The Time: The years prior to and during the American Revolution — 1775-1781.
The Place: The frontier wilderness of the colonies of New York and Pennsylvania.
The Scene: Over the past 20-30 years, white settlers had been moving farther and farther north and west, in order to follow the dream of having their own piece of land upon which to build their farms and communities and to raise their families. But life on the frontier was very hard and was fraught with peril. Merely clearing the land and putting up log buildings, all done by hand, was an incredible and dangerous feat. Add to that the hard work of planting and harvesting crops and the possibility of an early death from disease, and the fact that any settlements succeeded at all is particularly amazing.
Those who did succeed had yet another danger to contend with: the possibility of losing all they had done, plus their very lives to attacks by Indians. It happened many times. Under the leadership of Mohawk Chief Thayendanegea (also called Joseph Brant), along with Loyalist and Tory forces, settlements were burned to the ground; captives were taken and moved to far away Indian villages; people were killed and scalped. The Mohawk Valley, Schoharie Valley, Cherry Valley, Wyoming Valley, Minisink — these places all experienced the wrath of the Indians, who wanted only to protect their land from intruders. It was a war within a war… a war for territory… Indian against white settler.
The Expedition: General George Washington realized that something needed to be done to stop these attacks. In addition, he was well aware that the fertile lands occupied by some of the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in the New York Colony were the Breadbasket of the British Army. The Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca and Onondaga had allied to the British, whereas the Oneida and the Tuscarora allied with the Americans. Washington felt that if the British-allied Indians could be driven out of the colony and all their villages and crops destroyed, not only would the area be safer for white settlers, but a major British food supply would be stopped. In the spring of 1779, he ordered Generals John Sullivan, James Clinton, and Daniel Brodhead to commence a 3-pronged offensive. Because General Sullivan commanded the largest body of soldiers (around 3,000), the offensive became known as the Sullivan Expedition against the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Battle of Newtown: General Sullivan and his army left from Easton, Pennsylvania in the late summer of 1779, traveling along the Susquehanna River. General Clinton and his smaller army left from Albany, New York and traveled along the Mohawk River, crossing overland to Otsego Lake, then down the Susquehanna to meet with Sullivan’s army near Tioga (present day Athens, PA). General Brodhead pushed north from Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh), but never joined with the main army. As the two joined armies of around 5,000 men proceeded north, they came to the base of a mountain next to the Chemung River. There, on August 29, 1779, near an Indian village called New Town, Sullivan’s scouts discovered the army was about to be the victim of an ambush. A one-half mile long breastworks had been constructed and was manned by Joseph Brant’s warriors and Col. John Butler’s Loyalist forces. Sullivan’s armies were moved into position, cannons were readied and aimed at the breastworks, and the battle commenced — The Battle of Newtown.
The Result: The mighty Continental Army held the ground at Newtown. The Native and Loyalist forces turned and fled. The Expedition itself has been called a “well-executed failure.” The armies proceeded northward into the Finger Lakes area, driving the Indian inhabitants before them, and burning crops and villages. In doing this, the Expedition was considered to be a success. However, General Sullivan did not complete the rest of General Washington’s orders, which were to proceed farther north to the shores of Lake Ontario and capture the British-held forts at Niagara and Oswego. Because he did not do so, the raids on the frontier settlements continued with even greater fervor.
The Indians who were driven out of their territories and homes were forced to take refuge at Fort Niagara. Because there was no space to properly house them and not enough supplies to feed them, many died from the cold, disease, and starvation during that winter. Many of those who survived fled to Canada for refuge. The great League of Six Nations, the Iroquois Confederacy, was broken.
After the Revolutionary War ended, many of the men who had participated in the Sullivan Expedition and who had passed through the beautiful frontier country of Pennsylvania and New York returned in peace. Here, they settled and built homes, barns, schools, and communities. Here, many of their descendants still live today — thanks, in part, to The Battle of Newtown.
Written by Joyce Bucci
Chemung Valley Living History