Among the grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence against King George III of England are these:
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
The pairing of the Tory and Indian threat in our founding document is significant, for despite initial injunctions from Congress to Indian nations like the powerful Iroquois urging neutrality - "This is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it." - both the British and the Colonials actively sought to win Native American support for their military operations. By the time of the Declaration it was apparent that the British had the upper hand.
One of the primary sources of Patriot resentment leading up to the Revolution was the Proclamation of 1763, established after Pontiac's War to contain unsanctioned westward expansion beyond the Appalachians which Britain had neither the funds nor the military resources to police or defend. A proclamation line from New York to Georgia attempted to fix the frontier between colonial settlement and Indian territory and ran up against both the interests of western colonial land claims and what Howard Swiggett, quoted in Boatner's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1966), describes as:
"a gang of reckless, ambitious, and enormously capable men...pushing west, hungry for Indian lands, eager for a general Indian war in which they might exterminate the Indians and own their rich lands in western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky."
The Quebec Act of 1774 that annexed the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes country to Canada only hardened Patriot attitudes about their rights to the frontier.
Many of the western tribes viewed American westward expansion as a greater threat than the intentions of Great Britain toward territory it had officially taken from France but seemed content to leave in Indian control. Border warfare had been part of the American colonial experience almost from the beginning and the recently ended French and Indian War was fresh in the memories of Indian and settler alike. The Cherokee, Creek and Seminole in the southeast sided with the British and their Loyalist allies, and attacked all along the southern frontier on July 1st, 1776, just one day before the Declaration was adopted in Congress. Intriguingly, this was the first Indian uprising of the Revolution, and while events afterward certainly bore out the accusation that the British would inflict "the merciless Indian savages" on the inhabitants of the frontier, up to that point the worst that could be said was that supporters of the Crown had "endeavored to bring (it) on."
Nowhere was the tension between support for the colonists in rebellion or the crown more acute than within the Six Nations of the Iroquois confederacy. Guy Johnson, heir to a vast estate in Mohawk country west of Albany, had been British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and stayed loyal to the crown. In June, 1775 he and Mohawk leader Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) addressed nearly 1,500 Iroquois at the Council of Oswego and succeeded in winning support for Great Britain from all but the Oneida under Steywaya who tried to remain neutral. The following year the new American superintendent, General Philip Schuyler, convinced 300 Oneida and Tuscarora Iroquois to side with the patriots. In August 1777 the Battle of Oriskany, depicted at right in a painting by Don Troiani, pitted the tribes of the Iroquois League against one another and destroyed a tribal federation that had endured for more than 300 years.
The Revolution not only divided the Iroquois, but lead to a campaign of scorched earth and extermination that would ultimately lead to their dispossession. George Washington would earn the sobriquet "town burner" from the Iroquois for sending against them the largest independent action of the war "to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed." Barbarities were countenanced on both sides, including the skinning of two slain Iroquois by a colonial officer to make leggings for himself and the ritual torture and execution of American prisoners taken in battle.
Sullivan's Expedition was lauded a century later by a man who was no stranger to the methods of total war, and it is revealing to consider how General Sherman's address at a centennial commemoration of Sullivan's victory uses the memory of the Revolutionary frontier and its settlement to reinforce contemporary Indian policy in western lands:
"I do not intend to occupy but one or two minutes of your time, because I am conscious that you look upon me simply as one of the curiosities of the day. But, my friends, we are all at war. Ever since the first white man landed upon this continent, there has been a battle. We are at war to-day—a war between civilization and savages. Our forefathers, when they first landed upon this continent, came to found an empire based upon new principles, and all opposition to it had to pass away, whether it be English or French on the north, or Indians on the west; and no one knew it better than our father, Washington. [Applause.] He gave General Sullivan orders to come here and punish the Six Nations, for their cruel massacre in the valley of the Wyoming, and to make it so severe that it would not occur again. And he did so. General Sullivan obeyed his orders like a man and like a soldier, and the result was from that time forward, your people settled up these beautiful valleys all around here, and look at their descendants here—a million almost. [Applause.]
If it had not been for General Sullivan and the men who followed him from Easton, and Clinton's force that came across from Albany, probably some of you would not have been here to-day.
Battles are not measured by their death-roll, but by their results, and it makes no difference whether one man was killed or five hundred, if the same result followed. This valley was opened to civilization; it came on the heels of General Sullivan's army, and has gone on, and gone on until to-day. The same battle is raging upon the Yellow Stone. The same men, endowed by the same feelings that General Sullivan's army had, to-day are contending with the same causes and the same races, two thousand miles west of here; not for the purpose of killing, not for the purpose of shedding blood, not for the purpose of doing wrong at all; but to prepare the way for that civilization which must go along wherever yonder flag floats. [Applause.]
I know it is a very common, and too common a practice, to accuse General Sullivan of having destroyed peach trees and cornfields, and all that nonsense. He had to do it, and he did do it. Why does the Almighty strike down the tree with lightning? Why does He bring forth the thunder storm? To purify the air, so that the summer time may come, and the harvest and the fruits. And so with war. When all things ought to be peaceful, war comes and purifies the atmosphere. So it was with our Civil War; that purified the atmosphere; we are better for it; you are better for it; we are all better for it. Wherever men raise up their hands to oppose this great advancing tide of civilization, they must be swept aside, peaceably if possible, forcibly if we must."
This is chillingly classic Sherman -1879, after all, was also the year he made his famous "War is Hell" speech - but the General knew his audience. From the vantage of several generations of settlement, the residents of central New York owed their lands and livelihoods to what Sullivan and his men wrought one hundred years before.
As the General himself alludes, there were many voices in the late 1870s uneasy with western Indian policy, especially in the East where the romantic ideal of the vanished savage was well established. The frontier in those times as in the 18th century was a hard place and terrible things were done there, but there are enough echos of a "final solution" in Washington's order to Sullivan to warrant close scrutiny of that Revolutionary campaign.
As mentioned previously, I have a number of ancestral dogs in this fight: officers who served with Sullivan and helped bring about the destruction and dispossession of the Iroquois. They would not have viewed their actions as we do with modern sensibilities, but nor, do I think, should they get the free, uncritical pass that Sherman offers. During the next few days - 228 years to the month since the colonial forces started up the Susquehanna against the Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca Iroquois and their Tory allies - we'll take a hard look at Sullivan's Expedition, its origins and outcomes and in particular the part my ancestors played. The picture that emerges is more complex, and less clear cut, than myth and modern memory would have it.