We last looked in on the Indian warfare in upstate New York back in Episode 230.
The Iroquois under leaders like loyalist John Johnson and Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), had been terrorizing settlers in New York who had sided with the patriots. These patriots had forced all loyalists to flee to Niagara, or further north into the Quebec territory, or face arrest and property confiscation if they failed to swear allegiance to the new independent state government.
|Postcard depiction of Mohawk Valley Raid, 1780
In response, General Washington ordered an equally harsh response by the Continental Army. He ordered General Sullivan to take an army through the heart of Iroquois territory and visit devastation on all the Iroquois villages, other than the Oneida and a few others who had cast their lot with the patriot sides. Many of the Iroquois had attempted to remain neutral. But these neutral villages provided support to fellow Iroquois who were raiding patriot homes and villages.
The Continentals hoped that by burning Indian villages and destroying their food, that they would have no choice but to abandon the region entirely. The Sullivan Campaign did exactly that.
As I’ve mentioned in other episodes, the winter of 1779-80 was an exceptionally cold and snowy one. The Continental Army clung to bare survival at Morristown, New Jersey. To the north things were at least as bad, if not worse.
|Native Winter Encampment
More than 5000 Iroquois, more than half of them women and children, had fled to Niagara with little more than the clothes on their backs. By October of 1779 these refugees were already consuming the food rations that would not have supported even a smaller number of people over the winter. As fall pushed into winter, food became even scarcer.
Mary Jemison - a former white captive who lived with the Senecas, wrote down her recollections of that hard winter years later:
The snow fell about five feet deep, and remained so for a long time, and the weather was extremely cold; so much so indeed, that almost all the game upon which the Indians depended for subsistence, perished, and reduced them almost to a state of starvation through that and three or four succeeding years. When the snow melted in the spring, deer were found dead upon the ground in vast numbers; and other animals, of every description, perished from the cold also, and were found dead, in multitudes. Many of our people barely escaped with their lives, and some actually died of hunger and freezing.
The British Governor General Frederick Haldimand complained regularly to London over the winter that everyone was starving and that grain was almost impossible to find. Heavy snowfall and ice made it impossible to get any supplies to the refugees. In addition to the lack of food, there was nowhere to shelter all of the people. There were not enough tents, which even if their were would have been inadequate for the brutal Canadian winter where witnesses reported snow drifts of over eight feet. Many refugees attempted to build crude shelters from wood or stone, or dig holes into the earth in order to avoid the brutal winds. These shelters were not close to adequate protection.
Many hundreds died over the winter. Some simply starved or died from diseases related to the lack of food, such as scurvy. Many others literally froze to death, living outside in the elements without winter clothing. Dr. James McCauseland of the King’s Eighth Regiment made futile attempts to assist the many dying around him every day, but could do little more than report on the wide array of diseases that were killing the people. By the time the first signs of spring thaw came around, there were not even enough healthy people to bury all the dead. Soldiers simply poured quicklime on the bodies and buried them in shallow mass graves in order to prevent the rotting corpses from killing even more people.
Plans to Recapture Upstate New York
Loyalist and Iroquois leaders, however, only saw the suffering as an incentive to redouble their efforts to take back Iroquois lands in New York the following spring. Of course, the leadership did not suffer nearly as much as the warriors or civilians. Many war chiefs lived as guests in the home of Johnson, Butler, or other prominent men.
Brant, who owned his own farm near Niagara, even found time to get married that winter. His new wife, Catherine, had a white father named George Groghan, a Pennsylvanian who lived on the frontier and who had been with Washington when he made his first forays as a young man into the Ohio Valley. Catherine knew none of that, having been born years later. The 20 year old woman had been mostly raised by her Mohawk mother and spoke little English.
John Johnson had his own regiment drawn from local Tories, New York loyalist John Butler still commanded Butler’s rangers, composed primarily of New York loyalists. Walter Butler, his son, had led the Rangers in the Field. Joseph Brant worked with several other war chiefs to keep the Iroquois prepared for a new offensive into New York. Also in late 1779 Guy Johnson returned from London. Britain’s Indian agent for the region, Johnson also had authority to provide gifts to native warriors to encourage an active campaign against the New York patriots.
One of the targets would be Oneida homelands. The Oneida had solidly backed the patriots. Their fellow Iroquois felt a particular betrayal by this and wanted to send a message. Even in late 1779, Brant was planning a raid on the Oneida villages. As he organized his raiding party, he captured three Oneida warriors near his camp near Niagara. Under interrogation, the Oneida revealed that they had been made aware of the planned attacks from a Cayuga refugee living near Niagara and that Oneida war chiefs had sent them to spy on the attackers. Realizing that he had lost the element of surprise, Brant called off the attack for the fall.
Brant’s Spring Raid
While the fierce winter storms limited any military activity over the winter, Tory and Iroquois leaders were determined to do something. By February, some of the worst snows had subsided. Brant and several hundred warriors held a war dance at Guy Johnson’s home. Johnson supplied the warriors with snowshoes, blankets, and other supplies, in hopes that they might conduct a winter campaign.
Marching through the snow was slow going. One of their targets had been three forts near Schoharie, just south of Oneida lands. Brant’s warriors took all of March, arriving in Harpersfield, a few miles away, in the beginning of April. There, the attackers encountered a group of twelve local militia. They killed three and captured the remainder.
The warriors wanted to kill their prisoners, but Brant prevailed on them to send the captives back to Niagara. The prisoners told Brant that there was a garrison of 300 Continental soldiers at Schoharie. This was not true, but it dissuaded Brant from launching an attack.
The warriors then burned Harpersfield and captured several more civilians. Brant released one of the prisoners with a letter, saying that he had heard that the patriots were mistreating loyalist prisoners, and that he would return similar treatment on his prisoners if this did not change.
The warriors built canoes to travel down the Delaware River, looking for food and looking to help any local Tories who remained in the region. They passed through Oquaga, which had been obliterated by the Sullivan Campaign, with no people or buildings remaining there.
Brant divided his already small force into raiding parties that could attack or capture isolated homes or villages in the region. One raiding party returned with only two of its members, saying they had captured prisoners, but that the prisoners escaped at night and killed the rest of the raiding party. The warriors hearing this then wanted to kill their own prisoners, but once again, they were talked out of it.
On April 24, a war party of 79 Iroquois and two Tories once again attacked the village of Cherry Valley, the scene of the 1778 massacre that had been a key trigger for the Sullivan Campaign. The attackers killed eight settlers outright, and captured another fourteen. They burned all of the buildings that had survived the earlier attack, or had been rebuilt, and left no one living in the community.
Unable to find sufficient food to survive, the warriors began marching back to Niagara with their prisoners. One account says that one of the prisoners was unable to keep up. They killed and scalped the prisoner, leaving his body for the wolves. One of the killers teasingly dangled the man’s scalp to some of the other prisoners, including his two grandsons.
After a nearly three month campaign, Brant’s warriors returned to Niagara. Brant had to send word to Haldimand that he was returning with prisoners. Haldimand used a pretext to get most of the Indians out of the area. Otherwise, he knew they would attack the prisoners. Sentiments were so hard after the devastating winter that even women and children would attack prisoners being marched into camp.
Johnson Raids Johnstown and Caughnawaga
Brant was not the only active loyalist raider that spring. While Brant’s campaign was still marching toward its targets, a loyalist scout returned from Johnstown with word that the patriots were planning to force all men of military age to enlist in militia companies to fight for the patriots, or be sent to jail and have their homes confiscated.
|Sir John Johnson
With a force growing to nearly 500 men, including a fair number of Iroquois warriors, the force marched south, picking up recruits and burning the homes and farms of any patriots they encountered.
Johnson’s force arrived at a small village just north of his boyhood home of Johnstown on May 21. There, he divided his force, leading a portion to his boyhood home in Johnstown, with the other force moving east toward Caughnawaga.
At around midnight on May 23, the two divisions entered Johnstown and Caughnawaga. The raiders looted and burned the homes of known patriots. They killed three patriot militiamen. One of the men killed was a militia captain, according to local lore, killed by an Indian that he knew and to whom he had shown great kindness in earlier times.
Another nearby home, that of militia Colonel Frederick Visscher. The colonel was in his home with his mother and two brothers. The men were determined to defend their home to the last. After a brief but determined struggle, the raiders entered the home. They killed and scalped the men and tied their mother to a chair.
Colonel Visscher had survived the initial attack and scalping, but had tried to play dead. An Indian warrior noticed he was still alive and slit his throat with a knife. After a brief ransacking, the attackers set the home on fire, leaving Mrs. Visscher tied to the chair inside the burning home. Amazingly, Col. Vissher managed to survive having his throat slit. After the attacker left, he managed to pull his mother, and his brothers’ bodies, from the burning home. He also recovered from his wounds, which is the only reason we have this story to tell. Similar attacks took place in many other homes in the town, often leaving no survivors.
The devastation would have been even worse had not militia Major Van Vrank managed to ride ahead of the raiders and warn many of the locals to flee their homes and escape into the woods. The raiders burned every building in Caughnawaga except for the church, killing many of the inhabitants, including nine elderly men over the age of 80. They did take some prisoners. As they continued their march, they looted and destroyed every building they encountered, taking what they could, and killing any livestock or burning any property that they could not carry. Marching through a four mile arc south of Caughnawaga, the attackers burned an estimated 120 buildings and burned tons of food.
In response to these raids, Governor George Clinton quickly called out the militia, which joined up with a force of Continentals under the command of Colonel Goose Van Schaik. The 800 man force quickly assembled and set off to capture Johnson’s raiding parties. Johnson managed to slow the enemy by leaking the fact that Joseph Brant and Butler’s Rangers were about to launch their own raid south of the Mohawk River. Several prisoners escaped and alerted the patriots. This was a ruse, Brant and Butler were still back in Niagara. But this gave Johnson’s raiders time to march north and avoid an encounter with a much larger enemy.
The loyalist raiders managed to make it back to Crown Point and embark on ships before Schaik’s army and a second army from New Hampshire which had been assembled to cut off their escape, could arrive. A combined patriot force of 1700 men might have turned the raid into a British defeat. But the quick escape ahead of this force up Lake Champlain gave Johnson a great success.
Raid on the Oneida
The loyalists were far from finishing their attacks. In July, Joseph Brant, in cooperation with British regulars, launched a raid on the Oneida who had remained allied with the patriots. Brant had convinced a small number of Oneida and Tuscarora to join the refugees at Niagara, threatening them with destruction if they refused. Some of these natives sought refuge at Fort Stanwix.
In June, a delegation of Mohawk Warriors and Butler’s Rangers arrived at Oneida Castle, an entrenched area with high walls, deep in Oneida territory. They attempted to get the Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Oneida still their to abandon their alliance and join the rest of the Iroquois at Niagara. They managed to convince about 300 warriors to leave, by 90% of these were Onondaga and Tuscarora.
One July 11, Brant’s Iroquois warriors and a small number of British regulars marched against those who had refused to join them. Among the raiders were several dozen warriors who they had just forced to return to Niagara. These warriors were forced to show penance for their rebel tendencies by joining the punishing force that would lay waste to those who did not surrender.
Brant’s force came across about 400 Iroquois taking refuge near Fort Stanwix. Most were able to flee into the fort, although some were captured and forced to return to Niagara. Brant’s forces laid siege to the fort for a few days, but were not prepared for a longer siege. The warriors continued on, laying waste to any abandoned Oneida homes and villages they encountered. They drove off horses and cattle, and burned crops.
In early August, the raiders destroyed the Oneida village of Canowaraghere and also the settlement at Canajoharie. Alert settlers became aware of the attack and managed to escape to Fort Plank. Brant’s raiders could not take the fort and were not prepared to besiege it. They destroyed the homes in the area, but were not able to kill or capture many of the inhabitants. They poured through the Schoharie Valley, largely unopposed, laying waste to isolated farms and small villages, including the town of Vrooman, where they burned more than twenty homes.
By the end of August, Brant returned to Niagara with another devastating and successful raid complete.
Loyalist and Iroquois raids into New York were far from over. The raids would become even worse in the fall of 1780, but we will have to leave those for a future episode. Many of the Oneida who survived the raids became refugees among the patriots, settling on land closer to Schenectady, where they hoped to remain out of range of future raids. The Mohawk Valley remained an armed encampment, where small forts dotted the region every few miles. Nervous locals remained on edge, ready to seek the protection of the forts at a moment’s notice. But they remained determined to defend the region.
Next week: we return to South Carolina for the battle of Waxhaws.
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Refugees of Niagara 1779-1780: The Winter of Hunger: https://www.sullivanclinton.com/texts/articles/archives/refugees-niagara
Aikey, Michael “Ballston Raid of 1780” Journal of the American Revolution, Dec 6, 2017 https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/12/ballston-raid-1780-military-operation-time-settle-old-scores
Horton’s Historical Timeline for 1780: http://threerivershms.com/timeline1780.htm
Raid on Johnstown: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/raid-on-johnstown
Frederick Visscher https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Visscher-79
History of the Mohawk Valley: Chapter 68: 1780, Raids at Cherry Valley, Johnstown, Fort Plain, Vrooman's Land http://www.schenectadyhistory.org/resources/mvgw/history/068.html
Tiro, Karim M. “A ‘Civil’ War? Rethinking Iroquois Participation in the American Revolution.” Explorations in Early American Culture, vol. 4, 2000, pp. 148–65. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23549298.
(from archive.org unless noted)
Cruikshank, E. A. The Story of Butler's Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara, Welland, Ont: Tribune Printing, 1893.
Efner, William B. (ed) Warfare in the Mohawk Valley; Transcribed from the Pennsylvania Gazette 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783, Schenectady, NY: self-published, 1948.
Seaver, James E. A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison: De-he-wä-mis, The White Woman of the Genesee, New York ; London : G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1910 (originally published 1824).
Stone, William L. Life of Joseph Brant-Thayendanegea, Vol. 2, New York, A. V. Blake, 1838.
Swiggett, Howard War out of Niagara: Walter Butler and the Tory Rangers, Columbia Univ. Press, 1933.
Walker, Mabel Gregory “Sir John Johnson” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 1916.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Watt, Gavin K. For Want of His Silver Plate, Sir John Johnson's Raid of May 1780, Dundurn, 1997.
Watt, Gavin K. The Burning of the Valleys: Daring Raids from Canada Against the New York Frontier in the Fall of 1780, Dundurn, 1997 s_tl
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.