Throughout the American Revolution, the strategic importance of the northern frontier made it a flash point of conflict. Its waterways and warrior trails offered invasion routes into and out of British Canada. It was the focus of a British campaign to sever the connection between the New England colonies and the Mid-Atlantic theater of the war. It harbored a hotbed of Loyalist sentiment and produced some of the most effective - and brutal - Tory leaders of the Revolution. But above all it was the Iroquois whose power and resources were in play and the major factor in determining the course of British and colonial war policy in the region.
As previously discussed, American patriots were outraged that the British and their sympathizers would incite the frontier tribes to make war against the colonies. More than a century of border warfare, and more recent experience in the French and Indian Wars, demonstrated the vulnerability of lightly defended frontier settlements to Indian attack, but more than that there was considerable propaganda value for both sides around the "terror of the tomahawk" that persists to this day in the popular mythology of the era. That is not to suggest that the perceived menace was illusory. General Burgoyne certainly viewed his Indian allies as a weapon of terror, as evidenced by this except from his 1777 Proclamation on the shores of Lake Champlain:
"I have but to give stretch to the Indian Forces under my direction, and they amount to Thousands, to overtake the harden'd Enemies of Great Britain and America, (I consider them the same) wherever they may lurk. If notwithstanding these endeavours, and sincere inclinations to effect them, the phrenzy of hostility shou'd remain, I trust I shall stand acquitted in the Eyes of God & Men in denouncing and executing the vengeance of the state against the wilful outcasts.
The messengers of justice & of wrath await them in the Field, and devastation, famine, and every concomitant horror that a reluctant by indispensible prosecution of Military duty must occasion, will bar the way to their return."
The pompous General's remarks were held up to ridicule and scorn by the Patriots, including a biting parody attributed to Declaration Signer and poet Francis Hopkinson that closes with these lines:
"I will let loose the dogs of Hell,
Ten thousand Indians, who shall yell
And foam and tear, and grin and roar,
And drench their moccasins in gore;
To these I'll give full scope and play
From Ticonderog to Florida;
They'll scalp your heads, and kick your shins,
And rip your -----, and flay your skins,
And of your ears be nimble croppers,
And make your thumbs tobacco-stoppers.
If after all these loving warnings,
My wishes and my bowels' yearnings,
You shall remain as deaf as adder,
Or grow with hostile rage the madder,
I swear by George, and by St. Paul
I will exterminate you all.
Subscrib'd with my manual sign
To test these presents, John Burgoyne
Nevertheless the fear of unrestrained Indian savagery was real enough and prompted barbarities in response - in 1776 New Hampshire set a bounty of £70 on the scalps of hostile male Indians, and £37 10s for those of women and children under 12. The massacre of Jane "Jenny" McCrea by western Indians from Burgoyne's invasion force was actually a propaganda opportunity exploited heavily by the patriots to rally support to resist the British and causing even members of Parliament to recoil. No matter that Jane was a Tory sympathizer affianced to a Loyalist officer serving with Burgoyne's army; she was female and white and was shot and scalped while a captive of the Indians and that was an atrocity that inflamed opposition to Burgoyne's inability to restrain his Indian allies.."
The Iroquois played no part in the murder of Miss McCrea; they were fighting each other at the Battle of Oriskany in the Mohawk Valley where British General St. Leger's column was prevented from linking forces with Burgoyne. As tragic as this was for Iroquois unity, things got decidedly worse on the frontier the following year, when Tory and Iroquois forces slaughtered more than 300 colonials in a battle and subsequent massacre in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. In November of that year, another raid in Cherry Valley, New York resulted in the destruction of that frontier settlement and the killing and scalping of more than 30 prisoners: mostly women and children and even a couple of Loyalists. The specter of Tory renegades and Indian savagery brought demands for protection and reprisals. In the short term, Washington had no veteran troops to spare, but geo-political events would soon provide him with the opportunity.
During the summer of 1778, the British abandoned Philadelphia and withdrew across New Jersey to the stronghold in New York. Then France entered the war on the side of the colonists, and Spain threatened to do so independently. Suddenly Great Britain had more at stake than her North American colonies. Possessions in the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, and even beyond the hemisphere were suddenly at risk and the Crown found itself over-extended. The British emptied their New York garrison of 10,000 troops and dispatched them to Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Georgia, and West Florida. Henceforth the main theater of British operations in North America would shift south, and this left the northern frontier vulnerable both to colonial forces and perhaps also to the French from even further west where they had not completely left their former possessions.
Washington saw the opportunity to send not militia but veteran regiments in a decisive action against the Iroquois in a campaign that would deny their services to the British and in retribution for the massacres of Wyoming and Cherry Valley. His first choice for commander of this expedition, the hero of Saratoga Horatio Gates, turned him down. His second choice was Major General John Sullivan. We'll discuss the qualities and limitations of this general and introduce you to a number of his officers who figure prominently in my family tree in tomorrow's post.