade at the Battle of Monmouth.  After Monmouth, Van Schaick returned to New York, where he took command of Fort Stanwix in November 1778.

Plan of Attack

The Continentals recognized that the loyalists and their Indian allies were engaged in a campaign to drive the Americans out of the region, not only by terrorizing the inhabitants, but also through a calculated policy of destroying property, burning homes, running off cattle, and destroying grain.  Without sufficient food or shelter to get through the winter, the inhabitants would have to move elsewhere.

Iroquois Council
The Continental leadership, in cooperation with New York leaders, developed a plan to use the same strategy against the Iroquois who refused to ally themselves with the patriots.  General Schuyler had written to Washington in March that the Iroquois could probably raise no more than 2000 warriors for battle.  On the assumption that the British leadership in Quebec would not risk sending additional support to the Iroquois, if the Continentals could produce a larger force of about 3000, they could fend off any attack, and could use that force to go on a campaign of destruction against Iroquois villages and food stores.  The largest threat came from the Seneca, which was the Iroquois tribe farthest to the west.  The Mohawks in the eastern part of the Confederacy had already fled to Canada by this time.  The next most eastern tribes, the Oneida and Tuscarora, had pretty firmly allied themselves with the Americans.  That left the Onondaga and Cayuga tribes as problems.

Although the Seneca made up the bulk of the forces that could be arrayed against them, the Americans would have to go after the Onondaga and Cayuga tribes that were still claiming neutrality.  Otherwise, the loyalist forces would be able to subsist on food and shelter that they could coerce from these neutral tribes.  The Americans determined that they could not allow neutral tribes to remain in place.  Any warriors who would not ally with the Americans would be treated as enemies.

The first step would be to take out the Onondaga who were immediately to the west of the Oneida.  The Onondaga were probably the smallest of the Iroquois tribes at the time, with perhaps a few hundred members in total. After the forty warriors left to join with the Oneida, there were perhaps only about 120 warriors left in the tribe.

Despite the small size, the Continentals hoped to surprise the enemy so that they could not remove their supplies or call for reinforcements. There would be no further warnings that the Americans would treat all non-allies as enemies.  The Americans wanted the element of surprise when they launched their first campaign.  Washington also encouraged the use of Continentals rather than militia.  The Continentals were more disciplined and reliable, meaning that a smaller group of soldiers would be more effective for the mission.

Van Schaick Expedition

In early April, Colonel Van Schaick made his way from Albany to Fort Stanwix, which sat in friendly Oneida territory.  He outfitted a force of companies from various continental regiments, totaling just over 550 men, including one company of riflemen.

Marinus Willet
He selected Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willet and Major Robert Cochran as his field officers. When Van Schaick arrived at Fort Stanwix, he found a group of 63 Oneida warriors who were eager to join the campaign, without even knowing the details.  Van Schaick did not want to reveal his plans to the Oneida. He wanted his attack to remain a surprise, and feared that the Oneida, who may still have friends among the Onondaga, might warn them of the attack.  He was also concerned that the warriors might prove reluctant in the field toward wiping out their neighbors.

Instead Van Schaick denied that any expedition was planned.  The warriors requested that they be given some mission, so Van Schaick deployed two companies of Continentals to march with the Oneida against Fort Oswegatchie to the north, on the St. Lawrence River. This sent the Oneida off in the opposite direction from where his expedition would be travelling and assured that they would be far away from the Onondaga during the expedition.  The Oneida left on the afternoon of April 18, headed for Fort Oswegatchie.

That evening, Van Schaick began to march his own troops to the west.  He deployed a fleet of 29 bateaux with eight days worth of food and other supplies, that would be floated down Woods Creek to Oneida Lake. The fleet would then cross the lake, whose western border began Onondaga territory.  The boats were not large enough to carry all the men, so they marched overland, planning to meet up with their supplies when needed.

It took two days to march to the western end of the lake.  The brigade was, at that point, only a few miles from their targeted Onondaga villages.  The supply fleet had not yet reached the rendezvous point.  Van Schaick opted to move inland without the supplies, rather than risk being discovered.  That night, only a few miles from the villages, the men camped without fires to give way their positions.  They slept on the snow-covered ground, eating only cold food that they brought with them.

The following morning, April 21, the advance guard captured one Indian who was out hunting, taking him prisoner.  They next came across a small party with at least one woman and several children.  One or two of the surprised Indians escaped and ran back to town to warn the village.  As they did, the army deployed to surround the village.  The settlements extended for about eight miles, meaning it took several hours to get the men into position.  

The Onondaga were mostly alerted to the presence of the invaders.  However, most only had time to flee into the woods, abandoning all of their possessions.  The soldiers looted or destroyed whatever they could find.  They plundered houses of all valuables, then set them on fire.  The Indians, who were apparently mostly women, children, and elderly, did not put up resistance, but were mostly able to flee and escape the attackers.

By about 4:00 PM, the target villages and settlements had been destroyed.  In his report, Colonel Van Schaick reported that his men killed twelve Indians, took three more as prisoners, as well as one white man living among the Onondaga.  They burned at least fifty homes, killed horses and cattle, and destroyed tons of beans and corn.  The attackers also captured at least 100 muskets and rifles, as well as more ammunition than the men could carry.  In total the attackers returned with 34 prisoners, most of whom were a group of women who were caught by surprise while working in the fields.

As soon as the soldiers completed their destruction, the men began marching back toward Fort Stanwix. During the return march, they came under fire from about twenty Onondaga who had managed to catch up with the attackers and engage them in combat.  The Continentals managed to kill one of the warriors before the rest fled into the woods.  The remainder of the march was relatively uneventful.  The brigade returned to Fort Stanwix by April 24.

The entire round trip march had covered over 180 miles and had taken just under six days to complete.  Amazingly, the entire party managed to return without a single man killed.

The Continentals considered the raid to be a great success.  Washington announced news of the successful raid in his general orders for May 8.  Many of the Onondaga who had tried to remain neutral, following this attack, threw their support behind the British.  The raid also created a rift between the Onondaga and the Oneida which never really healed.  Most of the Onondaga abandoned their land and moved north into Canada where they could receive protection from the British.

There were some accusations that the attackers had killed women and children, and had raped some of the Onondaga women that they had captured.  Despite the accusations Congress passed a resolution on May 10: 

Resolved, that the thanks of Congress be presented to Colonel Van Schaick and the officers and soldiers under his command, for their activity and good conduct in the late expedition against the Onondagas. 

Generally speaking the Americans viewed the attack as payback for the Cherry Valley Massacre, and the American leadership saw it as only the first step in what would become a much larger brutal campaign against the western Iroquois.

Next Week: Benedict Arnold makes contact with the British and begins taking steps toward betraying the patriot cause.

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Next  Episode 219 Turning General Arnold 

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Further Reading


The Six Nations Confederacy During the American Revolution:

US Presidents – Hanadagá•yas

Col. Gosen Van Schaick:

Goose Van Schaick:

The Van Schaick Expedition, April 1779:

Goose Van Schaick Leads The Onondaga Expedition

“To George Washington from Major General Philip Schuyler, 1–7 March 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General James Clinton, 8 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Philip Schuyler, 24 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Philip Schuyler, 27 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 8 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Sullivan's expedition against the Indians of New York: a letter from Andrew McFarland Davis to Justin Winsor, corresponding secretary Massachusetts Historical Society : with the Journal of William McKendry, Cambridge: University Press, 1886. 

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois (Indians Of North America), Chelsea Press, 2005. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Calloway, Colin G. The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, Oxford Univ. Press, 2018.  

Egly, T.W. Goose Van Schaick of Albany, 1736-1789: The Continental Army's Senior Colonel, 1992. 

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1972. 

Mann, Barbara Alice George Washington's War on Native America, Praeger, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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