The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 2

Joseph Brant

The Demise of the Iroquois League

The Iroquois Nation (the Mohawk, Oneida, Tuscarawas, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes) was blessed in the eighteenth century with a number of noted leaders and orators, and among these two who stand out are Joseph Brant and Handsome Lake. Both of them were to be involved in the cataclysm which befell the Iroquois Nation at the time of the American Revolution and thereafter; Joseph Brant will be considered in this chapter while Handsome Lake will be discussed thereafter. The revolt of the American colonies against the English authorities at Lexington and Concord in 1775 was to prove the complete undoing of the Iroquois League. It marked the death of traditional Indian society as well, for the American Revolution brought to an end the attempt by the English to prevent further incursions by white settlers into Indian territory. The American Revolution was also to bring the devastation of war to Iroquois lands, the results of which Joseph Brant and Handsome Lake had to attempt to resolve.

In 1774, as the American colonists grew more difficult for the English to control, the Iroquois became concerned for their own welfare. That year, Guy Johnson, English Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and Joseph Brant, the Mohawk Indian chief, went to England for advice. They were particularly concerned about the way in which the colonists were violating the Proclamation of 1763 which excluded white men from Indian lands in the western New York colony. Brant was not only a university educated Mohawk Indian, but he was a communicant of the Church of England with family ties to Sir William Johnson (who had represented the Crown in the Mohawk Valley) through his sister Molly who was Johnson's mistress. Joseph Brant was a handsome man, and, as a result, he was lionized in Britain as the perfect example of the eighteenth century's idealized concept of the "Noble Savage." A very attractive portrait of Brant was done by Gilbert Stuart in 1786 which still hangs in Syon House in London, and it has often been reproduced. Back in America in 1776, Brant was to fight on the English side once war broke out between the colonists and England.

When the Revolution began, both the English and the colonists solicited the members of the Iroquois League for their neutrality in order that the Indians would favor neither side. The Iroquois Great Council met at Onondaga (near present day Syracuse, New York) and affirmed their neutrality in what for them was strictly a white man's war. They would take no part in the conflict so long as neither side violated Indian lands nor disturbed traditional Indian trade routes. The new conflict, however, did make it possible for the Iroquois to play one side against the other to Indian benefit, as they had done in the earlier wars between the French and English in America.

Despite the assurances given to the Indians by the colonists' Continental Congress, American forces attacked the English at Fort Oswego, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario—in Iroquois territory. Although the Iroquois had agreed to remain neutral, this breach of the agreement created a split within Iroquois ranks. Joseph Brant and his fellow Mohawk tribesmen, who had been displaced from the Mohawk Valley lands by American colonists after the Proclamation of 1763, sided with the English in the new dispute among the whites. Then these Mohawks fought with the English against the colonists at "The Battle of the Cedars" in Canada on May 20, 1776, without the permission from the Great Council at Onondaga. As a result of the Indian involvement in this battle, the Continental Congress on May 25, 1776, authorized the recruitment of 2,000 Indian auxiliaries to aid the colonists in their revolt. This was the second breach by the colonists of the Indian neutrality which had been agreed upon by the Continental Congress with the Great Council at Onondaga.

The Iroquois were now faced with the need to take a stand. At a meeting of the Six Nations in Niagara, it was agreed by the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and the allied Ohio tribes that they had best take the side of the established English authority. The Oneida and the Tuscarawas refused to join the other major tribes in this action since they favored the colonists. The Iroquois League was coming apart. The decision to take sides in the war was not put into force, however, since the Indians, with the exception of Joseph Brant, still hoped to maintain a neutral stance. Unfortunately, six months later, in January of 1777, a natural disaster further shattered the cohesiveness of the Iroquois League. An epidemic struck the Indians of Central New York, and three sachems (tribal chiefs) and eighty-seven other important Iroquois leaders died. Thereby, the Great Council Fire at Onondaga was extinguished. Now decisions could not be made by a central body of the Iroquois, and decision making reverted to the individual tribes.

Under the influence of Joseph Brant, a meeting of the tribes took place with the English in Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario in the summer of 1777. Brant pled with the other tribes to take the part of the English in the conflict under way. The Seneca leaders Red Jacket, a conservative, and Cornplanter, a liberal, argued for neutrality. Brant poured scorn upon his opponents, and, in the end, it was agreed that the four tribes, Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Cayuga, would aid the English against the colonists. The die was cast. The English General Barry St. Leger and his Indian allies, the Seneca and the Mohawk under the leadership of Joseph Brant, moved south from Oswego to Fort Stanwix in the Mohawk Valley (present day Rome, New York) to lay siege to the towns in the Mohawk Valley. From there they would head east to Albany where they would be joined by General Burgoyne and his troops coming down from Montreal while the English navy sailed up the Hudson River from Manhattan. The three forces would meet at Albany, New York, cut New England off from the rest of the colonists and thereby bring the revolt to an early end.

The forces coming from Oswego joined battle with the colonists at the Battle of Oriskany, and here the split in the Iroquois League was made manifest since the Oneida and Tuscarawas were allied with the Colonial militia against the Seneca, the Mohawk, and the English. The attacking English and Indian forces were ultimately defeated, the Seneca and the Mohawk suffering the greatest number of casualties. With grave, misgivings, the surviving tribesmen returned to their Indian villages in western New York and the Niagara region for the winter, since winter was not a time for war parties. (For the Iroquois, summer was a time for politics and diplomacy, autumn was the normal time for war, while winter was spent back in the villages for hunting.)

Nevertheless, Joseph Brant was determined to pursue the fight against the colonists, and in the spring of 1778 he formed new Indian raiding parties in Canada. These raiders swept down from Niagara into the lands of the Painted Post in western New York to the Canisteo River (now Hornell, New York) where they fashioned canoes and "arks" or rafts. (Later white settlers found the debris of the "ark" construction at a town which is still known as Arkport, New York.) The raiders then continued by canoe and rafts down the Canisteo River to the Painted Post, to the Chemung River, and so south into the Susquehanna River to Wyoming (the later Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). In their sweep east and then south, the Indians destroyed eight forts of the colonists and many villages. The 1778 Battle of Wyoming saw 340 of the 400 defending American militia killed. The survivors fled south, and the Indians burned the village of Wyoming to the ground. Although Brant insisted that British military discipline be maintained and that there be no molesting or massacring of women or children, and that no torture be used, the fleeing colonists spread untrue tales of rape and torture. The Americans later retaliated by burning Indian towns along the upper reaches of the Susquehanna River in New York, thereby strengthening the Iroquois determination to protect their land.

Brant took his captives back to Niagara and turned them over to the English in Canada. One of these captives, the American General Freegift Pachen in 1788 gave one of the earliest descriptions of the post at what would later become the town of Painted Post, New York. He described the post as a weather-beaten, hewn tree with twenty-eight figures in red "signifying captives" and thirty headless figures "Symbolizing dead men," as he interpreted the post and its figures. The post stood at the confluence of the Cohocton and Tioga Rivers which here formed the Chemung River flowing to the east. That post stood into the new century, after the Indians had long been gone from the Territory, until one night some drunken revelers in the now white village named "Painted Post" threw the post into the river to be forever lost. (A modern replica of the post stands today in the middle of the village of Painted Post across from a statue of a Seneca brave.)

Now, in retaliation for the destruction of their villages along the Susquehanna in New York, Brant's Indian raiders attacked the settlers' village of Cherry Valley in central New York, a battle in which thirty Americans were killed. Again, rumors and untruths distorted the savagery of the Indian attacks. The coming winter of 1778 brought a temporary end to Indian attacks, but in the spring of 1779 the Indian raids were renewed to reach as far south as Sunbury on the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. People fled to the nearest stockaded American forts, and there they held out in primitive conditions until the Indian fury had passed.

Although few colonists were killed and little physical damage was sustained by the Americans in these later raids, the morale of dwellers in central Pennsylvania was damaged. This deprived Washington and his forces of militia and agricultural provisions from the area. Unfortunately for the colonists, this occurred at a period when Washington had few troops to spare to staunch Indian raids. By August of 1779, however, Washington decided that action had to be taken, and he ordered General James Clinton and General John Sullivan to destroy the possibilities of further Indian attacks. General Sullivan moved his 2,500 troops up the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania toward the New York border while General Clinton moved his 1,500 troops south from the Mohawk Valley to the southern end of Lake Otsego, the future site of Cooperstown, New York.

The outlet of Lake Otsego was at its southern end where it formed the infant Susquehanna River, and here Clinton had a dam built to back up the waters of the lake. When the lake waters had built sufficiently, the dam was breached, and Clinton's 220 flat boats loaded with provisions and ammunition coursed down the now swollen young Susquehanna River on the crest of the flood. His army's progress on foot down the valley to Tioga Point on the Pennsylvania border took from August 9th to 22nd, and the troops destroyed all the Indian villages along the river as they headed south. At Tioga Point, on the New York-Pennsylvania border, they joined forces with General Sullivan and his troops who had come up the Susquehanna. With more than 4,000 troops under his command, General Sullivan set out to the west along the Chemung River to destroy all the Iroquois villages and their crops and orchards. The devastation visited upon Indian life was meant to break the back of Indian society and to deter further raids into central New York and Pennsylvania.

On August 29, 1779, at Newtown, just to the east of the later village of Elmira, the American troops encountered 250 Tory raiders and 500 Indians under Joseph Brant. In the ensuing skirmish, the colonists' artillery panicked the Indians, and they fled the battle field, and the Indian retreat did not stop until they reached to the west of the Genesee River. Sullivan's forces proceeded to the north and up the valley from the Chemung River to Lake Seneca, destroying Queen Catherine Montour's Town (the site of the later colonists' Montour Falls village) with its cabins, cornfields, and orchards. In all, thirty Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga villages were destroyed with only two villages left standing. Reaching the Genesee River, Sullivan turned his forces back east to continue the campaign of destruction. On this return march, just to the west of Newtown (Elmira) the colonists' army mules gave out and had to be shot. The pile of horses' heads at that spot later gave the village of Horseheads, New York, its name in the years to come.

The winter of 1779-1780 was one of the most bitter winters which the Indians could remember, and with their homes and crops destroyed, they suffered greatly. The snow began to fall in November, becoming worse in December when powerful Arctic winds swept down from Canada. For thirteen weeks that Arctic air mass dominated the Northeast, the temperature remaining below zero for twenty-two days in January, as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit at times. By October 12th the Port of New London had frozen over and one could walk from Staten Island to Manhattan and from Long Island to Connecticut over the frozen waters. Harbors froze as far south as Virginia and North Carolina.

Spring finally arrived in 1780, and the tribes were determined to avenge their suffering. Some 1,200 Indian warriors under Joseph Brant descended on the Mohawk Valley and the Catskill Mountains and then south to the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers. All white settlements west of Schenectady and westward to Ohio were destroyed. In revenge against the tribes which had sided with the colonists, Brant and his Mohawks destroyed the Oneida and Tuscarawas villages of central New York as well. Fear among the American settlers caused villages along the Susquehanna River south to Sunbury to be abandoned. By the end of 1779, the Iroquois had successfully eliminated the American settlers from the original Indian territories of New York.

The Iroquois success was short lived, however, for in 1781 they were faced with the fact of the English surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, and by the complete victory of the American colonists. The Indian dilemma was thus brought to a crisis level after the English defeat. Their policy of balancing power between the European opponents had failed. They had sided with the vanquished, and by the treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolution, the English claims to American lands now lay with the new United States. The Indian villages had been destroyed, the tribes were without allies, and their lands were in danger of being lost.

The Mohawk lands were already gone since they had been excluded from the Indian lands protected by the original Proclamation of 1763 to which the Iroquois Nation had agreed. Since the Mohawk had been the strongest allies of England under Joseph Brant during the American revolt, the English granted them 600,000 acres at Grand River in Ontario for a new home, and here Brant would be their natural leader. For the other Iroquois tribes, the loss of land was to be almost complete before the eighteenth century ended. The white population could now spread beyond the limits set by the 1763 Proclamation as that order no longer carried any force.

As one of the ironies of fate, the warriors of Joseph Brant, of Cornplanter, and of John Montour had met at the Painted Post in 1778 to launch their canoes and rafts down the Chemung River to begin their raids on American settlement in Pennsylvania. Three years later in 1781 the Indians and the victorious representatives of the Continental Congress were to meet at the Painted Post to sign the Treaty of Painted Post. This treaty would end the question as to the right of white Americans to settle in the lands of western New York. Trade goods worth three hundred English pounds sterling were carried up the Susquehanna and Chemung River by the Americans for the conference. The shallowness of the water in the river, however, caused the meeting to be held at Newtown, some twenty-five miles downstream from the Painted Post, the scene of the Indian defeat by General John Sullivan and his troops at the Battle of Newtown just two years previously.

Here the Treaty of Painted Post was signed, granting the right to the whites to settle in the lands of the Painted Post and the Genesee, right up to the Genesee River which formed a natural barrier as it coursed from Pennsylvania to the site of the future city of Rochester. Three years later, in 1784, another meeting was held at Fort Stanwix (at Rome, New York) between the victorious Americans and the Iroquois. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix brought no resolution to the problems of the Indians since the Americans refused to recognize the rights of the Iroquois League which was now in disarray. Within two more years the Indians had turned their backs on what they saw as the unjust Treaty of Fort Stanwix, but fortunately the exhaustion on the part of both sides kept the war from being rejoined. Both of the contestants were too weak to renew any conflict. Moreover, the Americans were reluctant to undertake more battles since in the fight with the Indian tribes in Ohio in 1790-1791, two-thirds of the U.S. military involved had been killed.

The New York Indians, defeated and in despair, desperately needed peace. Under Chief Cornplanter of the Seneca, they had determined on a settlement with the new State and Federal governments, The sale of their traditional lands, however, left the Iroquois in political and economic disarray. Not only were the Iroquois traditions becoming undermined, but their political society was coming apart. The Iroquois Indian allies in the Ohio lands had from the 1770s gradually formed their own confederacy, and now that the Northwest Ordinance has been passed by the U.S. government opening the Ohio Territory to settlement, the plight of the Ohio tribes was sealed. In 1794 the breach became complete when the Iroquois of New York repudiated any allegiance to the western tribes. That same year, Joseph Brant and his group at the Grand River in Canada split with the New York Iroquois, and in 1803 the New York Iroquois Chiefs broke with Brant. There were now two Iroquois Council Fires, one at Onondaga, the other at Grand River in Ontario, Canada.

The New York Iroquois were now fragmented and with no political base from which to operate. Under political pressure from the victorious Americans, in 1797 the Treaty of Big Tree at Geneseo, New York, was signed in which the Seneca sold their lands to the west of the Genesee River. Bribery and deceit had won the day for the Americans at this meeting. The Iroquois were now left with small, non-contiguous reservations at Buffalo Creek (the future site of the American city of Buffalo) and along the Alleghany and Genesee Rivers. These reservations in no way could support the traditional Indian way of life.

A new way of life was needed by the Indians who had been displaced from their traditional hunting grounds and who were now confined to circumscribed reservations surrounded by an ever-growing and unsympathetic number of white settlers. Brant and Cornplanter, the respective leaders of the Canadian and the New York Councils, favored ways which would permit the tribes to engage in the style of life of the white man, This would include white-style farming, mills for grain, lumber processing, cloth making—and, above all, literacy in English. In opposition, Red Jacket and other conservative Indian leaders among the Seneca wished to continue the traditional way of life, now a virtual impossibility given the size of the Reservations to which the tribes were confined.

Red Jacket was particularly critical of the Christian missionaries who moved in to convert the Indians to their particular brand of Christianity but who offered no real help in the Indians' desperate economic plight or their psychological despair. At his Buffalo Creek Reservation, Red Jacket asked the missionaries:

If your book (the Bible) is true, why didn't the Great Spirit give us that book long ago? How can we believe your religion when we are so often deceived by the white man? Our religion teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion. Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own. If we find your religion makes our white neighbors good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consult again what you have said.

So ended the traditional Iroquois way of life, leaving a disheartened, poverty stricken people with little hope for the future.

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin
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