The Mohawk Valley in upstate New York had been the scene of repeated fighting. Even before the war, fighting with the French and Indians had accustomed the inhabitants to a regular threat of violent attack. Beginning with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, divisions between loyalists and patriots in the area, as well as internal divisions among the Indian tribes, led to some of the most brutal and merciless combat of the war.
Most of the loyalists had fled to Quebec. Many of them joined the Burgoyne Campaign to return to the Mohawk Valley and retake the area for the King. Many Indian tribes also joined the British effort. Notably, as I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, the Mohawk and a few other members of the Iroquois Confederation threw off their traditional neutrality to support the British. Others from the Oneida and Tuscarora tribes backed the patriots, leading to a civil war not only between local colonists but also within the Iroquois Confederation.
|Joseph Brant, 1776|
One of the leading Mohawk chiefs, whom I have introduced before, was Joseph Brant, also known as Thayendanegea. Brant was a Mohawk war chief, but was also comfortable in the world of the English. He has visited London and was a Freemason. He was also a relation of the Johnson family, which had lived and served as Indian agents in upstate New York for decades. Brant had been one of the primary leaders to convince the Mohawk to shed neutrality and join the British effort to crush the rebellion. He had led an army of warriors, under General Barry St. Leger, to capture Fort Stanwix in 1777.
Working with Brant was Lieutenant Colonel John Butler, of Butler's Rangers. I mentioned Butler back in Episode 192, at the Wyoming Valley Massacre. He was a longtime resident of the Mohawk valley, an associate of the Johnson family, and friends with Joseph Brant. Like other Tories, Butler had been forced to flee New York for Quebec and had organized a regiment of loyalists to fight for the King.
After the failure of the Saratoga campaign, and the capture of Burgoyne’s army, the British all but abandoned upstate New York. They destroyed Fort Ticonderoga and withdrew back to Quebec.
While the regulars left, the Indians and settlers from upstate New York who had backed the loyalist cause, were not ready to give up their homes quite so easily. They continued to raid the areas around their old homes. These smaller raids picked up considerably in the spring of 1778. They still expected an eventual British victory and continued to fight against the rebels.
New Governor of Quebec
Their raids into the Mohawk Valley were organized and orchestrated by the commanders in Quebec. General Guy Carleton had commanded Quebec for over a decade, well before the war began, and had served in Quebec for many years before becoming governor. General Carlton, you may recall, had led the first offensive to retake Ticonderoga in 1776, only to get stuck fighting a naval battle on Lake Champlain with Benedict Arnold before withdrawing to Canada at the onset of winter.
The following year, his second in command, General Burgoyne, returned from a visit to London, having convinced officials to let him lead the next invasion and force Carleton to remain in Quebec. General Carleton was, of course, rather upset that officials would not let him lead the campaign and submitted a resignation.
While he awaited a response, he still had to deal with the mess left by Burgoyne’s surrender. After the destruction of, and withdrawal from, Ticonderoga in November, the British retained a defensive fleet on Lake Champlain until winter ice prevented the Americans from sailing up to Canada for another invasion. Carleton ordered everything destroyed between Ile aux Noix at the northern end of Lake Champlain and the settlement at St. Jean, about 20 miles further north. Turning the area into a bare no-man’s land would discourage any attempted winter invasion into Quebec.
Remember, that around this time the Continental Congress was trying to put together just such an invasion under the command of General Lafayette. The Continental Army’s inability to gather enough resources for the campaign was the main reason it did not happen. Without Burgoyne’s army, Carleton’s smaller force in Quebec remained vulnerable. The British relied on the loyalist and Indian raids into upstate New York to keep the Americans occupied.
Over the winter, Carleton received word that the ministry had accepted his resignation and that he would be recalled to London later in the year. Carleton would receive a new appointment as Governor of Charlemont in Northern Ireland. In case you were wondering, Charlemont is this tiny village in the middle of nowhere. But the position paid £1000 sterling per year. Carleton's new job was a way of rewarding a loyal officer when the government did not want him serving in a command anymore. The poor peasants of Ireland could subsidize his comfortable life in a do-nothing job.
As an aside, Secretary Lord Germain was apoplectic that the King offered this new position to Carleton. Germain and Carleton hated each other, and Germain actually threatened to resign if the King gave Carleton this new post in Northern Ireland. The King did so anyway. With his bluff called, Germain remained at his post and quietly fumed.
Carleton’s replacement was General Frederick Haldimand. I gave some background on Haldimand way back in Episode 62. Haldimand had been second in command to General Thomas Gage at the outbreak of the war. Haldimand was Swiss-born and had served in the Prussian and Dutch armies before joining the British Army. He was recalled from America, primarily because London was considering replacing Gage with Howe as North American Commander. Haldimand was senior to Howe. It would have been awkward to have a more junior officer in overall command. London did not want Haldimand in overall command, as the leadership thought an English-born general would be best for the situation. So Haldimand had left Boston in June 1775, the day before General Howe fought the battle of Bunker Hill.
Back in London, the ministry wanted to reward Haldimand for all of his great work. They had paid him a £3000 cash reward upon his return and had given him a high-paying job as Inspector General of the West Indies. Apparently the West Indies did not need close inspection, because Haldimand remained in London and collected his salary there. Again, this was one of those do-nothing jobs for generals to hold between commands, paid for by locals who had no votes. This was one of those practices that the Continental Congress had raised in the Declaration for why they did not want taxation without representation. For most of the next three years, Haldimand remained without a command, watching events unfold in America from his comfortable position in England.
Then, in late 1777, probably shortly after word of Burgoyne’s surrender reached London, Haldimand learned he would be called off the bench and sent back to America, this time as the new Governor of Quebec. It took a while to work out the travel arrangements and other matters, so that Haldimand did not reach Quebec until late June 1778.
Haldimand’s administration did not differ significantly from that of Carlton. Haldimand actively supported raids into upstate New York, but focused primarily on keeping Canada safe from another American attack, and making sure the Canadians remained firmly in the loyalist camp. The British had hoped to use terror and intimidation to get the patriots to abandon the Mohawk Valley. If the patriots would not leave, they would be killed or taken prisoner. This would turn the area into a buffer between the patriots in New York and loyalists in Quebec.
Tryon Co. Committee of Safety
The patriots, of course, were organized to oppose this. For many years, New York patriots had formed local committees of safety. These were quasi-legal organizations designed to further the cause, but also to keep some level of law and order in areas where the King’s peace was no longer protected by the colonial government. Committees were often made up of local politicians and militia leaders, who could call out armed companies as needed.
By 1778, open and outspoken loyalists had been taken into custody, executed, or forced to flee to Quebec. Any New Yorker found to be fighting for the British would likely be executed, if caught. In fact, a quick execution might be the best he could hope for, rather than a slower tortuous death. Many families of loyalists had been taken into custody, including Colonel Butler’s wife and children.
Because of this harsh treatment, many loyalists who remained in the area, kept their views to themselves, and maintained a low profile to protect their land and family. In response, Committees of Safety began focusing more on people for whom there was no direct evidence that they had taken up arms, but who were suspected of harboring loyalist sympathies.
Not only did the committees permit patriot mobs to harass and terrorize suspected loyalists, but it also tolerated, some say encouraged, attacks from friendly Indians against loyalist farms. It got so bad that in March, General Philip Schuyler wrote a letter to the Tryon County Committee of Safety saying that they really needed to stop encouraging Oneida warriors to pillage and murder suspected loyalists.
In early 1778, the New York Legislature ordered all of the local Committees of Safety to be shut down, and replaced by Commissioners of Conspiracy who would be appointed by the Governor. Although these new Commissioners would be patriots, local leaders feared they would be moderates who would not support the active and sometimes harsh suppression of the Tory threat.
The Tryon County Committee of Safety remained active, in defiance of state orders to shut down. In May 1778, the Committee formed a posse to release a debtor from jail, and charge his creditor with the costs of confinement. This attack on the court system was too much, and the state finally forced the Tryon Committee to dissolve. Although they complied, locals still did not want to soften their stance against toleration of any loyalist or Indian activity that threatened their communities.
The locals had good reason to fear the Tory threat. Small raids continued to threaten their peace and safety. In March, Tories who had fled to Quebec joined with Indians to raid their home town of Fairfield, near present day Herkimer, NY. The men killed and scalped one boy, and took twelve other men prisoner, and burned the patriot homes.
A couple of weeks later, the same group raided Snyder’s Bush, near present day Little Falls, NY, capturing eight more men and burning the local mill.
Nearly a month later, in late April, a group of about twenty patriot militia mustered in Ephratah for drill. While the militia drilled, a group of loyalists and Indians attacked and burned their homes outside of town. Several militiamen, as well as a four year old boy, were killed in the ensuing fight. The raiders also executed a young women in front of Fort Klock
In May, the village of Cobleskill became a target. The small village of around twenty homes had its local militia, commanded by Captain Christian Brown, as well as a small company of Continental soldiers under Captain William Patrick.
This, however, was not just a small raid. Joseph Brant led an army of about 450 warriors. Brant had deliberately sent a small contingent of his force to be spotted and then be chased back by the militia. When the militia marched out after the raiding party, they ran right into an ambush of several hundred warriors.
The attackers killed Captain Patrick and his lieutenant in the first assault, along with several others. The soldiers did put up a brief resistance and returned fire. The number of attackers, however, were too great. The men soon turned and ran for their lives. Most of those killed were Continentals, who had led the initial pursuit. After the fact, Captain Brown of the militia said that he suspected an ambush and had warned Patrick of that possibility. Brown and most of the militia escaped.
Several of the soldiers took refuge in a nearby house owned by George Warner. From there, the men fired on the pursuing Indians, thus drawing attention away from the rest of the militia company that was trying to escape. The Indians turned their attention to the house, setting it on fire, burning those inside. Two men attempted to escape from the burning building and were immediately cut down.
According to one source, the raiders captured a Continental soldier who they later tortured to death. Others, though, were able to escape. The Indians also burned many of the area farms, as civilians fled and hid in the woods. The raiders stole or shot any horses, cattle, or other animals on the farms.
Surprisingly, the one building they did not burn was the log cabin on George Warner’s property, the same property where they had killed soldiers firing at them from the main home. Speculation is that they left it standing in hopes that Warner would return and that they could capture him there at a later time.
Brant captured several settlers, who were given the choice of being integrated into his tribe, or being sent to Fort Niagara as prisoners. Even though prison could often mean a slow death, the settlers chose the latter.
The fight at Cobleskill was not a complete route though. The militia and Continentals involved put up a pretty good fight as they withdrew. After the battle, the patriots counted twenty-two Continentals or patriot militia killed. According to one source, twenty-five raiders also died in the fighting, and another seven wounded died on the march back to Quebec after the raid.
The low-grade fighting continued. In June, the two sides managed to arrange a brief truce, where loyalists who had fled to Quebec were permitted to return to collect their families and remove them to Quebec. According to the patriots, these 100 loyalists used the opportunity to capture several prisoners who they also removed to Quebec, and also burned several homes along the way.
In July, the residents heard about the Wyoming Valley Massacre, just to the south in Pennsylvania, an event I covered in more detail in Episode 192. That same month, Joseph Brant led raids against the villages of Springfield and Andrews Town (aka Andrustown) in New York, killing eight and taking fourteen prisoners.
These are only some examples of many low intensity raids, some on isolated farms or individuals, that kept the entire population of the Mohawk Valley on edge. Some families fled the area, but most had nowhere else to go. So, they remained and they fought.
The sustained attacks in the Mohawk valley were part of a larger plan. Brant’s tactics hoped to frighten the locals into leaving or swearing allegiance to the King, but he also went out of his way to protect the lives of women and children, to protect the property of loyalists, and to warn the patriot inhabitants of more raids and destruction if they did not leave. Thus giving them a chance to remove themselves from harm.In the late summer, Brant and his combined force of warriors and loyalists occupied the village of Unadilla. The occupiers demanded that the local inhabitants provide his army with food and supplies. Most of the locals just fled.
Tryon County Militia Colonel Peter Bellinger commanded a regiment of militia at the two forts. In order to prevent any surprise raids, he regularly sent out patrols toward Unadilla to warn of any raids. On September 16, a patrol of nine militia marched toward Unadilla, but ran into an ambush. Two of the men were killed and the rest scattered. One of the men who escaped ran back to the German Flatts to warn the people of an impending raid. The man had to run many miles to deliver the message, meaning that the raiding party would probably still be at least a few hours away.
Colonel Bellinger sent word out to all the area homes to have people gather inside the two forts for safety. Over the course of the night, families made their way to the forts.
The raiders arrived in German Flatts the following morning, September 17. The attackers were several hundred strong, comprised of native warriors, primarily Mohawks under the command of Joseph Brant, and also some Tory militia from Butler’s Rangers, under the command of Captain William Caldwell.
The attackers threatened the two forts, but found that the walls were too well-defended. Rather than assault the forts directly, the raiders formed groups that spread into the area around the forts, burning homes, and driving off horses, cattle, and other animals. What animals they could not take with them, they killed. They also burned grain stored up for winter use and pretty much anything else of value. Aside from the forts, the only buildings they did not destroy were a church and two houses owned by known loyalists. More than 700 people were left homeless as a result of the damage.
The raiders made efficient work of their destruction. By noon, they had left the area. Prior to the attack, Colonel Bellinger had sent out a request for reinforcements to Fort Klock, further down the Mohawk river about twenty miles away. Those reinforcements, under Colonel Jacob Klock, did not arrive until the afternoon of the 17th, hours after the raiders had left.
The combined militia force set out after the raiders, but never caught up with them. They called off the pursuit and returned home. Captain Caldwell, who led the loyalists on the raid, later commented that his men likely would have massacred many of the residents had they not received advance warning and taken shelter in the forts. His men were mostly former neighbors who had to flee for their lives because of their support for the King. Many of them had lost everything. Some had seen their friends executed in earlier confrontations, including the Battle of Bennington. So, these raiders were out for revenge.
In the end, the raiders only managed to kill three people. There is no record of any raiders killed.
The continuing raids into the Mohawk were going to require a larger response. But that would take a while to come, and will be the topic of a future episode.
Next week, I’m going to take us back to the fighting around New York City, where Washington’s Continentals continue to harass the main British garrison under General, Sir Henry Clinton.
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Timeline of Events for 1778: http://threerivershms.com/Timeline1778.htm
Letter from General Schuyler to the Tryon Committee of Safety, March 11, 1778: http://www.archives.nysed.gov/education/letter-schuyler-chairman-general-committee-county-tryon-march-11
The Battle of Cobleskill: https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1778/battle-of-cobleskill
Iroquois Indians Win the Battle of Cobleskill: https://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com/iroquois-indians-win-battle-of-cobleskill.html
The Attack on German Flatts: https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/780913-german-flatts
(from archive.org unless noted)
Cruikshank, E. A. Story of Butler's Rangers and the Settlement of Niagara, Welland, Ontario: Tribune printing house, 1893.
Flick, Alexander C. Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution, New York, Columbia Univ. Press, 1901.
Halsey, Francis W. The Old New York Frontier, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902.
McIlwraith, J.N. Sir Frederick Haldimand, Toronto: Morang & Co. 1910.
Stone, William L. Life of Joseph Brant-Thayendanegea, New York: A.V. Blake, 1838.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Syracuse University Press, 1972.
Kelsay, Isabel Thompson Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1984.
Mintz, Max M. Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois, NYU Press, 1999.
Reynolds, Paul R. Guy Carleton: A Biography, William Morrow,1980.
Swigget, Howard War out of Niagara, Port Washington, NY: I.J. Friedman.
Williams, Glenn F. Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois,
Westholme Publishing, 2005.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.