Thought Major John Butler and Mohawk leader Joseph Brant counseled for the continuation of harassing tactics in the face of Sullivan's strong force, many of the Iroquois demanded that they stand and fight. As they were defending their homes and property, this is perhaps understandable, but it forced Butler and Brant to find a way to blunt the Patriot juggernaut with the forces they had at hand. On August 29th, 1779, they prepared to meet Sullivan's invaders behind well concealed defensive works near the Iroquois village of Newtown. One of Sullivan's officers, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Hubley, described the enemy position:
"...they were laying behind an extensive breastwork, which extended at least half a mile, and most artfully covered with green boughs, and trees, having their right flank secured by the river, and their left by a mountain. It was situated on a rising ground—about one hundred yards in front of a difficult stream of water, bounded by the marshy ground already mentioned on our side and on the other, between it and the breast-works by an open and clear field."
While imposing, the Loyalist and Iroquois were thinly spread and lacked sufficient firepower and ammunition to adequately defend their line. They also lost the element of surprise, as Sullivan's scouts located their position in time to prepare an assault.
While Hand's brigade formed up before the breastworks (portions of which had been made from dismantled Iroquois homes in the village), Poor and Clinton's Brigades, prepared to turn the defenders' left flank by climbing up the spur of a mountain. Maxwell's Brigade was held in reserve, with the exception of Col. Matthias Ogden's 1st New Jersey Regiment which constituted the "left flanking division" by the river, and the 2nd NJ which had remained behind to garrison the fort at Tioga. Poor's men in particular made a great effort to crest the hill and push back the Iroquois and Loyalist from the flank, but after a couple of hours of hard fighting it was ultimately Sullivan's artillery that caused confusion among the Indians and broke the line. Sullivan's men advanced on Newtown and despite the efforts of Brant to rally the Iroquois defenders, they withdrew upriver leaving a dozen of their dead on the field (one of which was a woman).
"The Commander-in-chief with the highest satisfaction, returns his sincere thanks to the officers & soldiers of the Army, for their brave & soldierly conduct yesterday. No troops could have manifested more eagerness for the combat than those who were immediately engaged & none more bravery & coolness than those who were in action. The General in a special manner returns his thanks to General Poor, the officers & soldiers of his brigade for the firmness & resolution with which they opposed & routed the enemy. He also returns his thanks to Major Parr & the troops under his command for the brave stand they made. He is sensible of the obligation he is under to every General, field & other commissioned officers for their particular attention to orders & the cheerfulness they shew in executing every direction. He cannot help expressing his satisfaction with the conduct of Colo. Proctor, and the officers & men of the Artillery—Capt. Machin, Lieuts. Stephens and Jenkins have his cordial thanks for the services they rendered the army by their vigalence & exertions. It is with pleasure he declares, the conduct of the whole army has fully convinced him that every future attempt to appose their progress must be vain & fruitless."
The day after the battle of Newtown, two of Sullivan's officers decided they would like souvenirs.
"At the request of Maj. Piatt, sent out a small party to look for some of the dead Indians - returned without finding them. Toward noon they found them and skinned two of them from the hips down for boot legs; one pair for the Major and the other for myself." - Lieutenant William Barton, Maxwell's Brigade
Major Piatt and Lieutenant Barton were in the 1st New Jersey Regiment, commanded by my ancestor Col. Matthias Ogden. As part of the left flanking division they had advanced during the rout to follow up on the fleeing Iroquois but were only lightly engaged in the battle. This was a "war of the knife", and several of the journals of the campaign kept by Sullivan's officers mention scalping the Indian dead as a matter of course, but leggings made from the skin of their enemies were a singular choice of trophy, even for that day. I have no record of what their Colonel thought of their actions, but neither is their any evidence in the available record that anyone on the campaign thought their actions untoward, as might well have been the case had they ordered their men to skin a couple of dead Loyalists for the same purpose.
The campaign broke wide open with the defeat of the Loyalists and Iroquois at Newtown
"After the Battle...the work of Sullivan's expedition was that of destruction, The following places were destroyed on 31st. Aug., Middletown, having eight houses, three miles above Newtown; Kanawaholla, with 20 houses, near Elmira; Runonvea, with 30 or 40 houses near Big Flats. Sheoquaga, or Catherine's Town, on the site of the village of Havana, was burned on Sept 1st, 40 houses all well built on Sept. 3rd. a place known as Peach Orchard on the lake shore about 12 miles from Catherine's Town. The next day, Condawhaw, now North Hector, was burned. The following day the troops destroyed Kendaia, or Appletown, a place a few miles north of Condawhaw, 20 houses. On Sept. 7th. Kanedesaga, capitol of the Seneca Nation. Site of present Geneva. In 1756, Sir William Johnson, built a stockaded fort at this place. Col. Harper went about 8 miles down the Seneca River and destroyed Skoi-aso, a place of 18 houses, on the site of Waterloo, Maj. Parr, went 7 miles up the west side of Seneca Lake and destroyed Shenanwaga, a town of 20 houses on Sept 10th he reached Kanandaigua a town of 23 "elegant houses" some of them framed. The next day a march of 14 miles to Haneyaye, 20 houses at the foot of Honeoye Lake, village of Honeoye. Kanaghsaws, also called Adjuton, was reached on the 13th., 18 houses near Conesus Lake and about a mile northwest of Conesus Center. Gathtsegwarohare, a place of 25 houses mostly new, on the east side of Canaseroga Creek, about 2 miles above its junction with the Genesee. It was surrounded by corn fields so extensive it took 2000 men six hours to destroy them." - J. Devendorf (1974): Battles of New York 1609-1814
The destruction of the village of Runonvea was the work of the 3rd New Jersey, under the command of my direct ancestor Colonel Elias Dayton. Dayton was the senior colonel in Maxwell's Brigade entrusted with following up on the retreat of the enemy which the rest of the army prepared to advance toward the Finger Lakes.The Journal of regimental Sergeant Major George Grant devotes a few sentences to the event"
"Crossed the Caiuga Creek and halted at a town called Knawaholee, very pleasently situated on a peninsula of the Teaoga and Caiuga. From here the third New Jersey Regiment was dispatched up the Teaoga to destroy what crops of corn, &c they could find, also to look out if the enemy had or might be there as the general was informed by the prisoners that they moved all their sick and wounded in boats up the river. They proceeded up the river for eight miles, destroyed the corn, &c, but could not perceive any of the enemy that had been there since the 29th."
The site of Runonvea today is a road intersection between two subdivisions, not far from Big Flats between Elmira and Corning, New York. Archaeological finds there indicate it was an ancient town, and lying outside of Sullivan's march it might have been spared destruction had not the fugitives from Newtown been pursued upriver by my ancestor's regiment.
Sullivan's force set aside all but its lightest artillery pieces and continued its march, meeting no resistance and finding hardly a human being left in the abandoned towns they came upon and destroyed along the way. In one they found a white child of approximately 3 years old, and in another an aged Seneca woman who expected to be killed but was left with supplies and was encountered again on the army's return. Dr. Jabez Campfield, surgeon of the Spencer's New Jersey Regiment, mused;
"The Indians had deserted the place some short time before our arrival. It seems we are not to see any more of these people. It was expected they would have made a great stand at this place. Here we find great quantities of Corn and beans &c. It is difficult to account for the conduct of the Indians, who quit their towns and suffer us to destroy them, their corn, their only certain stock of provisions, without offering to interrupt us."
The men marveled at the quality of the Iroquois lands and orchards, though they were just as surprised to find houses made "in the European style" as well as longhouses. Major John Burrowes of Spencer's regiment described "where corn grows such as cannot be equaled in Jersey. The field contains about 100 acres, beans, cucumbers, Simblens water-melons and pumpkins in such quantities (were it represented in the manner it should be) would be almost incredible to a civilized people. We sat up until between one and two o'clock feasting on these rarities."
In fact, for all that abundance, the Iroquois had not yet gathered their harvest, nor had they recovered from a terrible growing season and harsh winter the previous year. Though they had the potential to be the bread basket for the British on the Northern Frontier, they required supplies from Niagara until the crops were brought in. Unable to defend their fields and settlements, they withdrew toward their greatest town on the Genesee while Sullivan came burning up the lake shore. It was now getting on into September, and the nights were already cold.
Sullivan penetrated as far as "Little Beard's Town", the great Iroquois castle on the Genesee but it was not reached without incident. An advanced party of riflemen under Lieutenant Thomas Boyd was attacked by an overwhelming force of Indians under Joseph Brant. A few escaped, most were slain, and two, including Boyd, were taken prisoner. Boyd was a Freemason, as was Brant who assured his captive of safety. The word of a brother mason was not enough to protect Boyd from the Loyalist Butler, however, who handed the Lieutenant over to the Seneca for death by torture when Brant was absent. Boyd was lacerated, blinded and disemboweled before his head was finally struck from his shoulders and mounted on a stake. His companion was likewise decapitated but the head was never found. When Sullivan's men arrived in Little Beard's Town the following day (abandoned once again by the Iroquois) they found the mutilated remains, and set about razing the great settlement to the ground. It took two full days to destroy 128 houses.
Sullivan decided not to try for Niagara and set about retracing his route to Tioga. Along the way he sent columns out along the opposite shores of the lakes to destroy those settlements and even instructed some of Clinton's men returning to Canajoharie to evacuate and destroy a settlement of neutral Mohawks there (though this order was later overruled). The heartland of the Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga Iroquois was in ashes and Sullivan and his men were satisfied with their work. Tomorrow in a concluding post to this series we will discuss the aftermath of Sullivan's campaign and what can be learned from my ancestors' parts in it.